Sunday, 23 November 2014

Guest Post: Geena Safire's response to “The Dying of the Brights”

This is a guest post; the views expressed are those of the contributor, and not of the site owner.

by Geena Safire

This is a fisking of Matthew Becklo's article at Catholic apologetics site Strange Notions, The Dying of the Brights, posted on 11/21/2014

The crowd, gathered to hear Richard Dawkins debate the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell...

This debate in full can be seen here on YouTube. The many na├»ve comments by Pell—now Pope Francis' #3 man in Rome—on evolution begin about 30 minutes in.

The documentary, The Unbelievers, which contains a clip from this debate and from afterward, can be seen at Netflix, VUDU, and other sources, but not yet for free.

...the proverbial devil of the details rears his ugly head...

That mixing of metaphors is quite a can of worms Becklo's stuck his foot into.

Plus, to what "detail demon" is Becklo referring here? And why is its "head" being "reared"?

It seems to me he is using the terms 'devil' and 'ugly' only to darken the reader's mind toward Dawkins.

... after the cameras are turned off...   ...forcing a smile for the camera...

Where's that darn continuity editor?

A weary Dawkins...

He's flown more than ten thousand miles and twenty-two hours and his internal clock is off by eleven hours and he's just finished a television show. Plus he's 72 years old.

Weary? Duh!

And yet Becklo seems to imply that his weariness is in some way sinister. As if being a famous ugly devil having to rear up one's head is a heavy burden.

...forcing a smile for the camera...

Becklo is using the literary device of foreshadowing here, building up to something. Devil, ugly, weary, rearing, and now forcing a smile. Wait for it...

Dawkins seems to still be busy pummeling on Pell in some dusty corner of the same restless mind...

Becklo is claiming to be a mind reader. How can he divine so specifically what Dawkins is thinking about during a brief clip of a photo op? It looks to me like Dawkins was paying close attention to the woman he was talking to, and smiling in his usual way.

Also, apparently, Becklo didn't watch the full debate itself but rather just the clip from the movie, since the Dawkins-Pell debate was mainly civil. And even in that part when Pell thoroughly mangled basic evolutionary concepts, Dawkins didn't attack Pell but rather expressed stunned incredulity at the cardinal's blitheness at his dearth of basic knowledge in addition to his presuming to pontificate about what must be false about evolution when speaking to one of the world's leading evolutionary biologists!

'Dusty' indicates 'unused', while 'restless' points to his mind being 'constantly active,' although with a negative undertone. Becklo crams multiple insults into a single sentence, even mutually contradictory ones. More foreshadowing. Wait for it...

We see this all play out in the 2013 homage to the New Atheism, "The Unbelievers", a sort of promotional travelogue which follows Dawkins and fellow atheist Lawrence Krauss around the globe to—like two real-life Hazel Moteses—spread the gospel of unbelief.

Bad analogy. Dawkins and Krauss are two world-renowned scientists—biologist and physicist, respectively—and highly-regarded proponents of science education, expounding on the value and importance of science, reason, evidence and critical thinking. To the extent that religion opposes these, they are opposed to it.

Hazel Motes, in contrast, is focused on spreading anti-religion per se. On the other hand, it is true that the director titled the film "The Unbelievers."

Another bad analogy. A travelogue is a presentation about travel qua travel. The dictionary, Becklo; it's your friend.

"The Unbelievers" is about Dawkins and Krauss and the process of promoting their message. It's more like a rock group tour film, where the tour is about the group, the music, and the audiences, but not about travel. Travel is the plot device used to keep the film interesting when the stars are not on stage.

"This all" is just a few seconds with a fan plus Becklo's fertile imagination at about 12:30 into the film. Dawkins signs a book for her, squats beside her to chat and then turns to the camera for her photo op. The last foreshadowing. Wait for it...

But Dawkins recently admitted something about people who, like this particular fan, suffer from a lifelong disability: it would have been better for them to have never been born.

And here is where Becklo has been leading us: That ugly, weary, cardinal-pummeling, dusty-and-restless-minded head-rearing devil, Dawkins, forced a smile because he had to squat beside a woman who he wished had never been born because she was both disabled and in a wheelchair. Bam!

It is difficult to even start a discussion on this topic with someone who holds to his church's teaching that, as Monty Python memorably sang, "Every Sperm is Sacred". Still, once more unto the breach...

Becklo earlier referred to her as a "disabled woman", when the preferred term is "woman with a disability", since it is something she experiences, not something she is. Also, for clarity, he should have just said that or "woman in a wheelchair", but not both. Becklo, get an editor.

Further, Becklo has no way of knowing whether this woman's condition has been present since her birth or whether it will be present until her death, so his assumption of "lifelong" is inappropriate.

Becklo is just making stuff up in order to try draw a line between the fan photo op and Dawkins' recent twitter kerfuffle.

Also, Dawkins didn't "admit" anything. He expressed an opinion about something. "Admit" means to confess something negative with reluctance. He doesn't consider his opinion negative and he isn't reluctant about expressing it. But Becklo loves him some value-laden words.

Dawkins was referring to Down Syndrome, not to a physical disability, and he was referring to an early pregnancy, not an adult person. Becklo may be unable to recognize the differences. He does not even distinguish between a single cell and ten trillion, so this should not be surprising.

The controversial and callous remark—certainly not the first from Dawkins—was not so much walked back as walked forward in his formal apology.

Dawkins didn't apologize for the opinion, which he still holds, nor for expressing it, but rather for having used Twitter to express it because 140 characters was insufficient to express all that was necessary. Follow the link to see what Dawkins would have said with 2,082 characters. Becklo seems to have expected that Dawkins' apology would have been for the opinion; he seems unable to recognize that Dawkins is really, truly pro-choice.

Dawkins is not the only New Atheist that has been mired in public controversy in recent years. From Krauss' cringe-worthy debate with a Muslim scholar...

I have found no evidence of a public controversy regarding Krauss' several debates (one, two) with Muslim scholars, except praise for him in the latter when he successfully reversed the sponsor's attempt at forced audience gender segregation at a public university by threatening to leave the debate. (The group has since been banned from the university.) Evidence, Becklo? Sam Harris' recent comments about Islam on Bill Maher's show, ...

Here's the video and a partial transcript of that episode. Maher was pretty feisty, but Harris was his usual calm, reasoned self. Harris wasn't saying anything different than he's been saying since he wrote 'The End of Faith' in 2006.

...bizarre, off-color public statements from the New Atheists—often made, or at least said to be made, because of an unflinching commitment to naturalism—are resulting in charges of brutality, misogyny, bigotry, and the same kinds of unflattering associations Dawkins had hoped to keep squarely on God’s head.

What has Dawkins or Krauss said that was bizarre? What has Harris said that was bizarre? Bizarre: strikingly out of the ordinary: as (a) odd, extravagant, or eccentric in style or mode, (b) involving sensational contrasts or incongruities. Dictionary = friend.

Especially, where has there been a charge against any of them of brutality? Brutality: savage physical cruelty. Evidence, Becklo?

With regard to misogyny, all of them have been outspoken feminists their entire lives. Dawkins did make a statement three years ago that seemed to many to minimize the significance of the harassment of women in some atheist online and conference communities. But in August of this year, he seems to have gotten the message and apologized. Evidence of misogyny, Becklo?

Bigotry? Being convinced that Islamic fundamentalism is a danger to world peace is not racist. Islam is a religion, a set of ideas. It is not bigoted to be opposed to ideas. Dawkins, Krauss, Harris and the late Hitchens were of a similar opinion. Evidence of bigotry, Becklo?

"...kinds of unflattering associations..." Vague.

Of course, no mountain of personal controversies could discredit the claims of these self-styled “brights” or of atheists more generally. To suggest otherwise would be to engage in the very ad hominem attacks of which some of them are all too fond.

Becklo seems unaware that there is a difference between (a) an ad hominem fallacy and (b) ridiculing an idea and (c) insulting a person for holding a position.

An argumentum ad hominem attack or fallacy is to attempt to discredit a person's case because of some (alleged) negative feature of the person rather than engaging with the position itself. Example: Your idea is wrong because you are too tall.

I would hope that the other two are self-explanatory. I would readily agree that they engage in ridiculing and despising ideas and sometimes in insulting people who believe in certain ideas.

But I am not aware of Dawkins, Krauss, Harris, or Hitchens making ad hominem attacks. Evidence, Becklo?

About the "brights" thing. In case you didn't know: In 2003, biologist Paul Geissert proffered the term 'brights' as an alternative to atheist, godless, agnostic, naturalist, humanist, freethinker, etc. Dawkins and Dennett got behind the term but it didn't go anywhere.

But these headlines are, in their way, a visible symptom of what seems to be the diminishing traction and declining vitality of the entire New Atheist movement. To put it in no uncertain terms: the New Atheism, if not already dead, is quickly dying.

Got evidence, Becklo?

First, define the New Atheist movement. Apart from these authors, that is. A handful of authors—wildly best-selling authors though they are—do not a movement make.

Second, substantiate that the movement (by your definition) exists. Articles. Statistics. Research.

Third, prove that it is (a) diminishing in traction, (b) declining in vitality, and/or (c) dying (quickly or otherwise).

Here's some background for you, Becklo. In any group development, there are four main phases, described by Bruce Tuckman as forming, storming, norming, performing. As a group is first emerging, forming, it is mainly driven by what brought it together. As it begins to cohere, people start to express differing opinions and discontent. Far from being a problem, the intragroup controvery is evidence of the health of a group.

Here's some more specific information: The "Nones" are on the rise, already nearing 20% of the American population. In addition, an increasing percentage of people who identify with a denomination do not attend except for Christmas or life event ceremonies, also growing. Further, a significant percentage of those who do regular attend services participate because of the social/community and/or emotional support aspect but do not hold a belief in the church creeds nor necessarily in a deity.

[The dying of New Atheism] is first evident in a very literal way, in their fallen ranks. The “fifth horsemen” of the New Atheism, Victor Stenger, passed away a few months ago, but the loss of their leading horseman Christopher Hitchens in 2011 immediately comes to mind.

Although it is true that some movements end when their leaders die, but many do not. For example, Christianity.

Therefore, is manifestly logically false to claim that a movement is dying because some of its leaders are dying.

Further, those folks are famous atheists. They are published authors. But they are not leaders.

Spelling error: The late Stenger would represent a horseman not a horsemen.

Further, the active fifth horseperson at the time of the 2007 Four Horsemen video (who was originally intended to be the fifth person in the conversation, according to the attendees) was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Infidel". She also was officially the fourth horseman, with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett in a later conversation during 2012 at the Global Atheist Convention.

Other people also referred to as the Fifth Horseman, with popular books in the same 2004-2008 publishing tide were Dan Barker (Godless) and Michael Onfray (Atheist Manifesto). Philosopher A.C. Grayling is often also referred to as a Fifth Horseman (especially in the U.K.) due to his activism throughout the period and before, though his book "The God Argument" was not published until 2013.

Internet search: it's kind of a thing. Check it out, Becklo.

With Hitchens’ death, the New Atheism lost its scintillating, seductive flair. The wittiest, most likeable new atheist may not have converted as many as he would’ve liked...

Given that Hitchens wanted everyone to leave religion behind, Becklo's right. But his impact was not insignificant.

...Daniel Dennett was always the most scholarly. But, like Saint Nick himself, the philosopher has vacated the public eye so suddenly as to cast doubt on his very existence.

Um... Where to start?

First, Dennett has much more frequently been visually compared (including by himself), to Charles Darwin.

Second, when did Saint Nick suddenly vacate the public eye? He's never been in the public eye in the Santa myth. And he—or the idea of Santa—never left the public eye in the real world. So again with the bad analogy.

Third, Dennett has been very active in the eight years since publishing Breaking the Spell. He is still a professor at Tufts, plus he has an active worldwide speaking schedule, professional and popular.

He has also published four more books: "Neuroscience and Philosophy", "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible?" (with Alvin Plantinga, about which more below), "Intuition Pumps", "Inside Jokes" (with Matthew Hurley, about the evolutionary origin of humor), and "Caught in the Pulpit" (regarding The Clergy Project that he co-founded with Linda LaScola to assist atheist ministers to successfully transition to secular life). He continues to add to his list of more than 400 scholarly articles including The Evolution of Misbelief. Twenty-five papers and presentations so far in 2014, with at least five international engagements.

Dennett is also active on Facebook and Twitter.

So on what basis does Becklo claim that Dennett has "vacated the public eye"?

"...casts doubt on his very existence"? Becklo may be mistaking Dennett for his deity, also often pictured with the long, white beard, for which there is – and has always been – doubt of his very existence.

Dennett has made no new enemies, inflamed no Twitter wars, and penned no blog screeds about the stupidity of faith. Instead—perhaps with an eye toward securing his legacy as a serious philosopher—he’s been sitting down with respected Christian thinker Alvin Plantinga for a civil, serious dialogue about science and religion.

Ah, I see. One "vacates the public eye" by not making enemies, not inciting Twitter storms, not blogging screeds.

Thus being "in the public eye" is synonymous with doing these.

So I guess Pope Francis has "vacated the public eye," right?

Further, Dennett hasn't "been sitting down" with Plantinga.

At the February 2009 Central Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, as a scheduled joint conference session, Plantinga, standing up, presented a paper, "Science and Religion: Are they Compatible?" standing up, and Dennett, also standing up, commented on it from prepared statements. Plantinga wasn't allowed to have this topic session to himself; not enough interest in theistic philosophers by themselves. Their debate can be heard on YouTube. No video is available, so I cannot tell if tea was involved. They published a short book (noted above) as joint authors, expanding on that exchange.

(Don't get me started about Plantinga.) (Except, let me say, that Dennett so soundly thrashed Plantinga's position in their joint 2010 book that the latter had to start again pretty much from scratch to write "Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism". Which is actually worse.) (No, really. Jerry Coyne doesn't even rebut him; he just lists some quotes from a book-related interview that stand on their own as "silly things".) (I told you not to get me started. Back to Becklo...)

And here, we see the root cause of the New Atheism’s decline: its lack of a sturdy philosophical foundation. Any organization can withstand its bad press if it’s grounded in something human, something wise, something timeless. But all along, scholars have grumbled that—unlike the writings of a Nietzsche, Sartre, or Russell—the New Atheism lacked intellectual depth and was doomed to self-destruction.

You do realize, Becklo, that Dennett and Harris are philosophers? Harris is a recently-minted (2009) Ph.D. (in neuroscience, which is a multidisciplinary field including philosophy) although he is making quite high waves in his young career. (Here's an article based on Harris' groundbreaking Ph.D. research on neuroimaging of belief.)

OTOH, Dennett is a senior statesman who generally makes any top-ten list of living American philosophers. He has made significant contributions over several decades to several fields of philosophy. Did you know seventeen books have been written about Dennett and his philosophy?

You also realize, Becklo, that less than 15% of American professional philosophers (including philosophers of religion) are theists, right? So the vast majority of American philosophy is already atheist philosophy.

Next, as has been repeated several times, atheism is not an organization. This one is just so difficult for many theists to grasp, especially Catholics. Atheism is a position regarding a single subject: the claim regarding the existence of one or more deities. On every other topic, atheists hold every possible category of belief.

Also, atheism cannot have a sturdy philosophical foundation. All non-theistic philosophical systems can serve as philosophical systems for atheists.

Further, the popular books that Becklo here associates with the New Atheism are—wait for it— "popular books". They were not written as scholarly books. So, of course, they do not function in that role. Surprise!

But who are the "scholars" who, Becklo asserts, "have grumbled" regarding this issue? It would have been appropriate for Becklo to drop a few names here — since he's dropped them elsewhere. But I'll just venture a guess that he would list theistic scholars. Probably Christian ones. Most likely Catholic ones. Plus Plantinga. (Don't get me started.) Evidence, Becklo?

And they were right. Krauss looks like a farm team player brought up to revitalize a crumbling organization, trying (and failing) to recreate Hitch’s signature rhetorical jukes. Meanwhile, Dawkins is resorting to odd trick plays which never get off the ground. (His bizarre mutations of the mind art show comes to mind.) Nothing is meshing the way it used to, and the overcompensation on the part of the remaining leaders—and pushback from their rank and file—is telling.

Again, not an organization. Plus—check the actual numbers—not crumbling, nor dying, nor shrinking.

Krauss has always been trenchant, but it was Dawkins who convinced him to be more abrasive in fighting the anti-science forces.

Krauss is a leading theoretical physicist. No farm-team player in the intellect department.

I will agree that he's no Hitchens in the witty repartee department, nor is Dawkins. No one is. On the other hand, Hitchens was no scientist. With regard to Mutations of the Mind, that was not a Dawkins project. It was a Saatchi & Saatchi creativity project related to memes on the Internet. You can see the at YouTube called Just for Hits. Since Dawkins coined the term meme back in 1976 as a unit of culture, the team invited him to participate by doing a short reading and playing a music snippet at the beginning; the project team did all the rest. You can learn about the project and his participation here. Bro, do you even Google?

What is not "meshing" the way it used to, Becklo? Freethought/atheist/naturalist/ethical-culture/secular meet-ups, communities, Sunday Assemblies, student groups, and conferences are proliferating. Maybe you can clarify to what you are referring. With evidence, please?

What do you consider instances of overcompensation, Becklo? (Apart from the Mutations bit, above, about which you were completely wrong.) With references, please?

Once you have assembled that, Becklo, perhaps you would be so kind as to impart to us what all this is "telling."

Plus again with the editing: Add a hyphen between farm and team when they are used together as an adjective: " player..."

Meanwhile, less vociferous unbelievers are gladly rushing in to fill that profitable cultural space. Neil deGrasse Tyson, for example, has rightly been accused of bungling the history of the Church with relation to science in his new "Cosmos" series...

Hey, Becklo's right! Tyson is not vociferous!

But he's not "rushing" anywhere, gladly or otherwise. Tyson's been around for decades doing his astrophysicist, planetarium director, and science-education-promoter doings — when he's not demoting planets.

The "Cosmos" series is most definitely not Tyson's. It was originally team-written in 1980 by the late Carl Sagan but mostly by his wife (now widow), Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter, with Carl as the host. (There's this nifty on-line encyclopedia called Wikipedia, with references and links to original sources. Take a dekko at it, Becklo.)

The 2014 update of the original show was mainly written and co-produced by Druyan, and Tyson is just the host and narrator.

So, Becklo, if you have any issues with historic details regarding how and why the Catholic Church burned Giordano Bruno to a crisp or imprisoned Galileo Galilei for life, take it up with Druyan. I know Catholic men tend to have issues with brilliant women in positions of power, knowledge, and influence, but work through it.

Actually, though, Becklo has a point. The Church didn't mainly torture and incinerate Bruno for his ideas about science and cosmology; they also scourged and carbonized him for his ideas about the trinity, Jesus' divinity, Mary's virginity, and transubstantiation. For his ideas, Becklo. For thought crime.

Are you saying that these beliefs were more valid reasons to torment and toast a fellow human being? Is that what you are saying "Cosmos" got wrong? Think about it before you answer.

Plus, why would that "cultural space" be "profitable", Becklo, if the New Atheism is dying, or perhaps already dead?

...but [Tyson's] also quick to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to God. “The only ‘ist’ I am is a scientist,”

And yet Becklo gives Tyson as one of those "rushing" to fill his alleged growing vacuum of leadership in New Atheism. Am I missing something?

Then there is Thomas Nagel...

I'll agree with Becklo here wrt Nagel's book; it did cause quite a stir. This article notes "One critique said if there were a philosophical Vatican, [this] work should be on the index of banned books."


But we wouldn't torture people or burn them at the stake for reading it!

Lastly, there’s physicist and atheist Sean Carroll who—going even beyond Nagel—is committed to the materialist conception of nature. Carroll penned an insightful piece recently titled “Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things About Philosophy.”

I am also a fan of Carroll and also prefer his less acerbic and more philosophy-friendly style.

But you didn't mention David Albert, Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and professor of philosophy, nor Massimo Pigliucci, Ph.D.s in Genetics and Botany, and Philosophy of Science. These guys are also very diplomatic plus actually professional philosophers as well as scientists. There are many more, including several in the list below.

My favorite talk by Carroll on naturalism is God is Not a Good Theory. Carroll's debate with William Lane Craig is also excellent. (Ed Feser was not too pleased, though.)

But Becklo may not be too pleased with Carroll, pleasant as the latter is, if the latter is successful in his goal of Moving Naturalism Forward. This was a high-caliber two-day seminar Carroll pulled together with Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Terrence Deacon, Simon DeDeo, Daniel Dennett, Owen Flangan, Rebecca Goldstein, Janna Levin, Massimo Pigliucci, David Poeppel, Nicholas Pritzker, Alex Rosenberg, Don Ross, and Steven Weinberg. This was the launch an on-going project of Carroll's to promote naturalism throughout science and education.

This, happily, is the new tenor of the conversation.

That would be nice, Becklo, I agree. Go ahead! I'll be happy to change my tone whenever you do.

The apparently intramural rivalry between two fundamentalist spins on the world looks increasingly at odds with the problems and possibilities an open-minded majority face on the ground, and warriors from each side are deigning to say to the other...

An editor, Becklo. Get an editor.

Intramural: within an institution. No institution, Becklo, no organization. Just a commitment about how to think, not what to think.

Fundamentalism: "tendency ... most often characterized by a markedly strict literalism as applied to certain specific scriptures, dogmas, or ideologies, and a strong sense of the importance of maintaining ingroup and outgroup distinctions, which can lead to an emphasis on purity and the desire to return to a previous ideal from which it is believed that members have begun to stray." Please, Becklo, elucidate regarding the specific ideology to which you refer, with its ingroup distinctions, emphasis on purity, and the ideal to which to return.

"...two fundamentalist spins..." You got me here. What are thetwo spins? And about what are they spinning?

"...increasingly at odds with the problems and possibilities..." I don't even know where to start.

" open-minded majority face on the ground..." So a face ... which is on the ground [which I think is bad] .. but open-minded [which I think is good] ... majority [majority of all people, of atheists, of scientists, of... Nope. I got nothing.]

"...and warriors from each side..." Is the face on one of the sides? Is one of the sides on the ground? Are the warriors both spinning? Or is it the face that is spinning, on the ground? I'm perplexed.

"...deigning to say to the other..." The other what? The other spin? The other warrior? Another face?

Deign: "to do something that you think you should not have to do because you are too important" Wrong word, Becklo. Read the thesaurus a little more thoroughly.

Plus, again, get an editor.

Becklo offers a poem snippet from Pound's "A Pact" written to Whitman. After heaping insult upon insult in this article, is Becklo offering an olive branch? Might I say a teeny bit inappropriate here? Since he follows it directly with yet more derision?

That’s not to say that passionate disagreement has ended—it hasn’t, and never will.

You got that right!

But the tone and style of "The Unbelievers" seems a decade too late; the moment has passed.

Really? Then why did Dawkins' and Krauss' tour play around the world to packed houses in huge venues in every city? This tends to indicate a certain degree of popularity to me. They are still touring, btw. They sold out in Dublin just in September, for example. And Dawkins returns to Australia in December. Is this how you define a moment having passed?

As celebrities like Bill Pullman and Cameron Diaz offer public support for this un-dynamic duo, and Krauss proudly holds up a tweet from Miley Cyrus with his picture and the quotation “forget Jesus”... [Ed: link added]

Are you just name-dropping here, Becklo? A little SEO perhaps? Because otherwise, what is your point?

...the New Atheists and their readers will either change too, or fade away, raging against the dying of the brights.

Y'all got his Dylan Thomas allusion, right? Yeah, it didn't work for me either. Because he gave it away in the title. The title should be a teaser for the conclusion, Becklo.

Here's another writing hint, Becklo. Write the conclusion first. A strong conclusion. First, because it guides your writing the rest. Second, because you avoid petering out like you did here, flailing, just throwing out words and names and words to meet the deadline and word count target.

One final point: Does this article further Vogt's goal for Strange Notions of a civil discussion between Catholics and atheists? My vote? Not exactly.

by Geena Safire