I have little interest in the New Atheists, since their sole function on the kind of blogs I visit is to throw in irrelevant references to Jebus and Pixies, say “cheers” and disappear, except when they carp on about being treated in an unchristian way. But every now and again it’s good to be reminded of why so many people, especially atheists, are embarrassed by the Gnus’ ability to win such support amongst the mindless and to damage the cause of atheism, if there is one.
Jerry Coyne is one of the saddest examples, because one of the best qualified in his field. I followed a link to Why Evolution is True on the promise of a “stunning image of Mars.” I didn’t expect it to show evolution to be true, but have always been interesed in Mars because for a number of years as a kid it was my serious ambition to be the first man on it. I was savvy enough to predict that they’d get to the Moon before I was old enough to participate, and foolish enough to think that Britain would still be involved – not to mention too naive to predict that manned interplanetary travel would disappear in budget cuts for forty years.
OK. The picture’s all right, but not stunning. It shows the bits of Mars lander from orbit as dots, against a featureless grey background. I suppose I’m not easy enough to stun. But for good measure, Coyne attached a picture of an hilariously funny card bearing the caption:
While you were debating which chicken sandwiches were OK to eat, I just landed on Mars,
It wouldn’t be worthy of comment if it hadn’t caused such jubilation amongst Coyne’s accolytes. In fact, it isn’t worth comment even now, but once in a while an analysis of people’s intellectual position reminds you that you’re not just dreaming about the state of the world.
I think the “chicken” reference is to some local US story about a chicken restaurant objecting to gay marriage. So in the blue corner, we have “religion” = a restaurant with an attitude on a current legal debate. Perhaps it is used as a synecdoche for “religious attitudes to this debate”, in which case it’s misapplied since non-religious people and religious people occupy both sides of the spectrum. As it is, it’s about one restaurant standing for all the world’s religions.
In the red corner, “science” = landing a robot on Mars. A multibillion dollar state-funded venture.
Not much equivalence, really, then. A large Catholic aid agency might equally irrelevantly have had a card reading:
While you were squabbling about which textbooks to ban in Dover PA, we were feeding millions of the world’s poor,
Needless to say, Coyne’s source continues to crow over the myth of the war of science and religion, but in this case it’s particularly inept. The “Science” that got Curiosity to Mars would be, in large part, the believer Kepler’s work on orbits and the believer Newton’s gravitational theory. Another irony of timing was the coincidence of the post with the death of the believer Sir Bernard Lovell, whose radio-telescope was the only one in the world capable of tracking Sputnik 1. (Incidentally my friend told me that his newspaper said that although a great scientist, Lovell was a Christian. Meaning what, exactly?)
Then again, not only the scale of the events is mismatched, but the importance of the issues. Those of us interested in science – especially those rare weirdos like me whose childhood ambition wavered between astronautics and palaeontology – are watching Curiosity with curiosity. But even if it astronomically exceeds realistic expectations, the probe might show that life arose on, or travelled to, Mars during the early history of Earth. Whereas wherever one stands on it, gay marriage will affect every family on earth in one way or another. By way of illustration, here’s another stupid message:
While you were footling around helping the poor, we were commissioning Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel
Even secular socialists question what is gained by prestige space projects when there are pressing human problems down here. Rational people, in contrast, realise that knowledge and excellence exist in a balance with concern for other vital issues.
To finish, let me suggest another facile communication that might do more justice to the different concerns of religion and science. It’s ideologically loaded, of course, but in a more even-handed way than the original, in that it leaves the “pro-science” message unchanged. Try this:
While you were enabling millions of people to live eternally beyond the stars, I just landed a robot on Mars,