How the other half lives

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:

Dear Religion,
While you were debating which chicken sandwiches were OK to eat, I just landed on Mars,
Your friend,

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:

Dear Science
While you were squabbling about which textbooks to ban in Dover PA, we were feeding millions of the world’s poor,
Your friend,

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:

Dear Franciscans,
While you were footling around helping the poor, we were commissioning Michaelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel
Your friend,
The Pope.

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:

Dear Religion,
While you were enabling millions of people to live eternally beyond the stars, I just landed a robot on Mars,
Your friend,

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to How the other half lives

  1. Cal says:

    A lot of the New Atheism is Enlightenment arrogance inside the 21st century. It’s like the mind of a child in an adult body.

    I am very glad the “West” has shuffled off (at least in Europe) the veneer of Christianity. No more War-Priests advocating the death of the Hun or the massacre of the ‘heathen’ Slavs. This has happened (praise the Lord!) and war still rumbles on. Different justifications are given. When push comes to shove, New Atheism is Hitch’s attitude on the Iraq War: kill them all, let natural selection sort them out.

    New Atheism is a juvenile phenomenon that is likely to cause more blood filled streets than any wing of wacko ‘Moral Majority’ in Washington. In fact, science is the one producing the bigger guns. It doesn’t matter how zealous one becomes, it can’t compete to thousands of rounds per minute.

  2. Alan Fox says:

    I have little interest in the New Atheists…

    Excellent. Nor should you have. Live and let live!

    …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.

    Any true atheist is in full agreement with every other true atheist. Any atheist who is ever embarrassed by another true atheist is no true atheist. Bet you can’t quote me an example of a true atheist embarrassed by Jerry Coyne!

    Jerry Coyne is one of the saddest examples, because one of the best qualified in his field.

    This is a factual error. Jerry Coyne might be described as many things. But sad? A man who loves food and cats as he does cannot possibly be sad!

  3. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Bet you can’t quote me an example of a true atheist embarrassed by Jerry Coyne!”

    Yes I can. He is the ambassador for the completely disinterested nation of the Disinterested People’s Atheist Republic of Unbiasia, and has been awarded the official medal of the View From Nowhere Institute.

    He assures me that “Coyne” is an Irish name, that Jerry is therefore no true Scotsman and that he is deeply embarrassed by him. Particularly as cats and food are banned in Unbiasia.

  4. Alan Fox says:

    Found this guy masquerading as a true athesist. He bluffs but he’s not fooling me!

  5. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Rosenhouse is no true Gnu. He actually engages with ideas. Perhaps the answer is that we’ve been quite mistaken in thinking that the likes of Coyne are really atheists at all. They’re really Scotsmen in Gnu’s clothing.

  6. James says:

    I agree about Rosenhouse, Jon. He is probably the fairest of the “pop” atheist critics of ID. He criticizes bad arguments on the anti-ID side as well as the ID side. I put this down to his being a mathematician; I’ve generally found them intellectually fairer and more well-balanced than biologists. Of course, there are exceptions, like mathematician Jeffrey Shallit, who is a fiercely partisan ID-hater. But most of the sharp-tongued or condescending dogmatists in the anti-ID camp are from the life sciences — P. Z. Myers, Larry Moran, “John” from BioLogos, Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (used to be a physical anthropologist), Steve Matheson (formerly of Calvin College), etc.

    Part of the cause may lie in the fact that biologists are still suffering from serious “physics envy”; they believe that Darwin was the Newton who finally earned their science a status equal to that of physics, and are furious when Darwin’s achievement is questioned. The mathematicians, not being natural scientists, and in any case very confident that they command a subject that offers very precise knowledge (where there can be no fakery), don’t really suffer from physics envy, and don’t really have anything at stake in the fate of “random mutation plus natural selection.”

    But Rosenhouse, though a bright guy, is still essentially a self-taught layman when it comes to evolutionary theory and biology in general. He is thus, essentially, a popular rather than a professional critic of ID. Of the more biologically trained critics of ID one of the best is Gert Korthof, a retired Dutch biologist who has reviewed just about every ID book. In reviewing them, Korthof does two things which almost none of the North American reviewers do: (1) He completely avoids ad hominem remarks, and sticks strictly to the scientific arguments; (2) He carefully summarizes ID works, chapter by chapter, trying to present the arguments as their authors intend them, before offering his criticism. If only the debate in North America could be so civilized and academically disciplined! Our North American Darwinist professors act like thugs, while a gentle Dutch scientist puts them all to shame. The difference gives grounds for revival of the old European suspicion that North Americans have only a thin veneer of civilization and are really vulgarians at heart.

  7. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    Any defence of Rosenhouse’s manners doesn’t detract from the fact that his eliminative materialism takes him to places where humans fear to tread. It would take a very true atheist, who had a high view of ethics and human freedom, a great deal of gymnastics to agree with that true atheist!

  8. James says:

    Sorry, Jon, but your last comment has lost me. Between you and Alan Fox, I’m now no longer sure what either of you is saying about different kinds of atheists, and who are the real ones and who are the fake ones, and who are the “true” atheists and who are the “very true” ones. Perhaps there is some irony in your answers to Alan and myself that has soared over my head. You’ll have to take me through kindergarten steps to get me back on track.

    In any case, I wasn’t addressing the point about whether Rosenhouse was really an atheist, or what kind of atheist he was; I was addressing your comment: “He actually engages with ideas.” I agree with that; and that, to me, makes him different from most of the other atheists we’ve talked about, who don’t engage with ideas, but simply dogmatize and jeer.

  9. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    My James, you are a late bird (or a very early one!).

    The irony control seemed to be set to “10” on this thread, so I replied in the “no true Scotsman” vein set by Alan. Apologies for befuddlement caused, as it was partly intentional!

    I’m aware that Rosenhouse has been recently featured on UD as an anti ID person, but his recent book, and the series of replies, by Ed Feser, interest me more, because they show how eliminative materialism, carried through conscientiously as Rosenhouse does, completely destroys any concept of freedom and responsibility, and also of any objective value to ethics.

    Given my discussion with Alan on the euthanasia thread, in which he shows himself in favour of all of these, I thought this was a good challenge to his (humorous) dictum that no true atheist will disagree with another.

    I may be wrong, but I think Alan’s original point, being ironied out, was to emphasise to me that not all atheists think like Jerry Coyne and his acolytes. Which is absolutely true – and I may remind him of it if he raises issues like witchhunting in Africa as an argument against religion!

  10. Alan Fox says:

    To clarify for James, I was a little nettled that Jon, whom I like and respect though I probably disagree with on many things, seemed to have caught a slight dose of ad hominem.

    I actually find the “new atheist” assessment or classification rather trivial and it seems to boil down to tone. There is rather a fundamental dichotomy between those who hold a genuine religious belief and those who don’t. The difference between gnus and those atheists who claim not to be gnus (though I am not sure who would be an example – Michael Ruse? hmm!) is really only how unapologetic you want to be.

  11. Alan Fox says:

    Don’t get me started on Ed Feser!

    Jon will be familiar with Gil Dodgen’s undocumented atheist phase. There has been some speculation as to how long and deep that event was. Feser has recently recalled a similarly undocumented lapse into atheism from which he has completely recovered.

  12. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    The number of Christians saying they were once atheists seems to be comparable with the number of atheists saying they were Christians. Presumably if anyone’s lying about it both directions have the same kind of motivation – but it was you who said you didn’t want to peer into men’s hearts… they do change, though, sometimes.

    But as far as my use of Feser goes, your comment too is an ad hominem, though hardly registering on the Beaufort scale of such things. Whatever he says about his faith position, he’s making a philsophical crtitique of Rosenberg’s philosophy which would be no more or less valid if he were a Jihadist rather than a Catholic.

    As for New Atheism being a question of “tone”, I’d agree: the socialists in my University days who shouted down speakers were no more socialist than the quiet and respectful ones. They were just less apologetic, and more worthy of being condemned as louts.

  13. Alan Fox says:

    I wasn’t just former believers becoming atheist or vice versa that I question. It was the double switch that Gil Dodgen and Ed Feser describe. Being the arch sceptic I am, I wondered how Ed Feser’s atheism manifested itself. I asked him a few times on the thread at his blog where he recounted the story if he had written anything from an atheistic point of view, for example. Professor Feser didn’t respond.

    University days? The sixties? I guess respect became a rare commodity in the sixties. I don’t really see much parallel with unapologetic atheists today. I guess PZ Myers has become an icon for the oppressed young atheists of the Mid-west but I don’t recall having seen him shouting anyone down, though I’ll concede he operates a somewhat arbitrary and unfriendly moderation policy in his comments section at FTB.

  14. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


    One connection between New Atheists and sixties leftism was Christopher Hitchens, who espoused both in his time.

    If Myers is actually the victim of oppression of young atheists, then presumably the remarks in his combox must also come from that same small part of the globe, so we must take the whole blog in its sociological context. I guess the card of the OP conforms to midwestern humorous conventions. Seems to confirm my brother’s prejudices, gained when he was Greyhounding through.

    Would it help communicate more to the midwest, do you think, if I tried hard to be more “unapologetic” in my Christianity on this blog?

  15. Gregory says:

    “Would it help communicate more to the midwest, do you think, if I tried hard to be more “unapologetic” in my Christianity on this blog?”

    You are already ‘unapologetic’ in your Reformed Christianity. I don’t see how you could be more so.

  16. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Well Gregory, on Alan’s use of the word “unapologetic” I had in mind something like “F* off you *tard atheist morons. Cheers.” But that seems anti-apologetic, rather than unapologetic, as indeed it does when Gnus say such things.

  17. Alan Fox says:


    In the hope you look in again, can I just apologise for an exchange that took place a while ago at BioLogos. I queried your academic credentials and was a little sceptical about your holding a doctorate. Sorry about that. I see I was wrong.

  18. Alan Fox says:

    Would it help communicate more to the midwest, do you think, if I tried hard to be more “unapologetic” in my Christianity on this blog?

    You don’t come across as apologetic or defensive about your faith. Communicate with the midwest? “Divided by a common language” springs to mind.

  19. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    “Divided by a common language”

    My brother recounts a conversation he overheard when eating alone in a midwest diner. Two cowpokes, one mourning his lack of worthiness for the love of his life, and the other reassuring him. It was so exactly out of the script of a B movie that he found it hard not to burst out laughing (which wouldn’t have been wise).

    Having said that, catching a bus across England and eavesdropping on conversations in greasy spoons would probably be comparable – I guess they just don’t show films about it on daytime TV.

  20. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    There is another name I should have added to Kepler, Newton and Lovell in the original post: that of Werner von Braun, whose development of rocketry was the sine qua non of space travel – he indeed conceived the moon landing project. Here’s an interesting quote from him:

    “Our knowledge and use of the laws of nature that enable us to fly to the Moon also enable us to destroy our home planet with the atom bomb. Science itself does not address the question whether we should use the power at our disposal for good or for evil. The guidelines of what we ought to do are furnished in the moral law of God. It is no longer enough that we pray that God may be with us on our side; we must learn again to pray that we may be on God’s side,” von Braun added, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s words, spoken more than a hundred years ago: “I am not concerned that the Lord be on my side. I am concerned that I be on the Lords side!”

    Interestingly he also spoke on evolution and creation from a design perspective:

    “For me, the idea of a creation is not conceivable without invoking the necessity of design. One cannot be exposed to the law and order of the universe without concluding that there must be design and purpose behind it all.” (1972)

    Well, it’s not rocket science, is it?

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