Atheists Nightmares and Some Good Common Sense

duty_calls From One Episcopalian on Faith:

I received the following extraordinary email from a reader of this blog. I have replied that he should start his own blog. This is an excellent letter. He writes:

I am an Atheist. I notice that in your blog you always capitalize Atheist. No one else does including most Atheists. Assuming you do it out of respect or to be grammatically correct I will reciprocate and make the effort to do likewise with Christian. This is something I have not been doing.

I am an Atheist because I think there is insufficient evidence to believe in a god and not because I think there is enough evidence to believe that there isn’t a god. The distinction is important.

I have been following your blog lately and I wish to address several points.

1.   I am not a militant Atheist, nor a new Atheist. I’m an old fashioned Atheist. I’m not out to convert you or anyone else. Your use of the word militant for the Atheists you generally write about is correct. 

However, I think there are a couple of better words to use. Just as the word Christian has been dragged into the mud (in the minds of many) by Fundamentalists and Rapturists, so too has the word Atheist been debased by Dawkins, Myers, Hitchens, Maher and a fistful of bloggers. These people are not only Atheists, they are Antitheists.  In a sense they are revolutionaries and since revolutionary movements are often named for a most prominent figure, we might call them Dawkinsists. But my choice is Anti-religionists. Most Atheists are not Anti-religionists.

Wikipedia supports your use of the word militant. It is common usage. I have no objection. I just prefer Anti-religionist.

2.   You correctly make an important point about Intelligent Design theory, namely that it is not good science but that it raises interesting and important questions. When IDers assert that irreducible complexity is evidence of a god, it is bad science. But complexity poses legitimate question for evolutionary biologists. Is it irreducible? How can it evolve? These questions have not been answered.

Three other questions, how did life start, why is DNA so sophisticated and does the universe seem fine tuned are legitimate scientific questions. ID proponents are guilty of turnings these questions into assertions of design. Anti-religionist Atheists are equally guilty of ducking the questions by saying that maybe this or maybe that is the answer. Maybe is not a scientific answer. Maybe is knowledge gap. Maybe isn’t sufficient evidence of anything.  Maybe is speculation. Maybe leads to hypotheses. Maybe does not a theory make.

I happen to believe that science will eventually find the answers. But I’m not about to justify my disbelief in a god by force fitting my faith in science into scientific theory. 

This is why ID has become the militant Atheists’ nightmare. (There I go, I used the word). It shouldn’t be, but it is. It will remain so as long as IDers and neo-Darwinists alike pretend there aren’t open questions.

When Anti-religion writers say that Christians believe in ID they mislead their readers. Just as all Atheists are not militant or anti-religionists or Dawkinsists, all Christians do not subscribe to ID.

3.   I’m not surprised by the Zogby poll. I don’t doubt that there is an increasing super-majority of liberals and Democrats who want the weakness of evolution taught in our schools. Even more liberals want this than conservatives. Weakness is not the same thing as Creationism or ID (though it is sometimes used as a codeword by IDers). The Dawkinsist have been tilting at the wrong windmills and that is becoming clear. All Christians are not rightwing conservatives. All Christians don’t deny evolution.

Americans, liberals in particular, don’t want agenda-driven curriculum in science, history or social sciences. They don’t want to see science classrooms used to teach Creationism or Atheism. It has become clear that the prominent, news grabbing Antitheists want something more than secularized, neutral science. Listen to them. PZ Myers underscored his agenda with his hateful anti-Catholic communion wafer stunt. Dawkins tells us that raising children as Christians is child abuse. They want religion to go away and they want to use science education as the means. They say so, over and over. Anti-religionists have proven to be so obnoxious that they are offending real liberal sensibilities.

Americans also know that acknowledging weaknesses in a scientific theory is part of what good science is about.

4.   Darwin’s big birthday is over. The cover stories and hoopla are over. It was pretty much of a fizzle for those who wanted to push Darwinian evolution as an alternative to religious belief. Dawkins, Meyers [sic], Coyne and ridiculers like Maher were the losers. Rev. Polkinghorne spoke from Coyne’s podium at the University of Chicago. The Vatican and Protestant churches celebrated Darwin’s birthday and affirmed evolution. Modern Christians who have no problem with science, including evolution, were the grownup winners.

The quiet Atheists won something, too. We gained some respectability. But not enough in Alabama where I live.

5.   The Turin Shroud, which you have thrown into the debate, is particularly fascinating. You find it so. I do too. It will grab some of the media’s spotlight on religion this coming Easter and again at Christmas as it always does. It is scheduled for public exhibition next year in Turin and it will get considerable attention. It will probably get more attention than ever before.

Something has changed. There is no longer a single remaining shred of credible scientific evidence that it is a fake, particularly the once upon a time believed radiocarbon dating. It is astounding to realize that in 1989, Nature published a peer reviewed article coauthored by twenty-some scientists from top scientific academic institutions and they were later proven ridiculously wrong. Some in the scientific community now look very foolish.

There is nothing wrong of course with radiocarbon dating. And as we all know, scientific conclusions change from time to time as new data becomes available. But this was more. The exercise to date the cloth in 1988 was botched badly. It was extraordinary collective sloppiness.  

You were too harsh on Jerry Coyne. Just because he is a prominent biologist is no reason to think that he should know better than most people about the radiocarbon dating fiasco. Blame the fact checkers at New Republic. That is their job.

As strange as it may seem, I believe the shroud might be the real burial cloth of the historical person Jesus. Note that I said Jesus and not Christ. The distinction is important.

The 3D and photonegative aspects of the image, taken together, are a bigger mystery than any mystery in evolutionary biology. Incidentally you incorrectly referred to the image as a topograph. That is not the right term. But when you call the 3D aspect of the image spatial data you are right. 

In response to the IDers’ claims, we find that there are possible explanations (maybe this or maybe that, maybe an accidentally formed self replicating molecule, selfish genes, a multiverse).  But the shroud image mysteries stand unchallenged. There are no reasonable possibilities, at least not yet. There are some flakey conspiracy theories. But it is clear that these are utterly ridiculous and wholly unscientific.

I predict the shroud will become the new Atheists’ nightmare (new as in new nightmare not as in new Atheist). I don’t look forward to this.

Religious people need to be mindful of the fact that a mystery is not evidence of anything. It only means that there is a not a scientific explanation. Scientists need to be mindful of the fact that a mystery can always be understood as an unanswered question. These have been the failings of both IDers and Anti-religionist Atheists.

I don’t think the 3D and photonegativity mysteries are evidence of authenticity any more than biological irreducible complexity is evidence of design. The fact that the radiocarbon dating was bungled doesn’t mean that the cloth dates from the time of Jesus either.

But there is ample scientific evidence, which when combined with voluminous historical evidence, suggests authenticity. This is inescapable to anyone who reviews respectable data on the shroud. However, if it is genuine (remember I said might be) it does not offer sufficient evidence a god exists. There are many unanswered questions.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the shroud, there are too many crazy ideas. I can’t figure out whether those who think the image was formed by Jesus dematerializing or those who think that Leonardo da Vinci faked the thing are crazier. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that the image is a natural phenomenon having nothing to do with miracles or fakery.

6.   On another topic, I want to point out there are many admirable people who acting as Christians have helped to shape the modern world in a good way. Catholic Mother Teresa (I was Catholic), Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu (I’m black), Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson (I’m gay), American Preacher Martin Luther King (I’m from Alabama). I am saddened when I see Christopher Hitchens attack these people and religion in general for being the cause of the world’s problems. Making the world better is something that believers like you and non-believers like me should be focused on instead of squabbling our way through an unsolvable dispute of how the world we know came to be.

7.   Incidentally, in the video you posted with Peter Adkins and Archbishop George Carey, I think Carey is right and Adkins is wrong. I just don’t happen to find sufficient evidence to believe in a god like Carey does. Adkins thinks he sees enough evidence to believe there is no god. How is that possible?

8.   Finally, you once referred to PZ Myers as an Atheist supremacist. You see the problem? Another time you referred to him as a silly plonker. That is accurate.

Sincerely,

A black, gay, ex-Catholic Atheist from Alabama

I do capitalize the A in Atheist as I capitalize the B in Buddhist and the C in Christian.

The term silly plonker was used by the Mad Priest of Tyndale. I merely repeated it.

The criticism is taken in the spirit it is offered. Thank you.

If the shroud is authentic, which I believe, how do you explain that the cloth exists unless the tomb was open or opened at some point and the cloth separated from the body? Just asking.

I agree with much of what this letter writer has to say.  But I believe in God.

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