2014-04-10

Conflicting views

Honestly, I haven't taken the time to do a good fisking in a while, and Sana Saeed's recent article in Salon was so awful (Jerry Coyne called it "The worst atheist-bashing article of the year") that I decided to go ahead and sharpen my knives.

Richard Dawkins is so wrong it hurts: What the science-vs.-religion debate ignores
I hope she means it "hurts" metaphorically, not "hurts" like throwing acid in someone's face or stoning them. As I like to say, we're off to a good start here.

Acolytes of Dawkins & Hitchens pretend that ignorant evangelicals represent all of religion.
No, we don't. You've already lost. Sam Harris, in fact, made it a point of emphasis in The End of Faith that so-called "moderate" religionists had much to answer for. Also, I saw that trap you laid with the "acolyte" thing, making us sound like unthinking lemmings. It's funny how apologists always want to project the trappings of religion on those of us who have consciously and outwardly rejected them.

Here's what they miss
Sigh. Let's get going.

I’m supposed to hate science. Or so I’m told.
No you aren't, and no one told you that. Seems a bit early in the piece for strawmen, doesn't it?

I spent my childhood with my nose firmly placed between the pages of books on reptiles, dinosaurs, marine life and mammals. When I wasn’t busy wondering if I wanted to be more like Barbara Walters or Nancy Drew, I was busy digging holes in my parents’ backyard hoping to find lost bones of some great prehistoric mystery. I spent hours sifting through rocks that could possibly connect me to the past or, maybe, a hidden crystalline adventure inside. Potatoes were both a part of a delicious dinner and batteries for those ‘I got this’ moments; magnets repelling one another were a sorcery I needed to, somehow, defeat. The greatest teachers I ever had were Miss Frizzle and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
This is all very good and cool. Who told you that you were supposed to hate this, again? It certainly wasn't me.

I also spent my childhood reciting verses from the Qur’an and a long prayer for everyone — in my family and the world — every night before going to bed. I spoke to my late grandfather, asking him to save me a spot in heaven. I went to the mosque and stepped on the shoes resting outside a prayer hall filled with worshippers. I tried fasting so I could be cool like my parents; played with prayer beads and always begged my mother to tell me more stories from the lives of the Abrahamic prophets.
This is decidedly less cool. All of this time wasted on superstition and nonsense when you could have been doing more potato experiments!

With age, my wonder with religion and science did not cease. Both were, to me, extraordinary portals into the life around me that left me constantly bewildered, breathless and amazed.
That's great. I mean, one portal is based in facts, evidence, and honest investigation, and the other based on myth, superstition, and legend, but I applaud her youthful curiosity. I assume she grew out of the latter, right?

Science would come to dominate my adolescent and early teenage years: papier mache cigarettes highlighting the most dangerous carcinogens, science fair projects on the virtues of chocolate consumption during menstruation; lamb lung and eye dissections, color coded notes, litmus tests on pretty papers, and disturbingly thorough study guides for five-question quizzes.
Again, this is cool. I think we're good on the bona fides now - you can start constructing your argument whenever you're ready.

My faith, too, remained operational in my day-to-day life: longer conversations with my late grandfather
Sorry to interrupt, but these weren't conversations. This was you talking to yourself.

and all 30 Ramadan fasts, albeit with begrudging pre-dawn prayers. I attended Qur’anic recitation classes where I could not, for the life of me, recite anything that was not in English. I still read and listened to the stories of the prophets, with perhaps a greater sense of historical wonder and on occasion I would perform some of the daily prayers. Unsupervised access to the internet also led to the inevitable debates in Yahoo chat rooms about how Islam did not subjugate me as a woman.
It doesn't?

At the age of 16, I was busting out Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad to shut up internet dwellers like Crusade563 and PopSmurf1967.
Take that, PopSmurf1967!

It never once occurred to me during those years, and later, that there could be any sort of a conflict between my faith and science; to me both were part of the same things: This universe and my existence within it.
Therein lies the entire problem with this article, and with Saeed's entire approach to science and religion. Frankly, this should have occurred to her. It should have occurred to her over and over again, in bold red giant-font-sized mental print, that these two spheres of thought stood in direct opposition to one another. Dawkins and others who refuse to take accomodationist positions are correct: science and religion are in conflict. At best, religion adds a superfluous extra layer to the useful interrogations of the real world that science offers; at its worst it contradicts them directly and encourages its adherents to choose the "revealed" "truth" instead of the available facts and evidence gained through the Scientific Method. If Saeed did not see that these magesteria were in conflict, she simply didn't think about it hard enough or, more likely, lacked incentive to. After all, if both of her portals were near and dear to her, she's not going to push very hard to find conflicts between them, and indeed she has not, choosing to ignore those conflicts and lash out at those who point them out.

And yet, here we are today being told that the two are irreconcilable; that religion begets an anti-science crusade and science pushes anti-religion valor. When did this become the only conversation on religion and science that we’re allowed to have?
Have whatever conversation you like - this is the one that treats the two sides the way they actually are. The happy coexistence of scientific and religious thought in Saeed's mind, and their apparent friendliness, is made possible through the remarkable (though often regrettable) ability of human minds to compartmentalize. It's why so many people who are incisive critical thinkers in their daily lives can abandon that trait when they go to church on Sunday, and it's why Saeed's mind has no problem with these two viewpoints occupying space in it.

This current discourse that pits faith and science against one another like Nero’s lions versus Christians — inappropriate analogy intended — borrows directly from the conflation of all religious traditions with the history and experience of Euro-American Christianity, specifically of the evangelical variety.
I conflate them all in that they are all equally unsupported by fact, and all extremely unlikely to contain any truth about the natural world whatsoever. Evangelical, non-evangelical, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, whatever - they all make ridiculous claims about the world without a shred of evidence to back them up, and as such place themselves in direct opposition to scientific modes of inquiry. This doesn't have to be a difficult thing to understand, and we don't need to resort to claims of Eurocentrism or Americentrism (?) to discuss why. But, Saeed has an axe to grind, so we have to go down that path.

In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. Astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, alchemists, surgeons, psychologists, geographers, logicians, mathematicians– amongst so many others – would often function as theologians, saints, spiritual masters, jurists and poets as much as they would as scientists. Indeed, a quick survey of some of the most well known Muslim intellectuals of the past 1,400 years illustrates their masterful polymathy, their ability to reach across fields of expertise without blinking at any supposed “dissonance.”
Presumably, we are supposed to play along with this line of discussion and act as if this vibrancy is still the case today, that Islam and its scholars are contributing anything to modern science anymore. Sorry, Sana, can't do it. Google "Islamic Science" and the first hit is, tellingly, the Wikipedia article "Science in the medieval Islamic world," because that's when Islamic science was, like, a thing. And it really was (even the alchemists Saeed proudly claims among her roster of scientists). The last 600 years, though? Not so much, and it's disingenuous of Saeed to act like the Islamic world has this amazing 1 400-year-long unbroken tradition of scientific thought.

And, of course, this is not something exclusive to Islam; across the religious terrain we can find countless polymaths who delved into the worlds of God and science.
It's been pointed out before that the apparent religiosity of great scientists is mostly a statistical inevitability, a product of humans having been overwhelmingly religious throughout the years. It's certainly not the result of religious traditions supporting free inquiry, I can tell you that much. It's revealing that in today's modern societies, like America, where atheism still has a stigma but not a potentially deadly one, the great majority of scientists are nonbelievers even though a high proportion of the overall population professes religious faith. Those polymaths achieved what they did despite religion, not because of it.

Despite the history of the intellectual output of, well, the whole rest of the world, contemporary discussions in this country on the relationship between science and religion take religion to consist solely, again, of Euro-American Evangelical Christianity.
I'm not going to get into a jingoistic conversation about how much Europeans and Americans have contributed to the world's scientific and intellectual output since the Enlightenment. I will say that her complaint about this discussion in the US taking place mostly in the realm of Christianity is ridiculous. Look, the overwhelming majority of people here are Christians - doesn't it make sense for that to be the most common starting point for these kinds of conversations, just for reasons of pragmatism? Maybe she feels left out, or whatever, but this is by far the most logical jumping-off point for conversations about science and religion in America. This is pretty much the same as people who bitch about NBC covering the USA too much in the Olympics, even though we make the finals in pretty much everything and NBC is a fucking American TV network.

Thus “religious perspectives on human origins” are not really all that encompassing. Muslims, for instance, do not believe in Christian creationism and, actually, have differences on the nature of human origin.
They're both wrong!

The Muslim creationism movement,
[sigh]

headed by Turkish author and creationist activist Adnan Oktar (known popularly by the pseudonym Harun Yahya), is actually relatively recent and borrows much from Christian creationism – including even directly copied passages and arguments from anti-evolution Christian literature.
[falls asleep]

The absence of a centralized religious clergy and authority in Sunni Islam allows for individual and scholarly theological negotiation – meaning that there is not, necessarily, a “right” answer embedded in Divine Truth to social and political questions.
Sunni Islam: it's whatever you want it to be!

Some of the most influential and fundamental Islamic legal texts are filled with arguments and counter-arguments which all come from the same source (divine revelation), just different approaches to it.
At risk of sounding like an unsophisticated religious scholar, this seems to me like a really good reason to abandon the whole religious enterprise and start using reason and logic instead. I mean, as long as we're just making shit up and arguing about vague texts written centuries and centuries ago, why don't we just discard it altogether?

In other words: There’s plenty of wiggle room and then some. On anything that is not established as theological Truth (e.g. God’s existence, the finality of Prophethood, pillars and articles of faith), there is ample room for examination, debate and disagreement, because it does not undercut the fabric of faith itself.
That fabric seems pretty thin, the way Saeed describes it. I might also point out that many of her co-religionists do not seem to share this flexibility when it comes to divine interpretation. They seem pretty damned sure about certain things.

Muslims, generally, accept evolution as a fundamental part of the natural process; they differ, however, on human evolution – specifically the idea that humans and apes share an ancestor in common.
Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. If they don't accept that humans and apes share a common ancestor, then they don't accept evolution, and that's that. You're entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.

In the 13th century, Shi’i Persian polymath Nasir al-din al-Tusi discussed biological evolution in his book “Akhlaq-i-Nasri” (Nasirean Ethics). While al-Tusi’s theory of evolution differs from the one put forward by Charles Darwin 600 years later and the theory of evolution that we have today, he argued that the elemental source of all living things was one.
Yeah ... that's just not as good as what Darwin wrote. Sorry.

From this single elemental source came four attributes of nature: water, air, soil and fire – all of which would evolve into different living species through hereditary variability.
Worth pointing out that this is totally wrong.

Hierarchy would emerge through differences in learning how to adapt and survive.
Not really.

Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate (how they emerge from the same source and work in tandem with one another) objects is stunning in its observational precision as well as its fusion with theistic considerations. Yet it is, at best, unacknowledged today in the Euro-centric conversation on religion and science. Why?
Because it's pretty much all wrong?

My point here in this conversation about religion and science’s falsely created incommensurability isn’t about the existence of God
It should be. Positing the existence of a god is inherently anti-scientific. Run any god through the Scientific Method once or twice and it vanishes.

– I would like to think that ultimately there is space for belief and disbelief.
This is a revealing comment - Saeed would like to think this. That's characteristic of the wishful thinking that characterizes religious belief. Many of us would like to believe that we'll live forever, that we can talk to our dead ancestors, that we can escape these Earthly constraints someday. But we can't. It's made up. There's space for belief and disbelief, yes, but not if we want to be logically consistent.

I would like to also believe, however, that the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science;
Wow, we really kicked things up a notch here. We're not even having a conversation anymore - this is just Saeed working out her issues in the digital pages of Salon.

Look, lady, criticizing bad ideas is not bigotry. Championing reason and logic over arguments from the ancients is not self-righteous. And science is not sanctimonious - it's just by far the most successful system ever devised for exploring the world. Throwing "bigotry" in here is ugly and stupid, and undercuts any credibility she might have had left after the rest of this piece of shit article. I fucking hate being called a "bigot" for pointing out that certain ideas - ideas thoroughly debunked and contradicted by mountains of evidence - are in conflict with rational modes of thought. God damnit I'm mad now, let's finish this.

a claim that makes science the proudly held property of the Euro-American civilization and experience.
Let's be honest here - that's where science has, by far, flourished the most over the past 500 years. I'd love for other civilizations and experiences to join the party, and some have, but the majority of modern science stems from the Euro-American tradition.

Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris,
STOP PROJECTING RELIGIOUS ICONOGRAPHY ONTO US. So annoying. We're not the ones with holy trinities and divine texts.

New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay.
Hey, this boring argument again.

In particular, these authors and their posse of followers have – as Nathan Lean characterized it in this publication back in March of last year – taken a particular penchant for “flirting with Islamophobia.”
If "Islamophobia" means "criticizing bad ideas that have had a deleterious effect on humanity for centuries," then yes. But the term is clearly used here to imply bigotry and racism, which is stupid and wrong.

Again, pointing out the flaws and negative consequences of bad ideas is not bigotry. Offering blanket criticisms of entire ethnic groups, like, I dunno, Europeans and Americans, though - one could make a decent argument that such behavior qualifies.

Instead of engaging with Islamic theology, New Atheists – the most prominent figurehead being Richard Dawkins – are more interested in ridiculing Muslims and Islam by employing the use of the same tired, racist talking points and images that situate Muslims in need of ‘enlightenment’ – or, salvation.
They aren't racist. Ugh, so hard to be restrained. This article got real infuriating, real fast. Anyone who believes the made-up beliefs of Islam - or Christianity, which Dawkins inveighs against as well - does need enlightenment. Is it racist when Dawkins points out the illogic of white, European Christians? No, it's only racist when someone like Sana Saeed needs an inflammatory smokescreen to hide behind while constructing terrible arguments. This is simply pathetic. This woman should never try writing again.

The Evangelical Christian Right is a formidable force to be reckoned with in American national politics; there are legitimate fears by believing, non-believing and non-caring Americans that the course of the nation, from women’s rights to education, can and will be significantly set back because of the whims of loud and large group of citizens who refuse to acknowledge certain facts and changing realities and want the lives of all citizens to be subservient to their own will. This segment of the world’s religious topography, however, does not represent Religion or, in particular, Religion’s relationship with science.
Sure it does.

Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything.
It's superstition and it's nonsense, and there's no such thing as elemental glue.

Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.
One last time: you are wrong.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I actually found the ultimate display of proof that Christianity is the only true religion.

A lady wrote into a letter to the editor of a newspaper (unprovoked it seems) that....THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE RELIGION AND IT IS IN FACT CHRISTIANITY. Paraphrasing of course. Justification you ask? Christ's tomb was empty. Buddha's, Confucious's, Mohammed's, Krishna's, etc...were not. Proving, without a doubt, that only Christ rose into heaven.

There ya go. That is all I need. It is safe now. Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny no doubt will be her next project.