Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Apology or stealth attack?

I’m in two minds about this.  Karl Giberson has long considered himself as an enemy of the New Atheists and recently wrote this rather patronising piece where he accused us of not “playing well with others”.  He – falsely – accuses Jerry Coyne of “having raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and me over the coals in The New Republic for our claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science.”  In fact, Coyne was very polite and civil in his post.  He attacked their ideas, but he did not attack the people.  In contrast, Giberson attacks the New Atheist on a personal level, calling us “intellectual bullies” and, famously, “profoundly un-American”.  Naturally, I’m not concerned with being labelled un-American, but the sentiment is not a pleasant one, even for non-Americans: he’s talking about the concepts of freedom and liberty and a suggestion that I might oppose either is offensive.  He also tosses around some strawmen with some abandon:

What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?

Well, no sort of atheist, as far as I’m aware.  I’ve never heard anyone say this.  We know perfectly well that some good scientists are religious.  It doesn’t particularly surprise us and it doesn’t really concern us unless their religion directly conflicts with their science, at which point they would presumably become a bad scientist.  For example, if a geologist were to claim that the earth is 6000 years old, then she would not be a good geologist.  What we New Atheists actually say is that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible, not that good scientists can’t be religious.  This is rather different.  Religion and science are incompatible because they make contradictory claims about the world.  There’s nothing to stop anyone – scientist or otherwise – of embracing contradictions and it’s clear that some do.

The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.  Giberson ends with the patronising sentiment that “The New Atheists need to learn how to play in the sandbox.”  This is just another demand that we we ‘respect’ the religious for no better reason than their beliefs in silly things.  And by ‘respect’ Giberson means that we shouldn’t laugh at those beliefs or pick them apart with our pesky logic.

So it was a surprise when Giberson followed that piece with this one, where he apologises for Lying for Jesus. On the face of it, it’s an astonishing revelation:

Dennett has accused me of being a "faith fibber," a term applied to religious critics of the New Atheists who, in their enthusiasm to vilify non-believers, distort the truth. This is an ironic charge, since religious believers generally claim to be speaking from a higher moral ground. "Faith fibbers like Giberson," Dennett wrote, "are polluting the media with their misrepresentations of the New Atheism."

Dennett's charge, and a subsequent civil email exchange with him, got me thinking about the discourse on religious belief that currently heats up the blogosphere. As I reflect on the various exchanges, I see no evidence that religious believers are standing on any higher moral ground. The vilification of the New Atheists is accompanied by caricature, hyperbole, misprepresentation and a distinct lack of charity.

He gives some examples of Lying for Jesus including one of his own: comparing Richard Dawkins to a "museum piece that becomes ever more interesting because, while everything else moves forward and changes, it remains the same."

He follows with admissions of doing similar things to Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and “countless others.”

He closes with an edifying remark: “Confession, they say, is good for the soul. So Dan [Dennet], I was a faith fibber. Sorry about that.”

On the face of it, this seems like a perfectly sincere apology and my first instinct was to be impressed.  It’s hard for any of us to abandon a position we’ve invested heavily with, let alone to admit we were wrong for investing so much in the first place.  However, there’s something about this passage that makes it hard to accept as an apology:

But back to my point: Christians have rules, which presumably are still in force on the Internet: One of the best known is "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you." And yet the rule that many Christians seem to follow when they lay their hands on their keyboards is quite different: "Ridicule your enemies; misrepresent those who hate you; caricature and malign those that mistreat you."

Wait a cotton-picking minute…. pray for those who mistreat you?  The New Atheists haven’t mistreated Giberson or – for the most part – religious people in general.  We have mocked their beliefs and some of their actions that are based on them.  We’ve argued and cajoled.  We’ve pointed out flaws and silliness.  We’ve refused to respect the frequent demands that we ‘respect’ religion by not laughing at it, loudly and in public.  It seems that Giberson feels this constitutes mistreatment.  Again, we have the implicit assumption that religion must get special treatment that nothing else does.  Even those of us who don’t believe that religion deserves special treatment are expected to afford it anyway.  We’re expected to shut up and smile when you say nonsensical things.  If we do disagree, we’re expected to adopt a respectful tone and bend over backwards to appease you.  Refusal to bow to these crazy and frankly offensive demands is not mistreatment.

Think also about “Love your enemies”.  We are not your enemies, Giberson.  We don’t agree with your beliefs, but we don’t mind that you hold them.  We didn’t declare you an enemy, you declared us your enemy because we lack that all-important unearned respect for your crazy beliefs.

“Do good to those who hate you.”  We don’t hate you, Giberson.  We ridicule your religious beliefs and we roll our eyes at your accomodationist stance, but we bear little or no ill will towards you personally, even though you’ve insulted us (and even though you later admitted that those insults were unfair). I don’t think New Atheists in general even hate your views or the fact that you hold them.  Such a thing would be rather perverse.

There’s a danger I’m being churlish here.  Perhaps Giberson has simply been carried away by his own rhetoric.  He might just have meant that his faith fibbing was hardly in keeping with what he feels the Christian message to be.  But I can’t help but feel that it is Giberson and his like who have created the conflict with their demands that we respect their views whether we want to or not.  Is his apology an attempt to regain the moral high ground?  By appearing to apologise for some mild name-calling, is he really just trying to show that he has risen above the rude and sneering tone of we New Atheists?  I’m reserving judgement for now.


  1. Geez. I was just quoting the Bible verse that seemed most relevant.

  2. To my chagrin, I didn't realise that this was a Bible verse. I probably should have done since I have a reasonable familiarity with that organ due to a mis-spent youth. Not familiar enough, must try harder.

    So perhaps (assuming you are really Giberson) you were sincere in your apology. I'd like to think you were and I had no reason to doubt it other than that sentence, which you've now pointed out is a quote from the Bible.

    However, I'm not convinced this changes anything. Do you stand by what the verse says or don't you? Does it apply to your (possibly former) emnity with New Atheists or doesn't it?

    Or were you just using it as an illustration? You aren't being carried away with your own rhetoric as I wondered, but perhaps you are carried away with the Bible's rhetoric. I'm not sure I see the difference. Or you might not have been carried away with either, which presumably means you endorse the sentiments in the quote.

    I'm happy to accept that I'm wrong, if I'm wrong, and that your apology is sincere, if it is sincere. I never claimed it wasn't, I just wondered about it.