Vox Day, in the closing section of Chapter 2 of The Irrational Atheist, wraps up the main point of the chapter by creating a new myth for his followers to believe in.
I suggest that the New Atheists are not actually particularly interested in defending science in itself, but are deeply afraid of science reaching a friendly rapprochement with religion.
It’s a myth that’s bound to appeal to a certain group of readers. Like most myths, it sounds arguably plausible (at least if you’ve got the right preconceptions), and it only requires the most circumstantial of “evidence” for believers to ratify it. And, more importantly, it gives the believer an excuse to reject the New Atheists out-of-hand, without even needing to read their arguments. Why, they’re not defending science at all! They’re only trying to create tension between science and religion! Those bastards!
Of course, when Vox somewhat ironically entitled this section “Resurrecting the myth,” he wasn’t referring to his own myth, but to some alleged post-Enlightenment myth.
Since we have already established that the opposition of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris to religion does not stem from any rational fears for science as a body of knowledge, a profession, or a process, and that there was no significant historical enmity between science and religion, it is apparent that the New Atheists’ stated desire to destroy religion must stem from another source. And given the way in which their opposition to religion so closely resembles that of their rationalist antecedents, it is reasonable to suggest that they are not so much interested in defending science as they are in advocating an outdated, nineteenth-century meme.
This may be a foretaste of chapters to come. What Vox has been doing up to now is taking a selective approach to his subject, and giving a selective interpretation to the data in order to reach his desired conclusions. In other words, he’s molding a selection of interpretations of the facts into a strawman. Dawkins, Dennett and Harris are put in the position of advocating the view that religion and science have always been openly hostile to one another, each seeking the other’s eradication. Obviously, that’s not a correct view, but neither does it capture the essence of the conflict between science and religion.
The conflict between science and religion is not over which has a right to exist, since (as Vox points out) there have always been those willing to uphold both as valuable resources. The conflict is over which should take precedence in cases of disagreement. Which has higher authority, mysticism or reason? subjectivity or objectivity? revelation or verification? In the Middle Ages, mysticism, subjectivism and revelation were seen as being superior sources of information, yet then as now the scientific alternatives of reason, objectivity and verification are the approaches that have produced practical, working results.
The Middle Ages, thus, did produce some notable technical advancements, despite the supremacy of mystical/revelational authority (just as Iran and other theocratic states are making technological advances in order to achieve their real-world goals). The progress that was made while the Church was in its ascendancy, however, is small potatoes compared to the advances made once cultural confidence in mysticism was supplanted by a greater trust in reason, objectivity, and scientific methodology.
The careful historian, therefore, will seek to understand the tensions between religion and science not in trivial terms of grossly overt warfare, but in terms of how the disputes were mediated between the two when they arose. Is it true that the Church did, in fact, assert its authority to override scientific findings for theological reasons, or not? And are Christians trying to assert the same authority today? These are the questions we need to look at.
Meanwhile, Vox has a new myth to build: the myth of the unscientific scientists, ignoring science and trying to promote an anti-religious agenda rooted in a mere “meme.”
But even if Dawkins can’t quite make up his mind as to the proper way to categorize the beliefs of the man he rightly describes as “the great encyclopedist of the Enlightenment,” there can be no question of his allegiance to Diderot’s ideals, as in 2006 he informed the Sunday Times that he was setting up a charity to “divert donations from the hands of ‘missionaries’ and church-based charities because ‘the enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science.’”
Science, you’ll note, actually comes in fourth, not first as you might have erroneously guessed. Dawkins thus reveals that it is not science in itself that he is defending so vociferously, but rather his Enlightenment ideals.
You see what I mean about needing only the most circumstantial of evidence. Apparently, Vox can’t conceive of saving the best for last, or of reason, truth, and science being equally important, so he needs must infer that each new thing that Dawkins mentions is significantly less important than the one before. And then he leaps to the conclusion that when Dawkins warns us about his top four concerns, what he really means is that only the first thing is really significant, and the other three are inconsequential. He mentioned “enlightenment” first, so that means he is only concerned with his Enlightenment ideals.
It’s not entirely clear what Vox thinks “Enlightenment ideals” are, though he obviously ignores the possibility that they just might include reason, truth, and science. He seems to imply that “Enlightment ideals” have something to do with the French Reign of Terror during and following the French Revolution.
It is not within the scope of this book to consider why many Enlightenment intellectuals were opposed to Christianity in general and the Church in particular, it is enough to simply note that this was the case….
This was particularly true of the French Encyclopédistes, and the influence of their landmark Encyclopédie paved the way for modern rationalism and the French Revolution…
It is important to note Dennett’s distinction between science “and” enlightenment; while the two are allies, they are manifestly not one and the same. And one very much hopes that when Dennett speaks of wishing to restore 200-year-old triumphs, he is not referring to la Terreur.
It will be interesting to read what Vox says about Christianity and the Inquisition. But his main point seems to be that “Enlightenment ideals” are simply a matter of being hostile to Christianity.
Despite how it is commonly portrayed by the New Atheists, the rationalist war on religion cannot properly be described as a war between science and religion; it is more akin to a tug-of-war between rationalists and religionists over the way in which science is to be henceforth used and the purposes to which science is ultimately harnessed.
This, in a nutshell, is Vox’s new myth. There is no conflict between science and religion, there are only religion-hating rationalists unfairly attacking religion and trying to keep religionists from “harnessing” the power of science. They started it, and it’s all their fault.
What gives the lie to Vox’s new myth is the number of times the conflicts have arisen as the result of scientific observations made from within the Church. The problem is not that the Church has been plagued with Church-haters who have attacked it without justification. The data that Vox himself cites as proof of science and religion coexisting is also evidence that the church-science conflicts are not being instigated from without, but have arisen from within, as reason and evidence led to results not sanctioned by the Church.
The prototypical example, of course, is the arrest and trial of Galileo, an incident which Vox “debunks” thusly:
It is usually forgotten, however, that the ban on publication of Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was only nominal and that his Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Relating to Two New Sciences were published without incident in the Christian Netherlands in 1638, five years after the trial.
Apparently, if the Church forbids you to publish something, and then arrests you for having published it, that’s a “nominal” ban only, in much the same way as the US has only “nominal” bans against stealing and drunk driving.
Vox seems oblivious to the notion that there might be anything improper about the Church having thought police with the legal authority to arrest scientists and bring them to trial on charges of publishing findings that had not been sanctioned by the Church. But given his view on the conflict between science and religion, it’s just possible that he sees nothing wrong with that. That’s just science being “harnessed” for the service of the Church, you see. They didn’t burn Galileo at the stake, so no harm done and all’s well &c. &c.
That about wraps up Chapter Two. The Dark Ages were good, the Enlightenment was bad, and the thought police who arrested Galileo are getting a bum rap. Dawkins & Co. are just Enlightenment reactionaries with no interest in science, pursuing an anti-religious agenda just because they don’t like religion. And Vox is just warming up.