Is Atheism Just Another Fundamentalism?

Posted by admin on August 26, 2007
Aug 262007

That’s the title of a debate on 22 August at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Climate-Resistace editor Stuart was one of the speakers, with John Gray, Mark Vernon and Ron Ferguson. His talk went a bit like this…

Just so you know… I don’t believe in God. And I think science is a Good Thing. Science is one of the many fine products of the Enlightenment. It is the best way of exploring the material Universe we have. And it has transformed human lives for the better.

So I am not about to say that Atheism in general, and science in particular, is just another fundamentalism.

I will say, however, that certain atheists and scientists are becoming increasingly fundamentalist.

More specifically, I’d argue that while conventional religions are declining – at least in Europe – science is increasingly being used by certain groups – including sections of the scientific establishment itself – who are seeking to impose their own morality on the rest of us and to justify intolerance towards dissenting voices. And that this flies in the face of the very Enlightenment values from which science arose. And that this serves to close down healthy scientific and political debate, and, ultimately, hampers human progress.

I’d suggest that we have seen some fine examples of secular fundamentalism in the news this week. Anyone who has seen any coverage of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow will have seen the huge banner at the head of the procession: “We are armed … only with peer reviewed science.”

Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever put it more explicitly: “It’s not us saying you need to stop flying; it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.”

Of course there are no scientific studies that show that Heathrow shouldn’t have a third runway, like there are no scientific studies proving we should fly less. That is not the realm of science. What the science does tell us is that the world has been warming up recently and that anthropogenic carbon dioxide probably has quite a lot to do with it. It’s up to society at large to work out what to do with that information.

But the sort of talismanic use of scientific knowledge displayed at Climate Camp is fuelled, at least in part, by the scientific establishment itself.

For a start, the Royal Society – the UK’s premier scientific institution – has even started enshrining pre-Enlightenment values into its constitution. Its motto Nullius in verba has been translated since 1663 as “on the word of nobody”. The motto distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities. It stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. In the 21st century, however, the Royal Society has dropped that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, it is best translated as “Respect the facts”.

And which facts are we supposed to respect? Well, the Royal Society’s, of course. Hence the Society’s press release – headed “The Truth About Global Warming” – that accompanied their publication of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. Since when has a single scientific paper constituted “the truth”? The Royal Society is harking back to the days of scholasticism and its figures of authority.

This can only serve to close down the scientific debate, even though the scientific process is absolutely dependent on that debate, scrutiny of ideas, scepticism and argument to establish robust material truths.

Meanwhile, those who go against the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change – which is itself a very slippery entity to pin down – are labelled deniers or heretics, who are, we are told by the Royal Society, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil.

But some scientific fundamentalists go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain-old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded, maladapted or ill.

In an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics – this is less Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

OK, so these are extreme examples. But they aren’t really so different from more mainstream efforts to describe complex human behaviour in simplistic biological terms.

It’s hard to talk about scientific fundamentalism without mentioning Richard Dawkins. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science exemplifies such efforts. To quote: “We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy?”

The assumption here is that humans are biologically predisposed to the irrational – although only some human beings of course – the ones who are wrong.

Another tack that Dawkins takes is to write off religion and unreason to mind-controlling memes, hypothetical units of cultural selection that supposedly compete for space in the habitat of human brains. This posits religion and unreason as mind viruses. And the memes meme has caught on to an extent that is disproportionate to its scientific status. It has to date proven un-testable, and has zero explanatory power. This is not science; it is humanities-envy.

Again, that is contrary to the Enlightenment values of human agency and rationality. Because if ‘bad’ ideas are the products of parasitic memes, then why not the ‘good’ ones? The label of science is being used to escape the need to confront ideas politically. It betrays an unwarranted faith not in God, but in Nature, determinism, and in humans as mechanistic biological entities rather than social, rational ones who are both the products and the architects of civilisation.

Scientists have traditionally offered us a better, brighter future. And science has delivered. Now it seems that the best it can do is hope to make that future a less terrible one.

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society tells us in his book Our Final Century that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists can barely model the climate yet, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is President of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Give me a conventionally religious person with a positive vision for how we might go about creating a better future, any day, instead of those secularists who foretell the end of the world, who propound meme theory as an explanation for culture, or those at Climate Camp waving peer-reviewed scientific papers at the TV cameras.

I repeat – atheism is not just another fundamentalism. And nor is science. But, if it is going to continue being the invaluable tool for humanity that it has been since the Enlighte
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ent, it has to be very careful that it doesn’t become one.

Unhappy Campers

Posted by admin on August 20, 2007
Aug 202007

The Climate Camp draws to a close. The result? A vandalised depot, a besieged office block and a day off for its employees, and more than 40 protesters arrested, some of them grumbling about their treatment by the police. (What did they expect?)

But what was this protest really about, apart from a ‘fun’ week of eating lentils, recycling urine, and playing at planet-saving superheroes? All of the UK’s political parties are moving in the way that the protesters want. They are not really at odds with the government, nor the opposition at all. If the most important issue is a 90% cut in CO2 emissions, the Conservative Party intends to see CO2 emissions cut by 80% – wouldn’t it be better for the Climate Camp protesters to swallow their pride and join them, than get arrested or beaten up by the police?

For those of us who think that being able to fly to almost anywhere in the world is something worth celebrating, the Manifesto Club have started a campaign to do just that. They are calling for stories about the life-expanding possibilities that flight creates – something which the miserable 2,000 protesters have forgotten during the last week, while 1.4 million travellers have passed over their heads.

It’s not something that Richard Madeley from Channel 4′s Richard and Judy show has forgotten. Last Friday, the show broke from the safety of the chat-show routine format to host a robust exchange between Richard, Climate Camp protester Tim Lever, Green Party spokesperson Jenny Jones, and Mirror Journalist Kevin O’Sullivan. Richard and O’Sullivan took issue with the protester’s arrogant self-importance, and condescending attitude towards people who just want to go on holiday – a rare sight on British TV, which all too often buys into global warming orthodoxy, and portrays climate change activists as saints.

Is atheism just another fundamentalism?

Posted by admin on August 17, 2007
Aug 172007

Just so you know… I don’t believe in God. And I think science is a Good Thing. Science is one of the many fine products of the Enlightenment. It is the best way of exploring the material Universe we have. And it has transformed human lives for the better.

So I am not about to say that Atheism in general, and science in particular, is just another fundamentalism.

I will say, however, that certain atheists and scientists are becoming increasingly fundamentalist.

More specifically, I’d argue that while conventional religions are declining – at least in Europe – science is increasingly being used by certain groups – including sections of the scientific establishment itself – who are seeking to impose their own morality on the rest of us and to justify intolerance towards dissenting voices. And that this flies in the face of the very Enlightenment values from which science arose. And that this serves to close down healthy scientific and political debate, and, ultimately, hampers human progress.

I’d suggest that we have seen some fine examples of secular fundamentalism in the news this week. Anyone who has seen any coverage of the Climate Camp march along the proposed route of the third runway at Heathrow will have seen the huge banner at the head of the procession: “We are armed … only with peer reviewed science.”

Climate Camp spokesperson Timothy Lever put it more explicitly: “It’s not us saying you need to stop flying; it’s the science that is telling us that we all need to fly less.”

Of course there are no scientific studies that show that Heathrow shouldn’t have a third runway, like there are no scientific studies proving we should fly less. That is not the realm of science. What the science does tell us is that the world has been warming up recently and that anthropogenic carbon dioxide probably has quite a lot to do with it. It’s up to society at large to work out what to do with that information.

But the sort of talismanic use of scientific knowledge displayed at Climate Camp is fuelled, at least in part, by the scientific establishment itself.

For a start, the Royal Society – the UK’s premier scientific institution – has even started enshrining pre-Enlightenment values into its constitution. Its motto Nullius in verba has been translated since 1663 as “on the word of nobody”. The motto distanced science from the scholasticism of the ancient universities. It stressed that scientific knowledge is based on appeals to experimental evidence rather than to the word of authority figures. In the 21st century, however, the Royal Society has dropped that translation. According to Robert May, former president of the Royal Society and ex-chief scientific advisor to the UK government, it is best translated as “Respect the facts”.

And which facts are we supposed to respect? Well, the Royal Society’s, of course. Hence the Society’s press release – headed “The Truth About Global Warming” – that accompanied their publication of a paper countering the claims made by the infamous TV programme The Great Global Warming Swindle that recent variations in global temperature are better explained by solar activity than by CO2 emissions. Since when has a single scientific paper constituted “the truth”? The Royal Society is harking back to the days of scholasticism and its figures of authority.

This can only serve to close down the scientific debate, even though the scientific process is absolutely dependent on that debate, scrutiny of ideas, scepticism and argument to establish robust material truths.

Meanwhile, those who go against the ‘scientific consensus’ on climate change – which is itself a very slippery entity to pin down – are labelled deniers or heretics, who are, we are told by the Royal Society, the work of the Devil, or at least his modern, secular equivalent, ExxonMobil.

But some scientific fundamentalists go further than that. Dissenters, they say, are not just corrupt, or disrespectful of the facts, or plain-old-fashioned wrong – they are deluded, maladapted or ill.

In an editorial earlier this year in the journal Medscape General Medicine, Professor of Psychiatry Steven Moffic proposed the use of aversion therapy involving “distressing images of the projected ravages of global warming” to encourage responsible environmental behaviour among sceptics – this is less Clockwork Orange and more Clockwork Green.

Meanwhile, German psychologist Andreas Ernst has developed a theory that people who fail to act to reduce their CO2 emissions are similar psychologically to rats.

OK, so these are extreme examples. But they aren’t really so different from more mainstream efforts to describe complex human behaviour in simplistic biological terms.

It’s hard to talk about scientific fundamentalism without mentioning Richard Dawkins. And the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science exemplifies such efforts. To quote: “We intend to sponsor research into the psychological basis of unreason. What is it about human psychology that predisposes people to find astrology more appealing than astronomy?”

The assumption here is that humans are biologically predisposed to the irrational – although only some human beings of course – the ones who are wrong.

Another tack that Dawkins takes is to write off religion and unreason to mind-controlling memes, hypothetical units of cultural selection that supposedly compete for space in the habitat of human brains. This posits religion and unreason as mind viruses. And the memes meme has caught on to an extent that is disproportionate to its scientific status. It has to date proven un-testable, and has zero explanatory power. This is not science; it is humanities-envy.

Again, that is contrary to the Enlightenment values of human agency and rationality. Because if ‘bad’ ideas are the products of parasitic memes, then why not the ‘good’ ones? The label of science is being used to escape the need to confront ideas politically. It betrays an unwarranted faith not in God, but in Nature, determinism, and in humans as mechanistic biological entities rather than social, rational ones who are both the products and the architects of civilisation.

Scientists have traditionally offered us a better, brighter future. And science has delivered. Now it seems that the best it can do is hope to make that future a less terrible one.

Martin Rees, current President of the Royal Society tells us in his book Our Final Century that humankind has a 50/50 chance of surviving the 21st century. That judgement has nothing to do with science – scientists can barely model the climate yet, let alone the future course of human history. And yet it has scientific authority on the basis that its author is President of the Royal Society. And the Royal Society – as they themselves tell us – are the custodians of the facts.

Give me a conventionally religious person with a positive vision for how we might go about creating a better future, any day, instead of those secularists who foretell the end of the world, who propound meme theory as an explanation for culture, or those at Climate Camp waving peer-reviewed scientific papers at the TV cameras.

I repeat – atheism is not just another fundamentalism. And nor is science. But, if it is going to continue being the invaluable tool for humanity that it has been since the Enlightenment, it has to be very careful that it doesn’t become one.

Runaway Climate Runway Capers

Posted by admin on August 14, 2007
Aug 142007

The “Camp for Climate Action” has opened near Heathrow Airport. Announcing the event, and commenting on some of the legal problems the organisers have faced, the campaign website said:

Unfortunately the police have stopped and searched some people coming to the camp, under anti-terrorism legislation. This is clearly an abuse of this legislation as the Climate Camp is organised openly, and we are clearly not a terrorist group!

We’d agree that anti-terror legislation is the wrong sledgehammer for this bunch of nuts, and however much we disagree with Climate Camp, their right to protest is worth defending.

However, Climate Camp are not against playing the terror card to further their own political messages:

The science is clear: global emissions of carbon dioxide must go into rapid decline within the next decade. If they don’t, humanity faces a bleak future.

The science says nothing of the sort, of course. The science just says that the world has been getting warmer recently and that that is probably largely due to CO2 emissions. And their political message?

To achieve this in a way that respects global justice means 90% cuts in developed countries like the UK

Hey, that’s a radical 10% more than the UK Conservative Party is calling for. (Perhaps the extra 10% covers the ‘global justice’ bit.)

As we say in our introduction:

15. Widespread disengagement from politics means that politicians pander only to the loudest, shrillest voices.

16. Science is increasingly expected to provide moral certainty in morally uncertain times.

17. Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics.

Success in politics today is achieved through painting a darker vision of the future than one’s adversaries. A cursory look at the environmental movement, and those behind the War on Terror, for example, would give the impression that the two were politically opposed, but a closer inspection reveals that they are cut from the same cloth. Take away the terror, and there is nothing left; no positive view of what society can achieve, no sense of shared purpose, no vision of a better life – just a vague promise of ‘security’.

Fear-mongers need media coverage. But only the right sort of media coverage. Previous Climate Camp actions have banned the media from their sites. Last year, the Camp was organised around the aim of shutting down the Drax power plant, and causing widespread inconvenience so that we all heard about the stunt, and “got the message”, but it doesn’t want the media to intrude on the precious lives of its own activists. This year, that policy received criticism from journalists:

Camp for Climate Action has stated that media will only be permitted on site between 11 am and noon; that they must be accompanied and identified with a flag; must stick with the tour; that some journalists will not be allowed on site and that a “black-list” will be operated. Sympathetic journalists will be given longer access.

After this protest from the NUJ, the campaign’s website announced that it had changed its policy, and explained:

This policy is a compromise that attempts to provide reasonable media access whilst respecting camp participants’ right to privacy. Past protest events similar to the camp have had a no-access policy, and last year’s media hour, which worked well for all concerned, was, we thought, a major step forward. The proposed addition this year of longer access for some journalists was intended as yet another step toward fuller media access and more in-depth coverage. However, this year’s experiment in providing greater access has not worked for anyone. The media team does not have enough people to do the job, journalists saw a tiered system as unfair and many camp participants have declined the offer of living for a few days with the press. So, we have revised and simplified the policy, with fairness, equal treatment of all, and ensuring that we have the capacity to deliver what we offer as our key principles.

Climate Camp is so anxious about its image that its organisers have cordoned off those who might be on-site, but off-message – it doesn’t even trust its own membership to speak freely. It’s a funny kind of protest movement that has to ban the media from observing it on the squatted land it occupies. The pretence of ‘protecting privacy’ is as spurious as the overzealous application of anti-terrorism legislation by the police. In excluding the critical eye of the media, and favouring those who would paint the protest in a good light, it reveals exactly the same Orwellian tendencies it claims to be the victim of. It wants a public image on its own terms, to pull a loud, irritating, inconvenient stunt, and then run away to hide behind it’s ‘rights’ when challenged. ‘Postman’s knock’ politics. A big noise, but no message.

Environmental Movement Touches the Cloth

Posted by admin on August 9, 2007
Aug 092007

We’ve pointed out before the compatibility of environmentalism and evangelical Christianity. So no great surprise here.

Her conversion to environmentalism is the result of a years-long international campaign by British bishops and leaders of major U.S. environmental groups to bridge a long-standing divide between global-warming activists and American evangelicals. The emerging rapprochement is regarded by some as a sign of how dramatically U.S. public sentiment has shifted on global warming in recent years. It also has begun, in modest ways, to transform how the two groups define themselves. 

Neither is it surprising to see Sir John T. Houghton – ‘British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical’ (and erstwhile scientific co-chair of the IPCC) – popping up in there. After all, this is the man whose faith in the Kyoto Protocol is based on everything but scientific evidence that it might actually do any good, as he demonstrated at the 2002 Edinburgh Science Festival with his concluding slide summarising why he thought Kyoto would work:

1. The commitment of scientists.
2. The availability of the necessary technology.
3. God’s commitment to His creation. 

Or, as the article in Washington Post explains,

“The United States is absolutely key to the question of climate change,” said Sir John T. Houghton, a British atmospheric scientist and an evangelical. For nearly a decade, Houghton — who said he has long sought to “put my science alongside my faith” — worked to convince Hunter and other American evangelical leaders that their shared beliefs should compel them to focus on global warming. 

Floods, plagues, pestillence, divine vengence, judgement, guilt. It’s not a huge leap from fire and brimstone to environmentalism.

Nobody Expects the Cimate Inquisition

Posted by admin on August 8, 2007
Aug 082007

‘Sustainable’ blogging (geddit?) is a bit difficult when even the green news-makers have jetted off to catch some sun… This isn’t climate change, it’s silly season, and there’s not much news around.

We have reported before how the environmentalist’s view of the future shares something with the Taliban. Now we bring you… calls for a climate inquisition. Jamais Casico, futurologist and founder of http://www.worldchanging.com/ isn’t the first to call for trials for global warming ‘denialists’. Gristmill’s David Roberts can claim that honour. But that doesn’t make Casico’s comments any less shocking.

Speaking/fantasising about the possibility of a second event such as Hurricane Katrina to hit the USA, regardless of whether or not global warming is the cause (and it seems, regardless of whether or not humans caused it), Casico writes on his blog,

For the global warming denial industry, congressional hearings will be the least of their worries. In a post-Katrina II America, aware that some of the largest companies and the most influential think tanks worked hard to make sure that attempts to mitigate climate disruption were stopped, the perpetrators of this crime may face far greater trials. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch. 

The ‘crime’, it seems is not that corporates and individuals are responsible for the material act of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, but that daring to voice their opinion influences people to continue to consume, which causes CO2 to be emitted. Casico can charge ‘the deniers’ with nothing more than thought crime. Casico cannot comprehend that anyone might have a reasonable objection to either climate science or political orthodoxies, and so speculates as to what is driving ‘denial’:

The companies and think tanks involved in the denialist effort come across not as defenders of their beliefs and industry, but as people willing to say and do anything to protect the accumulation of short-term profits, the future (and the world) be damned. 

Aside from the sinister fantasy of lynch mobs rounding up his political enemies, which Casico seems to be indulging in, what this commentary reveals is another case of the escalation of rhetoric against ‘sceptics and deniers’ that is designed to close down debate and claim the moral high ground. This time, not by making equivalents of sceptics and holocaust deniers, but by equally hollow appeals to victimhood on behalf of people who don’t even exist yet, whose lives have been ruined by something that hasn’t happened yet.

If a dark, nasty future didn’t exist, Jamais Casico would have to invent it – which is precisely what he’s doing. It is only by fantasising about the future that Casico can find people guilty in the present. And for all the complaints about corporates gambling with the future, he has carved himself quite a profitable niche with his bleak visions. Yet this contemporary Nostradamus has a lmited imagination; all he can think of is reasons to avoid the future, not ways of making it better.

Scientific Consenseless

Posted by admin on August 1, 2007
Aug 012007

Writing in New Scientist this week, James Hansen tells us that the scientific community (you know, those ‘thousands’ of specialised scientists at the IPCC) are wrong, and have massively underestimated the extent of polar ice melting as a consequence of anthropogenic global warming.

I find it almost inconceivable that “business as usual” climate change will not result in a rise in sea level measured in metres within a century. Am I the only scientist who thinks so?

Apparently he is. And the reason? All the other scientists are being too cautious.

I believe there is pressure on scientists to be conservative. Caveats are essential to science. They are born in scepticism, and scepticism is at the heart of the scientific method and discovery. However, in a case such as ice sheet instability and sea level rise, excessive caution also holds dangers. “Scientific reticence” can hinder communication with the public about the dangers of global warming. We may rue reticence if it means no action is taken until it is too late to prevent future disasters.

Scientists, in other words, should adhere to the scientific method except when it’s politically inconvenient. (And only, presumably, when it’s Hansen’s politics that are inconvenienced.)

Most scientists who go against ‘the consensus’ get labelled as mavericks, sceptics or denialists. New Scientist covers their work only to show it up as scientifically flawed, politically motivated, the result of industry-funded misinformation and bad moral fibre, just as they did when they reported on Willie Soon’s paper challenging received wisdom that climate change is imperiling polar bears. Or just as Michael Le Page did in May this year when he wrote:

Indeed, those campaigning for action to prevent further warming have had to battle against huge vested interests, including the fossil-fuel industry and its many political allies. Many of the individuals and organisations challenging the idea of global warming have received funding from companies such as ExxonMobil.

Hansen, however, gets a 3000-word feature all to himself. Even though it doesn’t take much digging around to find that Hansen himself has more than his fair share of dodgy financial interests.

The consensus, it seems, may only be challenged from one direction.

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