Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Framing Atheism v. Framing Science

It's worth noting that Nisbet's latest peevish criticisms (Cf.) represent a fairly significant shift from his professed concern about framing science (the title of his blog) to professed concern about framing atheism. There is a mixing of purposes that deserves to be flushed out.

Nisbet's argument about framing science -- or rather one of them, the one apposite here -- centers on the claim that the likes of PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins imperil the public reception of science by mixing science advocacy with irreligious talk.

His argument about framing atheism defines the problem as something akin to nihilism:

The image of atheism doesn't have to be this way. As I have argued before, if you want to improve the image of atheists you have to step away from being just another shrill voice in the argument culture and focus on building a diverse, inter-connected community, of standing for something, rather than just against something!
Note AOL keyword shrill. Sigh.

Notice that the two arguments don't hang together because PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and numerous other public-facing atheists very much do "stand for something rather than just against something." Nisbet's preferred bêtes noires, PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, stand for science and the scientific outlook, and have devoted their careers and a significant share of their public lives to it. Their enthusiasm for science shines through nearly everything they say or write in public. Likewise, one does not need to probe very deeply to find enthusiasm, passion, and engagement in the public utterances and deeds of Dan Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and other well-known atheists.

When he claims that science is too important to be dragged into "culture war" controversies, Nisbet has something of an argument. I don't think it's a particularly good argument, as I've addressed several times, but it is not completely meritless if you squint hard enough. But the framing atheism argument -- a plaint that atheists have to be about something alongside a studious failure to notice what outspoken atheists are for -- is sheer bad faith.

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