Agnostic Machinery

Just released today is the first of what will hopefully be a series of articles of mine about science and religion on Seed magazine’s online edition. “Agnostic machinery,” it’s called. The idea is this: I went and saw the Bill Maher New Atheist movie Religulous (aided by trusty friend Jake), noticed that the religion biologizers (Andrew Newberg and Dean Hamer) in the film were given short shrift, so I called them up and asked what gives. I enjoyed talking with both of them very much. Turns out, Bill Maher wasn’t happy with what their versions of the latest science is saying about religion.

If Maher had consulted me, I would have suggested some other scientists doing interesting work whose views might be more amenable to his. Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, for instance. Atran is always a riot. I’d like to see what he’d do to Maher.





5 responses to “Agnostic Machinery”

  1. Crap. I never updated my RSS feed and have been missing you for months – although that’s partly because I took the summer off while backpacking from South Africa to Zambia.

    I also saw Bill Maher’s movie. It had a lot of Bill Maher in it. I enjoyed it while watching but sitting a few hours later, I came to detest the movie. His subjects were so absurd (the ex-gay counselor, the miracle guy in the chachka shop, the tourists to the holy land amusement park, the rabbi at halakhah and technology center) that I came to reject *them* as ridiculous instead of their views.

    Of course I’d also like to see someone confront liberal religion, because *that*, after all, was the religion I rejected, not any of the lunatic orthodoxies people discuss. It’s almost like people think, “as long as were not as crazy as the wingnut in the black hat, we’re okay.”

    The movie’s best moment: when the truckers pray for him.

    Anyway, I look forward to catching up on your travels!

  2. Great to hear from you! We have a lot of catching up to do.

    Yeah, what I didn’t get to explore in this piece are my endless conflicted feelings about this sort of new atheist humor. Since I like thinking about religion and I like laughing, laughing about religion, including at it, is pleasurable to me. But on reflection, stuff like this is just so, I don’t know, destructive. The baby with the bathwater, and I’d miss the bathwater too. I really don’t mind having fundamentalists around, so long as they live and let live (or can be forced to). Keeps life interesting.

    And liberals—too many qualifications. It would take the whole movie just to figure out what they actually believe, if anything.

  3. BT

    I enjoyed most of the movie (I have no patience for scriptural literalists, regardless of the tradition), but was also disappointed that Maher clearly just milked the interviews with folks like G. Coyne, F. Collins for the bits he wanted (criticizing creationism/ID — not hard to do!), without really delving into what the faith/reason relation implies for both faith *and* agnosticism (which they each have much more subtle positions on). The very closing bit was a cop-out, blaming all that’s bad with power-hungry politics on religion alone, as if human nature isn’t always-already ready to basically mess *anything* up with equal opportunity (!). I much prefer Whitehead’s sensibility:

    Religion carries two sorts of people in two entirely opposite directions: the mild and gentle people it carries towards mercy and justice; the persecuting people it carries into fiendish sadistic cruelty. Mind you, though this may seem to justify the eighteenth-century Age of Reason in its contention that religion is nothing but an organized, gigantic fraud and a curse to the human race, nothing could be farther from the truth. It possesses these two aspects, the evil one of the two appealing to people capable of naïve hatred; but what is actually happening is that when you get natures stirred to their depths over questions which they feel to be overwhelmingly vital, you get the bad stirred up in them as well as the good; the mud as well as the water. It doesn’t seem to matter much which sect you have, for both types occur in all sects….

  4. Ha. Incidentally, this is what Dean Hamer told me about Francis Collins’s performance in the film: Collins “completely and utterly twisted the science in the most astonishingly stupid way I’ve ever heard a scientist talk, I have to say. … The most chicken-egg, egg-chicken ridiculousness, second-grade mistaken logic you can make. But I guess he’s a true believer, so.”

    I wonder what happens when they run into each other at the water cooler at the NIH.

  5. BT

    Hmm, I don’t remember the exact language FC used, but if I remember correctly he was shown on screen just hemming & hawing about the historical Jesus. What I meant in the comment is just that both FC and Coyne have much more subtle positions about the faith/reason relation (and both are clearly anti-ID), yet obviously Maher didn’t have any interest in really getting into differences *within* theology over the faith/reason relation. But that’s even more important to do than just lump anything & everything religious in with fundamentalist literalism as M. does…