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When Atheists Attack (Each Other)

David Klinghoffer

The squabble between Darwin lobbyists who openly hate religion and those who only quietly disdain it grows ever more personal, bitter and pathetic. On one side, evangelizing New or “Gnu” (ha ha) Atheists like Jerry Coyne and his acolytes at Why Evolution Is True. Dr. Coyne is a biologist who teaches and ostensibly researches at the University of Chicago but has a heck of a lot of free time on his hands for blogging and posting pictures of cute cats.
On the other side, so-called accommodationists like the crowd at the National Center for Science Education, who attack the New Atheists for the political offense of being rude to religious believers and supposedly messing up the alliance between religious and irreligious Darwinists.
I say “supposedly” because there’s no evidence any substantial body of opinion is actually being changed on religion or evolution by anything the open haters or the quiet disdainers say. Everyone seems to seriously think they’re either going to defeat religion, or merely “creationism,” or both by blogging for an audience of fellow Darwinists.
Want to see what I mean? This is all pretty strictly a battle of stinkbugs in a bottle. Try to follow it without getting a headache.
Coyne recently drew excited applause from fellow biologist-atheist-blogger PZ Myers for Coyne’s “open letter” (published on his blog) to the NCSE and its British equivalent, the British Centre for Science Education. In the letter, Coyne took umbrage at criticism of the New Atheists, mostly on blogs, emanating from the two accommodationist organizations. He vowed that,

We will continue to answer the misguided attacks [on the New Atheists] by people like Josh Rosenau, Roger Stanyard, and Nick Matzke so long as they keep mounting those attacks.

Like the NCSE, the BCSE seeks to pump up Darwin in the public mind without scaring religious people. This guy called Stanyard at the BCSE complains of losing a night’s sleep over the nastiness of the rhetoric on Coyne’s blog. Coyne in turn complained that Stanyard complained that a blog commenter complained that Nick Matzke, formerly of the NCSE, is like “vermin.” Coyne also hit out at blogger Jason Rosenhouse for an “epic”-length blog post complaining of New Atheist “incivility.” In the blog, Rosenhouse, who teaches math at James Madison University, wrote an update about how he had revised an insulting comment about the NCSE’s Josh Rosenau that he, Rosenhouse, made in a previous version of the post.
That last bit briefly confused me. In occasionally skimming the writings of Jason Rosenhouse and Josh Rosenau in the past, I realized now I had been assuming they were the same person. They are not!
It goes on and on. In the course of his own blog post, Professor Coyne disavowed name-calling and berated Stanyard (remember him? The British guy) for “glomming onto” the Matzke-vermin insult like “white on rice, or Kwok on a Leica.” What’s a Kwok? Not a what but a who — John Kwok, presumably a pseudonym, one of the most tirelessly obsessive commenters on Darwinist blog sites. Besides lashing at intelligent design, he often writes of his interest in photographic gear such as a camera by Leica. I have the impression that Kwok irritates even fellow Darwinists.
There’s no need to keep all the names straight in your head. I certainly can’t. I’m only taking your time, recounting just a small part of one confused exchange, to illustrate the culture of these Darwinists who write so impassionedly about religion, whether for abolishing it or befriending it. Writes Coyne in reply to Stanyard,

I’d suggest, then, that you lay off telling us what to do until you’ve read about our goals. The fact is that we’ll always be fighting creationism until religion goes away, and when it does the fight will be over, as it is in Scandinavia.

A skeptic might suggest that turning America into Scandinavia, as far as religion goes, is an outsized goal, more like a delusion, for this group as they sit hunched over their computers shooting intemperate comments back and forth at each other all day. Or in poor Stanyard’s case, all night.
There’s a feverish, terrarium-like and oxygen-starved quality to this world of online Darwinists and atheists. It could only be sustained by the isolation of the Internet. They don’t seem to realize that the public accepts Darwinism to the extent it does — which is not much — primarily because of what William James would call the sheer, simple “prestige” that the opinion grants. Arguments and evidence have little to do with it.
The prestige of Darwinism is not going to be affected by how the battle between Jerry Coyne and the NCSE turns out. New Atheist arguments are hobbled by the same isolation from what people think and feel. I have not yet read anything by any of these gentlemen or ladies, whether the open haters or the quiet disdainers, that conveys anything like a real comprehension of religious feeling or thought.
Even as they fight over the most effective way to relate to “religion,” the open atheists and the accomodationists speak of an abstraction, a cartoon, that no actual religious person would recognize. No one is going to be persuaded if he doesn’t already wish to be persuaded for other personal reasons. No faith is under threat from the likes of Jerry Coyne.