When Barney is best

Barney Zwartz, the religion editor at The Age, is always best when he is writing what he really thinks, and not when he is fulfilling the dictates of his overlords and writing what sells newspapers. There are times, when he writes in the latter category, when I could throttle him. If I were to write a nursery rhyme about him, I would say that when he is good, he is pretty good, but when he is bad, he is horrid.

Here is Barney being good. In a post on his blog, The Religious Write, he has this to say about the “New Atheists”:

Aggressive atheism is fuelled around the world chiefly by anti-scientific attitudes on the part of religious people and by fear of Islam. Few are honest enough to spell out the latter – they say, like Christopher Hitchens, that religion poisons everything without making any distinction, but it’s noticeable how active this fundamentalist group (a small but vocal minority of atheists) got after 9/11. I call them fundamentalists and militants because that’s exactly what they are, the mirror image of the religious fundamentalists they despise. But they share the same reductionist world view where not only are they right and everyone else is wrong, but they cannot rest until everyone thinks as they do. They will not rest until they have levelled Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.



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7 responses to “When Barney is best

  1. chiefly by anti-scientific attitudes on the part of religious people


  2. I don’t know that the problem is really that these “new atheists” are militant, I think the problem is that they think they are reasonable.

    • Kiran

      And they are not. In the sense that, their initial move is to discard the charity principle – that your opponents are not stupid, and must have some ground for believing what they do. I have to explain this to undergraduate students – that, for instance, they can’t just say Plato and Aristotle didn’t know science.

      As a result when they argue, they simply will not try to engage with someone in debate. They will begin with the assumption that they are dealing with a troglodyte.

  3. Kiran

    I wouldn’t see that quite so positively. “Anti-scientific” translates into “giving a hoot about bioethics.” That said though, what Catholics need to realize is that epistemology is inherently a political endeavour.

    • Peregrinus

      I wouldn’t see that quite so positively. “Anti-scientific” translates into “giving a hoot about bioethics.”

      I’m not so sure. When I read the comment first I took it as a reference to fundamentalist attitudes to scientific insights which conflict with (a particular understanding of) scripture.

      If you look at someone like Richard Dawkins, there’s an arc in his writing, which moves from

      – really very good stuff explaining and popularising scientific concepts and insights, or

      – impatience with people who reject evolution, and all evidence for evolution, because it conflicts with their understanding of scripture, to

      – general, militant and angry atheism.

      • Kiran

        Yes. Well. That was my first thought too, but I don’t know. If you look at criticism specifically of Catholics, most atheists accept that Catholics don’t have a problem with evolution (even if they completely misunderstand Pope Benedict or Cardinal Schonborn). As far as evolution goes, vs. the fundamentalists, the Catholics are seen as the good guys. I’ve never in all my life heard Catholics attacked for being opposed to evolution. It would take a lot to make the case (given JPII) that Catholics are opposed to evolution qua historical explanation.

        Also, I don’t know about his “really very good stuff explaining and popularizing scientific concepts and insights.” Dawkins’ influence on social sciences (the whole ‘meme’ theory) is disastrous, at the very least. Also, I don’t even know that Dawkins’ own version of evolutionary theory is simply to be identified with “evolution.” I don’t even know that Dawkins receives as much respect among biologists for his scientific views as he does with the general public. Qua accurate representative of scientific consensus on evolution, I have always preferred Gould. On that level, perhaps, the new atheism might be a kind of ideological smokescreen for biologism seeking to take over the social sciences. Be that as it may, however ….

        What pushes the buttons is bioethical issues – abortion more than most, contraception, and human embryonic stem cell research.

  4. Peregrinus

    You have a point. At first I thought Zwartz was referring to the evolution/creationism angle, but when you mention bioethics I though, well, maybe.

    But of course an even bigger bone of contention (which Zwartz doesn’t mention) is abortion, and bioethics is really just a special case of our views on what it is to be human, with abortion being a wider case. And abortion is not normally conceived (by either side) as a conflict between science and religion. There is no scientific dispute there. And our issues on bioethics, even oppoments would have to accept, equally have nothing to do with the science. Our stance may impact upon scientists who want to do things that raise bioethical issues, but we entirely accept the validity of the science with gives rise to bioethical dilemmas – our issues are philosophical and ethical. Whereas creationists are rejecting science and scientific insights, as such.

    Sure, few Catholics (and few Christians, and indeed few people of any religion) are creationists, and creationism doesn’t really affect the scientific establishment adversely, whereas a great many religious have inconvenient bioethical concerns, which do. But this isn’t ultimately a numbers game. The favoured tactic of Dawkins and his ilk is to take extreme and aberrant religion and treat is as the norm. You’re a Muslim who doesn’t believe in putting Christians to the sword (or the suicide bomb)? You’re a Christian who doesn’t insist that atheists will burn in hell for all eternity? You’re a Jew who doesn’t share the atheists assumption that when the Hebrew scriptures describe atrocities, this must be read to mean that God approves of them? Well, you’re just not being true to your convictions, as far as Dawkins is concerned. Real Muslims, Jews and Christians believe these things. Hence Dawkins sees creationism as characteristic of religious faith.

    As for his scientific writings, I don’t say that his ideas are correct (or incorrect). I just say that he writes extremely well about them.