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In June, I wrote a piece here at MercatorNet, “A shambolic atheist community faces some tough choices,” reflecting on the discontent of some members of that community. It attracted a good many comments and at least one riposte shortly afterward. The riposte garnered 114 comments too.
Clearly, the piece struck a nerve. That said, fewer readers than I had expected took up the issue that seemed most significant to me: “‘Eiynah’ fears that the [atheist] movement is going ‘right wing.’” I don’t think the atheist movement is going right-wing so much as that some prominent atheists are re-evaluating their relationship with progressivism.
It’s about time too. Considering how many atheists see science as a worthy successor to religion, they should think carefully about the current progressive assault on the core values of science. Some items for reflection:
Progressives have not been systematic standard bearers for science. In 2012, science journalists Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, authors of Science Left Behind, noted that “if it is true that conservatives have declared a war on science, then progressives have declared Armageddon.” Five years ago at Scientific American, Michael Shermer pegged the progressive approach to some environment issues as a liberal war on science. Campbell and Berezow wrote in New Scientist (2013), “Conservatives rightly get a bad rap for anti-science policies. But progressives can be just as bad” because progressive ideology “is riddled with anti-scientific feel-good fallacies designed to win hearts, not minds.”
Campbell and Berezow make a useful distinction between “liberal” and “progressive,” noting that “Liberalism, as defined by John Locke, means the pursuit of liberty. By that definition progressives are not liberal. Though they claim common cause with liberals (and most of them are Democrats because very few progressives are Republican), today’s progressive movement is actually socially authoritarian.”
For example, let’s look what progressivism does to the current drive to encourage more women and member of underrepresented minorities to go into the sciences:
Science, we are told by one source, is “inherently discriminatory to women and minorities by promoting a view of knowledge as static and unchanging, a view of teaching that promotes the idea of a passive student, and by promoting a chilly climate that marginalizes women.” (Laura Parson, dissertation, University of North Dakota).
Parson is not a lone voice. We hear that objectivity, along with “scientific,” “valid,” “reliable,” and “rationality,” is racist and sexist, a mere veneer for white male power (P.L. Thomas. “White Men Of Academia Have An ‘Objectivity’ Problem,” HuffPost June 14, 2017). Darwinian atheist Jerry Coyne complains, “These misguided people argue not only that there is no objective reality, but that attempts to find and teach it are sexist: that such endeavors are masculine ones, and that the methods of science themselves make the discipline sexist and patriarchal.”
Yes, Dr. Coyne, they do argue that and they are dead serious. Their cause includes citational politics, which means avoiding the citation of research by white male academics like himself. Would the fact that he is considered an expert in his field (evolutionary biology) make any difference? Not if objective reality is sexist.
Some progressives also tag science as a form of colonialism. Here again, as atheist neurologist Steven Novella makes clear, science’s core values, not individual scientists’ cultural failings, are under assault. Unfortunately, Dr. Novella responds by arguing that science is inherently anti-colonial because “the very essence of science is to seek objective truth that is separate from the assumptions of any particular culture.” Does he not grasp that “objective truth” is precisely what is under assault?
The drive to encourage members of underrepresented minorities to consider a career in science is being subtly transformed into the claim that the thinking patterns of science are by nature oppressive. Let’s take math, for example. In a recent teacher training text, we learn of “critical mathematics” (“mathematics for social justice”), which sounds very much like a way of distracting attention from the hard work of abstract thinking in favour of other—doubtless laudable—achievements that are not relevant to learning math.
Similarly, there is a move afoot to abolish the algebra requirement for community college, fetchingly termed “Say Goodbye To X+Y” by NPR: “Algebra is one of the biggest hurdles to getting a high school or college degree — particularly for students of color and first-generation undergrads.” That’s no surprise, considering that these students are far more likely to have attended failing public schools. The trouble is, reforming public schools that have failed for decades means head-on conflict with powerful interest groups. Instead, we are told that white privilege is bolstered by teaching math (Fox News). At The Atlantic, we hear that “school systems ought to support math educators in deconstructing and discarding the white frame of mathematics education.”
Moving beyond racial politics, some progressives disparage mathematics because its fundamental aims do not include inculcating progressive thought (“First, the nature of pure of mathematics itself leads to styles of thinking that can be damaging when applied beyond mathematics to social and human issues.”) Overall, the progressive invasion of science and math education can only leave many students who are already shortchanged in math and science further behind.
Then there is the demand that we tear down the social structure of science. One activist against sexual harassment candidly admits that, in her view, the “hostile environment is perpetuated by a focus on the science — and not on the people doing it,” as if science were an experience rather than a discipline. Another says, of the existing system, “I want to burn it down.” Why should we trust that better science will somehow evolve from these people's angry woke-ness?
Or their deafness. Biology teacher Bret Weinstein, driven from Evergreen State University by SJWs in 2017 (along with his wife Heather Heying, also a biology teacher), told the U. S. Congress “The protestors had no apparent interest in the very dialog they seemed to invite. I was even more surprised by the protestor's fervor in shouting down my actual students—some of whom had known me for years. The cruelty and derision reserved for students of color who spoke in my defense was particularly chilling. If not discussion, what did they want?” Weinstein says he is not an atheist but his actual viewpoint (that it might be socially harmful to uproot evolved traditional beliefs, even though they are outmoded) fits comfortably with atheism.
Doubtless from experience, he sees progressives as functioning like a cult: “Most of the people involved in this movement earnestly believe that they are acting nobly to end oppression. Only the leaders understand that the true goal is to turn the tables of oppression.”
Something to watch carefully is the STEAM fad (STEM with “A” for Arts inserted). It is an effort to integrate the arts with the sciences which—again, consider the context of failing feeder schools—“makes the arts a perfect staging ground for retreat from rigor in the name of ideologically driven criteria.” From City Journal, we learn, “Mathematical problem-solving is being deemphasized in favor of more qualitative group projects; the pace of undergraduate physics education is being slowed down so that no one gets left behind.”
Actually, if the class doesn’t cover enough ground to advance in physics, everyone will get left behind. The lack of rigour will mostly harm the students with less access to private resources (tutoring, math and science camps, cram courses, private schooling, etc.) It harms them in three ways: First, they are not getting the systematic, rigorous teaching they need; second, their time is irrecoverably wasted on a variety of non-science-related objectives, and third, if they go on in science, they will be out of depth and struggling at the bottom of the class.
At Scientific American, Yale president Peter Salovey urges that “STEM majors' college experience must be integrated into a broader model of liberal education to prepare them to think critically and imaginatively about the world and to understand different viewpoints.” Realistically, in the inclusive environment that progressives are creating in the sciences today, that may well mean accommodating the ”meteoric rise” of witchcraft and astrology, along the lines of understanding “different viewpoints.”
In thirty years, today’s students will be the policy makers. What will they understand science to be? Well, what did they themselves experience it to be? Will the progressive tilt continue the scientific revolution or abort it?
As I said in the earlier piece, post-modern progressives are as deadly an enemy to atheists as they are to theists. They are deadly to the intellectual life, period. Their triumph in the sciences will be bad for all of us but I would think atheists have the most at stake. It’s time to just walk away.
Denyse O’Leary is an Ottawa-based author, blogger, and journalist.
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