The New Atheists vs their bedfellows in the NCSE/BCSE
Published: 24 May 2011(GMT+10)
Recently, a public dispute broke out between two different ‘camps’ of atheists on the Internet. It was not very edifying, but it was illuminating. It illustrated some of the ‘fault-lines’ that run through today’s atheist movements. We need to know our enemy, and can often learn from them.
On one side were the so-called ‘New Atheists’ whose most public face is Richard Dawkins. The argument itself flared up on the websites of ‘New Atheists’ Jerry Coyne and P Z Myers,1 biology professors in the US. Their overall position is simple. They believe that science proves atheism, and that all religious or supernatural beliefs are anti-scientific. More than that, they believe that religion is positively evil and dangerous, and that the future progress of humanity requires a serious effort to eradicate religion.
As Westerners, they concentrate the bulk of their fire against Christianity, and especially evangelicalism. If you visit Dawkins’ website, you will find typical quotes showing Dawkins’ view of God, such as these: “The hypothesis of God offers no worthwhile explanation for anything” and “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence” and “Who will say with confidence that sexual abuse is more permanently damaging to children than threatening them with the eternal and unquenchable fires of hell?”2
The last quote illustrates the insidious nature of their campaigning agenda. The ‘New Atheists’ are crusaders and our children are fair game. They believe that Christian doctrines are potentially more damaging than sexual abuse. The implications of that belief are frightening; we are all aware of the stigma and the force of the law deserved by and brought down upon crimes of paedophilia. The ‘New Atheists’ think that it’s reasonable to suggest that orthodox, biblical teaching and paedophilia should be treated the same way. This quote is not isolated or taken out of context; we can readily find articles in which ‘New Atheists’, including Dawkins, try to justify this position.3
On the other side of the ‘disagreement’ were two organisations, one in the US and the other in the UK. What they have in common is that both are campaigning groups. Their aim is to prevent any form of questioning of Darwinism in state schools. Their desire is that evolution should be presented to all children as incontestable and proven scientific fact. They not only oppose the discussion of creationism, but also of intelligent design (ID) and even the discussion of weaknesses or flaws in evolutionary theory (falsely claiming that ID is really creationism in disguise, and that no real flaws exist). The US body is the well-known ‘National Center for Science Education’ (NCSE). The NCSE is led by Eugenie Scott, a campaigning atheist who is also a committee member of the ‘CSI’ skeptic group, and a signatory of the third humanist manifesto.4 This manifesto is a straightforward statement of practical atheism. It claims that all matters of knowledge, ethics, human fulfilment and the like are to be found and measured exclusively in man (not God).5 The NCSE has been successful in being taken seriously by state and federal governments, and was a key part of the ‘Dover Trial’ in which a US judge ruled that ID theory was inherently religious.
The ‘British Centre for Science Education’ (BCSE) is an outfit that is much more difficult to take seriously. It was founded and is operated by Roger Stanyard, a satellite consultant with no detectable experience in the fields of either science or education. See box for some background to its credibility, agenda, and attempt to hide the latter.
The meat of the argument
The argument itself was about how the NCSE and BCSE deal with religion. According to the ‘New Atheists’, religion is evil, and should never be promoted or condoned in any way. Their openly-declared aim is the removal of religion from society. Instead, the NCSE/BCSE take what is called an ‘accommodationist’ approach. Although (as the box details) the NCSE/BCSE’s leaders ultimately share this aim, they see it as bad strategy. Their particular campaigning aim is limited—they want to make sure that Darwinism is not questioned within science education. If they ‘de-cloaked’ and showed their full agenda, then their limited aim might be jeopardised. Or put more simply, they would not get taken seriously by the government and others they are aiming at. If people knew what the NCSE/BCSE really wanted, long-term, these groups would be side-lined. Most people consider that Dawkins’ agenda is extreme and undesirable; only a small proportion of people in society are avowed atheists, much less militant fundamentalist ones.
The irritant for the ‘New Atheists’ is that the NCSE/BCSE do not leave religion out of their work. Instead, they positively look to recruit religious figures. These religious figures will help to persuade onlookers that they are not really a wing of the atheist movement; that they are even religiously neutral. Not being seen as religiously neutral would be a particular problem for the NCSE, whose campaigns are built on the premise that any questioning of Darwinism is motivated by religion, and that religion is effectively banned from US public schools by common interpretations of the US Constitution. The aim is to try to show that people of all religions and none are united around Darwinism; it is not a ‘party position’.
To this end, religious figures are welcome to appear on NCSE/BCSE platforms and explain why Darwinism is not essentially atheism. For this purpose, the NCSE hired Peter Hess as a ‘Faith Project Director’, whose work is ‘Religious Community Outreach’.11 The BCSE website includes an article by Hess. This and other articles contain statements like the following (as you read them, recall the point that they fundamentally contradict the anti-religion platform of Dawkins et al.): “science and religion need not contradict one another”, “Properly understood, there is no conflict between religion and science”, “religion ministers to the need for normative guidance” and “The question of whether or not God exists lies beyond the realm of empirical science, and properly belongs to religion and philosophy”.
Jerry Coyne has a big problem with this kind of thing. Coyne was provoked when Roger Stanyard turned up on his blog, requesting that Coyne hold back on his attacks on religion. (Remember that if too many people associate Darwinism with atheism, then the BCSE’s cover could be blown). This led Coyne to write an open letter to both the BCSE and NCSE. He attacked them for their policies of cosying up to religious believers, and trying to persuade them that their aims were friendly. Coyne, followed by others, urged them to stop it, to not contradict ‘New Atheists’, and/or to drop all their pro-religious output.12 Coyne also slammed both the BCSE and NCSE for their “ham-handed communications”.
There then followed an extended fight, on Coyne’s blog, Dawkins’ website and the BCSE’s forums.13 As Christians, it is biblical to pray that God will bring our enemies into confusion, and God answers such prayers. During the ensuing melee, Stanyard declared Dawkins to be a “life-long enemy”,14 and Dawkins called Stanyard a liar, a “self-promoting fool” and a “buffoon”, handing the latter two insults also to Nick Matzke, formerly an NCSE public representative.
Generally, trawling through this mess would be unhelpful. Better to spend our time positively promoting the biblical position, and preaching divine creation, judgment and salvation to lost people. But there is a lesson that stands out for creationists.
For these atheist groups—both those who openly acknowledge it, and those who play it down—evolution and atheism are all part of the same cause. Some of them feel free to say so openly; others take part in a tacit subterfuge, hiring (and borrowing from) non-atheists to help their cause, while themselves not believing a word of what such helpers say. 15
Serious Christians need to wise up and stop being taken for a ride. Often attributed to Communist leader Lenin (but according to some sources, without any proof15), the phrase ‘useful idiot’ refers to the person who unwittingly advances a cause whose real aim is to fatally undermine their own cause. Christians who support groups similar to the NCSE and BCSE fit this description.
Darwinism is atheism
In the 19th century, leading Princeton theologian Charles Hodge authored a book entitled “What is Darwinism?”16 His conclusion was that “Darwinism is atheism”. He came to this conclusion because Darwinism does not simply give a theory about how processes working within creation (potentially under God’s control) could give rise to the present world. Rather, Darwinism is a systematic explanation of how the natural world could develop, without any overall intention and without any design—i.e. without any mind (let alone a divine mind) controlling or overseeing the purpose. Darwinism explains how law and chance can combine, without any supernatural supervision, to bring about the biological world as we know it.
Ultimately, all Christians who promote Darwin’s theories have been and are, no matter how sincere and nice they are, co-opted as ‘useful idiots’ in the atheist cause. Though they may love Jesus sincerely, when they promote Darwinism, they promote an idea whose end effect when believed consistently is to undermine all biblical truth. It may be a ‘secondary issue’ in terms of salvation, but in terms of having a coherent witness in the world, Darwinism is very definitely primary, and needs addressing in the church. We give thanks that these mistaken brothers and sisters are generally quite inconsistent in their beliefs. But reading about the in-house squabbles of campaigning atheists ought to call us to pay attention. It does not matter that you did not intend the termites you encouraged into your basement to bring the whole house down. The fact is that, sooner or later, if not eradicated, they will.
The so-called ‘British Centre for Science Education’
Atheist front pretending to be ‘neutral’ on religion
I began covering this group and their activities when they launched in late 2006 after they persuaded a few gullible MPs to back a motion on their behalf in the House of Commons. I published the completed fruits of my research on a website when I finished a year later.6 The ‘BCSE’ seems to have chosen its name and website address to resonate with supporters of, and presumably to gain some credibility from, the NCSE, though there is no official connection.7
On various websites located during this research, Stanyard and other founding members of the BCSE explained their aims in founding the BCSE. They included such objectives as to oppose religion in general, to prevent a radical religious theocracy rising in the UK (!), and to clamp down on the freedoms of Christians to share their beliefs with others, including their own children.8 When these discussions, and the general lack of qualifications of its leadership to represent themselves as leaders in science education were embarrassingly exposed by this research, the BCSE then deleted a number of sections of its website. Instead, it began to present itself as religiously neutral.
In the years since it has also recruited some committee members with actual qualifications in biological science. However, a quick look around the BCSE website shows that these appear to be figureheads only, with the heavy lifting still basically done by the same two non-credible figures (Stanyard and Mr. Mark Edon9). When my research concluded in 2008, the 11 past and present members of the BCSE committee were all, with only a single exception, atheists (compare this with a figure of around 15% in society at large who self-identify in this way10). Nevertheless, in our PR-orientated and Darwin-and atheism-friendly society, the BCSE has more than once managed to persuade figures in parliament or the mainstream press to promote its output.
[Editor’s update: The BCSE recently stirred up UK MPs again, being at the forefront of the CrISIS movement. see Secular Humanists seek to ban origins debate in the UK education system.]
- scienceblogs.com. Return to text.
- richarddawkins.net/quotes. Return to text.
- e.g. richarddawkins.net. Return to text.
- en.wikipedia.org/. Return to text.
- en.wikipedia.org/. Return to text.
- www.bcse-revealed.info. Return to text.
- www.bcseweb.org.uk, www.ncseweb.org. The NCSE have since obtained and begun using ncse.com. Return to text.
- Documented at www.bcse-revealed.info. Return to text.
- www.bcse-revealed.info. Return to text.
- In the 2001 UK census, 14.6% of people ticked the box for “No Religion”. Return to text.
- ncse.com/about/staff. Return to text.
- whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com. It is interesting to note that Coyne believed that the BCSE is “new”, not being aware of its 5-year history, implicitly supporting the verdict I have given on the BCSE as a non-credible organisation. Return to text.
- e.g. forums.bcseweb.org.uk. Return to text.
- forums.bcseweb.org.uk. Return to text.
- E.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useful_idiot. Return to text.
- www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/19192. Return to text.