There is a popular notion that prophets give you insights into the future. There is also a popular idea that cowboys ride bucking broncos. But if a cowboy ever rides a bucking bronco, it is at most a footnote on the CV. The same goes for prophets and predictions. The real day to day agenda of a prophet is to speak incisively into the present, pointing out injustice and dysfunction and shining a light to reformation.
Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci makes no predictions of which I’m aware, but he speaks incisively into the current state of the skeptical and atheist movement in his recently published essay “Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements“. Pigliucci writes as an insider, though one that has grown disenfranchised by the brash incivility, intellectual groupthink, and hero-worship that has come to characterize the movement.
I have long observed, analyzed, and complained about these same problems in the skeptic and atheist movement. For me a key indicator for how bad things are in that diverse community came in the last couple years with the inexplicable popularity of Peter Boghossian’s terrible book A Manual for Creating Atheists. Had that book been presented as an undergraduate thesis, Boghossian would have failed, for the book was crudely written and comprised almost wholly of straw (or, more accurately, strawmen). Despite this, the book was praised by leaders in the skeptic and atheist movement, sold in vast numbers, and elicited glowing reviews from the party faithful. (I undertook a review of Boghossian’s book which grew to nine parts before I ran out of steam. See part 1 here. Also see my review of the Boghossian/McGrew debate on “Unbelievable.”)
Anyway, back to Pigliucci. I especially appreciated his pointed critique of the anti-intellectualism of scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson:
“Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all , not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness…”
In our age scientists like Tyson enjoy an enormous degree of respect and cultural cachet. Coupled with his undeniable charisma — the beloved Carl Sagan really does have an heir in Tyson — it is painful but necessary to point out how harmful it is when Tyson engages in brash and ignorant commentary on subjects of which he is ignorant. (I have critiqued Tyson in several articles including “Neil deGrasse Tyson’s incredibly confused comments on atheism and agnosticism” and “Does Neil deGrasse Tyson know the meaning of meaning?“)
Nor is the problem limited to Tyson: Pigliucci notes the lamentable anti-intellectualism of other scientists as well including Laurence Krauss, not to mention Richard Dawkins himself.
In my opinion, the unhealthy state of the skeptic atheist movement can best be summarized with the following observation: virtually all self-described skeptics and/or atheists know of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but few know of J.L. Schellenberg or Graham Oppy (not to mention Massimo Pigliucci). When it comes to the maxim that flashy charisma outsells nuanced substance, the skeptic atheist movement is no exception.
As a Christian I don’t gloat over the current lamentable state of the skeptic atheist movement, not least because the exact same problems beset the Christian community. (I talk about this at length in You’re not as Crazy as I Think where I compare these two belief communities and note that they both often seem more concerned in perpetuating their beliefs than in pursuing truth.)
Prophets tend to receive a mixed reception and Pigliucci’s bold and courageous essay is no exception. But one can hope that prophetic voices like this will lead to a greater degree of self-examination and reform within the wider skeptic atheist community.