The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists, revisited one (hopefully) last time

i think I’ve made it exquisitely clear how much I detest and despise the term “Nevile Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” Indeed, my disgust at the term led me to sic the Hitler Zombie on (of all people) Richard Dawkins, the originator of the term, a deed that was either the boldest thing I’ve ever done as a blogger or the stupidest. (In retrospect, I haven’t decided which.) Recently, however, one of the most vociferous users of the term (and fellow victim of the Hitler Zombie with Richard Dawkins) seems to have backed away from the use of the term. I’m talking about Larry Moran, of course, who now claims that he never really liked the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist” after all:

There seem to be a lot of people who don’t understand the origin of the term “Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.” I’ve seen it attributed to PZ Myers and even to me.

For the record, it comes from The God Delusion and I’m going to quote from the Dawkins’ book below. But before doing that I want to acknowledge that I don’t like the term very much even though I used it several times last Fall. I think it does an injustice to Neville Chamberlain. Lately I’ve been referring to this group as just appeasers but now I prefer to use “accommodationist” to describe them.

Oh, there are a lot of other reasons why the Neville Chamberlain analogy is dubious and nasty. I’m also quite happy that Larry has decided that he doesn’t like the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” because he certainly seemed to like it a lot before. Let’s go to the tape, blogospherically speaking.

For example, here’s Larry in November:

Richard Dawkins writes about the “Neville Chamberlain ‘appeasement’ school” of evolutionists. These are scientists who are willing to compromise science in order to form an alliance with some religious groups who oppose Christian fundamentalism. Do you believe in miracles? That’s okay, it’s part of science. Do you believe that God guides evolution in order to produce beings who worship him? That’s fine too; it’s all part of the Neville Chamberlain version of intelligent design. Souls, moral law, life after death, a fine-tuned universe, angels, the efficacy of prayer, transubstantiation … all these things are part of the new age science according to the appeasement school. There’s no conflict with real science. We mustn’t question these things for fear of alienating our potential allies in the fight against the IDiots. Welcome to the big tent.

Ed Brayton has declared himself one of the leading members of the Neville Chamberlain School. And now, John Lynch and Pat Hayes have joined the Ed Brayton team.

Me and PZ are on the side of science and rationalism.

Young Earth Creationsts (YEC’s) and Intelligent Design Creationists (IDiots) are anti-science because they propose explanations of the natural world that conflict with science. But they’re not alone in doing that. Many of the so-called Theistic Evolutionists also promote a version of evolution that Darwin wouldn’t recognize. They are more “theist” than “evolutionist.”

For some reason the Neville Chamberlain team is willing to attack the bad science of a Michael Denton or a Michael Behe but not the equally–and mostly indistinguishable–bad science of leading Theistic Evolutionists. Isn’t that strange?

Public understanding of science will not be advanced by people like Francis Collins, Simon Conway Morris, and Ken Miller. They are subverting science in order to make it conform to their personal religious beliefs. (Which, by the way, conflict.) They are doing more harm to science than those who oppose it directly from the outside because the Theistic Evolutionists are subverting from within. It is sad that they are being supported by people who should know the difference between rationalism and superstition.

Is the appeasement strategy working? Of course not, but the most amazing thing is happening. The Neville Chamberlain School thinks it is winning in spite of the fact that leading politicians oppose evolution; most schools don’t teach evolution; and the general public doesn’t accept evolution. Talk about delusion. The appeasers think we should continue down the same path that led us to this situation. They think we should continue to compromise science in order to accommodate the religious moderates.

Here he is again ridiculing “Neville Chamberlain” evolutionists who, realizing that the term is meant as an insult, started self-identifying themselves as “proud Neville Chamberlain atheists” in order to mock the term:

For the record, here’s what it means to be a Neville Chamberlain Atheist. It means you’re happy to attack Intelligent Design Creationists like Micheal Denton (Nature’s Destiny) and Michael Behe (Darwin’s Black Box) for mixing science and religion. But, you don’t say a word when Ken Miller (Finding Darwin’s God), Francis Collins (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief) and the Rev. Ted Peters (Evolution from Creation to New Creation) spout equally bad religious nonsense in the name of science.

The Neville Chamberlain Atheists object when Behe talks about intelligent design but mum’s the word when Ken Miller talks about how God tweaks mutations to get what He wants. Hypocrisy is a strange thing to be proud of.

He must be joking, right?

Larry has also used the term here, among other places. Oddly enough, before his recent disavowal of the term, he really seemed to me to enthusiastically embrace it, spitting it out as an epithet at rationalists who to him weren’t sufficiently critical of religion or who were actually–gasp!–willing to live and let live.

Fortunately, that’s all in the past now. Let me be the first to congratulate Larry for finally realizing just what a vile and stupid term the whole “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” or “Neville Chamberlain atheist” epithet is. it’s about time. This idea is, without a doubt, the absolutely dumbest and brain-dead thing that Richard Dawkins has ever written, and Moran’s previous enthusiastic embrace of it was equally stupid. I’m happy to see that he’s apparently come to his senses at last.

Why the term vile and stupid? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost, when you boil it down, it’s a not-so-subtle argumentum ad Nazium with an accusation of cowardice tacked on. After all, whom are these “Neville Chamberlain” evolutionists supposedly ‘appeasing,’? Theistic evolutionists and creationists, of course! Therefore, whether they will admit it or not, those comparing secularists and atheists who would make common cause with theistic evolution supporters to Neville Chamberlain are implicitly likening ‘intelligent design’ creationists and theistic evolutionists to Hitler. They’re also explicitly likening the ‘Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists’ to moral cowards who are afraid to stand up to a Hitler-like menace.

Indeed, argumentum ad Nazi-ium a very important aspect of the Neville Chamberlain gambit. Why do you think the neocons who wanted to invade Iraq used to like to play the Neville Chamberlain gambit so much against opponents of the war with regards to Saddam Hussein, so much so that the Chamberlain gambit has become a cliche? Glenn Greenwald has shown very tidily how screeching “Neville Chamberlain” about your opponents has been part and parcel of the way that the far right has demonized their opponents who seek negotiation and–yes, Professor Moran–accommodation with their foes, even going so far as to point out that this was a favorite attack aimed at Ronald Reagan for negotiating with the Soviets:

According to the January 19, 1988 St. Louis Post-Dispatch (via LEXIS), when Pat Robertson was campaigning for President in Missouri in 1988, he “suggested that President Ronald Reagan could be compared to Neville Chamberlain . . . by agreeing to a medium-range nuclear arms agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.” The Orange Country Register editorialized in September, 1988 that “Ronald Reagan has become the Neville Chamberlain of the 1980s. The apparent peace of 1988 may be followed by the new wars of 1989 or 1990.” And even the very same Newt Gingrich, in 1985, denounced President Reagan’s rapprochement with Gorbachev as potentially “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 at Munich.”

Greenwald concludes:

Screaming “appeasement” and endlessly comparing political opponents to Neville Chamberlian is not a serious, thoughtful argument, nor is it the basis for any sort of foreign policy. At best, it is an empty, cheap platitude so overused by those seeking war as to be impoverished of meaning. More often than not, though, it is worse than that; it is the disguised battlecry of those who want war for its own sake, and who want therefore to depict the attempt to resolve problems without more and more new wars as being irresponsible and weak.

I wouldn’t have to change too many words in the paragraph above to make it apply quite well to the whole “Neville Chamberlain school of evolutionists” (as Richard Dawkins put it) or “Neville Chamberlain atheists” (as Larry used to like to put it) gambit. Whether used by Dawkins or Moran, it is a ridiculously overblown Hitler analogy, but cleverly concealed just under the surface, just obvious enough that people link the common enemy being “appeased” with Hitler but without actually directly saying as much. Nor is the retort that some “Neville Chamberlain evolutionists” sometimes make any better. I’m talking, of course, about the Winston Churchill gambit, in which they will liken themselves to Winston Churchill, who reluctantly teamed up with Stalin, previously an enemy, to fight the common foe, Hitler. If anything, this analogy is even worse than the Neville Chamberlain gambit because not only does it liken creationists to Hitler but it likens theistic evolutionists and the moderate or liberal religious to Stalin, someone who is loathed but with whom they’re willing to work to achieve the short term goal of defeating an even greater evil.

Besides, the entire analogy is not only an obvious and facile technique of demonizing both “appeaser” and the “appeased,” it’s also just bad history. In 1938, twenty years after the worst carnage the world had yet seen to that time, public sentiment was overwhelmingly against war with Germany. The crisis that provoked the Munich agreement was widely viewed as being over returning a largely German area of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetenland) whose populace largely wanted reunion with Germany, and thus not worth starting another major European war over. The enormous popularity of the Munich Accord and the rapturous greeting Chamberlain received from British populace when he returned from Germany provide ample evidence of that. A policy of keeping the peace had broad political support in Parliament, as well. Moreover, the British military, although in the midst of rearming to match the growing threat of Nazi Germany, was not yet ready to go to war with an enemy as powerful as Hitler was becoming. Moreover, Britain’s main ally France was unwilling to go to war, and the U.S. was isolationist. Given all those constraints, it is not surprising that Chamberlain opted for a deal rather than war, particularly because he passionately believed in peace, even to the point that, yes, he held on to the belief that Hitler could be bargained with far longer than he perhaps should have.

Those throwing around the “Chamberlain atheist” insult also forget who was in charge when World War II actually started. (Hint: It wasn’t Winston Churchill.) They also forget that, when Hitler used the Sudetenland to invade and conquer the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, Chamberlain learned his lesson from this betrayal and from then on took a much harder line towards Germany. Even after Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, there were, believe it or not, still voices urging that even this need not lead to a general war. True, Chamberlain did dither a couple of days after the invasion of Poland, but on September 3, it was he who reluctantly declared war and then later asked Winston Churchill to join his war cabinet.

Bad history, demonization of opponents as morally weak cowards, the “Neville Chamberlain atheist” or “evolutionist” analogy has it all! That’s why I would make this plea that people involved in this argument stop comparing themselves or each other to Neville Chamberlain or Winston Churchill. I’m also glad that at least one previous aficionado of the term has apparently decided to give it up. However, it is with some irony that I note that Moran, one of the most vociferous critics of “framing,” has chosen to do a rather effective bit of framing himself by labeling those whom he previously called “Neville Chamberlain atheists” as “accommodationists.” Nice. Not as dumb as “Neville Chamberlain evolutionist,” not as openly insulting as “appeaser,” the term still communicates Moran’s contempt for this viewpoint, but in a “kindler, gentler,” somewhat more subtle way.

Of course, given that Larry’s reason for abandoning the term (“it does an injustice to Neville Chamberlain”) suggests to me that he still thinks “accommodationists” are even worse than his previous term “Neville Chamberlain appeasers” implied, this new realization on his part may not be as big step forward as I had hoped. It may just be more effective framing. Still, I’ll take what I can get. If I never see the use of the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist” or “evolutionist,” it’ll be one less annoyance in my life.