Asking questions and proevolutionist mass communications
Along with the abundant rhetoricals marking antievolutionist media, Asking Questions proves to be the most ubiquitous variable in both New Atheist and BioLogos Foundation communications, while it is the third most common persuasive element in National Center for Science Education media. Moreover, as Figure 4.3 illustrates, each incident of this cue in proevolutionist materials is identified as cases of Rhetorical Questions rather than Intention Questions. This message variable also represents only one of two coded persuasion techniques exhibiting incident values >0.400 occurrences per 1000 words found in Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science publications. In fact, RDFRS publications demonstrated a greater rate of recurrence for Asking Questions than any other Evolution Wars organization, as New Atheist materials are teeming with erotema, anacoenosis, and hypophora.
The New Atheists and rhetorical questions
New Atheist expressions of rhetorical queries appear chiefly as the negative variety, which intersect with cases of the Contrast Principle and Negativity Effect. This involves the use of rhetoricals to criticize those individuals who New Atheists vocally disdain, including anyone and everyone who might identify with a religious tradition, as well as those who do not attack religion with the requisite level of vehemence advocated by Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and others. These cases are affiliated with questions denouncing religion in general, as well as the theological and philosophical shortcomings identified as such by disbelieving polemicists. Negative Questions, and their unarticulated answers, are also employed to highlight the weaknesses of Darwin-skeptic claims in the face of scientific findings.
With respect to the latter variety of RDFRS Negative Questions, time after time leading New Atheists can be found asking biting rhetoricals, which voice that Darwin-skeptics simply cannot explain scientific data in a reasonable manner. For instance, Richard Dawkins first considers the concept of
Figure 4.3 Proevolutionist Asking Questions
Casting doubt and conspiracies 125 pseudogenes and evolutionary lineages in an article that was initially published in the Tinies Literary Supplement. He explains:
It is wonderful enough that we can construct a tree of life based on active genes, and find that different genes agree on the same pedigree. It is even more convincing that we get the same pedigree with dead genes, whose DNA sequences represent nothing, and must be regarded only as the inert legacy of history.
Dawkins then initiates a salvo of rhetorical questions, including: “How would creationists explain that?” and, “Why would the creator litter the genome with useless, untranslated variants of genes, and locate them, moreover, in exactly the right pattern around the animal and plant kingdoms to give the impression - the deceptive impression, as a creationist would presumably have to admit - that they evolved and were not created?”116 Likewise, in Forbes magazine, Jerry Coyne contests Michael Egnor’s Intelligent Design ideas and infuses his arguments with hypophora. “How does Egnor account for the natural world?” Coyne asks readers, before providing the following derisive answer:
He does not, in fact, offer a scientific theory. Rather, he subscribes to the creationist view that complex things, which are difficult to explain, are the domain of God. If we don’t understand something, there’s no point trying to understand it - we should just throw up our hands and say, ‘God did it.’117
This is followed by a volley of rhetorical questions aimed at the “benighted physician,” each of which is answered with the tacit response that Egnor is simply unable to reply:
How does he explain the persistence of “dead genes” in species (like our own broken one for making vitamin C) - genes that were functional in our ancestors? What explains those annoying hominin fossils that span the gap from early apelike creatures to modern humans? Why do human fetuses produce a coat of hair after six months in the womb, and then shed it before birth? Why didn’t the creator stock oceanic islands with mammals, reptiles and amphibians? Why did He give us vestigial ear muscles that have no function? Why do whales occasionally sprout hind legs? Did God design all creatures to fool us into thinking that they evolved?118
It is in this way that New Atheist writers use rhetoricals to belittle antievolutionists and accentuate the irrationality of religiously motivated Darwinskepticism. Accordingly, Coyne asks readers to imagine “for a moment that a large proportion of Americans - let’s say half - rejected the ‘germtheory’ of infectious disease.” Further delineating the opinions of this fictitious population, he explains, “Maladies like swine flu, malaria and AIDS aren’t caused by micro-organisms, they claim, but by the displeasure of gods, whom they propitiate by praying, consulting shamans and sacrificing goats.” Of course, in contrast to this imagined religious conviction, Coyne tells readers of the germ theory of disease. Using malaria parasitic protozoa as an example, he clarifies, “We know how it causes the disease, and we see that when you kill it with drugs, the disease goes away.” He then asks, how “could people ignore all this evidence in favor of baseless superstition?” before contemplating rhetorically: “But that’s fiction, right?” In hypophoric fashion he makes clear, “Well, not entirely, for it applies precisely to another ‘theory’ that is also a fact: the theory of evolution.”1'9
In addition to employing rhetorical questions to critique Darwin-skeptics, RDFRS writers also use such queries in repeated attacks on various religions and religious belief in general. Using rather simplistic dichotomies, this can involve asking audiences to consider whether either science or religion seems more reasonable in terms of their explanations of the world around us. It is thus maintained that the “claims of various religions” should be placed “side by side with the more robust findings of science,” before audiences are asked: “Given what we now know, do the religious claims seem plausible or not?”12" Likewise, negative rhetoricals appear throughout criticisms of Christian theology, including conceptions of theodicy, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the divine basis of morality. With regard to the latter topic, for example, Coyne poses the following argument to readers in an effort to establish that morality is based upon materialistic, genetic determinants, without need for the “tentacles of religion”:
Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it’s far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have. Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women. Secular morality is what prevents ethically irrelevant matters - what we eat, read or wear, when we work, or whom we have sex with - from being grouped with matters of genuine moral concern, like rape and child abuse. And really, isn’t it better to be moral because you’ve worked out for yourself - in conjunction with your group - the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?121
Included in New Atheist attacks on religion are rhetoricals associated with repeated denunciations of the Roman Catholic Church and its deficient responses to clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse crimes.122 More remarkable, perhaps, is the consistent use of negative rhetorical questions to express
Casting doubt and conspiracies 127 antipathy for other supporters of evolution. RDFRS contributors primarily employ such queries to assail fellow proevolutionists who claim that there exists no fundamental disharmony between religion and evolutionary science. These offenders are frequently “religious scientists,” including those associated with the BioLogos Foundation. Such individuals should not be celebrated for their defense of evolution, audiences are told, because doing so would involve “tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs.” Coyne thus contends, “It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time,” before asking: “Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline?”123 Similarly, Harris accuses BLF’s Francis Collins of committing “intellectual suicide,” and reproves the journal Nature for praising Collins’ efforts to demonstrate consonance between Christianity and science. In the same article, Harris likens Christianity with a belief in Zeus and other supernatural phenomenon, before stating: “Would Collins have received the same treatment in Nature if he had argued for the compatibility between science and witchcraft, astrology, or Tarot cards? Not a chance.”124 By the same token, negative rhetoricals accompany the New Atheist catchcry that science and religion are necessarily opposed to one another. Hence, in attacking the organizers of the 2010 World Science Festival for hosting an affable Faith and Science discussion, Coyne complains: “But wait - why is the World Science Festival hosting a panel like this, anyway? Isn’t the science festival supposed to be about science, not about how to reconcile it with superstition?”123 Consequently, in a similar mode to that found in Darwin-skeptic media, such questions are employed by New Atheist communicators to castigate ideas or individuals who do not comport with specific standpoints on religion and science.