Matt Nisbet has been beating his favorite dead horse again. That’s the one where he excoriates people like Richard Dawkins for being just so darn mean in his discussions of religion. In this post he praises Carol Tavris for echoing his favorite talking points, and in this one he praises Michael Shermer for doing likewise.
This is a subject that comes up a lot around here. I won’t do a point-by-point rebuttal of the arguments in Nisbet’s posts. I notice that James Hrynyshyn (here and here) and Larry Moran (here) have already taken care of business
Instead, in the interests of doing something constructive, let me to try to summarize the nature of the argument as fairly as I can.
Nisbet and his supporters believe that there is a large group of people out there who we might call religious moderates. These are folks who on the one hand view their religious beliefs as central to their identity, but on the other hand have no particular problem with a strong separation of church and state, or with teaching only science in science classes and so on. These beliefs notwithstanding, they also fear that excessive secularism can lead to a climate not simply of separation between church and state, but of outright hostility by the state towards the church. Consequently, under certain circumstances they can be moved to side with more extreme religious elements.
When people like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, major spokesman for atheism and rationalism, attack religion so broadly and in such condemnatory terms, the moderates see evidence of precisely what they have always feared. Especially in the context of high school science education, they see evidence that excluding ID and teaching only evolution really is just a plot for fighting against religion. More generally, they see in Dawkins and Dennett a desire not merely to keep church and state separate, but instead to harm religion.
Consequently, by alienating these moderates and driving them to the more extreme side, people like Dawkins and Dennett hurt the cause. A better approach is not to criticize religion broadly, but instead to focus narrowly on specific, extreme religious views. In the context of evolution specifically, this means emphasizing the compatibility of evolution and religious faith.
People on the other side, me in particular, do not deny that there are moderates of the sort describe above. There are, indeed, people who will be driven away by the harsh rhetoric employed by people like Dawkins and Dennett. What we deny, however, is that such folks are a major force in shaping the culture. We argue instead that the number of people who really are driven to the forces of darkness in large part because of the strong rhetoric of certain atheists pales in comparison to the number of people languishing in parts of the country where it is impossible for atheism to get a fair hearing. The harm that is done in driving away that small subset of moderates is outweighed by the good that is done by making atheism a major topic of conversation in the news media. Polite, sedate approaches to the subject do not generate as much attention and are consequently ineffective.
Furthermore, while religious moderates are certainly vastly preferable to religious extremists, the fact remains that even the moderates cling to certain supernatural beliefs based on very little in the way of evidence. These beliefs are inherently dangerous, because they seem to lead inevitably to a desire to coopt the power of the state to promote them. Not because all religious people feel that way, but because enough of them do to sway the results of elections.
Consequently, it is not just religious extremism that is the problem. The combination of religious belief generally and the exalted status of religious faith in our culture is part of the problem as well. Treating church/state separation issues as a series of individual brush fires in which we must plead anew with moderates not to thrust their religion upon us is not a long-term solution to the problem. The long-term solution is to encourage atheists and agnostics to be more open about their beliefs, and to try to lower the status of religious faith in our culture.
That is difficult to accomplish, but Dawkins, Dennett and the others have gotten an important ball rolling. And considering that the evidence of history shows that bad ideas don’t go away when people refuse to criticize them vigorously, it is not clear what the alternative strategy should be.
That’s how I see it, anyway. If any Nisbett disciples thikn I am being unfair to their side, let me know in the comments.