I had not intended to do another post on this subject. But in response to P.Z.’s post , my fellow Panda’s Thumber Burt Humburg left a lengthy comment that I feel requires a response. So I’ll ask your patience as we go one more round…
You know what audiences really love PZ? The ones who are steeped in religion and have steeped their children in it to the point that they think that all of morality and goodness and apple pie proceeds fundamentally from a love of God? Those guys?
Turns out, they absolutely love it when “2 + 2 = 4” comes coupled with “Therefore, there is no god.” Man, I can’t tell you how many creationists I’ve won over with a message purely steeped in the data alone. That’s all they’ve been missing, PZ. You’re the first person to ever think of such an approach! If they just hear the facts about evolution, they’ll adopt it. That’s what they’ve been missing! Go, PZ! Spread your message of science and data-driven conclusions, resting assured that a data-centered approach without regard to whatever beliefs they’ve held to that point will see them through to adopting science!
I wonder how many creationists Burt has won over with any message at all. He has certainly set himself a difficult task in focusing on people so steeped in religion that they think all goodness flows from a love of God. All the clever PR in the world will not change the fact that viewing humanity as the improbable outcome of three billion years of evolution by bloodsport is difficult to reconcile with the picture of humanity as the intentional creation of a loving God.
It’s not because of Richard Dawkins that people see a conflict between evolution and religion. They see it because it is real, and it is obvious. Some people may be capable of the mental gymnastics required to see divine purpose in the evolutionary process. Others may achieve rapprochement by the clever device of agreeing not to think about it too much. But the fact remains that a long-term strategy based on persuading people that evolution and traditional religion are compatible has little chance of success.
That said, who is it, exactly, who says that public presentations on science should include grand pronouncements against religion? Certainly not me, and I don’t think PZ either. Over the past few years I have given several public presentations about evolution and creationism, all of them sponsored by skeptics and atheist groups, and even in that context it never occurred to me to bring up religion. For that matter, I’ve seen Ken Miller’s public presentations on evolution, and he says nearly nothing about religion either. I would find it weird to discuss religion in such a talk. Yes, of course, in a public presentation on science you stick to the science. And if during the Q and A someone asks you about it you simply note the wide diversity of opinion on the matter while politely explaining your own view.
Umm, you know those kids in your class who you’ve presumably used that approach on? They want to be in your class. And they vote. But that population is dwarfed by the population of people who aren’t interested in understanding the data behind our conclusions and are foremost concerned about a science that bespeaks atheism.
By the way, PZ, that population votes too.
We’ve discussed this before. Coupling strong science education to the proselytizing of atheism just is a nonstarter in places like Kansas. It’s just not politically astute. And you’re calling Mooney and Nisbet craven for recognizing this? How politically insensate can you be?
Leaving aside the completely unwarranted and obnoxious suggestion that P.Z. preaches to his classes, I think Burt has conflated two separate issues. There are the local issues of winning school board elections and protecting science education and keeping creationism out of science classrooms. In that context I entirely agree that a certain amount of political savvy is required. I do not advocate anyone running on an anti-religion platform anywhere in the country, not just in Kansas. I say this both because it is politically unwise and because it is frankly inappropriate. A large part of my anger towards the folks on the old Dover school board, for example, is based on the fact that they tried to bring religion into a place it didn’t belong. I don’t want my side doing that either. Absolutely no one, so far as I know, is saying otherwise, and that is not why Mooney and Nisbet (mostly Nisbet) are being criticized.
The criticism comes when we switch to the global issue. Why do we have these constant flare-ups? Why is it that we no sooner win one school board election then we find crazy people in another state trying to inject religion into science classes? Why is it that election wins in one cycle are so frequently undone in the very next cycle?
It is because of religion. Specifically, it is because of the hold that religious faith has on the American psyche. The polling data that sparked off this latest spat showed that large percentages of people hold to their religious views even in the face of contrary scientific evidence. So long as such attitudes are dominant there can be no long-term victory for science in these matters.
Those attitudes must be weakened, and the only way I know of doing that is to make contrary ideas part of the national zeitgeist. That is what Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens and Dennett are doing. No one is saying they should be hired as campaign managers for local school board elections. We are saying instead that their polemical tomes have put atheism and rationalism on the national map, and that this is an important service in the fight against religious extremism.
And that is where the criticism of Nisbet in particular comes in. He has been promoting the idea that there is something called “the cause” that is being hurt by Dawkins and the others. The idea was that there are religious moderates out there who are driven over to the darkside because of strong atheistic rhetoric. It is this idea that is short-sighted and, yes, craven.
Burt needs to spend more time pondering a simple fact. The pro-science side of the evolution debate is losing. Big time. If the courts ever step out of the way (which is not an unrealistic scenario, especially if the Republicans win in 08) we will have some form of creationism taught in virtually every school district in the country. Some school boards will do it out of a genuine conviction that it is the right thing to do, while others will do it to appease those in their districts who feel that way. That is where the strategy of treating each school board fight as a spearate struggle has gotten us. Such are the fruits of a strategy based entirely on cowering before religious moderates, pleading with them not to go over to the side of darkness and ignorance just because of a few meanies like Dawkins and Hitchens.
You might win a few battles with such a strategy, but you will inevitably lose the war.
Burt goes on for several more paragraphs, turning up the rhetorical heat while mostly repeating the same points. Since I don’t wish to respond with the same rudeness he showed toward P.Z. , I will stop here. I would simply urge him to take a longer-term view of this struggle. National attitudes change slowly, but they do change. As P.Z. notes, recent polling data provides reason for optimism. It would be a mistake to back down out of fear of alienating a handful of moderates.