On several occasions at this blog (here and here for example) I have endorsed the efforts of the NCSE and other science advocacy groups to reach out to religious groups. I think it is great that NCSE has a permanent employee devoted to such outreach. Religious supporters of evolution have been essential in every major victory, both legal and political, our side can claim. If we can open people’s eyes to the diversity of religious opinion, and persuade them towards more moderate forms of religious belief I think that is great.
If I did not believe that outreach to religious believers was a valuable activity, I would not spend so much time going to creationist and ID conferences. When I participate in the Q and A’s at such conferences, or interact with the conference goers, I do not attack or mock their religion. Instead I focus completely on the scientific blunders of the speakers. I try to be as polite as I possibly can. Obviously I have no illusions about my ability to convince a devout evangelical Christian to change his mind. I do believe, however, that I might be able to plant a few seeds and to show people something they have not seen before. I also believe that it is harder to ridicule and stereotype a group of people (I’m talking now about creationists mocking evolutionists) when a representative of that group is standing right there. I discussed this issue in this essay (PDF format) in BioScience a few years ago.
The problem comes when outreach to religious groups becomes a euphemism for bashing people who take a less cozy view of the science/religion issue. Pointing to the diversity of religious opinion is fine, dismissing as fringe extremists people who dissent from NOMA is not. When any sort of criticism of accommodationist arguments is seen as harmful to the cause, then we have a problem. We have several recent examples to illustrate things:
- Kevin Padian’s false and demeaning statement that only extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists see a conflict between science and religion.
- Darryl Domning telling atheists that they must step aside for the good of the cause, and allow theistic evolutionists to take the lead.
- Chris Mooney condemning as bad strategy Jerry Coyne’s critical review of recent books by Ken Miller and Karl Giberson, despite describing the review as “a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.”
- Michael Ruse speculating that people like Jerry Coyne are as harmful to the cause of promoting science as Phillip Johnson and his supporters.
A while back I heard Ken Miller address this topic. He said bluntly that we should have everyone, theist and atheist alike, speaking on behalf of evolution, and he was exactly right. Jerry Coyne expressed similar thoughts in saying, “Ken Miller is a valuable asset in our fight against creationists. But so is P.Z. They contribute in different ways.”
Such sensible opinions, and from people supposedly at polar opposites of this issue. Would that everyone were so reasonable. Outreach to religious groups does not have to mean taking a firm stand on the proper way of viewing the relationship between science and religion, and dismissing anyone who dissents as an extremist or a fundamentalist.
The problem is that while religious outreach is important, it is doomed to failure as a comprehensive strategy. It is completely unremarkable that so many people think evolution renders Christian belief unreasonable. There is a reason so many highly educated people must write at book length just to show that major Christian claims about the world (that humans hold a privileged place in creation; that the world is superintended by a God who is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful; that the Bible is inerrant and sacred) are not quite impossible in the light of evolution.
By all means tell people about how four billion years of savage, cruel and wasteful evolution by bloodsport was a logical necessity for God to achieve his goals, or that the prevalence of evolutionary convergence somehow makes it likely that human-like intelligence was inevitable, thereby preserving a privileged role for humans in God’s plan. Tell them they don’t need the argument from design to maintain a rational belief in God and that they need a team of scientists and literary theorists to tell them what the Bible means.
Yes, go sell that message. Just don’t be surprised when you find few buyers, and don’t blame Richard Dawkins for your lack of success.
If I thought we could take those huge percentages of Americans who adhere to relatively conservative sorts of religious beliefs and move them over to the left I would happily endorse that path. But that is a pipe-dream. Recent American history has shown that it is liberal denominations that are unstable and losing members, while more conservative churches are going strong. I find that easy to comprehend, since conservative theology offers many emotional benefits that liberal theology can not match.
That is why I believe a long term solution to this problem does not lie in moving people towards relatively more reasonable sorts of religious belief, but rather by moving towards a society in which religious belief is accorded far less respect than it currently is. Certainly that is a very long-term goal, and I do not know precisely how to achieve it. But I do know that making atheism highly visible is a big step in the right direction. Writing polemical books is one way of doing that. Yes, polemical books. Polite, nuanced philosophical treatises are good too, but they just don’t obtain the sort of attention that is needed.
To this point I have been focused specifically on the evolution issue. Obviously, though, I think religion lies at the heart of a great many other societal ills. It is the primary factor in issues like bigotry towards homosexuals, repressive attitudes toward women, assaults on public education, and a political system in which people must profess the strength of their religious faith to have any hope of a future. Those are just a few examples. That marginalizing religion in public discourse leads to a more rational, science-friendly society I regard as obvious from a comparison of those societies in which religion has been marginalized versus those where it has not.
This, of course, does not entail any simplistic claim that religion is the sole source of societal irrationality or that highly secular societies are little pieces of heaven on Earth. I’m not looking forward to the day when we all go around like little Mr. Spocks. It simply recognizes that there are certain species of irrationality that are effectively unique to religion.
Nor does it entail any claim that all forms of religion are equally guilty. It simply acknowledges that the most dominant forms of religion, at least in this country, are not notable for their adherence to evidence and rationality in their pronouncements.
This can lead to some conflicts. The official position of the Catholic Church, notwithstanding flirtations with ID from certain Cardinals, is that evolution is a marvelous theory indeed. That’s great! I am very happy to have Ken Miller and John Haught on my side when fighting battles over science curricula. But is the Catholic Church now to be considered a friend of enlightenment and rationality? Not as long as their leader is said to be closer to God than the rest of us, capable of speaking infallibly at least some of the time, and not as long as they have their fingers in so many dangerous right-wing pies. Their myriad faults are not diminished in the least by the fact that they mostly have it right on evolution.
The main argument against this sort of thing is that polemics “scare away moderates.” This, despite its depressing ubiquity, is really more of a mantra than it is a well-thought out argument. The idea seems to be that there is some large group of people out there who are in some way reachable with a pro-science message, but upon hearing Dawkins or Hitchens say something rude they shut off their brain and throw in with the fundamentalists.
Apparently a great many people find it just too complicated to say, in response to being offended by something Richard Dawkins says, “I don’t like Richard Dawkins!” It seems they say instead, “I don’t like Richard Dawkins, so I am going to be reflexively opposed to anything he supports, and side with the fundamentalists, because I find them less repugnant.” Here is a clear statement of the basic attitude, from Chris Mooney:
And this is where Dawkins himself comes it-for at least on some level, could he possibly not have known this? A few years back, long before we had The Greatest Show on Earth, I wrote (with Matt Nisbet) of Dawkins that “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.” Just swap “media” for “public” and the sentence is equally accurate.
Now, should the public and the media know the difference? Hell yeah. But is that the world we live in? Hell no.
And thus arises the really tough question: Should Dawkins and his followers recognize this reality and adapt accordingly, or should they blame the media and public (for being the media and public)?
Gosh, condescending much? It’s just too darn complicated for “the public” to think that Richard Dawkins could talk about more than one subject. Or, for that matter, that Dawkins is just one person and that it’s pretty poor form to judge a large group of people based on one representative.
Let me suggest that such people, to the extent that they exist at all, should not be viewed as potential allies. If they will in some vague way support teaching evolution in schools but only if you protect their delicate little ears from the opinions of those who are unimpressed with their religious beliefs, then they are not really friends of science at all.
If I am reading Mooney correctly, then “adapting to this reality” means “walking on eggshells around religion.” If that is the case, then count me out. I am more interested in changing that reality then I am in adapting to it.
I have no doubt that many people are offended by Dawkins and his colleagues. The question, though, is whether they actually change their views about science or education as a result of his rhetoric. And whether there are enough of them to cancel out the obvious benefits that accrue from bringing atheism out of the closet, not to mention the number of people who tell stories like this.
Another reason I am not so worried about the New Atheists making the situation worse for American science education is that the situation is pretty horrendous already. Let us be honest, the creationists have largely won. There are very few public school students in this country who get an unapologetic, full-throated introduction to evolution. If the courts ever step out of the way, all of the accommodationist talk in the world is not going to save us. The polls don’t just show distressingly high rates of evolution rejection, they also show overwhelming majorities supporting the teaching of some sort of creationism alongside evolution. There are very few, if any, school districts in the country where we could afford to put this issue to a popular vote.
Our side typically dismisses this fact by saying people are just responding to the “fairness” argument. The trouble is that that is actually a very powerful argument! It doesn’t start to lose its power until you have a really thorough understanding of the scientific particulars, which is the one thing the framers and the communications experts tells us we must never provide for fear of being boring and pretentious and know-it-ally.
Which brings me, finally, to Josh. He quotes Jerry Coyne:
In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that our nation will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.
This sort of argument is quite common from Coyne, PZ, and a range of others in that camp (“New Atheists,” if you will). It argues that public opinion on evolution has been fairly constant for the last 30 years, therefore current approaches to evolution-defense/advocacy have failed, therefore we should do something different, therefore we should stop treating pro-evolution religious people and groups as allies.
While the last part of this argument doesn’t follow in any obvious way from the first parts, one can cobble something or other together. …
If all else were equal, and if the goal of NCSE, AAAS, NAS, and other groups were primarily to conduct public education about evolution, then the measure of success would clearly be poll results on public acceptance of evolution. But both of these assumptions are false. For the last 50 years, creationists have undertaken a high-profile media campaign against evolution, building on the previous hundred years of anti-evolution agitation (of varying intensity).
By the lights of Coyne, et al., the creationists too have failed, as they aren’t moving the needle against evolution. Indeed, we appear to be in a public opinion stalemate. Static public opinion thus suggests that either creationists are totally ineffective and that pro-evolution forces have been as well, or that creationists are effective on some level and that pro-evolution groups have also been effective, but not much more effective than creationists. The first is wildly implausible, given the wide dispersal of creationist talking points in the general discourse, so we have to conclude that pro-evolution groups have been effective to at least some degree, and the premise of the New Atheist critique of such efforts is left on quicksand.
This isn’t to say that the critique can’t be saved, but it does suggest a naivete or disingenuity among people making such arguments. They either don’t realize the political context of the creation/evolution conflict, or are intentionally obscuring that context to make their point. Neither of those would be entirely satisfactory.
Now, as any regular reader of Josh’s blog knows, he is a veritable zen master at keeping his cool. Jerry Coyne has written way more inflammatory things, some of them directed at Josh himself. So I had to laugh over the idea that the relatively milquetoast statement above is the one that caused him to stamp his feet and get indignant.
As for Josh’s little argument, how terribly clever! It has a few problems, though. The first is that he presents a pretty gross caricature of Jerry’s argument, at least as I understand it. Someone who thinks Ken Miller is an asset in these sorts of things is not likely to argue that pro-evolution religious people and groups should not be regarded as allies. Coyne’s main point, at least with regard to the NCSE and other science advocacy groups, is that we should not be pandering to religious groups by throwing outspoken atheists under the bus, and we should not be taking firm stands on the proper relationship between science and religion.
The second point is simply that not having much of an effect is far different from having no effect at all. I have no doubt that things would be much worse today were it not for the tireless efforts of the NCSE and their supporters over the last twenty-five years. There is a reason everyone on my side of this is a member and big supporter of the NCSE, despite our disagreements on this one issue.
But the fact remains that the current situation is terrible. We are in the precarious position of counting on the courts to save us from religious intrusions into public education. Whatever we have been doing is not adequate. Perhaps there simply is nothing more to be done beyond what we are already doing, but I don’t think Jerry is out of line in thinking something more is required.
Finally, while Josh focuses mainly on Coyne’s first sentence, his second sentence seems undeniable to me. And since leading our nation to a less-religious condition would have a great many other benefits beyond increased acceptance of evolution, I say that is something worth fighting for.
Josh’s post goes on for a while, but I feel little need to reply to it since I agree with almost every word of it. He stresses the need for increased and more effective outreach. He writes, among other things:
In recent years, NCSE has been working towards being less reactive, hiring a staffer to reach out to faith communities and another to reach out prospectively to teachers. The first is necessary to counter creationists’ ability to sow doubts about evolution in churches, and to turn that around by encouraging pro-evolution clergy to express their views in pulpits and in public hearings, and to bring scientists in to advance that cause as well. The education project works to help teachers improve and increase their evolution coverage, a critical component of improving the situation. Both positions are less than 5 years old, making it too early to measure the effects of those two hard-working staffers on public opinion polls at large. But it’s a big job, and two people alone can’t do the job, and all of NCSE’s staff is often consumed with the challenge of blocking creationist advances. Naturally, there are lots of things NCSE could do if it had a ton more money and staff, and anyone interested in helping on that front knows what to do.
Excellent! I love it! Keep up the good work!
But another thing we can do is have vocal atheists and humanists stand up publicly, and with a bit of anger and confidence say we are not going to kowtow to a state of affairs where the dogmatic pronouncements of religious clerics are treated with crazy amounts of respect. We are not going to accept defeatist talk about how religion will always be with us and about how you can’t change people’s mind on this issue, and that we can only hope to adapt to this reality and work around it by walking on eggshells around their religious beliefs.
We can make atheism and humanism so ubiquitous and commonplace that the younger generation does not find them weird and exotic. If we are successful the evolution issue will take care of itself.