I should probably warn you that this is a long one. So either get comfortable or go elsewhere!
Josh Rosenau has a post up, replying to this earlier post from Jerry Coyne, who was discussing this L. A. Times article about the recent secular humanist conference in Los Angeles. At the conference there was a panel discussion between Chris Mooney, Genie Scott, P. Z. Myers and Victor Stenger on everyone’s favorite topic: Accommodationism!
Jerry wrote this:
How can Mooney, The Great Communicator, think that if atheist accommodationists and atheist non-accommodationists both emphasize their common spirituality, everything will magically improve and the faithful will suddenly come to Darwinism?
Josh believes he has the answer.
Now I’m not Chris, and I won’t pretend to be speaking for him. Maybe he’d answer Coyne differently. But the answer I’d give to Coyne’s question is: because SCIENCE!
Which is to say, the science to date indicates that you’re more likely to sway people to your point of view if you present your argument in a context that breaks through the conceptual narrative they’ve built up around their opposition, and that’s what Chris has been advocating for a long time now.
Now, I’m not Jerry, and I won’t pretend to be speaking for him. Maybe he’d answer Josh differently. But the answer I’d give to Josh’s statement is: YOU’RE LOOKING AT THE WRONG SCIENCE!
Josh presents a lengthy quotation from an article published in the Journal of Risk Research. Here is a sample:
Research informed by cultural cognition and related theories is making progress in identifying communication strategies that possess this quality. One is identity affirmation. When shown risk information (e.g., global temperatures are increasing) that they associate with a conclusion threatening to their cultural values (commerce must be constrained), individuals tend to react dismissively toward that information; however, when shown that the information in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms their cultural values (society should rely more on nuclear power), such individuals are more likely to consider the information open-mindedly (Cohen, Aronson, and Steele 2000; Cohen et al. 2007; Kahan 2010).
The other main paragraphs are variations on this theme. Turns out people tend to mistrust information that comes from people they don’t like. Who knew?
Here’s Josh trying to apply this sort of wisdom to the evolution question.
Talking about spirituality ticks all of these boxes. Talking about the widespread spirituality and even religiosity that scientists report in surveys certainly counts as “information [which] in fact supports or is consistent with a conclusion that affirms … cultural values” of people ambivalent about evolution. Talking up the widespread spirituality and religiosity of a significant chunk of scientists will also diffuse a perception that evolution is “advocated by experts whose values [the evolution-ambivalent] reject.” And by taking evolution out of a narrative of conflict with religion and into one of several other viable narrative frames, talking about the spirituality that many scientists feel can “evoke narrative templates that are culturally congenial to target audiences, … assur[ing] that the content of the information they are imparting receives considered attention across diverse cultural groups.” (Emphasis in original.)
There is so much wrong with this.
Josh begins by touting the “widespread spirituality and even religiosity” of scientists. But any honest consideration of the data shows that nonbelief is vastly more common among scientists than it is among the public at large. There has been a lot of discussion of this question recently, since the publication of Elaine Ecklund’s book on the subject. Let us recall that her data shows that 72% of scientists do not believe in God (64% are atheists or agnostics, while an additional 8% believe in a higher power that is not God.”) It was a mere 23% who claimed a clear belief in God. (An additional 5% said they believe in God sometimes.) More than half, 53%, do not even claim a religious affiliation. An additional 16% are Jewish, and 75% of them are atheists. These numbers are stark. Moreover, evangelical Christianity, the preference of 28% of the population, is all but nonexistent among scientists. Theological liberalism is ubiquitous among those scientists who view themselves as religious. Anyone who worries that science and religion are in conflict would see his fears confirmed by this data.
Thus, any discussion of the spiritual or religious minority that does not also make clear the general tenor of the numbers is spin at best, and dishonesty at worst.
Once this is appreciated it becomes clear why Josh’s next sentence, that this minority holds values that are consistent with those of people ambivalent about evolution, is very dubious. Atheist spirituality, such as it is, has almost nothing in common with traditional religion. So far as I can tell, it refers simply to the notion that atheists, no less than theists, can look at nature and be impressed. To suggest that this represents a point of contact between the religious and the nonreligious, which was, after all, the point of Mooney’s original USA Today article and was the issue raised by Jerry in his post, trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous. People with religious concerns about science are not worried that if they accept evolution they will no longer be able to feel things deeply.
Which leads to the next problem. Josh encourages us to take evolution out of a narrative of conflict with religion. That is like taking circumcision out of a narrative of genital mutilation. It is very hard to do. That evolution and traditional religion are in conflict has been obvious to everyone who has ever considered the question. Some people manage to reconcile them through various implausible arguments, and I am all in favor of them speaking publicly and making their case. But we should not act surprised that so many people find their arguments unpersuasive. The assumption of the paper Josh cites, as applied to evolution, would be that it is even possible to frame the evolution issue in a manner that does not run afoul of people’s religious beliefs. (Keeping in mind, of course, that ours is the side that actually cares about intellectual honesty and integrity). I am not convinced that assumption is correct.
As an example, consider that Josh linked to this article by John Haught, to illustrate the idea that there are other viable narrative frames for the science/religion conflict. Whether those alternatives are viable is a matter of opinion, of course. What I wish to point out, though, is that Haught achieves his reconciliation between evolution and Christianity by advocating process theology. He is welcome to it, of course, but I think a lot of people would look at his version of Christianity and see only a farrago of dubious assertions unsupported either by scripture or tradition. They would say that if being an evolutionist and a Christian means accepting process theology, then that is equivalent to saying an evolutionist cannot be a Christian.
And that is the problem. Josh acts as though it is a problem of poor marketing that people think evolution and religion conflict. That, I believe, is a misapprehension of the issue. They see a conflict because they are thinking clearly. You can tell them they are not, and you can point out the folks who manage to reconcile the two, but in the end all of the slick marketing in the world cannot change the basic facts.
That said, I am all in favor of outreach to religious communities. One of the biggest problems with the creationist subculture is its insularity, and I think a lot of people are genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this question. So by all means send out whomever you can find to make that case. If I worked for an organization devoted exclusively to the narrow question of science education then I too would play up the harmonizers (though not to the extent of being insulting or dismissive towards those who demur), simply because I think it is good politics to do so. So far as I am aware, no one is arguing differently. In the context of school board disputes you should not send in people who are going to horrify the locals. That seems perfectly reasonable to me.
It’s just that some of us are not directly involved in school board disputes. Some of us think that such disputes are an almost trivially small front in a much larger battle. We see the pernicious influence of excessive religious belief in almost every aspect of American public life, and we think it would be a good idea if we had a bit less of it. We are tired of being told, preposterously, that science and religion are different, but equally valid, ways of knowing. And so we try to mainstream nonreligious ways of thinking.
Which brings me to my remark that Josh is looking at the wrong science. He wants to win people over to evolution by showing them that, at worst, they need to make only small alterations to their religious values. The paper he cites is very much in the same vein. That is, we are trying to win people over to a way of thinking about specific political issues by working within their previously held ideas. On the subject of evolution I am pessimistic about the strategy because I believe it is based on a false premise.
But more to the point, I am far more interested in changing the religious values themselves.
The big problem that needs fixing is not so much that people reject evolution. It is that people’s religious values are teaching them to be mistrustful of atheists.
Josh should be looking at the science of advertising. If he did, he would discover nuggets like this:
Other psychologists do basic research on social marketing. Curtis Haugtvedt hopes social marketers in the field will use what he’s learned about persuasion as a result of his laboratory experiments on recycling. So far, he’s found that emotional appeals–like the famous ad showing an American Indian with a tear rolling down his face as he confronts pollution–work better than cognitive ones when it comes to persuading people to recycle. Emphasizing that “everyone else is doing it” also helps. (Emphasis Added)
Repetition is one way to increase visual fluency and hence appeal. The more people see something, the more they like it. “Advertisers intuitively know that exposing people repetitively to the same stimulus increases liking,” says Winkielman. “That’s one of the reasons they show the same ad over and over again.”
Quite right. Obviously neither of these examples is talking about atheism specifically, but following Josh’s example I think the analogies are pretty clear, especially the part about repetition. As I see it, this is where the New Atheists are making a real contribution.
A thirty-second spot for Colgate toothpaste is not directed at die-hard Crest users. It is not about making a rational argument that Colgate is superior to Crest. It is not appealing to the rational side of the brain at all. It is about making the Colgate brand so ubiquitous that it gradually seeps into people’s minds that everyone is using Colgate. When you go to the store and see twenty different brands, you will remember that all the cool kids use Colgate.
Likewise, if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist.
It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.
Of course, I am not saying that the rational arguments don’t matter. Of course you have to make a good point. Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris all have numerous e-mails to offer from people who credit their books with changing their minds on this issue. So persuasion via rational argument should not be underestimated. I am simply noting that the importance of books like those of the NA’s goes far beyond the people who actually buy them and read them. It goes far beyond the people sitting in the audiences during their public presentations. It extends to the fact that four years after the publication of Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ books everyone is still talking about them. Atheism is a part of the public conversation to a degree that was unheard of prior to the publication of those books. Keep it up and pretty soon you have a generation of people who think there is nothing bizarre about atheism, just as today we have a generation of teenagers growing up in an environment in which homosexuality is visible and largely accepted.
Now let us get dramatic. The arguments made against the New Atheists today; that they are too confrontational, that they turn off moderates, that they need to be understanding of people’s fears and concerns; were all made to civil rights leaders in the sixties, and to gay rights leaders in the eighties and nineties. Martin Luther King was lectured endlessly about being patient and not being confrontational. He had exactly the right answer in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.
Now, this is where indignant commenters start lecturing me about the differences between the civil rights movement and the situation for atheists today. Spare me. You know perfectly well that I am not likening the situation of atheists today to that of Blacks in the sixties. Nor am I suggesting any significant similarity between King’s critics, many of whom were motivated by racism and not sound strategy, and NA critics today. The fact remains that there are clear parallels between what King heard from his critics in the sixties and what New Atheists hear today. King did not achieve his success by thinking about framing or by working within the value systems of those who were hostile to civil rights. He did it by working around them, until pretty soon the national zeitgeist changed.
The simple fact is that with all the talk about how NA’s are “violently anti-religion”, or that they are as intolerant as “the most unbending religious Inquisitor,” or that their intolerance is comparable to that of Middle East terrorists, it is easy to forget that all they actually did was write a few books. They also speak publicly, when invited to do so, and in those presentations they are always models of decorum. Even their books are nowhere near as militant as is sometimes pretended. You have to paw through them pretty carefully to find the juicy bits. But this is still too much for their critics, who do not seem to have the slightest difficulty using the same militant and hyperbolic language they claim to decry.
I would suggest that this ludicrous overreaction is itself a big social problem, and it is not one that will be solved by talking sweetly or hiding under the table.
Of course, you might argue there is a conflict between making atheism visible and mainstream over here, while fighting school board battles over there. I do not believe that. I think that is just scapegoating. I think the most clever framing in the world will have little effect on the perception that evolution and religion are at odds, for reasons I have already explained.
In defense of the New Atheist strategy of creating tension and making atheism visible we have a body of research on advertising that shows that repetition and ubiquity are essential for mainstreaming an idea. We have the historical examples of social movements that changed the zeitgeist by ignoring the people urging caution, and by working around the people whose value systems put them in opposition to their goals. We know that hostility towards atheists was at a fever pitch well before the NA’s arrived on the scene, a time during which accommodationist arguments were common but vocal atheism was not. And we have the all-important verdict of common sense, which says that you don’t mainstream your view by getting down on your knees and pleading with people to treat you nicely.
Against this Josh has a few papers breathlessly reporting that people don’t like it when you offend them. It is on this basis that he gives smug lectures about communications strategies.
I am underwhelmed.