I’m looking forward to the moment in a few weeks from now when Desiree Schell and I sit down and have a serious public conversation about approaches to promoting skepticism and science-based reasoning and policy. We’ll also discuss New Atheism and Accommodationism, I assume.
As you know, Desiree hosts the highly popular radio program and podcast “Skeptically Speaking.” This may be the first time she’s engaged in a public conversation with some crazy New Atheist blogger anywhere other than on her own home turf (we’ll be talking on Atheist Talk Radio, with Mike Haubrich hosting). It should be interesting to say the least. The word “Feisty” has been used in reference to the conversation likely to develop.
In the meantime, people are talking about “extreme atheists.” There is no such thing as an “extreme atheist.” Being an “extreme atheist” is a little like being totally unique. Of course, what is meant by “extreme atheist” is not someone who extremely does not believe in god (as opposed to only kinda not believing in god) but rather a person with something of an “in your face” approach to communication. That’s an idea that is probably worth exploring.
Say I pose the question on the Internet: “What do you do, if you’re a high school biology teacher, and a student shows up with Young Earth Creationist literature and tries to argue with you about evolution”? I’ve done that a few times, and when I do, I get all sorts of interesting answers. The answers include things like assigning the student a project in which they must face the evidence for evolution dead on. Or, that the teacher should provide the entire class with a history of scientific thinking since the enlightenment. Or suggestions that may involve the students parents. And so on and so forth. I could pose similar questions. What do you do if you are a teacher on “conference night” and a parent comes in demanding to know if you teach “alternative theories.” What do you do if you are a school administrator and an applicant for an open position teaching biology gives an indication of being a creationist … what do you ask that applicant?
I guarantee that if these questions were posed there would be a plethora of interesting suggestions about what to do and what to say. And some of those ideas would be illegal, some would get you fired, some would have a negative effect on the present situation even if they were somehow sadistically pleasurable to carry out. Some of the ideas would be extreme, some would be gentle, some passive aggressive and some in your face.
The conversation about what one would do in any of these situations may be quite spirited, the participants animated, and a number of rather troublesome assumptions might be challenged. If the conversation happened among civilians, said civilians may well be energized in their thinking on the evolution-creationism debate, but it may well be that no usable solutions would be reached. If, however, the conversation included a few educators with the appropriate training and experience, who would be inclined to point out relevant best practices, regulations, laws, and more subtle difficulties that may come up, then the same group (now including some expertise) may well come up with really good approaches to responding to creationist teachers, students, or others.
Why the difference? Context, training, and experience. For instance, if you’ve never been involved in the interview process in a public institution trying to hire an educator who is a member of a union, you may be unaware of the fact that the hiring process is tainted if interviewers come up with random questions for one applicant that were not asked of another applicant. So when the applicant says something indicating that they may be a creationist, you can’t necessarily throw in a random novel question as a followup, no matter how much it makes sense to do that. Also, you may not be aware of the fact that you can’t ask an applicant about his or her beliefs any more than you can ask a female applicant if she plans to have babies or an applicant you are interviewing over the phone if she or he happens to be black. So when the applicant gives a hint of being a creationist, the unwashed civilians would very naturally want to brandish their pitchforks and yell “Demand to know if the applicant is a creationist!” and indeed it seems a reasonable thing to do … it makes sense to not hire creationists to teach biology. But, since being a creationist is a form of religious practice, you simply cant ask that and, in fact, if you know someone is a creationist, you can’t avoid hiring them (to teach evolution) for that reason! Sucks, but that’s the way it is. And, this is how it should be. And, if you don’t understand that this is how it should be, then there are things that you don’t know about that you may want to learn.
At the same time, it totally sucks that creationists teach biology in classrooms in the United States (and elsewhere). It is reasonable and potentially effective if society at large had a negative attitude towards creationist public school teachers. Not to the people themselves … they’re just regular people like you and me. Indeed, I’ve got friends and acquaintances who are creationist biology teachers … I think one or two might be in my bathroom at this very moment in fact … and I don’t want to drive them into the swamp. But, the public attitude that creationism has no place in schools and a kind of meta raised eyebrow effect when it comes to creationist biology teachers is part of what keeps such teachers from sneaking creationism into the classroom. Also, public outrage about creationism in the classroom, if widespread and visible and normal, makes it a hella lot easier for teachers in conferences to stand their ground against creationist parents, and the creationist parents are not rare.
So the pitchfork waving of the unwashed rabble … the in your face and extreme skeptic or atheist or whatever … is how we win this fight. Oh, and the considered strategy of the professionalized experts who know how to not break the law even when our heart may lead us in that direction as we react to outrage and absurdity is how we win the fight. The former probably contributes more to the maintenance of energy internal to the struggle, and the latter is the sharp edged tool brought to bear at just the right moment at just the right spot cutting to the quick.
But we have a problem. The brimstone rarely appreciates the acuity of the scalpel and the scalpel usually thinks it does not need the very fire in which it was forged. But really, they need to talk, this yin and this yang.
Right now we see a version of this conversation playing out on the Internet. I summarized parts of it here and it continues and develops here (see the comment section in particular). And I’m not especially happy with the way this conversation is going. A famous pop psychologist once said “Every relationship needs a hero.” Well, this conversation needs everybody to be a hero. (I quickly add that I’m not criticizing either Stephanie Zvan or Mike McRae who are currently slogging it out in the comments section … I’m thinking more of those who are not actively engaging in dialog and more actively engaged in sniping, often in big hard to miss print. I think those two are both being rather heroic.)
I sit and read the Internet and notice that much of the energy spent on the “skeptical movement” or on defending evolution in the classroom or how atheism should look and feel and all sorts of related issues is over how to do it and how to think about it and how to act on it. It is important to have this conversation, but there is no reason to have it at all if the original motivating reasons for engaging are forgotten.
But in private something else is happening for me. In private I am a confidant of numerous biology teachers. I can’t tell you most of what they tell me without putting people’s careers at risk or revealing information that is protected. But I can tell you that there is some serious shit happening in high schools across this country, and the bits and pieces of news about this ‘debate’ that come to the surface now and then are like the hailstones collected by people and photographed that we then see on the TV news after a bad thunderstorm. You know, the chunks of ice placed next to a dime, or a quarter, or a golf ball, or more rarely, a tennis ball to indicate size, shown to us by the weather reporter after the fact. Those hailstones are not the only ones that fell that day!
According to some, the quiet, systematic, well research, communications-theory based approach that might even involve some kind of accommodation of religious groups is the only way to win the fight as it is corraled into the courtroom, which is the only place we really ever actually do win. But according to others, the angry pitchfork wielding mob driving the faith-based monster into the swamp is the only way to get enough people on board in this fight and the only way to bring sufficient shame to bear on the issue to make social sanctions work.