The Island of Doubt

What divides science bloggers?

Half of the Scienceblogging team converged on New York City this past weekend to do what science geeks do best: drink someone else’s beer and wine and argue about the allegedly non-overlapping magisteria (the science-religion divide to the rest of you). Of course, we talked a lot of science, but we tended to agree on most everything and there wasn’t much in the way of genuine debate — except when it came to how to deal with people of faith. Even those who didn’t make it to New York seemed plugged in; witness Matt Nisbet’s post explaining “Why the New Atheist Noise Machine Fails,” which in my opinions suffers from some seriously flawed assumptions.

As the first commenter pointed out, relying on the notion that most religious people actually believe in evolution flies in the face of many a comprehensive survey. More than half the country rejects evolution by natural selection as the sole explanation for the diversity of life. Also, isn’t it a bit soon to be declaring winners and losers? Sam Harris’ book (The End of Faith) only came out in 2004. Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Dennett (Breaking the Spell) are 2006 publications and Hitchens’ God is not Great only slid off the presses a couple of months ago. These things take time.

But underlying Matt’s argument is the notion that telling it like it is aint’ going to work. Jennifer Ouellette of Cocktail Party Physics tries to bolster Matt’s disdain for the supposely in-your-face Dawkins/Hitchens campaign against religiosity by recalling that it was a slow and deliberatively contemplative process that drew her from faith to reason. “Angry atheists,” she writes are only making things worse.

That theme popped up at a videotaped brunch meeting in New York. Calling a spade a spade, it would seem, makes some people uneasy and should be avoided if we don’t want to scare them away.

This is the same reaction I occasionally get after giving the Al Gore’s climate change slide show. There’s a section on White House editing of scientific reports that paints a sorry picture of ethical standards in the Bush administration, and as I was reminded against last Thursday night, this sort of thing offends Republicans and might turn them off the whole message.

True, but that section illustrates an important point. It helps explains why media coverage of climate change was so poor (until recently) and why there’s this huge gap between what people think scientists are saying what they really are saying. You just can’t cut that out without losing a core piece of the message. My answer is that if someone isn’t willing to face the facts, calmly and patiently presented, then there’s probably nothing I can say to change their mind, no matter how delicately I try to tiptoe around the issue.

Sure, pointing out that Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures are littered with intensely offensive messages (incest, slavery, genocide, etc.) isn’t going to go down well with the more devout. But I say it’s not the scientist’s job to ignore “inconvenient” facts or sugar-coat the truth. We wouldn’t do it in research, so why do it when it comes to public exploration of the role of religion in society?

By the way, I had a great time.


  1. #1 Stuart Coleman
    August 20, 2007

    My answer is that if someone isn’t willing to face the facts, calmly and patiently presented, then there’s probably nothing I can say to change their mind, no matter how delicately I try to tiptoe around the issue.

    Exactly! I wish that all of those Nisbet-types would realize that. Dawkins et al are doing a great service in bringing atheism into the limelight, and that’s not going to happen with soft-spoken and completely civil discourse. Besides, all of the people who call atheists terrible things (much worse than we call them) aren’t going to stop, and we need to have something to counter their ugly rhetoric.

  2. #2 Rob Knop
    August 20, 2007

    Well, because there are some of us religious types, including at least a handful of the science bloggers here, who are fully aware of the misogynistic and racist and etc. stuff that’s in the Bible (and other religious documents), but who don’t feel the need to justify that everything we do today must be critically informed by everything that’s in the Bible.

    Sure, a lot of religious types want to interpret the Bible literally and treat it as a not-to-be-questioned-or-thought-about set of instructions about how to live, but that’s not all of them. And that’s the flaw — yes, by all means rail against the things that need to be railed against, but don’t falsely lump the rest of us in with those who need to be railed against.

    And, yes, to answer one of the criticisms that I get whenever I try to make this argument, I *do* rail against them myself.

    In any event, over the weekend I spent very little time talking about the whole religion/science issue. I was there for some of the global warming slideshow talk you reference, though.


  3. #3 Skeptic8
    August 20, 2007

    Why can we not agree on the “magisteria” as a social convention? There are many explorers of the metaphysical and “spiritual” Ways who are good neighbors and citizens and privately test their hypotheses without hijacking the secular governance.
    The Atheist,Deist, Humanist, Pagan, Secular, Spiritual, Unitarian and Wiccan ranks include many who have been abused in both mind and body by Authoritarian Theocrats and they are finding their own Ways with a discipline that includes unresolved anger. They will not use force on you.
    A minim of Empathy is prescribed in this case, twice daily.

  4. #4 Webs
    August 20, 2007

    The problem in this case of calling a tree a tree, is not that you piss off the religious, but that you close them off, almost immediately, to open dialog. When this communication is shut off the religious then think discussion of all issues with atheist scientists is shut off.

    Thus they are more inclined to not listen to those promoting other issues as well. Are they grouping people, classifying them and applying labels? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes. But it is something we should work with if we want them to understand the important messages.

    If we could instead learn how to create dialog and listen and present our information clearly, I think more people would listen, and maybe even ask questions. To me it’s a situation where more people can get involved in discussion and learn. The possibility of getting people to renounce their faith, if that is the goal of these strong headed atheists, is only going to be done by effective communication.

  5. #5 Kathryn Stillwell Burton
    August 20, 2007

    Instead of using this example, use one of pure,provable science,influenced by not faith, but by grant money and peer pressure. That, I believe, is a better test of ethics
    in this instance.

    Take, for example, any major program being pushed by the federal agencies, through which students, universities and NGOs make their fortunes…..such as the latest threat to mankind, the abomination de jour. This can be something as
    simple as a single bird species which has never passed 16,000 continental population (the Mute swans)and lives with no problems in seventy countries (U.N.figure), but targeted for extinction in America, to be replaced by a trophy bird, the Trumpeter swan;an aquatic nuisence that cleans up Great Lakes, while destroying man made pipes, etc.,the zebra mussel(widely known but pooh-poohed by the feds),or “placed” species,such as moose moved from the far north to lower states,after a study on how many injuries and/or deaths can be expected through automobile accidents caused by the naive animals and horrified drivers…”hey, its worth it to sell those hunting licences once the public tires of the problem.” Is this good science? Do you hear anyone pointing out the fact that it is junk science? Start with this, which is being acted on, paid for by your tax money and corrupting young people as they go through the process learning to never question the agencies, if they want to keep going to Chile in the winters….
    This, is solvable, not a question of faith, which should be personal and private.

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    August 20, 2007

    This is the argument — the one that just won’t die. And oddly enough, the entire thing was foreshadowed by Alan Sokal, of all people:

    Even most liberals and agnostics take a dim view of blunt talk about religion, except to denounce the excesses of fundamentalism. After all, the battles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries between the Church and the secular liberals were largely resolved in favor of the latter; religion in the West has largely abandoned its pretensions as a political influence, except on matters of sexual morality and (in areas of the United States where fundamentalists are strong) education. As a consequence, nonbelievers have reached a modus vivendi with organized religion: you agree to stay out of politics (more or less); we, in return, will refrain from publicly questioning your theology and from attacking the remnants of your temporal privileges (e.g. state subsidies in Europe, tax exemptions in the United States). Why bother criticizing ideas that are so inoffensive? Indeed, the liberal churches do much social good (e.g. in the civil rights and anti-war movements in the United States, and liberation theology in Latin America) and serve as an ethical counterweight to the untrammeled power of money.

    Of course, nowadays religion is more an arm of politics than a counterweight to monetary power; you can serve both God and Mammon. The modus vivendi has crumbled, and it wasn’t a few secular professors who broke it down.

    Sokal goes on to say,

    A similar modus vivendi has been reached between the scientific community and the non-fundamentalist churches. The modern scientific worldview, if one is to be honest about it, leads naturally to atheism — or at least to an innocuous deism or pan-spiritualism that is incompatible with the tenets of all the traditional religions — but few scientists dare to say so publicly. Rather, it is the religious fundamentalists who make this (valid) accusation about “atheistic science”; scientists, by contrast, generally take pains to reassure the public that science and religion, properly understood, need not come into conflict. This is no doubt shrewd politics, especially in the United States, where the majority of people take their religion quite seriously; some scientists have labored to convince themselves (and the rest of us) that it is intellectually honest as well. But the arguments do not hold water.

    From “Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers” (2004), pp. 66–7.

  7. #7 Skeptic8
    August 20, 2007

    WEBS speaks sooth.
    We must have non-threatening lore while asserting our Constitutional right of diverse opinions. The “threat” (above) has to be examined. So much resides in definitions and the nut of the matter is in the accepted definition. That is the crux of any debate. I think that for our National well-being (or recovery) we rationalists need to challenge the public memes by scholarship and evidence (or lack)both loudly and in visible presence. Some Dominionists would have us in “training camps” had they the power. How about a plan, Ladies & Gents?

  8. #8 quork
    August 24, 2007

    Please take a look at Michael Shermer’s column in the September issue of Scientific American which is quoted by Nisbet. It contains this startling statement:

    Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

    Shermer, who writes a regular column for SciAm, has declared that he considers scientific truth to be subservient to ideology.

  9. #9 J. J. Ramsey
    August 24, 2007

    “Calling a spade a spade, it would seem, makes some people uneasy and should be avoided if we don’t want to scare them away.”

    The problem is not necessarily calling a spade a spade. There’s a comment by NakedCelt to Shermer’s letter on that reads:

    “I used to be a believer; a sincere, intelligent believer who thought a lot about my beliefs. That is why I am no longer a believer.

    “Do you know what sentiments like yours used to make me think, fonex_86 and pewkatchoo?

    “They used to make me think ‘Atheists don’t have anything worthwhile to say, and they know it; that’s why they resort to insults.'”

    I found myself in a similar situation. Actually, for me it was worse because I found that far too many atheists were sloppy in their arguments, such as nonsense about the Bible saying pi equals 3, or pseudohistory from the Jesus-mythers. (Perhaps somewhat ironically, what helped me to atheism was Ship-of-Fools, in part because the atheists or agnostics there weren’t rabid nuts, and partly because I got a book recommendation for The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, which while not perfect, was a book that was more about being brutally honest about the Bible than it was about being polemical.) Anyway, I became an atheist by working around the nonsense from other atheists, and much of what I see from Dawkins et al. (e.g. the Chamberlain gambit, misquoting from the Founding Fathers) is more of the same old junk that I had been working around.

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