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.