Why the Silent Majority Is Silent

Chris Mooney has found new digs, and, revitalized by the more congenial atmosphere, has been taking up the science vs. religion fight again. Yesterday, he had a post asking what can be done to get moderate scientists more involved in the argument over whether science and religion can coexist:

At the same time, though, let’s face it-in the science blogosphere, we don’t hear a lot from the “silent majority.” Rather, and admittedly with some important exceptions, we hear from the New Atheists.

Yet I am arguing on behalf of the silent majority, and that is what keeps me going. So my question is this: How can we wake them up, make them realize that this is their issue too, and help them reclaim the debate for the middle ground?

As someone who is in the middle (I am not personally religious, but don’t have any problem with other scientists being religious), and largely silent on these questions, I suppose I should say something. Actually, if anything, I shade toward Chris’s end of things– I find the “New Atheist” crowd really annoying, and suspect that they’re actually counterproductive in many ways. So, given that, why don’t I speak up more?

I don’t participate actively in these arguments for more or less the same reason that I have not participated actively in any of the other giant shitstorms that have ripped through the parts of the Internet I frequent: I see no upside to being a part of this conversation as it is currently conducted.

There are a bunch of other factors, as well. It’s part filtering (I removed most of the ranty-atheist blogs from my RSS feeds a year or so ago, and replaced them with blogs that talk about interesting science), part outrage fatigue (I just can’t get worked up about the same stupid arguments over and over again), and part general busy-ness (I’ve got classes to teach, research to do, a book to write and promote…). But mostly it’s just that there’s no upside.

Writing about these issues takes a great deal of effort, with very little payoff. If I write something hastily, I inevitably end up pissing a bunch of people off through some unlucky turn of phrase. If I spend a great deal of time composing and revising a post, it gets basically ignored in favor of people who are yelling stupid things. If I’m going to spend hours on a blog post and have it ignored, I’ll write about new physics research– at least that way, I learn about something cool.

And there’s no real internal payoff for these posts, either. It’s easy to bang out several thousand words a day about something that you find genuinely outrageous, but the fact is that most of the things that get the “New Atheist” crowd cranked up just don’t bother me. I suppose I could post about them on general principle, but it’d be like the world’s most boring Twitter feed (“Day 483: Still not outraged.”). I could write responses to the responses to the things that don’t outrage me (which generally bug me more than the original events), but that would require me to read those blogs, and I have a ten-month-old daughter. If I want to deal with infantile behavior, I don’t need a computer.

I realize that this means I’ve effectively ceded the field to the rantiest of the ranty and that I ought to say more for the good of Science as a whole. But really, I figure I can do good for Science as a whole by writing about good science, rather than bad theology (theist or a-), and I’m generally happier that way.

I’ll try to do more quietly– I realized that I haven’t even tagged most of Chris’s recent posts for the daily Links Dumps, and I can at least do that– but honestly, I just don’t see any upside to being an active combatant.

Comments

  1. #1 JohnV
    June 23, 2009

    Rest assured, many of us really appreciate having a science blog that deals with science.

  2. #2 Orac
    June 23, 2009

    I don’t participate actively in these arguments for more or less the same reason that I have not participated actively in any of the other giant shitstorms that have ripped through the parts of the Internet I frequent: I see no upside to being a part of this conversation as it is currently conducted.

    These days, I’m with you. I’m not religious, and I’ve taken on a live-and-let live sort of a view except in cases where religion actively interferes with science and medicine. For a couple of years, I flirted with the “New Atheism,” but over the last several months I came to the same sorts of conclusions as you do, sometimes to the point of saying “a pox on both your houses” to the religious and the Dawkins/PZ crowd. Like you, many of the things that get PZ et al twisted into knots of outrage hardly even register with me anymore. I have to wonder if my flirting with the whole scene a couple of years ago was a pathetic attempt to fit in more here at SB. Whatever it was, it’s (mostly) over now. I burned out on it.

    In any case, if I’m going to start up a blog shitstorm, I’d prefer to do it about vaccines and autism or cancer quackery than about religion. I can only handle so much drama at one time. And at least when I deal with science-based medicine versus quackery there’s a hope that I might actually get through to someone. It’s small, but it’s a hell of a lot bigger than the hope I might get through to someone posting about religion.

  3. #3 Joseph
    June 23, 2009

    +1.

    I’ve (foolishly) been an active participant in the discussions a couple of times, and lemme tell you, being The One Guy arguing with 5-10 other (sometimes hostile) people gets really old really quick.

    Perhaps this is why the population polarizes so easily–people tend select their media sources based upon comfort level (not being exposed to The Other Side is much easier than having to think about *all* of what they’re saying), which leads to a degree of polarization. Step 2 in the cycle is that fewer people from the opposing view are present in the forum, leading to an unbalanced discussion (blogs are really glorified comments, with their own comment thread attached), and those from the opposition moving away after being overwhelmed. Now we’ve fed back around again.

  4. #4 James F
    June 23, 2009

    I think the short answer is that “silent majority” is already represented by the official position of the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS (the NAS, in particular, having an overwhelmingly atheist membership). They’re not worked up about the argument, and I think it’s unlikely any substantial change is going to result from this debate – it could, but the discussions go off the rails rather quickly.

  5. #5 Jay
    June 23, 2009

    Honestly, if you’ve got a 10 month old daughter, it’s amazing that you find the time to do everything else that you listed.

    You’ve got to pick the issues and topics that resonate for you – to do otherwise is a guaranteed recipe for burnout.

  6. #6 Jay
    June 23, 2009

    Honestly, if you’ve got a 10 month old daughter, it’s amazing that you find the time to do everything else that you listed.

    You’ve got to pick the issues and topics that resonate for you – to do otherwise is a guaranteed recipe for burnout.

  7. #7 Uncle Al
    June 23, 2009

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/reality.png
    science and religion are orthogonal

    1) That which supports religion supports religion.
    2) That which ignores religion supports religion.
    3) That which contradicts religion supports religion – test of faith!
    4) Anybody who criticizes is thereby proven unqualified to comment – and must be destroyed lest god(s) take offense.

    http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/fleas.htm
    canada(theology) = religion
    canada(religion) = theology

  8. #8 Sigmund
    June 23, 2009

    Chad, there’s a basic problem with the post by Chris in that he makes the mistake of extrapolating from two statements by Peter Hess and David Masci, who were talking about the US population in general, to the science blogging community – a group who cannot in any sense to be assumed to be representative of the general population. He might as well say “why don’t the silent majority stand up and deny the theory of evolution?” – it would make as much logical sense as the one you linked.
    Chris is not a scientist. He works in the political sphere and as such is apt to put more store in rhetorical devices that simply won’t fly with scientists – particularly biologists who are frequently told by this ‘silent majority’ that they simply don’t care what the science tells them – something David Masci himself points out in Chris’s piece.
    There are remarkably few new atheist scientists that think religious people cannot be scientists, or even do good science. The evidence is overwhelming that many scientists can be both. That, however is not the point of the current debate between the accomodationists and the non-accomodationists.
    If I try to sum up the views of each camp I would put it as follows.
    Accomodationists.
    Many good scientists in the past and present have been and continue to be religious.
    Therefore science and religion are compatible.
    Non-Accomodationists
    Miracles do not occur in nature.
    The only types of religion compatible with science are vague deistic (first mover with no subsequent involvement) and pantheistic beliefs. Theistic religions with supernatural components that interact with the natural world are incompatible with science
    To say that religion is compatible with science confuses a complex matter so much that its akin to defining astrology as the vague notion that stars form groups in the sky that look a bit like mythical figures, thus astrology is compatible with science.

  9. #9 jagorev
    June 23, 2009

    As someone who is neither an atheist nor terribly religious, I find the New Atheists far, far more annoying than their religious counterparts, because they really ought to be smart enough to know better. Many of them are scientists with elite educations, but it seems to me like most of them have skipped over any basic, secular, historically-informed study of religion, and have gone straight to attacking religious strawmen. Which makes them just as blindly ideological and blinkered as those that they attack.

    A pox on both their houses, indeed.

  10. #10 Neuroskeptic
    June 23, 2009

    I find religious believers quite annoying, New Atheists rather more annoying, and people who don’t listen to other people because they find them annoying the most annoying of all…

  11. #11 Chad Orzel
    June 23, 2009

    Sigmund: Chris is not a scientist. He works in the political sphere and as such is apt to put more store in rhetorical devices that simply won’t fly with scientists

    In the specific case of Chris Mooney, I agree that his political background is part of the problem, but not for the reason you give. As I’ve said before, I think one of the reasons why Chris butts heads with the “New Atheist” crowd so much is that they are working toward fundamentally different goals.

    Being a political type, Chris sees many of the scientific problems facing us at the moment as political problems, which can be solved by political action. His goal is to achieve some short- and medium-term policy goals– action on climate change, sustainable energy, and the like– and achieving those goals in the immediate future is best accomplished through accommodation. By bringing scientists and moderate religious types together, you may be able to assemble a coalition that will produce meaningful action on problems of mutual interest.

    The “New Atheist” crowd, on the other hand, are coming at this from more of a “Clash of Civilizations” perspective. Policy action is all well and good, but the ultimate goal is the triumph of Science over the forces of Religion. If that’s the goal, then accommodation is counter-productive– you might get short-term gains on climate change by working with moderate religious people, but by compromising your ideological purity in that way, you would make it harder to eventually stamp out religion.

    (As you can tell, I lean more toward Chris’s side of things.)

    The ultimate problem here is really one of incompatible goals. Political activists and culture warriors share a few short-term goals, but their ultimate aims are different, and those different goals dictate demand different tactics.

  12. #12 AnnoyingPerson
    June 23, 2009

    “I find religious believers quite annoying, New Atheists rather more annoying, and people who don’t listen to other people because they find them annoying the most annoying of all…”

    Sounds like you got the human race pretty much covered.

  13. #13 Sigmund
    June 23, 2009

    I tend to find Chris to be rather dismissive towards even the idea that science blogging exists outside the borders of the US. Political goals are essentially localised to the constituency you live in. Science bloggers you may be exposed to, on the other hand, don’t necessarily live in the same regions. I was at a talk by the famous hoaxer and physicist Alan Sokal a few weeks ago here in Sweden where he stated at the beginning of the talk that he would say something that would be shocking to many in the audience. The shocking thing, apparently was that Science and Religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world (essentially the non-accomodationalist viewpoint). To an audience of Swedish scientists this came across about as shocking as saying “Guess what! The Earth orbits the Sun!”
    Even the public here would have little problem with the non-accomodationist viewpoint. The “silent majority” in the USA should not be confused with the silent majority in other countries where science bloggers in taking the non-accomodationalist line are simply echoing the silent majority of both the scientific profession and the public at large.

  14. #14 Orac
    June 23, 2009

    I find religious believers quite annoying, New Atheists rather more annoying, and people who don’t listen to other people because they find them annoying the most annoying of all…

    You missed one: People who make snarky comments about people who don’t listen to other people because they find them annoying.

    I think they’re even more annoying…

  15. #15 Ray Ingles
    June 23, 2009

    “New Atheists” tend to get bum raps, though. As Anthony Gottlieb wrote, “For example, when Terry Eagleton, a British critic who has been a professor of English at Oxford, lambasted Dawkins’s ‘The God Delusion’ in the London Review of Books, he wrote that ‘card-carrying rationalists’ like Dawkins ‘invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.’ That is unfair, because millions of the faithful around the world believe things that would make a first-year theology student wince. A large survey in 2001 found that more than half of American Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians believed that Jesus sinned—thus rejecting a central dogma of their own churches.”

    Pointing out that very-commonly held beliefs (indeed, apparently the majority) are incompatible with science doesn’t strike me as ‘militant’.

    And they also frequently get what P.Z. Meyers calls “The Courtier’s Reply

  16. #16 Comrade PhysioProf
    June 23, 2009

    Chris Mooney has found new digs, and, revitalized by the more congenial atmosphere, has been taking up the science vs. religion fight again.

    Have you considered asking Sheril if she considers the atmosphere at their new digs “more congenial”?

  17. #17 Jim C
    June 23, 2009

    Most religious people just want to left alone. It is the militant atheists who wish to impose their beliefs on everyone else. I don’t belong to any organized religion and I Know many would consider my personal belief to at best be in conflict with their views, but I am not trying to force my views on anyone else, nor do I want to interfere with their beliefs. I object strongly when people try do this. Even if their belief is atheism.

    “All that is require for evil to flourish, is for good men to do nothing” (paraphrased)

  18. #18 A
    June 23, 2009

    I’d think the silent majority of scientists is silent because they or their work does not force them to say something about religion, and most of them do think that it is irrelevant. Why go out to pick fights?- So, if you are a physicist, there are few religious people who contest gravity, and Galileo happened a long time ago, so you are fine, and firm in the belief that science will carry the day. But if you are an evolutionary biologist in a college not on one of the coasts, you might get more interactions and annoyances from religious people, and some students who tell you that – while they’ll answer the quizzes as the text and lecturer says – they KNOW that evolution is a lie and God did it all in 7 days. Enough of that, and you’ll more likely become a ‘militant atheist’ (as you might be denounced as such anyway).–
    Another thing is the effort of religion to co-opt science; on the large scale there is the Templeton Foundation, but also on a small scale; there are people out there who claim that the ‘Big Bang’ theory somehow validates creation, and hence God, and ‘free will’ is proved by quantum mechanics. Enough of these, and you might also want to become more militant.– Through (more religious)in-laws I occasionally (have to) attend dinners given to priests and such, and often enough, to my discomfort, the presence of a scientist (me) is pointed out, and made to look like I endorse the religious aspect of the meeting; politeness prevents me from interrupting the speaker in public (Anyway, I am not asked, once my view is known, and my wife reminds me not to say anything controversial). So I am told occasionally (by priests or lay people) that science and theology are equal and that science somehow confirms belief (this is often offered as chit-chat, with no expectation that I might disagree, and when I do [disagree], it does not really register).
    I suspect that a fair number of scientists are in the same position; and if you are the Chairman of the Science Department in the Bible Belt, or even elsewhere, you will not speak your view on religion, lest you offend donors and legislators funding your college. So I would think that there is also a silent number of scientist – who while atheist – do not speak out as much as they would without the constraints of (the more religious) society surrounding them.

    So I am happy that there are militant atheists speaking out; so I can refer to Dawkins’ God Delusion or Sam Harris as a good review of theology, and my own, perhaps more lukewarm defense of atheism, appears -by comparison – more acceptable. If there were no ‘militant atheists’ probably agnostics and mere doubters of the true faith would be denounced as strongly as the ‘new atheists’ are now.

    One has also to consider the reverse: the mainstream religions seem so acceptable, because they are not as bad as the various cults and fundamentalists. And Catholic schools even teach science and do not object to evolution (which is a good thing).

    If astrology were as prevalent as mainstream religion, we’d also have to live with it. And there would be people urging confluence between Astrology and Astronomy, speaking of different ‘ways of knowing,’ denouncing the ‘New Astronomers’ for their radical stand, which is not informed by a “basic, secular, historically-informed study of” Astrology “and have gone straight to attacking” astrological “strawmen. Which makes them just as blindly ideological and blinkered as those that they attack.”[reformulated from comment 9.] And the astrologers would point out how reasonable they are compared to palm-readers and gypsies, who did not attend seminary for 4 years.

  19. #19 Brandon
    June 23, 2009

    Ray Ingles, I couldn’t tell from your post whether you are in favor of or opposed to The Courtier’s Reply. In my opinion, it is the laziest piece of crap I have ever seen. It basically says, “Do I really need to actually understand your ideas before stuffing you into a phone booth with Fred Phelps and Osama bin Laden?” When I first read The Courtier’s Reply, it finally clicked with me that the New Atheist movement (at least on SB) isn’t about real social progress as it is one faction of people throwing hissy fits about every other faction of people.

    The reason the silent majority is silent is because they’re too busy actually making the world a better place to get into meaningless philosophical debates and “Who can work up the highest blood pressure?” contests.

  20. #20 Brandon
    June 23, 2009

    Sorry for double posting, I didn’t see this comment before I wrote the first one.

    If astrology were as prevalent as mainstream religion, we’d also have to live with it. And there would be people urging confluence between Astrology and Astronomy, speaking of different ‘ways of knowing,’…

    I don’t know off the top of my head whether astrology and astronomy are mutually compatible. If they are, then I have no personal problem with anything in that paragraph. People can have all the palm readers and newspaper horoscopes they want, as long as it stays out of the science classroom. I’m sure most accomodationists would agree with me, and that’s fairly consistent with their views on religion.

  21. #21 cicely
    June 23, 2009

    Jim C. @ 17:

    Most religious people just want to left alone. It is the militant atheists who wish to impose their beliefs on everyone else.

    But, in fairness, and by my observation, most atheists also just want to be left alone; it’s the militantly religious who also wish to impose their beliefs on everone else. (Said observation has almost entirely taken place in the US, in the Bible Belt; your mileage may vary.)

    Can we agree that the extremists in both parties irritate and alienate others not in agreement with them, and do their fellow-travelers no favors?

  22. #22 foole
    June 23, 2009

    First, I really dislike the term “New Atheists”. To me, it seems that the people who most often use this term seem to imply that atheists are better when they sit down and STFU about what they think (and from what I’ve read of Mooney, he very much seems to be in this category). It’s particularly vexing that the people who most often use the term this way are atheists themselves.

    Second, in comment 11, Chad states: “The ‘New Atheist’ crowd, on the other hand, are coming at this from more of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’ perspective. Policy action is all well and good, but the ultimate goal is the triumph of Science over the forces of Religion.”

    While I agree with Chad that Mooney and the atheists like Meyers and Dawkins see things differently and that perhaps the Meyers/Dawkins crowd does see the issue from a clash of the civilizations point of view I think there is a very good reason for this: they’re biologists. I rather suspect that if school boards around the country were trying to rewrite the laws of physics because they weren’t biblically accurate, then maybe there wouldn’t be as much silence from the “I’m not religious, but I don’t mind if people are religious.” I realize I’m being glib and that’s not what you’re saying. My point is that for Dawkins/Meyers, maybe they see their very livelihood as being under threat due to religionists (if Intelligent Design is given equal weight as evolution in school, then that can only serve to dilute the quality of science and quality of students that are born from it).

    I think the reason Dawkins/Meyers don’t want to sing kumbaya with the moderates is because the moderates are all too happy to say that religion and science are equally as good, if non-overlapping. I think Dawkins/Meyers would disagree with that. I think they would argue that it’s unproductive to say that science is completely unrelated to religion. I think there’s a strong historical correlation with man believing less in the supernatural as he discovers more about nature (for instance very few people currently believe that thunder and lightening are actually caused by an angry and vengeful sky god).

  23. #23 MattXIV
    June 23, 2009

    Ray,

    Actually, one of the things that bothers me the most about the New Atheists is what I’ll call the Courtier’s Reply Excuse, which pretty much just counters laziness with more laziness. It’s lazy to say “You hold your position because you’re not familiar with X” rather than explaining why X’s arguments are persuasive, but PZ’s counter is just that “Yes, I’m not familar with X, but I’m going to assert X is wrong without any familiarity with X because I’m awesome like that.” “All the theological arguments I’ve considered are weak, so I will not consider any theological arguments” is a closed loop – in the couterfactual where somebody did come up with a valid theological argument, it would not result in a CRE proponent adjusting his views, so the Courtier’s Reply Excuse is not valid. If you don’t want to put the effort in to looking up and refuting theological arguments, then don’t position yourself as a public opponent of religious belief – either do the legwork or step out of the debate; sloppy reasoning makes it’s proponents a liability, not an asset, in trying to change people’s minds.

  24. #24 JohnV
    June 23, 2009

    @Cicely 23

    Well stated. Added bonus that the people wishing to be left alone (atheist or theist) probably get it from both sides’ militants :p

  25. #25 foole
    June 23, 2009

    Jim C wrote: “Most religious people just want to left alone. It is the militant atheists who wish to impose their beliefs on everyone else. ”

    Who are these militant atheists you speak of?

  26. #26 A
    June 23, 2009

    Brandon: (Comment20): “People can have all the palm readers and newspaper horoscopes they want, as long as it stays out of the science classroom. I’m sure most accomodationists would agree with me, and that’s fairly consistent with their views on religion.”

    Would you agree to start a war then, based on a horoscope?
    Or allow health insurance payments for prayers?
    After all, the general public believes that horoscopes are equally good in predicting the future as science-based studies, and prayer helps; ‘accomodationists’ tell them, astrology/religion is just ‘another way of knowing;’ and we all know that for most, science teaching seems to apply only inside the science classroom/lab, and seems useless outside.
    And nobody pointed out (outside the cloistered science labs) that horoscopes/astrology/religion are based on imagination/delusion, but have no basis in fact. So there is an educational aspect to the ‘militant atheists.’ Without them, there are few hints for the general public that horoscopes/astrology/religion may be less than useful.

    And after all, the ‘militant atheists’ do NOT advocate to make religion or astrology or horoscopes illegal, they just point out, by the medium of books (and blogs) that these things may be fantasies which are often harmful. And the sales numbers on their books are dwarfed by those for religious books! So it is not that they are taking over the world. But they promote scepticism, which I’d think,would be a good thing for all to have. (What if the 9/11 terrorists had had doubts? And had recognized them, as being legitimate, held by others too, such as the authors of sceptical books? And acted on them, by not doing their evil act?)

  27. #27 Brandon
    June 23, 2009

    Woah, now I’m not sure what your point is here. I was just talking about evolution in public schools. And no, I wouldn’t agree to start a war based on a horoscope. That’s idiotic and I’m not sure why you would ask such a thing. I don’t even have the resources to start a war. Prayer is free, by the way, so I don’t think insurance companies need to cover that.

    Also, I’m pretty sure if an American atheist started yelling at Al-Qaeda and calling their beliefs delusional, it would have just made the terrorists angrier.

  28. #28 A
    June 23, 2009

    Jim C (Comment 17):” Most religious people just want to left alone. It is the militant atheists who wish to impose their beliefs on everyone else….” That sounds like the reverse of the actual situation.Not in this country (US).
    You have to go out of your way to go to, say Dawkins’ lectures,or buy his book. I’d be so pleased if he would show up on my door steps! (And on my door steps, there were recently the Mormons, Jehova’s Witnesses,… and when peacefully walking across campus over the years, I got various Gideons bibles leaflets, a flower from the Moonies,… thrust in my hands, with avoiding any of this difficult).
    At least at the airport, the Moonies(or are they now Hare Krishnas?) are now confined to some counter; but unfortunately the bookstore doesn’t carry Dawkins’ book any more.
    I wish the religious would leave the rest of us in peace.
    (But they seem to have a missionary requirement in all their faiths, which atheists are lacking.)

  29. #29 Pierce R. Butler
    June 23, 2009

    Just wait until the hyperchristian/Republican culture warriors complete their march through biology, astronomy, sex education, and history, and turn their loving attentions to the ungodly realm of physics.

    “First, they came for the evolutionists…”

  30. #30 Onkel Bob
    June 23, 2009

    Bad cases spawn bad laws.

    I read the blogs, but rarely participate. I will discuss the issue in classes I lead but will not initiate the discussion. Besides, I have a hard enough time with the vacuous ideas and fluffy French philosophy art history and social geography engenders. :^)

  31. #31 ildi
    June 23, 2009

    It’s lazy to say “You hold your position because you’re not familiar with X” rather than explaining why X’s arguments are persuasive, but PZ’s counter is just that “Yes, I’m not familar with X, but I’m going to assert X is wrong without any familiarity with X because I’m awesome like that.”

    From what I understand, that’s not PZ’s (or the Courtier’s Reply) position. Rather (to use a Tolkien comparable), it would be akin to arguing that you have to have read all of Tolkien’s oeuvre and analysis of it before you can say “but Sauron and Middle Earth only exist as fiction.”

  32. #32 Jason A.
    June 23, 2009

    This attitude from some of the commenters that the ‘new atheists’ are on a mission to force atheism on everyone and stamp out all religion is wrong. That may be what they *want*, and they’re perfectly willing to admit that (since when is honesty a bad thing?), but the mission is to make religion a private matter that doesn’t interfere with the governing and education of a secular society.
    And yes, they’re all aware of the fact that people can be religious and still do good science.

    I see the accomodationists/non-accomodationists as two complementary tactics. The accomodationists win short term battles about policy. The non-accomodationists are primarily engaged in shifting the Overton window for the long term.

    Also, a couple of commenters are really missing the point of the courtiers reply. Suppose I tell you the moon is made of cheese. Bullcrap, you say. Suppose instead I tell you about the sublime nature of the cheese, and how so many other things, when considered in light of the moon being cheese, fit together into a beautiful picture. Are you going to spend time addressing why the moon being made of cheese isn’t quite as sublime as I said it was? Or will you say that’s all well and great, but irrelevant because the moon isn’t made of cheese? The courtiers reply is to point out that, no matter how intricate the logic in an argument is, the argument falls if the basic premise is wrong. You can’t make high-level arguments about the nature of god until you first establish that god exists – otherwise the emperor is naked. And the existence of god (at least, a god that matters) is a scientific question. So where’s the evidence?

  33. #33 Art
    June 23, 2009

    Unfortunately too many seem to hold a view that in a struggle over where the public consensus lands that there is one best way to be and act and present one’s self. The battle is for the center. No matter how ivory your tower and pure your intellect the fact is that being right isn’t enough. You have to be right and, if you hope to enjoy funding, respect, and not be marginalized you have to be seen to be right.

    The right has long practiced the art of the two-pronged offensive. They quietly support their extremist wing while privately providing for it in substantial ways. They are careful to couch their support in terms of maintaining a civil discussion while not requiring that their extremist wing remain civil.

    In return the extreme is by turns used to point out how moderate the main body of the right is, even as it is just to the left of Mussolini, and, when the public doesn’t balk too loudly, used to advance the cause when they point out that ‘they have a point’. Thus far the progressives have not gotten the hang of this maneuver.

    The ‘New Atheists’ are in effect the radical wing of a scientific establishment. They are taking the battle to the right and keeping them on the defensive. Each time a right-wing commentator spends his time and editorial inches lamenting the ‘unfairness’ of them not deferring to religious authority it is one less editorial not written marginalizing mainstream science, pushing ID, pseudoscience and theocracy. The reason mainstream scientists can live in rural communities without people pointing and laughing is that acceptance of evolution can’t be marginalized as long as theocracy and ID are under attack.

    The main reason vaccines are still accepted by most people is because the AoA and anti-vaccine crowds get confronted with their lack of evidence and stupidity every time they get a roll going. Yes, the simple fact that vaccines work helps but, as we have seen many times before in other areas, with a scientifically blunted and fear driven populous facts are often ineffectual against concerted propaganda efforts, fear mongering and conspiracy theorizing.

    We invaded Iraq because we were made to fear what SH might have had and what he might have done with what he might have had. The facts from arms inspectors and neutral observers were powerless against the fear ginned up by using ‘what we don’t know’ as a foil. and through it all they used the ‘bomb them into the stone age’ crowd as a foil. The warmongers went to war to ‘disarm a madman’, to ‘establish democracy’, to bring peace to a dangerous neighborhood’. This was seen as a moderate approach compared to the ‘Invade Iraq, then Iran’ crowd.

    Mainline scientists who don’t wish to engage in the culture war should thank their stars that there are people who can take the battle to the enemy camp. People who keep the theocrats and IDers and the denialists on the ropes. There are, in the abstract, to ways of fighting for a side. Actively and aggressively or passively. Both have their time and place. They work best together. But you can’t advance your cause or make things better by only playing defense.

  34. #34 Renee
    June 23, 2009

    Honestly, if you’ve got a 10 month old daughter, it’s amazing that you find the time to do everything else that you listed.

    Probably his wife does all the work.

  35. #35 "GrrlScientist"
    June 23, 2009

    considering that throughout my entire lifetime, the visitor who knocks on my door most frequently is a group of 2-4 religious people of some stripe whose only goal is to proselytize, and that i’ve never even once opened my door to an atheist who had the same agenda, it is very safe to state that it’s the religious who are shoving their beliefs down everyone’s throats. quite frankly, it is disgusting, offensive and more than a little creepy that a group of complete strangers — mostly men — would insist on entering my apartment (i live alone) to tell me about a mythical being. after years of politely telling them to go away, i have given up: now, i simply SLAM the door in their faces.

  36. #36 A
    June 23, 2009

    Art (Comment 33) got it right. ‘Nuff said.

    Brandon,(Comment 27 in response to comment 26) I didn’t want to offend you, I didn’t assume you would actually use horoscopes to start wars etc..
    Then, “I was just talking about evolution in public schools.” Indeed to have evolution taught in schools is important, as you say.
    But even if evolution is taught in public schools, it won’t make much difference if outside of school it is derided as obviously untrue because of some sacred text which is known to be the word of God.
    There is much educational research pointing out that many students think of what they learn in science class as a kind of separate reality, and does not affect the prejudices they held before taking the class. Most (but not all) science majors eventually get it right, more so if they see their science applied.
    “Prayer is free, by the way, so I don’t think insurance companies need to cover that.”
    But it does seem that prayer costs. In the 1980ies, when I was still a graduate student on the east coast (near Washington, D.C.) my health insurance/HMO provided for reimbursements for Licensed Christian Science Practitioner Licensed by the Board of [Healing?] of the Church of Christ,Scientist. It puzzled me a lot at the time (How could this group get this great source of funding? At my premium’s expense? Can I be healed of spiritual diseases? [And split the reimbursement with the practitioner?]). Then there are of course the occasional stories where religious parents did not provide conventional medical care for their sick kid, as they thought that only prayer helps, and the kid thereafter dies. It seems to happen only about once a year in the U.S., but still…

    And as regards the religious fanatics and terrorists, indeed some gentle atheist might have not convinced them to abandon their delusion, but that they never encountered anybody early in their life who taught them the value of critical thinking, and that all people they encountered were agreeing that God is right, and the Koran has it all, including numerous peaceful and moderate Imans, that certainly set them up to be unable to resist when told about the ultimate “mission from God.”

    The idea that belief on faith is good, and even better if outrageously counter-factual (then it is a ‘test of your faith’) itself is harmful. Such an idea, propagated by the moderate and mainstream churches (and temples and mosques…) sets some weaker people up to become victims of cults. If militant atheist counter belief on faith publicly (and they are not imposing it on anybody) it should be commended.

  37. #37 Chad Orzel
    June 23, 2009

    Jason A. (#32): This attitude from some of the commenters that the ‘new atheists’ are on a mission to force atheism on everyone and stamp out all religion is wrong. That may be what they *want*, and they’re perfectly willing to admit that (since when is honesty a bad thing?), but the mission is to make religion a private matter that doesn’t interfere with the governing and education of a secular society.

    See, I don’t buy that, because it’s not consistent with the hard-line anti-accommodationist stance.

    If what you want is a separation of church and state, then there’s no reason not to make common cause with moderate religious people who want the same thing. If that’s the goal, you should celebrate scientists who are also religious, because what better evidence is there of peaceful coexistence?

    Painting religious scientists as some sort of class traitors, and calling out organizations like the NCSE for reaching out to religious people (which was the Jerry Coyne post that started the whole thing) does not make any sense if the goal is just to prevent the teaching of religion in schools and the establishment of religion in government. It only makes sense if the goal is an all-out clash of civilizations sort of deal. The absolute insistence that science is always and everywhere inconsistent with religion is not a “let’s get religion out of the public square” thing, that’s a “let’s obliterate religion and salt the metaphorical ground where it once stood” thing.

  38. #38 rachelmary
    June 23, 2009

    I just dumped a Physics blog that had one anti-religion rant too many, and added your blog in its place. So, I’m glad to see I won’t be reading angry posts here. Much appreciated, thank you.

    (I’m an agnostic, so I am sympathetic to the beliefs of Evangelical Atheists. But, I like my science blogs to discuss, you know, science.)

  39. #39 Brandon
    June 23, 2009

    The absolute insistence that science is always and everywhere inconsistent with religion is not a “let’s get religion out of the public square” thing, that’s a “let’s obliterate religion and salt the metaphorical ground where it once stood” thing.

    I’ve always believed that if our government was dominated by atheists, instead of Christians, we’d be seeing initiatives to ban comparitive religion classes in schools, cut tax exemption for churches, and make it illegal for government organizations to hold Easter and Christmas celebrations. They wouldn’t try to ban religion, just try to push it out of the public square. Like what the right wants to do to gays. I don’t buy that the new atheists are some super-benevolent group that just wants to convince people to join their side, even if they had the power to do more.

  40. #40 Andy
    June 23, 2009

    I ceased really fretting about “new atheism” on Science Blogs after Pharyngula jumped the shark with the whole “Crackergate” thing. It was at that moment that I realized that PZ was less trying to win over folks with rational arguments, and more trying to be an attention whore.

    And I agree 110 percent with Chad’s comment in #37.

  41. #41 Jason A.
    June 23, 2009

    Chad Orzel:

    If what you want is a separation of church and state, then there’s no reason not to make common cause with moderate religious people who want the same thing. If that’s the goal, you should celebrate scientists who are also religious, because what better evidence is there of peaceful coexistence?

    PZ is the ‘new atheist’ I’m most familiar with and he’s made it clear he thinks we should be joined with the moderates. In his post following Coyne’s, he mentioned several times that NCSE was a great organization that we would be screwed without, but his (and Coyne’s) problem was they were presenting the religious-scientist side of things without equal representation from the atheist-scientists. I’m not sure if that’s a good idea from a tactical point of view, but their suggestion was for NCSE to drop the religious component altogether and do straight science.

    I recall a few times in the past when PZ does a post about some kid dying because their family did the faith healing thing instead of the doctor thing, he would comment on how the moderates should be joining them in speaking out against that instead of being silent.

    Of course I can’t speak for the motivations of every vocal atheist out there, but personally I think think the accomodationists are great allies. If my (catholic) mom, for example, wanted to read a book about evolution to see what it was all about, I’d be giving her Ken Miller before Dawkins any day. I guess I just see the two camps as complimentary, Art in #33 did a good job of explaining that. A defense without an offense can at best only hold the line, never make progress.

  42. #42 Michael J
    June 23, 2009

    I think that you need to see the evolution of the new atheists to understand it. A lot of it is just show – PZ pretends outrage at something and he get a thousand hits. A part of it is history. I’d like to put the summary as a pretend converation:
    ACCOMMODATIONISTS: Now many scientists are theists and do good science.
    N-A: I don’t have a problem with that.
    A: Science and Religion are separate areas.
    N-A: If I sign on to this I can’t agree with this. I think that science pretty leaves no room for any God that is out there.
    A: Well just keep quiet because you will scare the majority of people.
    N-A: Be quiet? The former president wanted to deport atheists. There is a great deal of prejudice against atheists and we need to be able to speak out.
    A: I understand that but we are in an culture war so we need unity and to come part of the way.
    N-A: By totally ignoring the atheists position on anything and letting preachers continue to say that atheists are worse than Hitler.

  43. #43 Jason A.
    June 23, 2009

    Michael J.: good comment. I’ve seen people on blogs refer to the accomodationists wanting us to be ‘Uncle Toms Atheists’, just be quiet and stay in your corner or people will get upset. Whether that’s how the accomodationists really feel, that’s the way it comes across a lot of the time, and a lot of the ‘new atheists’ have the personality type that they’ll get louder just for the fact you’re trying to keep them quiet.

    That’s what I meant by shifting the Overton window in my comment at #32. If you’re loud enough for long enough (while backing it up with sound reasoning) then what’s considered ‘extreme’ gets pushed back and now you’re in the realm of social acceptability.

  44. #44 Jason A.
    June 23, 2009

    Oh yeah, one more thing. We can disagree on topic A-the ultimate compatibility of science and religion, while being in complete agreement on related but different topic B-that intelligent design is pseudoscience. I think maybe that’s where some of the friction is coming from, making it seems as if one side is against the other because they disagree on science/religion compatibility. I may be of the view that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but I’ll agree with the accomodationists that moving from a population that believes in creationism to one that believes in theistic evolution is progress.

  45. #45 Jason A.
    June 23, 2009

    ^ should have read “I may be of the view that science and religion are ultimately incompatible”

  46. #46 Greg Laden
    June 23, 2009

    I realize that this means I’ve effectively ceded the field to the rantiest of the ranty and that I ought to say more for the good of Science as a whole.

    I don’t think you’ve ceded anything important. There is a sufficient supply of bloggers representing each position on each issue that a blog reader can (and must, actually) read only a small percentage of what is out there. Half the people supporting a certain position can decide to shut up tomorrow and it would make no difference.

    I don’t quite know what I think about the “silent majority” thing yet. I do think there is a good bet that if we compare unmitigated ranting vs. quietitude, there will be more quietitude represented among the … quiet. So Chris may have a case.

  47. #47 onymous
    June 23, 2009

    Chris Mooney has repeatedly exposed political and commercial interests that are deceiving people and obstructing necessary action on climate change, among other things. This is far more important than something like intelligent design (annoying and stupid as that is), and he could be a fundamentalist zealot for all I care.

  48. #48 miller
    June 23, 2009

    Eh. You don’t have to care about it if you don’t want to. I occasionally get the commenters who ask why I should care so much to write about this or that. Unsurprisingly, no one has ever convinced me that the things I’m interested in are boring.

    Likewise for you. No one is going to convince you that you’re interested in things you’re not. Tough luck for Mooney.

  49. #49 Paul Murray
    June 24, 2009

    “So, given that, why don’t I speak up more?”

    The reason that it’s all new atheists vs nutbars is that the moment you do speak up in defense of reason, you can’t help sounding like a new atheist.

    The moderate, middle-of-the road position is so wishy-wasy and weak that it is easily destroyed from either side the moment eh discussion gets serious.

  50. #50 Katkinkate
    June 24, 2009

    The ‘silent majority’ are doormats. It’s those speaking out against climate change denialists, ‘autism from vaccinations’ proponents, ‘alternative’ medicines, creationism, Discovery Institute, Creation Museum and defending the Theory of Evolution, conventional medical research and science curriculum in schools that are ensuring that the next couple of generations remain healthy and may get to learn something of real science at school instead of religious dogma dressed in a labcoat.

  51. #51 ponderingfool
    June 24, 2009

    Is advocating the compatibility of science and religion really something the NAS and NCSE should be doing? To argue in favor of compatibility of the two, one is really advocating for a certain set of belief systems.

    Young earthers beliefs put them in wide conflict with science. Their religious beliefs are not compatible with science. The Church of Latter Days Saints belief in the Book of Mormon is not well supported by the social and natural scientific studies of the Americas.

    Many Americans believe in some variant of special creation for human origins. The scientific evidence is to the contrary. All the evidence points to humans evolving like every other species on the planet.

    Those are all religious faiths that are not fully compatible with science. Thus, to advocate science and religion are compatible is to advocate for a certain set of religious beliefs. NAS and NCSE should not be in the business of promoting certain religions over others, which is what they are doing by advocating the compatibility of science and religion. Heck you teach that in a public school and the district would be rightly sued.

  52. #52 jake
    June 24, 2009

    RE: ponderingfool

    Simply put, when they do favor compatibility the public views that as an endorsement of religion.

  53. #53 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    A: Science and Religion are separate areas.

    I think Dawkins, et al., make a good argument as to why this really isn’t true.

    Sometimes religion steps into science’s domain by making claims that could theoretically be empirically verified. Jesus rising from the dead, Mary being assumed into heaven, etc.

    I don’t agree that science and religion are completely separate domains anymore. No more non-overlapping domains or non-overlapping magisteria or whatever it was that Gould called them.

    That being said, I see no reason to go picking fights with moderate religious people, especially moderate religious scientists such as theistic evolutionists. I agree with Chad’s comment in #37 also.

    I also miss the term “Neville Chamberlain atheist”. That sounds better than “Uncle Tom atheist”, IMHO.

  54. #54 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    Pondering fool wrote:
    Those are all religious faiths that are not fully compatible with science.

    I’d say no, these are religious beliefs that are part of religious faiths. Those specific beliefs are not compatible with science. Does the fact that specific beliefs are incompatible with science mean that all relgious beliefs are? I don’t think so. Some religious beliefs are just not empirically testable.

    Thus, to advocate science and religion are compatible is to advocate for a certain set of religious beliefs.

    Completely disagree. Science and religion could be theoretically compatible, I think. And even in cases where they aren’t, why go picking a fight with potential allies? If you find a Catholic scientist who is willing to endorse evolution, why do you have to go attacking his or her non-scientific religious beliefs? Why not just accept the help and have a “live and let live” attitude towards the rest?

    I disagree NAS and NCSE should not be in the business of promoting certain religions over others, which is what they are doing by advocating the compatibility of science and religion.

    But advocating the idea of the possible compatibility of science and religion (which I believe is possible at least in theory) is not the same as promoting certain religions or certain religious beliefs.

  55. #55 Ray Ingles
    June 24, 2009

    Brandon, you wrote: I’ve always believed that if our government was dominated by atheists, instead of Christians, we’d be seeing initiatives to ban comparitive religion classes in schools, cut tax exemption for churches, and make it illegal for government organizations to hold Easter and Christmas celebrations.

    I’m actually okay with two out of three of those. (No problem with comparative religion classes in schools. Indeed, Daniel Dennett has proposed a compulsory comparative religion class, showing how many different religious beliefs there are, all fervently held by their devotees…) Tax exemption for churches is okay so long as they actually run themselves as nonprofits – many churches wouldn’t qualify there. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

    And yes, I don’t think the government should be in the business of celebrating religious holidays. (And right now, federal employees can get extra time off for religious services – non-religious ones can’t. Why not just have a pool, and religious types can use it for services or whatever they like, along with the non-religious?)

    But I have to strongly disagree with this:
    They wouldn’t try to ban religion, just try to push it out of the public square. Like what the right wants to do to gays.

    How exactly does removing tax exemption from some churches, or not having government organizations hold celebrations for specific religion’s holidays, “push [religion] out of the public square”? I’m not familiar with any religion that makes tax exemption or DMV parties a sacrament…

  56. #56 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    What exactly does the term “public square” mean, anyway? The phrase “pushing religion out of the public square” sounds like an attempt to squelch religion and religious expression in everyday life.

    That’s not what even the most “rabid” or “militant” of the NA group is proposing. Having government get out of the business of religious expression and endorsement is what they are after. And separating government speech/action from religion is a GOOD thing, IMHO.

    Trying to silence religious people out of this context is something different altogether, but that’s what “pushing religion out of the public square” connotes.

  57. #57 ponderingfool
    June 24, 2009

    Adrienne: But advocating the idea of the possible compatibility of science and religion (which I believe is possible at least in theory) is not the same as promoting certain religions or certain religious beliefs.
    *********************************
    Yes it is. Because certain religious faiths are not included. It is exclusionary. Some are favored over others. I do not deny the theoretical compatibility of science and religion. I am not saying that because some faiths are not that all religions are invalid. What I am saying is that by advocating compatibility of science and religion certain religious faiths are favored over others.

    The religious views the NCSE puts up on its website for example are from a subset American faiths. There are plenty of faiths that would disagree with what is up there as their faiths are not compatible with evolution. The NCSE de facto is favoring certain religious faiths over others.

  58. #58 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    The religious views the NCSE puts up on its website for example are from a subset American faiths.

    Well, they are the “National” Center for Science Ed. The “nation” in question here is the US. So NCSE is tailoring its message towards Americans and the faiths they are most likely to believe in. That’s a marketing/PR strategy, not discrimination.

    If the US were majority Hindu, I’m sure NCSE would tailor its message to the compatibility of aspects of the Hindu faith with science.

  59. #59 Sigmund
    June 24, 2009

    Adrienne # 54 said
    “But advocating the idea of the possible compatibility of science and religion (which I believe is possible at least in theory) is not the same as promoting certain religions or certain religious beliefs.”
    I think you’ll have to expand on that one.
    Even strong non-accomodationists like Dawkins and Larry Moran think that religion and science are possibly compatible – the proviso being that you need to have a pantheistic or non-interventionist deistic religion in order to achieve this theoretical compatibility. This is, however, not what the public assumes when they hear the accomodationist claim that religion and science are compatible. I would suspect that even most accomodationists would admit if pushed that the religious views of Ken Miller and Francis Collins are incompatible with Science (they both accept that God intervenes to occasionally cause miracles).
    What we are faced with then is organisations pushing known untruths for narrow political purposes.
    Should we really accept that lying to the public is tactic scientific organisations should use?

  60. #60 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    Sigmund @59:
    Should we really accept that lying to the public is tactic scientific organisations should use?

    As long as the religious scientists in question are pushing the “truth” parts and not the “untruth parts”, why not take a live and let live approach? That’s not the same thing as lying.

    If Ken Miller is promoting evolution and its compatibility with religious belief, why not just consider it an expression of his own opinion?

    An atheist scientist can say, “Many religious people do not have a problem reconciling their faith with scientific truth” without lying, and you can say, “Religion is not necessarily incompatible with science” without lying.

    This is, however, not what the public assumes when they hear the accomodationist claim that religion and science are compatible.

    Yes, but the public also hears, “Science and religion are not compatible, period.” or “A believing Catholic cannot truly accept the validity of science” as “You scientists want to destroy my religion.” The public at large is going to misinterpret to some degree no matter what you say.

  61. #61 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    I would suspect that even most accomodationists would admit if pushed that the religious views of Ken Miller and Francis Collins are incompatible with Science (they both accept that God intervenes to occasionally cause miracles).

    Yep, I certainly view some of their religious beliefs as incompatible with science. But why go on the offensive and attack them for it or reject their help when it’s useful?

  62. #62 Sigmund
    June 24, 2009

    I think there is a difference between what an individual scientist believes and what a national organisation such as the NCSE announces as a policy. Most scientists have no problem with the science of religious scientists like Miller or Collins and indeed have no problem with them holding important positions of national importance. I myself have argued on ERVs blog in favor of Collins as head of the NIH (the Narnia Institute of Health post on by blog was somewhat tongue in cheek!). Their public statements that science and their own religion are compatible sound silly to most non-accomodationists but so long as they are personal rather than an official policy of a government department then there isn’t really much to complain about.
    I really don’t see the accomodationalist/non accomodationalist debate as an attack on the religious scientists themselves but rather on the public pronouncements of national organisations that are seen to be taking a sectarian approach to a complex question.

  63. #63 Adrienne
    June 24, 2009

    I would suspect that even most accomodationists would admit if pushed that the religious views of Ken Miller and Francis Collins are incompatible with Science (they both accept that God intervenes to occasionally cause miracles).

    Yep, I certainly view some of their religious beliefs as incompatible with science. But why go on the offensive and attack them for it or reject their help when it’s useful?

  64. #64 ponderingfool
    June 24, 2009

    Well, they are the “National” Center for Science Ed. The “nation” in question here is the US. So NCSE is tailoring its message towards Americans and the faiths they are most likely to believe in. That’s a marketing/PR strategy, not discrimination.

    If the US were majority Hindu, I’m sure NCSE would tailor its message to the compatibility of aspects of the Hindu faith with science.
    **********
    They are excluding other faiths of Christianity is what I was more alluding at. In particular Christian faiths that are popular here in the United States. The NCSE on its website promotes certain Christian faiths over others. To say Christianity and science are compatible is misleading. Some faiths/beliefs/denominations of Christianity are not, some are. The mission of the NCSE should not be to promote certain Christian faiths over others, or any religion or lack thereof above other belief/non-belief systems. They should promote good science education.

    What everyone should come together on is promoting good science and good science education. That doesn’t mean you don’t critique on other issues. You continue to debate, discuss, argue on those issues. Coyne for example does take Miller to task on science in terms of his beliefs. Should that be held back? Should Miller hold back responding?

  65. #65 MattXIV
    June 24, 2009

    You can’t make high-level arguments about the nature of god until you first establish that god exists – otherwise the emperor is naked. And the existence of god (at least, a god that matters) is a scientific question. So where’s the evidence?

    The problem with this reasoning is that you need to define the nature of god in order to construct an argument against it’s existence. Determining the nature of a thing and determining whether a thing exists are intertwined processes. I’ll give you an example of an argument to refute that hopefully demonstrates a case where this is important:

    If god is omniscient and omnipotent, then he presumably could set the physical rules of the universe to whatever he wants. A sufficiently convoluted set of rules could create whatever set of outcomes in the universe it desired, so you can have a providencial god without having a “supernatural” or interventionist god that runs afoul of empiricism.

    In order to argue against this proposition, you need to visualize what kind of god would create a universe with the rules that we have. Given the physical rules of the unverse, we could conclude that if a omniscient, omnipotent god exists, he’s very interested in seeing the free energy of closed systems decline over time but indifferent to the fate of living beings. So, we’re back at the point of an disinterested deistic god or no god at all, but in order to get there we did have to hypothesize the nature of god.

    I’ll also point out that the CRE is used not just to justify not considering what the nature of god would be if it were to exist, but to avoid arguments dealing with the existence of god that are grounded in the nature of god, such as the ontological argument.

    If you seek to convince people to abandon religion, there’s also a very important tactical reason to at least pretend to take theology seriously. It’s very difficult to change someone’s mind if they think you’re not taking their arguments seriously; this is a matter of psychology, so no matter how obviously wrong their arguments are, if you don’t at least seem to be considering them, the other party won’t take your arguments seriously.

  66. #66 Sigmund
    June 24, 2009

    Here in Sweden the silent majority tends to be silent towards theological arguments because the minority that believe in these arguments know better than to speak of them in public (at which point the silent majority becomes the loudly guffawing majority).
    This is a clear example of a non-accomodationalist strategy that works. There are still plenty of churches here and a minority that practices their faith freely but they know better than to try to impose it on the rest of the population.
    You really don’t have to pretend to take ridiculous arguments seriously. These arguments should be treated with the respect they deserve – i.e. the same respect that you would give to a theory of leprechaunism. While we can forgive St Augustus and the other church thinkers of years past who did not have the scientific knowledge we now have todays theologians have no such excuse and should be reminded of this every time they try to avoid the issue.
    The objective should not be to convince theologians in the error of their arguments but that the appropriate place for that argument is not in the public or educational sphere but should be a private matter – a bit like a Trekkie Klingon language club.

  67. #67 abb3w
    June 24, 2009

    Sorry about the length, Chad….

    Chad Orzel: If that’s the goal, then accommodation is counter-productive

    The problem with this analysis is that it oversimplifies the factions too far. The religious come in (at least) two majorly different flavors. In the interest of brevity, I will refer to them as the Errant and the Inerrant.

    By the Inerrant, I refer to those among the religious who as part of their religion insist on Scriptural Inerrancy; that is to say, their Scripture is the Literal and Perfect word of God. While they are often thought of as a fringe group, according to the Pew Religion Survey they are actually about a third of the country overall. By the Errant, I refer to the rest of the religious; I would also claim the Errant are generally more willing to reconsider their beliefs in light of additional evidence.

    One might also divide (oversimply) the anti-God camp into the (loud/obnoxious/New) Atheists, who want religion to die out (usually in favor of Science), and the Seculari (including some more moderate atheists), who simply want it to not meddle in areas of public policy where Science is better equipped.

    With this slightly less crude oversimplification, the problem is clearer. Compromise is essentially anathema to the Inerrants; that their viewpoint is only saved from DSM-IV clinical psychosis (folie à deux) by being “ordinarily accepted”; and that the Atheists see no better tactic for reducing the Inerrants than to attack Religion as a whole. This leaves the Errant and the Secular with a mix of groans at both.

    The Secular and Errant can often compromise on problems. The Atheists, however, consider that the Inerrant camp’s membership is non-empty to be an obstacle to solving many of them… which is a problem that does not lead well to compromise.

    Overall, however, I can’t blame you in the slightest for deciding your time is better spent on your lovely daughter, and your blog on spiffy new physics. I’d even agree… since others are busying themselves with the other problems.

    Ray Ingles: “New Atheists” tend to get bum raps, though.

    I would agree somewhat with that. However, I would also add that the Atheist caricatures are often deliberately created as caricatures, rather than caricatures that accurately reflect instinctive concept; and that the Atheists and Secular are often accused of boorish rudeness by the Inerrant at even relatively civil statements of disagreement. This may contribute to turning Secular to Atheists, as they decide to give up even the pretense at civility towards religion.

    foole: I rather suspect that if school boards around the country were trying to rewrite the laws of physics because they weren’t biblically accurate, then maybe there wouldn’t be as much silence from the “I’m not religious, but I don’t mind if people are religious.

    Err… the religious are, actually. Specifically, they’re trying to screw up the Second Law of Thermodynamics… or at least, limit how well people understand it. Fortunately for K-12 education, it’s only slightly touched on in high school chemistry and physics.

    MattXIV: in the couterfactual where somebody did come up with a valid theological argument, it would not result in a CRE proponent adjusting his views

    To have an argument (as opposed to an argument clinic), there must be initial starting premises agreed on. (Foremost, premises giving rules for allowing inferences from premise to conclusion to be accepted.) The CRE proponents have no obligation to accept any proposed new premises; thus, Theological arguments that start with any additional premise are akin to starting with the emperor’s clothes.

    Or to be sloppier, you can’t have further theological argument be valid until the first step of establishing some theological premise as valid, either as primary premise mutually agreed on, or as inference from mutually accepted reasoning. If X were persuasive within the premises of Science, it would have become (and/or stayed) part of Science. If it is not part, it presumably is not working within the premises. Whether the error is from an added primary premise or an error in reasoning is insignificant to the conclusion that it is wrong.

    Of course, there also are a few of the New Atheists who have specifically worked on noting refutations of those arguments that attempted to crawl through their sphere of expertise; EG, John Allen Paulos’s book Irreligion.

    Chad Orzel: Painting religious scientists as some sort of class traitors, and calling out organizations like the NCSE for reaching out to religious people (which was the Jerry Coyne post that started the whole thing) does not make any sense if the goal is just to prevent the teaching of religion in schools and the establishment of religion in government.

    As I note, it’s not; the goal is reducing membership in the Inerrant to zero. That’s the hardest part; after that, Religion will be rather less dangerous. I’d also suggest that (much as Jason A. suggests) the problem was not the reaching out, but how far the reaching went.

    Jason A. I think maybe that’s where some of the friction is coming from, making it seems as if one side is against the other because they disagree on science/religion compatibility.

    Having spent some time on this, I would suggest that this in part is because the term “Science” is used simultaneously to philosophical discipline, anthropological practice, and body of knowledge accumulated thereby.

    A person invariably has more than one anthropological role in society; time in the anthropological practice of religion does not preclude time in the anthropological practice of science. In this anthropological sense, they are “compatible”. Time in one role may or may not reduce effectiveness of time in another; if so, they would in another anthropological sense be incompatible.

    As philosophical discipline, Science relies on certain premises. Oversimiplifying: the premises of mathematics (logic and ZF), and the assumption that our experience is a pattern from reality. Everything else (including cause-and-effect, the experimental method, and so on) rests on these premises. To the extent Religion accepts these, it is compatible; if it rejects these, it is incompatible. Where it takes additional premises, you can get something such as such as “Creation Science”, which depending on how the additional premise is taken at best may be a subdiscipline of contingency within the wider realm of Science, but more often simply incompatible.

    As Science’s associated body of knowledge grows, some religious beliefs become incompatible with this, such as “The Greek Gods live incarnate at the top of Mount Olympus”. In this sense, again incompatibility.

    Adrienne: Science and religion could be theoretically compatible, I think.

    Some religions, to some extent, yes. The Catholics are still wincing over Galileo. However, the Scriptural Inerrancy flavor of religion is inherently incompatible. Science insists Inerrancy ends before the departure from pure mathematics. The Southern Baptist convention holds the Bible the Inerrant Word of God, and thus is (so to speak) fundamentally incompatible with Science.

    Which means that to advocate science and religion are compatible is to advocate for a certain set of religious beliefs, in the sense of “advocate some religious beliefs and religions above others”; EG, Catholicism & Co. over Southern Baptists & Co.

    Adrienne: And even in cases where they aren’t, why go picking a fight with potential allies?

    When the potential ally defends a virulent and irreconcilable enemy from attack, the value of the potential may seem limited.

    MattXIV: The problem with this reasoning is that you need to define the nature of god in order to construct an argument against it’s existence.

    Actually, you need to define “God” before constructing an argument FOR its existence. Absent such argument, it increases Description Length Induction, and thus (under the premises of logic, ZF, and pattern) is provably not the explanation most likely correct. That is, “bogus”.

    MattXIV: In order to argue against this proposition, you need to visualize what kind of god would create a universe with the rules that we have.

    Actually, you only need to get agreement to the premises of Logic, ZF, and Pattern, and then show this kind of “God” increases Description Length Induction.

    Of course, you may not be able to get that agreement; however, without those it’s also hard for the Theist to argue that they are not a cabbage.

  68. #68 Ian
    June 25, 2009

    Chad: “I don’t participate actively in these arguments [because] I see no upside to being a part of this conversation as it is currently conducted.”

    Then you’ve identified something right there that you could write about, Chad! Get to it! How should it be conducted? What should be the focus?