Pure Pedantry

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In 1922, John Dewey, pragmatist philosopher and champion of Progressive education, wrote an article in The New Republic entitled “The American Intellectual Frontier.” The subject was William Jennings Bryan’s attack on evolution that would later culminate in the Scopes trial. The argument that Dewey made was not what you would think, however. Though he was most definitely part of the the Northeastern liberal establishment at the time, he did not dismiss Bryan’s attacks as indicative of rural ignorance.

Instead, he made the argument that while he disagreed with Bryan, liberals had to take him seriously because if they did not they were in danger of making liberalism high-brow. This would have the negative consequence of making liberalism a minority movement by definition and prevent the adoption of a their social program.

I want to talk about Dewey’s argument in detail because I think that it bears heavily on the current debate about evolution, atheism and religion. Specifically, I think that the current attempt to unify atheism and science is likely to make science high-brow. The likely consequence of this attempt, if successful, is to alienate the majority of the public from the scientific enterprise.

Since this is a long post, I have divided it into three parts. The first summarizes the current debate over “New Atheism.” The second discusses John Dewey’s argument in the “The American Intellectual Frontier.” The third applies his argument to the debate we are having today.

New Atheism

Atheism is once again on the march with the publication of several recent books such as Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Many of these books take religious people to task not only for their denial of scientific premises such as evolution but for their faith per se.

The response in the scientific community to the attacks on religion — you can speculate what the response in the religious community has been — has been relatively varied. Many (though not all) scientists are atheists, and this validation of their beliefs as legitimate has met widespread approval. On the other hand, some scientists and scientific communicators have taken the proponents of “New Atheism” — as the resurgence has been termed…although I don’t really see what is so new about it — to task on the grounds that by their vehemence in denouncing religion they are endangering public acceptance of science.

One such critic is our fellow ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet, author of Framing Science, who argues that New Atheism is bound to fail because it alienates those it is trying to convert. Nisbet has written considerably on the importance of framing in scientific communication. For more information read his and Chris Mooney’s essays in Science
and in the Washington Post.)

Money quote from the Washington Post article:

We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don’t enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.

Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It’s here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society — even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.

Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public. Data dumping — about, say, the technical details of embryology — is dull and off-putting to most people. And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.

We made a similar argument in a recent commentary article published by the journal Science. While many agreed with our perspective, some took a more critical tone. Indeed, those most piqued by our argument tended (like Dawkins) to be strong defenders of evolution who are also critical of religious belief.

Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula, that if he took our advice, “I’d end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine . . . and I’d never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me — it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media.” Myers also accused us of appeasing religion.

Yet he misses the point. There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

Michael Schermer published a recent column in SciAm where he echoes a similar point. Negativity doesn’t pay:

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”

2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”

Just to summarize this debate how I see it, we can divide opinion into two opposing camps:

  • The New Atheist Camp (for lack of a better term) asserts that science and atheism are one. Religion and science are not internally consistent. Any attempt to recognize religion within a scientific framework is appeasement of superstition and is by extension damaging to the scientific enterprise. We might as well publish statements we know to be lies in scientific journals.
  • The Big Tent Scientists (again, for lack of a better term) assert that science and atheism are not synonymous. Some individuals may be religious themselves; some are atheists. They argue that given the choice between the acceptance of science and the eradication of superstitious belief, the acceptance of science is the more desirable and the more likely outcome. Further, they argue that widespread acceptance of science AND atheism is not likely, particularly given the means with which the New Atheist Camp has chosen to argue.

Feel free to amend my summary, but that is the debate as I see it.

John Dewey and the Liberalism-Evolution Debate in the 20s

John Dewey faced a similar issue in the 1920s. In this case, the issue was whether they could mobilize a majority around a liberal program or gain widespread acceptance of evolution. I say either/or because this was this issue as Dewey saw it. The majority of Americans at the time were deeply religious and very suspicious of evolution. Dewey wrote his essay “The American Intellectual Frontier” in TNR to lay out his case for why he felt that confronting the majority of Americans over the issue of religion might endanger the liberalism.

He begins by arguing that while the majority of the liberal establishment wants to dismiss Bryan, he feels that as a phenomena he is deserving of thorough analysis.

For Mr. Bryan is a typical democratic figure. There is no gainsaying that proposition. Economically and politically he has stood for and with the masses, not radically but “progressively.” The most ordinary justice to him demands that his usefulness in revolt against privilege and his role as a leader in the late progressive movement — late in every sense of the word, including deceased — be recognized.

Not only did his views correspond to those of a large percentage of the American public — he was not some fringe nut by contemporary standards — he was at the core of the Progressive movement at that time because he championed many of their causes.

Dewey sees America as divided into two groups. One, represented by Bryan is on the whole uninterested in science or only for what science could do for them:

What we call the middle classes are for the most part the church-going classes, those who have come under the Influence of evangelical Christianity. These persons form the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education. They embody and express the spirit of kindly goodwill toward classes which are at an economic disadvantage and toward other nations, especially when the latter show any disposition toward a republican form of government. The “Middle West,” the prairie country, has been the centre of active social philanthropies and political progressivism because it is the chief home of this folk. Fairly well to do, enough so at least to be ambitious and to be sensitive to restrictions imposed by railway and financial corporations, believing in education and better opportunities for its own children, mildly interested In “culture,” it has formed the solid element in our diffuse national life and heterogeneous populations. It has been the element responsive to appeals for the square deal and more nearly equal opportunities for all, as it has understood equality of opportunity. It followed Lincoln in the abolition of slavery, and it followed Roosevelt In his denunciation of “bad” corporations and aggregations of wealth. It also followed Roosevelt or led him in its distinctions between “on the one hand and on the other hand.” It has been the middle in sense of the word and in every movement, every mean it has held things together and unity and stability of movement.

It has never had an interest in ideas as ideas, nor in science and art for what they may do in liberating and elevating the human spirit. Science and art as far as they refine and polish life, afford “culture,” mark stations on an upward social road and have direct useful social applications, yes: but as emancipations, as radical guides to life, no. There is nothing recondite or mysterious or sinister or adverse to a reputable estimate of human nature in the causes of this state of mind. (Emphasis mine.)

Dewey contrasts Middle America with the founders of this country and its intellectual elite:

The fathers of our country belonged to an intellectual aristocracy; they shared in the intellectual enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, in their beliefs and were men of the world, especially of the contemporary French world. Their free-thinking did not prevent their being leaders.

However, times have changed for politics. While the Framers did not have problems participating in government — indeed being an intellectual was sine qua non for participation, this is no longer the case. Democracy has risen, and now people of such a nature are shunned from intellectual life:

A generation later and it is doubtful if one of them could have been elected town selectman, much less become a powerful political figure. When Mr. Taft was a candidate for President, a professor of modern languages in a southern college dismissed from his position because he remarked to friend in private conversation that he did not think that the fact that Mr. Taft was a Unitarian necessarily disqualified him for service as President.

It is not without significance that Andrew Jackson, the first “church-going” President, was also the first political representative of the democratic frontier, the man who marks the change of the earlier aristocratic republic into a democratic republic. The dislike of privilege extended itself to fear of the highly educated and the expert. The tradition of higher education for the clergy was surrendered in the popular denominations. Religion was popularized, and thought, especially free thought which impinged adversely upon popular moral conceptions, became unpopular, too unpopular to consist with political success. (Emphasis mine.)

It is this movement — the movement towards democratized religion — which has culminated in people like Bryan:

Mr. Bryan can have at best only a temporary triumph, a succes d’estime, in his efforts to hold back biological inquiry and teaching. It is not in this particular field that he is significant. But his appeals and his endeavors are a symptom and a symbol of the forces which are most powerful in holding down the intellectual level of American life. He does not represent the frontier democracy of Jackson’s day. But he represents it toned down and cultivated as it exists in fairly prosperous villages and small towns that have inherited the fear of whatever threatens the security and order of a precariously attained civilization, along with pioneer impulses to neighborliness and decency.

Here Dewey gets to the crux of his argument. The liberal movement could, for the fact that he represents a democratized and unenlightened religious impulse, dismiss Bryan and the people he represents. But this would be throwing out the baby with the bath water because this culture of democratic religiosity is so entangled in what is quintessentially American:

The forces which are embodied in the present crusade would not be so dangerous were they not bound up with so much that is necessary and good. (Emphasis mine.)

Likewise he says earlier:

The churches performed an inestimable social function in frontier expansion. They were the rallying points not only of respectability but of decency and order in the midst of a rough and turbulent population. They were the representatives of social neighborliness and all the higher interests of the communities. The tradition persisted after the incoming of better schools, libraries, clubs, musical organizations and the other agencies of “culture.”

Intellectuals need to acknowledge this important social role before we attempt to destroy it. Further, they have to acknowledge that in our attempts to convert people to liberal principles, they are showing a sense of superiority in our ideas that violates those same principles:

We have been so taught to respect the beliefs of our neighbors that few will respect the beliefs of a neighbor when they depart from farms which have become associated with aspiration for a decent neighborly life. This is the illiberalism which is deep-rooted in our liberalism. (Emphasis mine.)

Finally, Dewey argues that they must accept the fact that there are limits to what middle America will accept. If they attempt to impose liberal principles from above without acknowledging the religious beliefs of the majority of people, they A) will not be successful and B) will only allow them to be led by people like Bryan who appeal to their emotions:

No account of the decay of the idealism of the progressive movement in politics or of the failure to develop an intelligent and enduring idealism out of the emotional fervor of the war, is adequate unless it reckons with this fixed limit to thought. No future liberal movement, when active liberalism revives, will be permanent unless it goes deep enough to affect it. Otherwise we shall have in the future what we have had in the past, revivalists like Bryan, Roosevelt and Wilson, movements which embody moral emotions rather than the insight and policy of intelligence.

Let me summarize, Dewey’s basic argument:

  • Religiosity is part of the fabric of America. This religiosity is now democratic and emotional. However, it is still linked to traits which are American and are important.
  • If liberals attempt to inflict their principles on middle America while at the same time denying this religiosity, the people who they are trying to convert will recognize that they are violating some of our their principles: those of tolerance towards free thought.
  • They need to recognize that people are psychologically limited in what they are prepared to accept. People possess ideology.
  • Any liberal movement that desires to be popular and long-lasting must take these factors into account. We cannot afford to be high-brow and exclusive.
  • The consequences of being high-brow and exclusive are that others, people like Bryan, will be who middle America listens to. The price of stridency is that people look elsewhere for their ideas.

Considering that this essay was intended for an intellectual elite, Dewey is arguing for political realism. He says that basically you can either be high-brow and feel happy at your own internal consistency or you can actually win the majority of Americans over to your side and get the policies you want.

Applying Dewey to Atheism and Science

Dewey’s argument has incredible relevance to the conflict over science and religion. Many of the New Atheists have attempted to frame the issue such that if you accept science, you must be an atheist. They deny that scientists can be in any way religious, even though the majority of Americans are religious. In doing so, they also face a horrible likelihood of making science high-brow.

Let me frame the debate this way. As I see it we have two realistic choices:

  • Choice #1: We link atheism and science. We frame atheism as scientific. We as far as we are able exclude the religious from the scientific enterprise.

    The result of choice one is that the majority of Americans are going to associate science with a secular elite — i.e. science is not for the consumption of the general public. Science in this world is for only special people to understand. Science will in effect become a marker of social status rather than a general approach to understanding the world.

    In fact, if we really wanted to run with Choice #1, we would make science more exclusive, not less. Why don’t we make say being liberal as a necessary criterion for being a scientist. Those conservatives aren’t rational anyway; they clearly don’t have what it takes. We could go so much further if we want to make science perceived as culturally associated with a Northeastern, secular, mostly liberal establishment. If you want to be high-brow, you might as well run with it.

    The logical consequence of making science exclusive is to make those in favor of science a minority. And if we make those in favor of science a minority than we are endangering things that we care about. We are, for instance, drawing continuing scientific funding into question. Why would the public continue to fund what it perceives as counter-cultural and profoundly elitist minority?

  • Choice #2: We dissociate atheism and science. We argue that atheism is a valid way to see the world, but that scientists can be religious as well. Further, we stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise for what are fundamentally small political differences. We emphasize the importance of science in terms of what it can provide for society, not in terms of metaphysical assertions about the world.

    The result of Choice #2 is that we can mobilize the general public behind the scientific enterprise. This is in my opinion the only manner that we can guarantee funding science over the long-term.

    Let me make clear that Choice #2 does not involve abandoning core scientific values such as verification, commitment to evidence, and argument on the basis of facts rather than interpersonal attacks. We still argue for evolution, for the reality of global warming, and for the utility of stem cell research. What we stop doing is stating that acceptance of science implies a set of political and philosophical values that are unequivocal and about which there can be no discussion.

Many people might respond to these choices: “Why not science and atheism? We can make people understand that the two are equivalent. We can move the general public to this understanding as well.”

Perhaps this is possible over the long-term, but I doubt with sincerity that it is likely over the short-term. Further, as Nisbet and Schermer have argued, alienating the majority with criticism is likely to extend the time that is necessary for acceptance.

Many people might respond to these choices: “Aren’t we selling out science? We are lying by saying that science and religion can be consistent. Religion is irrational, and science is rational. The two cannot be mixed.”

Listen, I am an atheist. I do not believe that religion and science are internally consistent. However, if there is one thing that I have learned about politics, it is that political discussions are not predicated on internal consistency. (Example: Prior to WW2, the American public was in favor of lend-lease, yet was not in favor of entering the war. These two propositions are mutually exclusive.) Whether or not, religion and science are internally consistent is largely beyond the point. The point is what we can reasonably expect the public to accept. The public is not going to accept both atheism and science over the short-term.

Further, embracing a big-tent approach will not prevent scientific or even atheistic values from taking over. While the majority of the American public is religious, the number of atheists is growing. New atheists will be created in the same way that new atheists have always been created: by a kid waking up in class one day and saying, “You know that invisible man business doesn’t make sense.” Science will be furthered for the same reason it has always been furthered: because it provides the only adequate explanation of reality. People can believe what they want, but in the end reality is the only yardstick.

Progress will be slow, but it will still happen eventually.

Scientists need to collectively get real. We need to decide what our priorities are. Our priority could be to make ourselves feel good about being smarter than everybody else. In that case, let’s just continue what we are doing. That will likely result in our funding being put into jeopardy and the delay of public acceptance of science for a generation. Or we could decide that science is big enough for everyone and that differences in belief will be settled in the end. We decide that in the end funding the scientific enterprise and conferring a much larger corpus of knowledge on the next generation is more important to us than getting our cultural way.

Dewey recognized the choice. We should too.

UPDATE: I have responded to several of the criticisms of this post here.

Comments

  1. #1 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 12, 2007

    Construction of the strawman:

    Why don’t we make say being liberal as a necessary criterion for being a scientist.

    Ignition:

    Further, we stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise for what are fundamentally small political differences.

    Just who is attempting to excommunicate someone? What the bleep are you talking about? Provide examples, please.

    Further, embracing a big-tent approach will not prevent scientific or even atheistic values from taking over. While the majority of the American public is religious, the number of atheists is growing.

    Is the number of atheists growing? Is the result of the efforts of Dawkins, or those of Nisbet?

    Dewey suggested this approach over 80 years ago. How is it working out? Why is “God” still on my money, and in my pledge? Why are bigoted anti-atheist organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and the American Legion embraced by American society, instead of shunned like the Ku Klux Klan?

  2. #2 brtkrbzhnv
    September 12, 2007

    Hopefully, no one is saying that science = atheism, and you are simply battling a man of straw. Atheism is to science as heliocentrism is to science.

  3. #3 writerdd
    September 12, 2007

    well, that’s the best argument on this topic that I’ve read so far. interesting

  4. #4 Orac
    September 12, 2007

    Hopefully, no one is saying that science = atheism

    No, but certainly some seem to be saying that atheism is a natural conclusion of the findings of science. Vic Stenger, for example. The distinction is often lost on many people.

  5. #5 MattXIV
    September 12, 2007

    Boy Scouts of America and the American Legion embraced by American society, instead of shunned like the Ku Klux Klan?

    How many more atheists lynched by Boy Scouts must we endure before America wakes up?

  6. #6 Brian
    September 12, 2007

    Well written, and I have to say I agree. I suppose that makes me a big-tent scientist.

    This whole debate is about whether we wish to promote evidenced-based fact (science) or a particular philosophical outlook (atheism).

    Personally, I’d rather spend my time promoting science and let people resolve their philosophies as they see fit.

  7. #7 PuckishOne
    September 12, 2007

    Hang on…are you saying that at present science is seen as accessible to all, something the masses can (and do) embrace, and not “high-brow”?

    I hate to break this to you, but from my perch outside the scientific tent (big or otherwise), I see no such thing. Don’t you think that if Joe Public saw science as being on his “brow” level, we’d have less of a problem getting things like the scientific method accepted more widely?

  8. #8 jeffk
    September 12, 2007

    While I disagree, on the whole, I do think this is the best presentation of the “framing” side I’ve seen. I’m more swayed by it than any of Nisbet or Mooney’s efforts.

    A couple of points: Why don’t we make say being liberal as a necessary criterion for being a scientist. Those conservatives aren’t rational anyway; they clearly don’t have what it takes.

    I think the difference is, that while I find most conservative arguments irrational, it’s difficult to completely dismiss them so long as they’re reasonably coherent interpretations of shared factual information (although conservatives aren’t always above denying facts these days). Religion, on the other hand, goes so far as outright admitting that it’s bogus whenever there’s an appeal made to faith. It’s so hilariously antiquated that it deserves no respect; it’s inherently, historically, and frequently anti-science. Conservatism, however, isn’t inherently anti-science, it’s just populated by moronic assholes.

    Further, we stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise for what are fundamentally small political differences.

    In my experience, scientists jabber about religion on blogs. In my lab, I work with a couple of Christianty-types and I argue with them occasionally but would never “excommunicate” them. And I’m pretty militant.

  9. #9 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 12, 2007

    Jake-

    I’m always amazed by people who warn that if you criticize religion too vigorously you risk making science too high-brow for middle America to handle, but then turn around and discuss evangelicals like they’re lab specimens who can be manipulated by a little clever framing.

    It is not because of any overt advocacy by the New Atheists that people see a connection between science and atheism. If you actually read Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris you find that they say very little about science per se. Even Dawkins, in The God Delusion, only discusses evolution in the context of the argument from design. (In this, incidentally, he differs from Phillip Kitcher, who argues directly, and correctly in my view, that evolution can not be plausibly reconciled with Christianity). People think science and atheism are connected because it is unambiguous that they are. Not because one logically entails the other, but because science has a tendency to uncover facts about the world that seem inconsistent with the teachings of traditional Christianity. It also promotes methods of inquiry that are hard to reconcile with seeing faith as a virtue, and with accepting the Bible as inerrant.

    And that’s the fundamental flaw in your argument. You act as if the relationship between science and religion was just peachy until Dawkins et al came along and screwed it all up. The reality is far simpler. Evangelical Christians overwhelmingly reject evolution because they perceive correctly that the story told by evolution is totally different from the story told by the Bible. They are contemptuous of theistic evolution because they perceive, again correctly, that holding that view requires major compromises in Christian theology. The idea that science and traditional religious faith are at odds is one that most people discover for themselves. It is the idea that they are consistent that requires advocacy, and there is a reason it is such a hard sell.

    Anyway, there are other things I disagree with in your essay, but this comment is already too long, so I’ll save and further comment for my own blog. At least you’ve saved me the trouble of finding blog fodder for a while!

  10. #10 miller
    September 12, 2007

    I think you have mischaracterized “New atheists” (if that’s what we’re calling them). For example, I doubt that most New atheists want to exclude the religious from science. A more accurate way of saying it is that they want to make religious skepticism publicly acceptable so that there will be less people who, by their own free will, exclude themselves from science.

    In fact, based on my impressions, new atheists would actually agree with choice 2 (if they hadn’t already set their minds to disagree with you), except that they would emphasize the “atheism is a valid way to see the world” part.

    Myself, I think that people on either side of the “framing” debate only disagree in degree, but a large dichotomy is perpetuated by straw men on both sides. There are some extremists on either side, but I see far more people sitting near the middle, drawing imaginary lines between themselves.

  11. #11 Ed S.
    September 12, 2007

    So your message is: “Just go along and say that the Emperor’s new clothes look fabulous and will somebody please shut that kid up.”

    The more I read of Matt Nisbet, the more I agree with PZ Myers.

  12. #12 Ed S.
    September 12, 2007

    Someone’s frame is showing.

    They are contemptuous of theistic evolution because they perceive, again correctly, that holding that view requires major compromises in Christian theology.

    I was raised Roman Catholic by devout parents, attending four different RC schools over 12 years. I was taught “theistic evolution.” the argument that science conflicts with “Christian” depends entirely upon the definition of “Christian” translated as “not Catholic or any of those namby-pamby Protestants.”

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 12, 2007

    Ed S.-

    Please reread my comment. I was talking specifically about Evangelical Christians.

  14. #14 Ed S.
    September 12, 2007

    Jason,

    Perhaps I misunderstand, but you wrote that the evangelicals “correctly” see a conflict with “Christian” theology. Catholics and many Protestants don’t have big issues with theistic evolution. I am not saying that you are incorrect in your assessment of evangelicals, but that your definition of Christian is exactly the frame that fundamentalists use. Though I am now “fallen away” as my mother says, I did get a small share of “you’re a Catholic – not a real Christian” while growing up.

  15. #15 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 12, 2007

    Jake,
    Thanks for this very valuable synthesis and application. To your points I would add the following:

    3. If we as atheists really want to make progress, then we need to heed Dewey’s insight that in order to displace religion, you have to build rival forms of community.

    One central reason religion continues to thrive in the U.S., and a factor in the growing popularity of mega-churches, is that people no longer have any other sources of community interaction.

    They turn to the mega-church not only for devotional and spiritual needs, but perhaps more importantly, for a sense of community support, belonging, and socializing. For many Americans, the reality of community life is that the only other option is the shopping mall or sporting events.

    Instead of engaging in a movement of attacks and complaints that further alienates us from the rest of society, we as atheists need to take a leadership role in our communities, building cross-cutting friendship networks, institutions, and organizations that bring diverse citizens together in an effort to collectively solve pressing social problems such as poverty.

    By building alternative forms of community and by reducing our fellow citizens’ feelings of economic insecurity, we as atheists can achieve our goals of secularization much more effectively than resorting to a PR campaign of attacks and complaints. In the process, by silencing the Noise Machine and instead taking on visible community leadership roles, we can also start to repair our image problem.

  16. #16 Ed S.
    September 12, 2007

    I was totally with Matt’s comment right up to the gratuitous “Noise machine” reference. G’night.

  17. #17 Moopheus
    September 12, 2007

    Let’s not even forget that that assumes a Western/Christian notion that religion=theism. There’s plenty of Buddhists in the world who would say otherwise. When the Lord Buddha was asked if there was a God, his answer was silence. How can the question even be meaningfully asked? Science is supposed to be about meaningful answers to definable questions (isn’t it?)–theological questions frequently do not qualify.

    Unfortunately, it is true that for many people, their religion is intimately tied to a plethora of dogmas and beliefs and sacred texts that are either directly contradicted by scientific findings, or at best, have no evidentiary support. They are threatened by that; if that framework is taken away, they see below them only a terrible cold abyss. The Buddhist is not threatened by that–the Buddhist knew the framework was an illusion already, and wishes to see what is below even the cold abyss.

    You aren’t going to be convince many theists to give up supernatural beliefs with logic and mountains of facts. People cling very tightly to their attachments, even if those attachments are ideas that are little more than the inherited fantasies of ancient desert rats. They assembled their whole world-view around it. Dawkins et al are going about it the wrong way. Not that I know what the right way is, but high-handed isn’t it. It needs to be more of a helping hand.

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 12, 2007

    Ed S-

    Ah, I see the confusion now.

    When I say that Evangelicals are correct in their perception about evolution conflicting with Christian theology, I am taking it for granted that all forms of Christian belief assert that human beings are the intentional creation of a loving God who created the world specifically for us. That view is, in my opinion, very difficult to reconcile with the idea that humanity is the accidental and improbable outcome of billions of years of natural selection. Basically, evolution takes the traditional problem of evil (already a good argument against Christianity) and ramps it up to an intolerable degree (by making suffering and cruelty integral parts of the creative process used by God).

    I am aware that many Christians do not agree with this view. But I do think that even outside of evangelical circles, it is a dominant view among Christians.

  19. #19 JuliaL
    September 13, 2007

    Very interesting post and comments, and so well expressed that even the non-expert can follow the argument. I did, though, fail to understand two statements:

    Jake,

    Further, embracing a big-tent approach will not prevent scientific or even atheistic values from taking over.

    I had thought that atheism had no necessary attached set of values as it means simply an opinion that as there is no scientific evidence that God exists, then (almost?) certainly there is no god. Of course, I’ve heard/read religious fundamentalists claim there is such a thing as atheistic values. Their list includes such items as these: there is no purpose or meaning in life; morality is a fantasy; there is no reason for restraint of the urge to indulge one’s self to the greatest extent one’s power will permit, etc. But surely you aren’t referring to that list of values? Could you tell me, please, a few of these atheistic values that are distinguishable from scientific values?

    Jason,

    the idea that humanity is the accidental and improbable outcome of billions of years of natural selection.

    How do you reconcile “accidental” and “outcome of . . . natural selection”? Those two concepts seem to be in conflict. Are you saying, perhaps, that evolution is non-deterministic and that the word “accidental” means the same?

  20. #20 MartinC
    September 13, 2007

    It is an interesting read but it misses the point that it is based not on the question of science versus religion but upon the political realities of one country. Many of us outside the US view things in a somewhat different way. In Europe, for instance, while religion may be nominally claimed by the majority of people, it is not a strident fundamentalistic form of religion such as is common in the US or some north western tribal areas of Pakistan. For the most part European based religions have accepted defeat from secular reasoning and retreated into a more metaphorical interpretation of scriptures. Over here to say that particular literal interpretations of scripture are plainly ridiculous is not seen as some blasphemous attack on the religious but simply a statement of fact. So whatever your own local political realities in the US you need to take into consideration the fact that vocal discussion of religious inconsistency from a European or Canadian, Australian or other secular perspective is going to continue. You can decide to avoid vocal criticism of evangelical anti-science preachings out of some notion that it might alienate the religious but don’t expect silence from your overseas colleagues.

  21. #21 Trinifar
    September 13, 2007

    Very useful post, Jake. I think your analysis is right on the money and Matt’s comment above is the right solution.

  22. #22 chet snicker
    September 13, 2007

    sir,

    to you i say bravo! an exposition of extraordinary clarity, precision and insight i must say. were that all bloggers exhibited your keen intellect and due diligence.

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  23. #23 chet snicker
    September 13, 2007

    sir,

    to you i say bravo! an exposition of extraordinary clarity, precision and insight i must say. were that all bloggers exhibited your keen intellect and due diligence.

    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  24. #24 Paul
    September 13, 2007

    First of all, great post Jake, thanks.

    On a general semantic point (apologies), I find it slightly confusing that some people seem to view the ‘conflict’ between science and religion as a battle between liberalism and conservatism. In my opinion science is inherently conservative in that it is resistant to change – until the weight of evidence against the status quo is enough to change it, thereby putting the burden of proof more on those who propose new theories, and not so much on the established theory. I think this is how science can progress systematically: those theories which don’t hold up to empirical scrutiny fall by the wayside. In this sense, science is resistant to change for the sake of change, and promotes change only when necessary – which for me is conservative. Of course, this is only based my view of the term ‘conservative’…

    In response to MartinC:

    Whether I agree with your point or not is irrelevant: I would just like to say that I don’t think that your opinion necessarily reflects reality in Europe (or at least the UK, where I am). Certainly, I agree that religion may not play as militant a role as it does in the US perhaps, but I think that it is just as pervasive (despite your assertion that “For the most part European based religions have accepted defeat from secular reasoning…”), and I feel the post is also applicable to the general conflict between science and religion, irrespective of political situation. Also, and forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted you, but it seems as though you’re implying that Europe in general is more advanced (i.e. somehow better) than the US, simply because of its more secular nature – something which I think is just plain wrong, and which gently reinforces the rediculous view that the US is backward in intellectual terms compared to Europe. (perhaps I’ve taken that a bit far, but my original point remains…)

    Thanks again Jake.

  25. #25 MartinC
    September 13, 2007

    Paul,
    I think you have indeed misinterpreted. I’m not suggesting that Europe is completely non-religious, merely that the previous literal interpretions have given way to a more metaphorical approach and the reason for that is the acknowledged ability of the scientific method to come up with answers that contradict traditional religious teaching about the physical world. To my reading of the situation this is a real difference between European and a substantial number of US (evangelical) churches and has led to a situation where a persons belief or non belief in God is not a major point in how they are viewed in society (at least this is my experience living in Ireland, the UK and Sweden).
    I also don’t claim European superiority over the US – although that particular point is somewhat subjective – how does one define superiority in this context? Belief in evolution ? Belief in a literal Adam and Eve, Noahs Ark etc ? GDP ? Most nobel Prizes ? I guess it depends on your own criteria for measurement. I would however suggest that any country that has a significant number of followers of fundamentalist religions will tend to have more science/religion conflicts. I do not see this as a claim of superiority.

  26. #26 Russell Blackford
    September 13, 2007

    All right, answer one question (one to start with).

    You have just stated, yourself, that you believe that science and religion are not consistent. Do you think that this claim should not be made by people who believe it? If so, that strikes me as a very undesirable kind of self-censorship that you’re advocating. I agree that it may not be a palatable message for many, but do you seriously think it’s a message that we should be suppressing? I’ll ask the question even more pointedly. When people argue for this view, which you say is actually your view, do you think that they deserve to be criticised harshly for it by people like you and Nisbet? Do you want us to shut up, even though you think we’re speaking the truth?

    The thing is, I have some niggling criticisms of the various “new atheists”, such as Dawkins, but I basically side with them. I think that they are doing something very important and commendable (I admit that it doesn’t hurt that I’ve always been a fan of Dawkins).

    That doesn’t mean that I’d be arguing on some kind of atheistic ground for the teaching of evolutionary theory, or whatever. That would be getting things backwards. Evolutionary theory is almost certainly going to stand the test of time because it is now so well-corroborated by mountains of convergent evidence, has so much explanatory power, coheres so well with findings from the other sciences (geology, astrophysics … ), etc. There is good reason to add its insights to our scientific image of the world. That is the basis to teach it as good science.

    It’s only as we build up the scientific image of the world that we notice how it’s not really consistent with the religious image – or at least that squaring the two requires incredible mental gymnastics. As the scientific image of the world is based on a great width of well-corroborated theory, using data continuous with our ordinary ways of investigating the world, the scientific image itself is probably correct in its basics. Put those facts together, and it casts great doubt on the truth of the religious image (with its providential god, its belief in spirits, human exceptionalism, libertarian free will, etc., etc.).

    I wouldn’t be using that fact to argue for teaching evolution, but I’d damn sure use it in a philosophical debate about whether there is good reason to endorse religious views. I’d go on to argue that religious institutions are based on bodies of doctrine that are highly likely to be false, and are unreliable at best, and that we (as individuals and at the level of the government) should not be deferring to religious institutions’ purported moral authority.

    If my goal is to get as many people as I can (as many as are prepared to listen to a philosophical argument) to feel great doubt about the truth of religion and about the moral authority of churches and priests, then it seems to me that what I have just described is perfectly legitimate. The alternative is to stop arguing against the truth of religion, and the authority of priests, at all … or to conduct the argument with one arm tied behind my back.

    This is what I find obnoxious about atheists who want to attack Dawkins for writing a book like The God Delusion, which is not actually strident and angry at all, but careful, fair, and good-humoured. Dawkins is not beyond specific criticism (e.g., I think he underestimates the force of the problem of evil and perhaps overestimates the force of the ultimate 747 gambit … and a few specific sentences in The God Delusion could perhaps have been less snarky), but I don’t think we should be criticising him for what he is doing, which involves a popular defence of atheism, including (in effect) a reliance on the obvious, though often denied, tension between the scientific and religious images of the world.

    I say, cheers for Dawkins. But perhaps the point is that I have a different agenda from you. I am not out to prove that evolution is good science. Scarcely any credible person in my country, or any other developed country other than the US, would claim otherwise. I am out to deny that priests who spread a morality of misery – anti-sex, luddite about reproductive technologies, irrational when it comes to such things as stem cell research – have any special authority. They have no authority precisely because their whole foundation for claiming authority is so dubious. Their foundation is very dubious partly because it does not readily cohere with the scientific image of the world.

  27. #27 Theocrapcy
    September 13, 2007

    There is definitely the risk of “making liberalism high-brow” (if it isn’t already – it’s also funnier) but the corollary to this is that low-brow is a majority – which may or may not be true (personally I think people are just too lazy and intoxicated by tv and sport).

    The difference is, however, that the secular “left” elite is inclusive – people are free (and encouraged) to raise their standards of critical thinking. Lowering the intellectual bar will achieve nothing except dissolve the meaning of liberal.

  28. #28 Derek James
    September 13, 2007

    I agree with Jason Rosenhouse and Russell Blackford here.

    All this talk of framing and strategy reminds me of a particular distaste with Democrats and Democratic blogs (I consider myself Independent). There are often quite a lot of words spilled talking about strategy, rather than just abiding by core principles and stating them clearly. Instead of agonizing about how you have to coat your particular pill so that people will swallow it, why not just state it cleanly and clearly and let it stand on its own merits? I think Jason in particular is right, that you can’t treat religious people as naive boobs to be manipulated by your clever framing. People often know when they’re being handled.

    Instead, why not treat them like adults? Assume they’re ignorant but intelligent, and just lay out the case. The alternatives seem to be denying there is a case to be made in the first place, admitting there’s a case but keeping silent, or trying to somehow wrap the idea that religion is irrational with a pretty yellow bow so that people will like it better.

  29. #29 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 13, 2007

    JuliaL: How do you reconcile “accidental” and “outcome of . . . natural selection”?

    Try substituting “contingent” for “accidental” and see if it works better for you.

    Russell Blackford: Do you want us to shut up, even though you think we’re speaking the truth?

    That’s exactly what he wants. He also wants us to “stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise“, although he fails to provide any examples or evidence that this is happening.

  30. #30 Blake Stacey
    September 13, 2007

    Put me down as reluctantly agreeing with Rosenhouse, Blackford and James. I say “reluctantly”, because in all honesty, I’d rather like seeing everyone join hands and walk into the sunset, while the wind brings the scent of roses into Academia and a chorus of children sings, “NOMA NOMA” — but that’s not going to happen.

  31. #31 llewelly
    September 13, 2007

    Or we could decide that science is big enough for everyone and that differences in belief will be settled in the end.

    Religion teaches people to place great value on their religious beliefs. Rejection of religious belief hurts because religions teach their members to invest heavily in their worldview. Science rejects beliefs which fail empirical tests. Where they can be tested, religions beliefs have failed – and are likely to continue to fail.
    The larger tent will include the religious people, but it will not affect the mechanism which causes them to suffer when empiricism rejects their beliefs; that mechanism is designed, built, and maintained by religious leaders. Some portion of those people will someday be thankful science destroyed their religious beliefs, despite the pain involved (I certainly am). But the pain is not caused by the actions of scientists, and any attempt to reduce it must take this into account.

  32. #32 Carlos
    September 13, 2007

    As a Roman Catholic, who along with the publicly stated positions of my Church has absolutely no problem with any avenue of scientific inquiry that does not take the life of demonstrably alive, demonstrably human, organisms, I have no problem with evolution but a big one with embryonic stem cell research.

    I also don’t assume that the big leaps in science are likely to be made by those who’s major focus is who is sitting at table with them.

    But back the the stem cell issue. It is often claimed in more mainstream venues that, while amazing results have been realized with adult and cord (and now amniotic) stem cells, which have zero moral deficits. Fetal/Embryonic Stem Cell research has had no success in curing anything.

    Is this true?

    Even if it was not true, and cures arrived from this line of research that required the extermination of a certain number of embryos. Would there be a moral issue with a market driven extermination of hundreds, thousands, millions of embryos? And what if it was found that, while 2 day old, or even 3 week old embryos were not going to be able deliver the promise of cures derived from pluripotent cells, multipotent cells derived from 3-5 month old embryos turned out to be very useful indeed, would there be a moral component on whether to proceed?

    Does Science predicated on the concept that there is no place for religious views have any place to go but where there is no place for moral sensitivites of any kind? Is the only rule going to be the greatest good for the greatest number?

    If that is the case I have a Modest Proposal. Dr. Swift may have had equally ironic things to say about the eugencists and the social results of their inquiry. As well the social results of the Socio-Economic inquiry of Karl Marx and his alcolytes. Both very bad outcomes that began with the systematic exclusion of the Religious POV.

  33. #33 Byzanteen
    September 13, 2007

    With a histrionic and poorly-substantiated tirade like this, you will certainly never be dismissed as “high-brow.”

  34. #34 Tulse
    September 13, 2007

    Ed S.:

    the argument that science conflicts with “Christian” depends entirely upon the definition of “Christian” translated as “not Catholic or any of those namby-pamby Protestants”

    You left this bit out: “…as long as those Catholics and Protestants also reject the resurrection, and virgin birth of male humans, and the transmutation of water into wine, and the creation ex nihilo of bread and fish, and any claims of special powers beyond the grave allegedly possessed of those called saints, and generally any supernatural intervention in the natural world.” There, that’s a more accurate answer.

    Now, your point was?

  35. #35 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 13, 2007

    MattXIV: How many more atheists lynched by Boy Scouts must we endure before America wakes up?

    I reject your contention that bigotry isn’t important if it doesn’t involve mortality.

  36. #36 MattXIV
    September 13, 2007

    Tegumai Bopsulai,

    If that’s the only difference you are capable of seeing in the objectives and attitudes of those organzations, then I really don’t know what to say.

  37. #37 Ken Watts
    September 13, 2007

    Thanks for a thoughtful post. As a post-Christian with many rational, liberal, still-Christian friends (some of them even Evangelicals) I struggle with this issue, and your post has moved me toward, if not all the way to, clarity.

    I think the comments, taken as a whole, throw even more light on the subject, both in terms of what they say, and also as evidence. There really isn’t any single religious, or even Christian, worldview.

    There are Christians who believe in ways that contradict science, Christians who take faith positions metaphorically rather than literally, and Christians who take their faith literally, but in ways that don’t contradict science (though they might contradict the world-view of many scientists, and certainly contradict mine). Often these different views exist in the same church. Sometimes they exist in the same person.

    While I think I’m against in-your-face evangelism, as much by atheists as by Christians, I do wonder whether the net effect of careful framing isn’t to convince the most conservative faithful that atheists are not only godless liberals, but also dishonest.

    They could easily see us as luring their children into classes on science, without mentioning that an education in science will undermine their faith, subtly corrupting them and sending them on the road to hell…

    It could backfire.

    Thanks again for a very helpful post.

  38. #38 Daryl McCullough
    September 13, 2007

    Tulse writes:

    “…as long as those Catholics and Protestants also reject the resurrection, and virgin birth of male humans, and the transmutation of water into wine, and the creation ex nihilo of bread and fish, and any claims of special powers beyond the grave allegedly possessed of those called saints, and generally any supernatural intervention in the natural world.”

    Well, I certainly reject all of those.

  39. #39 Daryl McCullough
    September 13, 2007

    Byzanteen writes:

    With a histrionic and poorly-substantiated tirade like this, you will certainly never be dismissed as “high-brow.”

    You’re kidding! You consider Jake’s essay to be a histrionic tirade? I disagree with his essays quite frequently, but I would never accuse him of being “histrionic”.

  40. #40 Brian English
    September 13, 2007

    Carlos, your religion, which I was unfortunately raised in, has nothing to add to the debate on stem-cells. A 3 month old fetus is not a viable human life. It is not a child. The church teaches this falsehood. The rest of your arguments are the usual historical lies that are spread.
    Religion has no moral authority. Religion is based on falsehood. When you start with a lie, build on that lie, and keep lying, you can’t claim truth.

  41. #41 llewelly
    September 13, 2007

    Nisbet:

    3. If we as atheists really want to make progress, then we need to heed Dewey’s insight that in order to displace religion, you have to build rival forms of community.

    As Richard Dawkins is doing. I know, I know, you’re hard at work propagating the myth that Dawkins, Dennet, PZ, have no positive views, and do no community-building. But that hasn’t stopped Dawkins from touring and giving speeches, that hasn’t stopped readers of his books from forming atheist groups, that hasn’t stopped PZ from aiding the formation of atheist groups, it hasn’t stopped his blog from growing in popularity. Your strawman is a failure.

  42. #42 Carlos
    September 13, 2007

    Brian. Why are you calling me a liar? I merely stated that an embryo is indisputably human, and indisputably alive. If you need to add qualifiers, go ahead, but be warned, when you are old and grey, someone is likely to inform you you are no longer viable and kick you out of the cave (his choice, when might makes right).

    There is nothing terminal about a 3 month old fetus’ lack of viability that another few months won’t cure. It is a trivial condition that soon goes away (if left “untreated”), and certainly does not merit a death sentence. We were discussing very young embryos, though, a ways up the slippery slope from your viability criteria for harvesting.

    Hopefully, we may not have to go that far. Nobody has enlightened me regarding any promising cures from the embryonic crowd. Anybody?

    Sure we don’t need a Moral compass here folks? Brian seems to be all in on my nightmare scenario, and I thought I was going too far.

  43. #43 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 13, 2007

    Llewelly,
    I always enjoy how you either selectively quote or twist my statements in ways that fit your ideology.

    For the clarity of others, I repeat my argument:

    Rather than retreating into ideological safe zones–such as atheist groups, atheist social networking sites, or atheist blogs–we need to be taking leadership roles in our local towns and cities, working to solve problems and building organizations that bring people together from a diversity of faiths to socialize and to work on collective problems.

    We as atheists have a serious image problem. If we are going to repair that image, we need to stop the attacks and complaints, stop being ever more insular in our associations, and get out into our local communities, setting a positive example with actions that bring people together around shared values.

  44. #44 Tulse
    September 13, 2007

    Ken Watts:

    There are Christians who believe in ways that contradict science, Christians who take faith positions metaphorically rather than literally, and Christians who take their faith literally, but in ways that don’t contradict science

    Anyone who believes that the supernatural entities impact the natural world believes things that contradict the principles of science. Anyone who believes only “metaphorically” is just wasting their time, or at the very least practicing something that deserves no more respect and special treatment than poetry.

  45. #45 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    MattXIV: If that’s the only difference you are capable of seeing in the objectives and attitudes of those organzations, then I really don’t know what to say.

    That’s the difference you chose to highlight. If you can’t make a clear argument, then perhaps it is better if you don’t say anything at all.

  46. #46 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    Brian. Why are you calling me a liar? I merely stated that an embryo is indisputably human, and indisputably alive.

    The same could be said of a tumor.

  47. #47 Randy Olson, Head Dodo
    September 14, 2007

    Thank you for this truly excellent synthesis. You have shown something that is rare in the world of science — an understanding of human nature.

  48. #48 Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD
    September 14, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet: Rather than retreating into ideological safe zones–such as atheist groups, atheist social networking sites, or atheist blogs–we need to be taking leadership roles in our local towns and cities

    Uh-huh. Here’s some recent numbers on the willingness of Americans to elect the godless to “leadership roles.”

  49. #49 Carlos
    September 14, 2007

    “The same could be said of a tumor.”

    A tumor is a Human? Odd. I suppose there is a certain bias against carrying them to term, so we rarely get a chance to find out for sure.

    So you are with Brian though? If an embryo has no more moral value than a tumor, how about a 3 month fetus? Still a tumor?

  50. #50 PuckishOne
    September 14, 2007

    Quoth Carlos: There is nothing terminal about a 3 month old fetus’ lack of viability that another few months won’t cure. It is a trivial condition that soon goes away (if left “untreated”), and certainly does not merit a death sentence.”

    Even a non-scientist such as I can see the gigantic holes in this “argument.” A 3-month old fetus that’s had “another few months” to develop isn’t a 3-month-old fetus anymore, is it? So you’ve not only moved the goalposts, you’ve redefined the playing rules. Additionally, you’ve claimed something as both “undeniably human” and then “trivial” (that same 3-month-old embryo)…which actually explains a lot about the anti-choice/pro-death-penalty position, when you think about it. Either way, I recommend that you argue facts and not feelings here lest the PhDs here decide to play hardball.

  51. #51 Carlos
    September 14, 2007

    “Either way, I recommend that you argue facts and not feelings here lest the PhDs here decide to play hardball.”

    Hardball please. And from a more cogent source if at all possible.

  52. #52 Matthew C. Nisbet
    September 14, 2007

    Tegumai,
    I discuss those numbers at my blog, and I see signs for great optimism, that is if we as atheists can engage the rest of the public in positive ways:

    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2007/09/rather_than_devout_americans_p.php

    Of course, atheists will never improve their public image, much less be be elected, if they increasingly only interact with each other. Wearing black T-shirts with scarlet letter A’s on your chest while using Dawkins’ talking points to make fun of the rest of the public at atheist gatherings or on blogs might be great fun, but it really serves to do little else.

  53. #53 J. J. Ramsey
    September 14, 2007

    Matthew C. Nisbet: “We as atheists have a serious image problem. If we are going to repair that image, we need to stop the attacks and complaints”

    Careful there. What do you mean by “attack”?

    If you mean insinuations that believers are stupid, nuts, cretins, or other ways of demonizing theists, then yes, that should stop. If you mean arguments against theism, that is a whole other story.

    I would say that we should have a low tolerance for sloppiness and distortion, and if we had that, the bulk of the problems from the New Atheists would go away, since you can’t have demonization without distortion.

  54. #54 mikmor
    September 14, 2007

    The Problem is and you started to mentions it when writing about the founding of this country, and it goes back to the Jeffersonian principles of democracy (it’s to bad Jackson stole and corrupted them).

    An educated individual is an informed person who becomes a valued citizen.

    If you have never been taught how to reason. Then you fall pray to your emotions, which then can be used by what ever power, be it civic of religious for whatever purpose. Result, Mob violence, tyranny of the majority, war in Iraq.

    Lets face it the American public has never been know for its’ mental prowess, maybe hard work and good hearts, but brains…I don’t think so.

    I for one say don’t go for the lowest common denominator. The struggle is to get everyone up to a higher level of thought.

  55. #55 Anne Gilbert
    September 14, 2007

    For me, there is one gaping hole in this argument, although I think you are, in general, on the right track. The gaping hole is that these “militant scientific atheist” books such as the Dawkins and Hitchens works, are actually reactions to the insistence of certain religious groups(but by no means all of them), that if one believes in a deity, one *must* reject science — specifically evolution. IOW, to be “religious” is to reject evolution. Some of them also push the idea that the Biblical creation story can somehow be proved through scientific means; this use of science or scientific method is acceptable. Of course, anyone who has even a smattering of biology knows it isn’t. If they happen to actually be scientists, it is simply laughable. But this is where the “new atheists” are “coming from”. I think that this should be understood and made plain. I also think that it is perfectly acceptable to point out that there are scientist who also have various kinds of religious beliefs; the biologist Francisco Ayala comes to mind(hint: he’s a Jesuit priest). Finally, any argument about science, belief, atheism, etc., should be framed around the concept that science is *a method of inquiry*, not a belief system. Anyone can learn, to varying degrees, to use this method of inquiry; it doesn’t impinge on anyone’s beliefs or nonbeliefs, and it shouldn’t. If this is explained and repeated to “the public”, I believe this will be eventually accepted.
    Anne G

  56. #56 Tulse
    September 14, 2007

    Anne G:

    Finally, any argument about science, belief, atheism, etc., should be framed around the concept that science is *a method of inquiry*, not a belief system. Anyone can learn, to varying degrees, to use this method of inquiry; it doesn’t impinge on anyone’s beliefs or nonbeliefs, and it shouldn’t.

    That’s a lovely sentiment, but it just isn’t true — using science’s methods of inquiry (i.e., developing theories, generating hypotheses, testing these hypotheses with objective observation of the physical world, etc.) will often undercut the validity of religious beliefs if applied to certain domains. That’s a major point of the New Atheists’ contention, namely, that saying science and religion can live together is nothing but pandering to religion (or at least to any religion that makes truth claims about the observable world).

  57. #57 Ed Darrell
    September 17, 2007

    Sheesh! You’re going to lose the creationists and other irrational wackoes at John Dewey. They think he was channeling Joseph Stalin most of the time.

    We won’t be able to reason people to policies they oppose irrationally.

  58. #58 Michael A. Phillips
    September 17, 2007

    Many in this thread don’t understand what ‘atheist’ means…

    Atheist = not a theist. This is not a philosophical view or a world view, it is the absence of a particular theistic one. Most Christians are also atheists…towards Islam and Judaism. It’s just that those who call themselves atheists in the US are consistent in their rejection of superstition, while Christians are rather selective of their suspension of disbelief (aka inconsistent).

    There is no way to reconcile theistic religion and science. The purpose of science is to uncover the nature of our universe and religion must do the opposite to survive. It goes without saying that science and religion are not internally consistent. The reason religion is so easily rejected by rationalists is because religion is not internally consistent with ITSELF.

  59. #59 Chris
    September 17, 2007

    New atheists will be created in the same way that new atheists have always been created: by a kid waking up in class one day and saying, “You know that invisible man business doesn’t make sense.”

    Yes, exactly. And that is a lot more likely to happen if that kid just read The God Delusion and passed it around to his friends.

    What you don’t seem to understand is that having those ideas in circulation *affects people* who are wavering, fence-sitting, or looking for something to believe in. That’s who TGD is aimed at – it’s not an attempt to deconvert the Pope or Pat Robertson.

    Even if you accept that hardened zealots are 100% unreachable (not necessarily true in the first place), nobody is born fanatically devoted to a particular interpretation of a particular religious scripture. There is still a window of opportunity in each life when access to rational and, yes, atheist ideas might have made a difference. That is precisely why so many religions spent so many centuries murdering anyone who did what Dawkins is doing now.

    To sum up: even granting for the sake of argument that you correctly identify a dichotomy between short-term and long-term progress, you fail to make any compelling argument for pursuing short-term gains at the expense of promoting long-term weakening of the religious stranglehold you point to. I (and I believe also PZ and others) don’t disagree that your approach might be effective in the short term; rather, I disagree with your decision to focus on the short term.

  60. #60 bullfighter
    September 17, 2007

    Jake,

    Did Dewey ever write that H. L. Mencken should be silenced?

    Thanks.

  61. #61 greg laden
    September 17, 2007

    Jake, I have to disagree with your premise. Your definitions are really, I think, shaped to make your argument, and I’m not sure if that is the way to do it. Here is my response to your post:

    http://gregladen.com/wordpress/?p=1321

    I’m sure I agree with a lot of stuff you say, but I simply need to critique the premise! It’s important.

    Cheers,

    Greg Laden

  62. #62 Jake Young
    September 17, 2007

    bullfighter,

    Interestingly enough, Dewey mentions Mencken at the beginning of this article. Mencken made a profession out of making fun of William Jennings Bryan. Dewey did not say that he should be silenced, but he did disagree with this approach. I think that Dewey thought of his own approach in opposition to Mencken’s.

  63. #63 Carlos
    September 17, 2007

    “That is precisely why so many religions spent so many centuries murdering anyone who did what Dawkins is doing now.”

    The Nazis and the Marxists, who initially were content to do what Dawkins is doing now, more than made up for it during the last century. By several orders of magnitude. He’s better off as an ineffectual academic, for all our sakes.

  64. #64 Chris
    September 18, 2007

    Carlos: When, exactly, did the Nazis and the Marxists encourage rational, skeptical inquiry into all belief systems? I must have missed that phase of their history.

    For the record, although I think Marx was wrong about several things, I don’t think he would have approved of later “Marxism” (although, to be sure, you might say similar things about Jesus and Mohammed).

    But in any case, totalitarianism under any name is a long, long way from – and indeed mortally opposed to – what Dawkins is doing now, which is questioning and attempting to refute the prevailing orthodoxies of his environment.

  65. #65 bullfighter
    September 18, 2007

    Chris: When, exactly, did the Nazis and the Marxists encourage rational, skeptical inquiry into all belief systems?

    I am strongly on your side, but your wording is wrong. Many Marxists did exactly that. On the other hand, dogmatic Marxist ideologues and Communist political operatives certainly did not.

    Kinda like not every conservative is a Tom DeLay…

  66. #66 bullfighter
    September 18, 2007

    Jake,

    Interesting that Dewey mentioned Mencken, but your analysis skips over that, given the events that seem to have motivated you to dig up Dewey’s article and write about it. As your reply shows, you do realize that Mencken was one of the “New Atheists”. (That just shows you how “new” they are.) It is obvious from Dewey’s position that he disagreed with Mencken, but the question is did he denounce him the way some of your “Big Tent Atheists” are denouncing the “New Atheists”. Did Dewey write that Mencken was helping the cause of the enemies of science? That Mencken should not be writing?

    And that’s only the first question. It is possible (I really don’t know) that Dewey did express those views. But, regardless, the next question is, was Dewey right? Did history validate Dewey’s approach, or Mencken’s?

    Don’t forget that Bryan won the Scopes trial. That he is widely perceived as the loser, and that his cause lost in the aftermath of the trial, is due in part to Mencken’s commentary. I don’t think you can deny that Mencken had a positive influence on the public’s acceptance of science. If Dewey did, it was only indirectly, through people who admired his philosophy.

  67. #67 Duae Quartunciae
    September 21, 2007

    Matthew Nisbet says:

    We as atheists have a serious image problem. If we are going to repair that image, we need to stop the attacks and complaints, stop being ever more insular in our associations, and get out into our local communities, setting a positive example with actions that bring people together around shared values.

    I’d like to be a fan, Matthew, really. I have a solid record of disagreeing with PZ on various matters, and also for positive interactions with theists online (I’m an atheist). But I think you have a bad case of cognitive dissonance. between your own words and actions.

    You seem doing be doing a perfectly horrible job at bringing people together around shared values. I also think you are pretty much in serious denial about the effects of the more hardline atheists with the black T-shirts and all. They are not just working with a small in group of like minded fellows. They are actively making that group of like minded fellows grow. And in many cases, they are also working positively in the community in various ways.

    I’m an easy going atheist. I speak up, from time to time, in defence of theists when the anti-theistic rhetoric exceeds the bound of reason; but I don’t want anyone to shut up about it. I’m quite happy to have lots of different perspectives and views around; I just wish you would spend more time living up to your own ideals about brings folks together, and just leave off the idiotic snipes at people who don’t share your vision. I’d be the ideal person to share in your campaign of bringing folks together; except that what I see is way too much enthusiatic participation in in-fighting and fostering divisions. I don’t see all that much of bringing folks together from you; mostly your focus seems to be on criticising and denigrating those who don’t work to bring folks together. It’s a tad ironic.

    As Tom Leher says… I know there are people in this world who do not love their fellow human beings… and I hate people like that.

    Cheers — Duae Quartunciae

  68. #68 Diana Rojas
    February 8, 2008

    My name is Diana Rojas and I am from Colombia, South America.

    I’m creating courses (masters and similar) for improve the education quality of my country. The model that is present, theorically and methodologically, is ESCUELA NUEVA (New School), founded in Colombia on sixties. This model is in 14 countries, and it has growing because the ideas of different authors. John Dewey is very relevant in our theory. In this moment I am needing a photograph of Dewey. I liked the photo that is located in http://www.tc.columbia.edu/centers/coce/detail.asp?Id=About+Us&Info=A+Photographic+Exhibition

    So, I’m writing you to solicit your permission to use it, in a book, for illustrate about Dewey’s life and ideas. The purpose is not commercial, just educative. The photo will not figure on a cover, but in the text. If we had to pay for it, certainly, we could not do it.

    I will eternally grateful if you take me this permission.

    Sincerely,

    Diana Rojas Caballero-.

    .-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.
    Diana Rojas Caballero
    Coordinación Proyecto Diplomados
    Fundación Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente
    PBX. -571- 2452712 Ext. 118
    .-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.

  69. #69 Diana Rojas
    February 8, 2008

    My name is Diana Rojas and I am from Colombia, South America.

    I’m creating courses (masters and similar) for improve the education quality of my country. The model that is present, theorically and methodologically, is ESCUELA NUEVA (New School), founded in Colombia on sixties. This model is in 14 countries, and it has growing because the ideas of different authors. John Dewey is very relevant in our theory. In this moment I am needing a photograph of Dewey. I liked the photo that is located in http://scienceblogs.com/purepedantry/2007/09/why_pairing_science_and_atheis.php

    So, I�m writing you to solicit your permission to use it, in a book, for illustrate about Dewey’s life and ideas. The purpose is not commercial, just educative. The photo will not figure on a cover, but in the text. If we had to pay for it, certainly, we could not do it.

    I will eternally grateful if you take me this permission.

    Sincerely,

    Diana Rojas Caballero-.

    .-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.
    Diana Rojas Caballero
    Coordinaci�n Proyecto Diplomados
    Fundaci�n Escuela Nueva Volvamos a la Gente
    PBX. -571- 2452712 Ext. 118
    .-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.-.

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