On cracks

Jerry Coyne, 9/21/2009:

Kudos to the National Center for Science Education for putting up these videos [of Texas science standards hearings], and for their tenacious defense of evolution in Texas.

Thank you, Jerry. Since I shot those videos, and was present in Texas as part of that defense, I thought I was off Coyne’s shitlist, and it certainly seemed like NCSE was off it as well.

But three days later he objects to a line I wrote about “atheists bent on insisting that literalism is the true form of religion”:

Quote of the week, from the personal website of the Public Information Project Director of the National Center for Science Education (speaking unofficially, of course)…

Comment: I weep for the NCSE if this kind of idea is running the railroad. We atheists don’t give a tinker’s dam about what the true form of religion might be, because we don’t think there is one! Nor do we have one.

Dare I note only that Coyne seems to have no particular conception of what “speaking unofficially” means? I mean, why even bring NCSE into it? Why mention NCSE twice, refer to me by my official title at NCSE, but never refer to me by name? It’s just odd. And if he is going to do that, could he bear in mind what he said about NCSE a mere three days earlier?

As commenter smijer points out on Coyne’s blog:

it seems … that you open yourself to the charge [of taking a position on what religion truly is] by concurrently insisting that science and especially evolution are irreconcilable with religion – which is really only true when religion makes hard claims that are known scientifically to be false. That is only the case with fundamentalist/literalistic readings of scripture. That isn’t actually true of the more general cases that you criticize for not using the scientific approach to establish their beliefs.

One of the things I learned as a student at the University of Chicago is that it may be easier to respond to critiques with snark than actually confronting the challenge, but that isn’t terribly productive. One hopes that Coyne’s current tack does indicate a new direction for my alma mater.

For what it’s worth, note that I’m not claiming all atheists do this (they don’t). Consider the lengths Sam Harris goes to to marginalize moderate religious faith, and to turn it into a rump of the real issue: fundamentalism. Consider Jason Rosenhouse’s repeated claims that fundamentalists are more consistent than moderates (e.g. 1, 2). Maybe I’m misreading Coyne, Rosenhouse, Harris, et al. But in arguing against religion per se, they are clearly choosing particular versions of religion to focus on. This is, to a degree, inevitable, given the tremendous variety of religious experience. And in making that selection, they are suggesting that those forms of religion are somehow more valid than others, closer to the true essence of religion.

Obviously, they reject those forms of religion, and saying that they consider those to be “true religion” is not meant to suggest that they believe in it. I don’t see where this is a terribly controversial claim, truth be told.

Which is why I’m even more surprised to see Coyne describing this line as “an anti-atheist crack“:

“The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.”

That is from Kevin Padian’s response to Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron’s silly effort to blame Hitler on Darwin. First, note that Kevin Padian is a fairly open atheist, so if this line were “anti-atheist” it would have to be a sort of self-hating atheism. Second, how is it factually wrong? Some atheists (but not all) think science and religion are incompatible. Some religious fundamentalists also think this. There are also a bunch of people in the middle of the spectrum of belief who do not think that. Whether these represent a majority of Americans depends how you ask the question and what you do with undecided responses, but it is absolutely the case that most Americans belong to religious groups whose governing bodies have asserted the compatibility of science (including evolution) and their brand of religion.

What, then, makes Padian’s factually correct statement about the beliefs of some atheists a “crack”? Is there any method at all to Coyne’s outrage?

Comments

  1. #1 Michael Fugate
    September 25, 2009

    What does extreme atheist mean? Definition please.

  2. #2 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Michael Fugate: You’d have to ask Padian, as he’s the one who used the term. That sentence might itself define what he means by “extreme,” though.

  3. #3 Ian
    September 25, 2009

    I read Coyne’s post this morning. Thought about posting a comment. But then I realised that there’s really no point in taking him seriously on this topic.

    People are like that. They dig their heels in on an issue and insist that they’re right. Unless it’s a safety issue, there’s no reason to directly engage them.

  4. #4 Michael Fugate
    September 25, 2009

    “[A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.”

    A majority of Americans don’t accept evolution. See “Public Acceptance of Evolution” Science 313:765 of which Eugenie Scott is an author. If 90% of people in the US are religious and a majority accept compatibility, then at least 46% should accept evolution. The Science paper estimates the acceptance level at 40%.

    Without religion, acceptance of evolution would not be a problem – so why attack atheists? What evidence does the NCSE have demonstrating atheists who claim religion is not compatible with science have a negative effect on acceptance of evolution by the general population?

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Michael: As I say, poll results are very sensitive to how you ask the question. George Bishop did a nice writeup on this for RNCSE, which was also hosted at his website. Alas, that essay isn’t on our website and his domain registration has lapsed. I’ll look into that. But poll support for evolution ranges easily 10 points depending how you phrase the question, especially if the question isn’t phrased in a way that implies a conflict between science and religion. This summer’s Pew survey found 83% of respondents believing in God, with an additional 12% professing belief in a “higher power.” 61% said human beings and other living things have evolved over time, with 22% saying that evolution was guided by a supreme being. You can slice those numbers to support Padian or to refute him, which is why I didn’t endorse his claim.

  6. #6 Ophelia Benson
    September 25, 2009

    But in arguing against religion per se, they are clearly choosing particular versions of religion to focus on. This is, to a degree, inevitable, given the tremendous variety of religious experience. And in making that selection, they are suggesting that those forms of religion are somehow more valid than others, closer to the true essence of religion.

    No no no no no no no. That’s not it at all. The point is that the kind of religion that makes affirmative truth claims about the world is the kind that is in conflict with science. The kind of religion that doesn’t make affirmative truth claims about the world is not in conflict with science so it is not the issue. It has nothing to do with which one is more valid!

    There is a further point that there are a lot of people who adhere to the first kind, and another further point that many people who want to claim that science and religion are compatible like to try to veil that fact, if not outright deny it. But none of that has anything to do with saying the first kind is more valid than the second, or vice versa.

  7. #7 Josh Rosenau
    September 25, 2009

    Ophelia: I do not object to a statement like: “Some religions suck and conflict with science.” It’s indisputably true. The issue is which religions suck and what it means to conflict with science.

    You insist that “the kind of religion that makes affirmative truth claims about the world is the kind that is in conflict with science.” This is the claim which justifies Coyne, et al.’s insistence that all religions (excepting perhaps deism and Spinoza-ish faiths) suck, even religions that do not make claims which contradict any scientific finding or process. That’s where the disagreement lies.

    If we interpret “affirmative truth claims about the world” in the broad sense that I do, we can’t just say that science and religion are incompatible, we also have to say that science and literature are incompatible. Indeed, there are plenty of religions which focus their truth claims on normative issues of values and ethics, not on empirical scientific claims. There are also science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels which posit counterfactuals about our empirical world (vampire stories, Star Trek, A Tale of Two Cities, to name a few). So some religions impinge on science’s realm less than some literature, and yet we get heated debate about whether religion can possibly coexist with science, and no discussion at all about whether science and literature have a problem.

    Nor, in all the foofaraw over compatibility and accommodation and whatnot, do I recall anyone explaining why the condition for conflict is that religion makes a claim about reality, rather than that it make conflicting claims with science, or sets itself as a process in opposition to science. If religion makes claims that are compatible with the results of scientific investigation and with the practice of scientific investigation, why does it matter that a religion makes truth claims about the world? Maybe this has been explained, and I’ve missed it beneath all the invective.

  8. #8 Norwegian Shooter
    September 25, 2009

    Dude, you just don’t get it. There is no shitlist – of people or organizations. Coyne is criticizing and/or praising based on your and NCSE’s actions. That’s the way it should be.

    His point is about the NCSE, it is only good form to state your post is not the official position of the organization. Coyne is worried that personal statements of accommodationism from NCSE staff will enable the same from the NCSE itself. And he linked to your post! Due to the recent dustup, most everyone knew who he was talking about.

    One hopes that one doesn’t think that dragging the U of C into this, even if it is one’s alma mater, is terribly productive. Oh sorry, did you say something about snark?

    Either they are arguing per se or they are choosing a particular version to focus on, it can’t be both.

    What’s a “fairly open atheist”?

    Coyne is not arguing the percentages of extreme/majority/extreme. In his post he says that contrasting extreme fundamentalists and extreme atheists to the (sensible) majority marginalizes and denigrates both extreme fundamentalists and extreme atheists. Only one of these two groups opposes the mission of the NCSE. The other will stop supporting NCSE if continues its accommodationism.

    Coyne’s recommendation from a comment: that the NCSE avoid saying anything about the compatibility of evolution and faith

  9. #9 Michael Fugate
    September 25, 2009

    First, you imply that a Pew poll is the same if not better than a peer reviewed article in one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals written by your colleague at the NCSE.
    Second, you imply that the only thing that matters is that a religious person or community accept evolution. If they do that, then they can believe anything else they want. Are you saying that religious truth claims are equivalent to scientific truth claims? If a truth claim cannot be investigated, then what good is it? Would you accept it? You act as if the truth claims of religion have no effect on society.
    Third, why won’t you admit that the problem is with religion, not with atheism? If your goal is to have everyone in the world accept evolution, then why equate atheism with fundamentalism? If atheism is truly a problem with acceptance of evolution in the US, then show me the evidence. Convince me that if atheists didn’t exist or weren’t science professors that the numbers accepting evolution would go up. Convince me that the accomodationist position of the NCSE produces higher acceptance of evolution than the neutral position suggested by Jerry Coyne, Russell Blackford and others. Otherwise you are just making truth claims without any scientific investigation.

  10. #10 Jean Kazez
    September 26, 2009

    “the problem is with religion, not with atheism”

    Is that really right? I had the privilege of seeing Judge Jones (of Dover fame) talk at a law school yesterday, as well as the counsel for the plaintiffs in the Dover case. In that setting, all the parties standing up for evolution (the judge, the science teachers) were also religious people. So the battle was between fundamentalists and people with respect for science,religion, secularism, and our constitution.

    In that setting, religion per se is not a problem. Their religion did not stop the science teachers and Judge Jones from taking the right position. The overly aggressive promotion of atheism would have been a problem, and would have enabled the wrong side. If the NCSE has a position in favor of compatibility (and it doesn’t as far as I know) it would have been useful to the science teachers. It was important to them to be known as supporting science without rejecting religion.

    I take it Josh spends some of his time in real world settings like this. So when he’s standing up for science-religion compatibility, he’s standing up for some real people out there–and in fact, some very fine people. To which I say not “hall of shame” but “bravo.”

  11. #11 Avenel
    September 26, 2009

    I don’t see how you can claim that literature makes truth claims. Novels by definition are fiction, we know from the outside that they are merely lies intended to entertain. We consciously suspend disbelief while immersed in the story, but we know that it is a lie from the very start.

  12. #12 Ophelia Benson
    September 26, 2009

    If we interpret “affirmative truth claims about the world” in the broad sense that I do, we can’t just say that science and religion are incompatible, we also have to say that science and literature are incompatible.

    No doubt, but we don’t interpret “affirmative truth claims about the world” in the broad sense that you do.

  13. #13 Jerry Coyne
    September 26, 2009

    Jean, please. Not everybody at Dover who was “standing up for evolution” was religious. Kevin Padian and Barbara Forrest, just to name two, are publicly proclaimed atheists.

    As for your assertion, “In that setting, religion per se is not a problem.” Well, maybe, but of course you aren’t mentioning that religion WAS the problem that led to the trial in the first place! Religious ID proponents trying to force “Of Pandas and People” into the classroom. If we didn’t have religion, we wouldn’t have creationism. If everyone were an atheist, this trial would never had taken place. Can you at least admit that?

  14. #14 Ophelia Benson
    September 26, 2009

    In that setting, religion per se is not a problem. Their religion did not stop the science teachers and Judge Jones from taking the right position.

    But that’s true only because Jones and the teachers allowed science to trump religion whenever the two were in conflict. It’s terrific that they did (and there was huge suspense about whether Jones would do that, before his decision came down), but it doesn’t let religion per se off the hook. Religion per se is a problem because it’s only if people bracket it that it isn’t – and “bracketing” it means treating it as if it’s not true at all.

  15. #15 Jean Kazez
    September 26, 2009

    Nothing I said is inconsistent with the claim that “if everyone were an atheist, this trial would never have taken place.” And yes, some of the expert witnesses were atheists, but obviously they had no standing to file the suit. Without the parents and science teachers standing up to the school board, there would have been no case. And they were all (or at least all that I know) religious people. I think Josh is standing up for folks like them…and good for him.

    As to whether those parents, science teachers, and the judge are OK because they generally think science trumps religion when the two come into conflict–I’m not sure whether that’s really their stance. I think it’s probably far narrower. They merely believe in a separation of church and state, and they think that means keeping religious out of the science classes in public schools. If that’s their stance–well good enough. That’s all we really need them to think, for purposes of keeping religious out of science classes. If they believe in miracles like bread turning into the body of Jesus on Sunday mornings…it just matters not from a science education standpoint.

  16. #16 Jean Kazez
    September 26, 2009

    I knew I should have “previewed” first. In the second paragraph, “religious” should be “religion.”

  17. #17 Benjamin Nelson
    September 26, 2009

    Assuming (falsely) for the moment that science and morality don’t overlap. The trouble is that religious allegories can be false and hence inconsistent with social science even when read charitably. For example, original sin has been deemed to have “psychological plausibility” in the past few months by some pundit or other. Foolish mysogyny of that sort was inherited by Freud, and corrected most aggressively over the past 50 years of psychology.

  18. #18 Deen
    September 26, 2009

    But in arguing against religion per se, they are clearly choosing particular versions of religion to focus on.

    Isn’t it logical when defending science to focus on the segments of religion that are most vocally hostile against science first? It has nothing to do with whether this is the only “true religion” or not.

    But the moderates are not off the hook. They, like the fundamentalists, rely on the authority of the Bible for many of their beliefs, even if they are reading it allegorically and are willing to change their reading or pick and choose to avoid obvious conflicts. Any moderate believer who defends the authority of the Bible as something more than an old book, is in a way assisting the fundamentalists. Similarly, an atheist can’t point out how unreliable the Bible is to fundamentalists, without also arguing against many moderates.

    In fact, that pretty much us the only secular argument you can make against fundamentalists: that secular Bible studies show that the Bible is full of contradictions, that the first few books were not written by Moses, and that the Gospels were not eye-witness accounts, etc. Well, that, and the results from science itself, of course. But if that were sufficient, then the NCSE and scientists like you wouldn’t have to comment on religion and its compatibility, would they?

    The only other type of argument is trying to show that liberal believers have a better understanding of the Bible or religion than the fundamentalists. This appears to be the implicit position of the NCSE. This appears to be what you are trying to do as well. Who is really calling a particular kind of religion more valid than another here?

    Of course, there are differences between fundamentalists and moderates, and it’s easy to have a preference for the latter. Young Earth Creationists, for instance, want to ignore reality and science in favor of their interpretation of the Bible. Nobody is arguing that they are not anti-science. Other, more moderate believers accept the facts of science, and merely insist on adding a few nebulous things to reality for which there is no evidence outside of the Bible. For instance, inserting an undetectable Creator or even a Tinkerer into evolution. You can’t really argue that this isn’t common. This still goes against the scientific method, even though it no longer directly contradicts established facts, because science doesn’t require a Creator, and has no evidence for it. It’s more of an offense against the scientific method than against scientific facts, and is therefore a much more subtle offense, but it’s an offense nonetheless.

    But it does make them no longer as obviously anti-science, especially to people who only have a partial understanding of the scientific method anyway. It also makes them much more pleasant people to deal with as a science promoter. But this doesn’t mean their position is valid.

  19. #19 Michael Fugate
    September 26, 2009

    The first thing people should ask is which is worse from a Christian standpoint: for one to lose their faith in Christianity or for one to not accept evolution? I think the answer is pretty easy.
    All of the elaborate apologetics of Christian scientists who accept evolution are written in the attempt to prevent loss of faith. For a very honest view, check out the writings of Bill Cobern at Eastern Michigan. He is an evangelical who accepts evolution, but is completely at ease with biblical literalists from ICR, while loathing atheist scientists. He makes it very clear if it came down to a student feeling he or she needed to make a choice between Christianity or evolution, he or she would be better off rejecting evolution.
    When you expect individuals to start shucking truth claims from their religion, you are making them make a choice every time. I don’t think many people who are used to changing their understanding of the world understand what this entails.

  20. #20 Ophelia Benson
    September 26, 2009

    They merely believe in a separation of church and state, and they think that means keeping religious out of the science classes in public schools.

    Possibly. But then it comes to the same thing, doesn’t it – that amounts to letting science trump religion in science classes in public schools. In any case much of the substance of the trial was all about science trumping religion rather than separation of church and state.

    Of course religious scientists call that ‘separation’ – but that’s what the whole argument is about, isn’t it. Science and religion aren’t epistemically compatible BUT yes if you want to cut your mind in two and have an airtight compartment for religion – sure, go ahead. But that doesn’t make the two epistemically compatible. Rather the opposite.

  21. #21 SC
    September 26, 2009

    Ophelia: I do not object to a statement like: “Some religions suck and conflict with science.” It’s indisputably true. The issue is which religions suck and what it means to conflict with science.

    First part, no, it most certainly is not; second part, yes, but you’re confused. Science is about supporting truth claims with evidence, based on empirical investigation of falsifiable claims. If you make truth claims* that are not supported by evidence or are contradicted by evidence, you are in contradiction with science. If your truth claims are based on an epistemology founded in authoritative texts rather than empirical investigation/evidence, you are in contradiction with science. Science is based on empirical evidence. This is really not that difficult.

    You insist that “the kind of religion that makes affirmative truth claims about the world is the kind that is in conflict with science.” This is the claim which justifies Coyne, et al.’s insistence that all religions (excepting perhaps deism and Spinoza-ish faiths) suck, even religions that do not make claims which contradict any scientific finding or process. That’s where the disagreement lies.

    “Suck” has no scientific meaning here, and no place in these discussions.

    If we interpret “affirmative truth claims about the world” in the broad sense that I do, we can’t just say that science and religion are incompatible, we also have to say that science and literature are incompatible.

    No, we do not. We only have to do so to the extent that writers make truth claims about the world (“This is what happened and it isn’t fiction”) that are not based on evidence, incompatible with existing evidence, and/or founded in an unempirical epistemology.

    Indeed, there are plenty of religions which focus their truth claims on normative issues of values and ethics, not on empirical scientific claims.

    Those aren’t truth claims. Ethico-normative arguments have a complex relationship with factual claims, but should not be confused with them. And please give a concrete example of a truth claim that is not a factual claim.

    There are also science fiction, fantasy, and historical novels which posit counterfactuals about our empirical world (vampire stories, Star Trek, A Tale of Two Cities, to name a few).

    And those aren’t making truth claims. They are irrelevant. (If we want to investigate the scientific validity of historical novels we can do so, and historians can debate, using empirical evidence, the scientific accuracy of novels; but fiction authors are not necessarily making factual claims.)

    So some religions impinge on science’s realm less than some literature,

    Baloney. Are you familiar with the term “fiction”?

    and yet we get heated debate about whether religion can possibly coexist with science,

    That is not the issue. It can in dissonant minds. Doesn’t mean they’re compatible.

    and no discussion at all about whether science and literature have a problem.

    *eyeroll*

    Nor, in all the foofaraw over compatibility and accommodation and whatnot, do I recall anyone explaining why the condition for conflict is that religion makes a claim about reality, rather than that it make conflicting claims with science,

    Then you haven’t been paying attention. But it’s irrelevant, as religions other than the vaguest deism do in fact make claims about reality that are neither based on empirical evidence nor falsifiable.

    or sets itself as a process in opposition to science.

    Could you be more specific? An epistemological process?

    If religion makes claims that are compatible with the results of scientific investigation and with the practice of scientific investigation,

    Again, could you be more specific? Which claims are those, and what is the practice through which they are arrived at?

    Maybe this has been explained, and I’ve missed it beneath all the invective.

    It has been explained numerous times by Coyne and others.

    *And no, scientific hypotheses are not pure guesses of the sort that “It just might be…” or “my holy book says it is…”

  22. #22 Ian
    September 26, 2009

    As for your assertion, “In that setting, religion per se is not a problem.” Well, maybe, but of course you aren’t mentioning that religion WAS the problem that led to the trial in the first place! Religious ID proponents trying to force “Of Pandas and People” into the classroom.

    And the people who opposed it were also religious. Thus, “religion per se was not a problem”. You cannot attribute causation to something that’s present in both the experiment and the control.

    If we didn’t have religion, we wouldn’t have creationism.

    If we didn’t have science, we wouldn’t have creationism either. Creationism is a caricature of science, adopted in response to the rise of science.

    If everyone were an atheist, this trial would never had taken place. Can you at least admit that?

    Are you trying to say that the American tradition of anti-intellectual know-nothingism would not exist in the absence of religion? Are the (largely atheist) French enlightened people without a drop of prejudice? From all that I have read about the Dover case, the Buckingham and the school board were not motivated by an excess of piety. Their rejection of “outsiders telling them how to raise their children” was far more important than was any devotion to god or religion.

    Saying that the Dover case was about religion ignores basic facts about the way much of America thinks.

  23. #23 Deen
    September 26, 2009

    Ian, I hope you’re not trying to deny that religion was a key factor in Dover. It doesn’t matter that there were religious people on both sides, the subject of the dispute itself, Intelligent Design, was religious, not scientific in nature. This is what the judge ruled too, as I’m sure you’ll recall.

    Do you also really want to argue that there isn’t a correlation between religious beliefs and rejection of evolution? Your mentioning of the French doesn’t help you much. Compare where the French are on the acceptance of evolution compared to the US. The correlation between religiosity and evolution denial is strong, and there is a known mechanism for a causal link: christian creationists. Of course religion isn’t the only cause of evolution denial, but religion is no doubt one of the more important factors.

    And sure, the Dover school board were probably worried about outside influence in how they could raise their children. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they were more concerned about raising their children with the proper scientific knowledge than raising them with the proper religious beliefs.

  24. #24 TB
    September 27, 2009

    The Dover trial was not about science trumping religion, it was about some people passing off their religious views as science and trying to impose them on other people through the public schools. It was as much a religious liberty case as it was a defence of the public school science classroom.

  25. #25 Russell Blackford
    September 27, 2009

    Josh, you’re just being silly in the last part of your post. Padian labelled all atheists who think that evolution and religion “can not coexist” as “extreme”. You know as well as I do that the word “extreme” is a very strong derogatory term in a situation like this, with the connotation of “extremist” and further connotations such as “unreasonable”, “untenable”, even “potentially violent”. You don’t label people as “extreme” lightly. It’s an unfriendly act, to say the least. It’s a way of demonising people.

    You must know this, since you’re an intelligent person, so I think momentary silliness is a charitable interpretation of what you wrote.

    The only tricky part is knowing what Padian has in mind when he talks about religion and evolution cannot coexist. If he means a claim that we must ban the teaching of either one or the other, that would indeed be an extreme position. But I know of no one – at least no one involved the current accommodatonism debate – who takes that position.

    OTOH, many people believe that much mainstream (not just fundamentalist) religious thought is philosophically incompatible with what we know of evolution. It is very difficult squaring evolution with the existence of a providential God, or so they think. Jerry thinks that. Jason Rosenhouse thinks that. So do I. So does Philip Kitcher. So do lots of reasonable (not “extreme”) people. It looks from his quoted sentence as if Padian has such people in mind – people who simply find a philosophical conflict between evolution and mainstream ideas of a providential God. But if Padian was intending to label someone like Kitcher, who is very conciliatory to the less literal kinds of religion, as an extremist, what he said was very stupid. Irrespective of whom he meant to demonise, his comment was, at the least, clumsy and dangerously ambiguous – and it was totally gratuitous.

    As for your constant disclaimers that you don’t speak on behalf the NSCE, I find them pretty damn fatuous when you spend so much of your blogosphere time publicly defending your corporate employer and your bosses. At the very least, you have an obvious conflict of interest whenever you post/comment on this sort of topic. It does nothing for your credibility.

  26. #26 TB
    September 27, 2009

    So when Coyne and Meyers and other scientists blog about their atheism and opinions about religious and religion we shouldn’t assume what they write in their blog represents their professional opinion as a scientist and teacher, nor the institutions that employ them. As a matter of fact, those institutions should not let anything they write in their blog affect their employment. But Josh should shut up.

  27. #27 Tulse
    September 27, 2009

    Josh can blog all he wants, but presumably we can then let his postings influence our opinion of the philosophical sophistication of the NCSE’s staff.

  28. #28 TB
    September 27, 2009

    And extreme can also be simply descriptive, pointing out sides on the far edges of a spectrum. It’s a bit hard to tell what Padian fully intended to convey when using that word since he only had a small portion of an already short article in People magazine. You might then argue that he could have been more exact in his language and Padian might even agree. But since he probably was reacting to a phone call from a reporter who didn’t give him much time to prepare his remarks then it might be more appropriate to cut the guy some slack in this instance until you could clarify his intended meaning and targets.
    Except that wouldn’t allow you to feign outrage on a blog comments section. (Eye roll) What was I thinking!

  29. #29 TB
    September 27, 2009

    Tulse: You are correct, it’s a philosophical arguement and should be evaluated as such. Now all you have to do is get a bunch of philosophers who represent all the differing views together in a room and have them come to a consensus on what the correct and “sophisticated” view should be.
    .
    .
    .
    You go ahead and do that. I’ll wait over here.

  30. #30 Tulse
    September 27, 2009

    Now all you have to do is get a bunch of philosophers who represent all the differing views together in a room and have them come to a consensus on what the correct and “sophisticated” view should be.

    Nice snark, but if you’d been paying attention, various folks have been discussing the implications of Josh’s claims quite extensively on this blog and elsewhere.

  31. #31 Matt Penfold
    September 27, 2009

    Michael Fugate: You’d have to ask Padian, as he’s the one who used the term. That sentence might itself define what he means by “extreme,” though.

    So let me get this right. You object to Coyne’s objection of the use of term “extreme atheist” even though you do not know what it means.

    How then do you know Coyne’s objection is invalid ?

  32. #32 Deen
    September 27, 2009

    TB @26:
    No, there is no double standard, and Josh doesn’t need to shut up.

    The difference is that Josh Rosenau started this whole series of posts on this topic by defending his boss Eugenie Scott against criticism that Jerry Coyne and Russel Blackford had on a talk she gave as part of an NCSE event at Dragon*Con.

    So Josh can claim it’s “unofficial” all he want, when you are an official spokesperson of the NCSE, and defend a position taken at an official NCSE event by the NCSE director, you should not be so surprised if people think that your opinion on this one topic reflects the position of the NCSE.

  33. #33 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 27, 2009

    Neither of those two posts of mine you liked to had anything to do with what is the “true” form of religion. Frankly, I’m not even sure what that phrase means. In the first I argued that the fundamentalist view of the world, for all its craziness, has a lot of internal consistency to it, whereas the views of moderates often do not. In the second I argued that evolution poses challenges even to moderate views of Christianity. Criticizing the intellectual merits of religious moderation hardly represents an attempt to define what “true” religion actually is.

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    September 27, 2009

    Rosenhouse, when you quote Sam Harris approvingly for saying, “Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously,” the implication is that moderates are less true to their religion.

  35. #35 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 27, 2009

    J. J. Ramsey –

    No it isn’t. The implication is that religious moderation is achieved by selectively discarding the unpleasant bits of scripture, as Harris clearly stated in the quote you reference. Harris’ intent (and mine in quoting him) was to discuss the reasonableness of religious moderation, not whether it lives up to some arbitrary standard of “true” religion.

  36. #36 J. J. Ramsey
    September 27, 2009

    “The implication is that religious moderation is achieved by selectively discarding the unpleasant bits of scripture”

    Not taking Scripture literally or deciding that it was the product of its time is not the same thing as not taking Scripture seriously, and Harris was clearly saying that the moderates weren’t taking Scripture seriously, indicating that they were less committed than the fundies. If you don’t want to indicate that you endorse Harris’ implication, then I suggest that you not be so quick to say “exactly right” when he makes it.

  37. #37 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 27, 2009

    J. J. Ramsey –

    When I endorsed Harris’ statement I had not figured on people like you deliberately trying to distort his clearly stated intention. He neither said nor implied anything about levels of commitment, and of more relevance to the present discussion he said nothing about what constitutes “true” religion.

    He said that moderates are willing to read the Bible very selectively and discard the bits they find unappealing. They are less committed than the fundamentalists only in the sense that they are less committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nothing in Harris’ statement implies that they are lesser Christians for that. As I said before, he was addressing the reasonableness of the moderate view, not assessing which is the “true” religion.

    For the benefit of everyone else, here is the quote in question. It was written in the course of an exchange of e-mails with Andrew Sullivan.

    How does one “integrate doubt” into one’s faith? By acknowledging just how dubious many of the claims of scripture are, and thereafter reading it selectively, bowdlerizing it if need be, and allowing its assertions about reality to be continually trumped by fresh insights–scientific (“You mean the world isn’t 6000 years old? Yikes…”), mathematical (“pi doesn’t actually equal 3? All right, so what?”), and moral (“You mean, I shouldn’t beat my slaves? I can’t even keep slaves? Hmm…”). Religious moderation is the result of not taking scripture all that seriously. So why not take these books less seriously still? Why not admit that they are just books, written by fallible human beings like ourselves? They were not, as your friend the pope would have it, “written wholly and entirely, with all their parts, at the dictation of the Holy Ghost.” Needless to say, I believe you have given the Supreme Pontiff far too much credit as a champion of reason. The man believes that he is in possession of a magic book, entirely free from error.

    Which part of that says that fundamentalism is the “true” kind of religion?

  38. #38 Russell Blackford
    September 27, 2009

    TB, I don’t know whether you were addressing me or not, but Josh’s position is not even remotely analogous to that of an academic employed by an institution of higher education, with a presumption of individual academic freedom.

    All the same, if Jerry Coyne started writing a whole lot of blog posts defending the words and actions of the President of the University of Chicago we might indeed wonder about his credibility. It might not look like it was part of his employment contract but it would damn sure look sycophantic and biased. He could say what he liked (I don’t want to silence anyone) but we’d draw our own conclusions if Jerry took to acting like that.

  39. #39 J.J.E.
    September 27, 2009

    Josh:

    Scientists and secular people (especially secular scientists) have a strong interest in protecting the integrity of rational thinking in general and the scientific method in particular.

    The problem with your repeated assertions concerning alliance with liberal religions that just happen to align with you on your pet interests (i.e. removing creationism from the classrooms and protecting evolution) is that in endorsing those perspectives almost always requires you (both personally and professionally) to endorse theologically based thinking that is inimical to rational and scientific thinking.

    I have reviewed NCSE’s site extensively, all the way back to the ’90s, and in publication after publication, program after program, partnership after partnership, NCSE and the people that work for NCSE (including you and Eugenie Scott and Peter Hess among others) consistently advance theological positions, full stop. This type of advocacy is a classic example of short term gains at the expense of consistency and long term sustainability.

    Faith based thinking and tacit approval of such is corrosive to rational thinking. The NCSE and its employees can now be pointed to as providing succor to particular liberal theological perspectives with all their theological arbitrariness that doesn’t differ logically or materially to the arbitrariness of less “acceptable” religious perspectives.

    Once you start allowing for a squishy definition of “truth” and to allow for a supernatural arbiter of that truth, you’ve already conceded that anything is possible. The fact that you pick and choose among all those possibilities for the most “acceptable” incarnations is beside the point. You legitimize the the entire theological enterprise by endorsing one subset of it.

    Your arguments are missing the point of Harris and Coyne. They most equivocally do not center their arguments on what “forms of religion are somehow more valid than others” (your words). They are merely pointing out that all religions suffer the same underlying corrosive properties. They also point out that literal-minded religions often fully admit and encourage their contradiction to science and/or reason and that liberal sects often deny it. But in no case are they arguing for or against any of the nearly infinite alternative perspectives that religion has.

    In sum, religious thinking encourages appeal to authority and the dogma that encourages. Science and skeptical rationalism discourage such arguments, and as such are naturally incompatible. Which is why they are so opposed to the NCSE’s perspective which promotes theological perspectives. Is this all that difficult of an argument to understand?

  40. #40 TB
    September 28, 2009

    Russell
    I was addressing you, and it certainly is analogous as far as the blogosphere goes. He has every right to express a reasonable personal opinion and have it divorced from his professional position. That is not a right reserved for only academics, but unfortunately academics are the only ones that seem to have a built in mechanism (tenure) to protect that right. Are you saying that only academics should enjoy that personal freedom?
    As far as your example goes, you make a leap from expressing personal opinion to doing so as part of a hidden clause in an employment contract or with an underlying motive of sucking up to a superior. Both of which suggest that the opinion expressed is not really a genuinely personal one. That’s a rather serious charge to make without evidence to back it up, but I don’t think that you’re suggesting that Josh doesn’t really believe in what he write but was only expressing it for cynical, sel-serving reasons. Of course, just by using those examples you’ve suggested that situation – perhaps inadvertently? Anyway, neither of which is even required if one considers the question of bias.
    And as far bias goes, that’s only a problem if the relationship is not disclosed and that’s certainly not the case here. If a person gives their personal opinion on a particular political stance and also identifies themself as an employee of the political party that espouses that same view, we have enough information to evaluate how much weight to give to that opinion. The opinion can still be genuine but we can also view it as not coming from a source that has evaluated it with the same perspective that we ourselves would. But there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that personal opinion.
    On the other hand, if the relationship were not disclosed, then bias is a problem because it was hidden and we did not have enough information to properly evaluate the opinion. But that’s not the case here.
    I just don’t have a problem with someone expressing a personal opinion that’s also consistent with their professional position. Not being a hypocrit – only on the Internet is that problem.
    Finally, I’m going to reject your example with Coyne in the sense that I don’t believe you would rush to judgement of him so quickly. I don’t believe you would assume he was secretly working for his employer or seeking to curry favor with a superior. I think you have demonstrated enough bias in his favor that you would give him the benefit of the doubt and respect the difference of opinion.

  41. #41 TB
    September 28, 2009

    “he write but was only expressing it for cynical, sel-serving reasons.” should actually read “he wrote but was only expressing it for cynical, self-serving reasons.” Sometimes the iPhone text correction thing really bugs me.

  42. #42 J.J.E.
    September 28, 2009

    Odd. I have commented here before, and my previous comment is held up in moderation. I wonder if this one will show up?

  43. #43 Peter Beattie
    September 28, 2009

    » TB:
    Both of which suggest that the opinion expressed is not really a genuinely personal one.

    Which part of “conflict of interest” did you not understand? Russell was perfectly clear in his implications. Just try and quote his actual words and not your interpretations of them.

    Compare: “It might not look like it was part of his employment contract but it would damn sure look sycophantic and biased.”

    I don’t believe you would rush to judgement of him so quickly. … I think you have demonstrated enough bias in his favor …

    So the critic just cannot imagine the criticised to act unhypocritically in a certain situation. Whose mind have we then learnt something about?

    Like Josh, you don’t seem to understand that the discussion is about an issue, not about people. Just because someone like Jerry or like Genie, that doesn’t mean that they cannot criticise an action of theirs and still like them as a person. What you seem to think is bias (“a rather serious charge to make without evidence to back it up”, by the way) is actually a string of evidence-based evaluations of actions.

  44. #44 Deen
    September 28, 2009

    @TB: There is no double standard and nobody is trying to shut Josh Rosenau up.

    You seem to have forgotten that this whole series of posts about this subject started with Josh defending Eugenie Scott from criticism by Russell Blackford and Jerry Coyne. They criticized her for something she said while speaking as the NCSE director during a talk at an official NCSE event at Dragon*Con (it’s still listed as a “Past Event” on the NCSE web page).

    So Josh can say he’s speaking unofficially all he wants, when he defends something the NCSE director has said at an NCSE event, he shouldn’t be too surprised when people assume that his opinion on this one particular topic reflects the official NCSE position.

    (I’ve submitted this yesterday as well, but it was probably eaten by the spam filter because of the hyperlinks. Therefore, I’m trying again, but this time I’m leaving out the links)

  45. #45 J. J. Ramsey
    September 28, 2009

    Rosenhouse:

    He said that moderates are willing to read the Bible very selectively and discard the bits they find unappealing. They are less committed than the fundamentalists only in the sense that they are less committed to a literal interpretation of the Bible. Nothing in Harris’ statement implies that they are lesser Christians for that.

    Oh, please! If all he meant was that moderates had a less literal take on Scripture, then he wouldn’t speak of moderates “bowdlerizing” it.

    When I endorsed Harris’ statement I had not figured on people like you deliberately trying to distort his clearly stated intention. He neither said nor implied anything about levels of commitment …

    I suppose part of the problem is that I’m reading Harris in light of earlier statements like this:

    Picture concentric circles of diminishing reasonableness: At the center, one finds the truest of true believers … Outside this sphere of maniacs, one finds millions more who share their views but lack their zeal…. Out further still, one meets religious moderates and liberals of diverse hues — people who remain supportive of the basic scheme that has balkanized our world into Christians, Muslims and Jews, but who are less willing to profess certainty about any article of faith. Is Jesus really the son of God? Will we all meet our grannies again in heaven? Moderates and liberals are none too sure.

    Given this, it is hard to believe that when Harris is talking about not taking Scripture seriously, he’s not implying a lack of zeal, or that talk of bowdlerizing isn’t meant to convey the sense that moderates are gutting their own religion to make it more presentable.

  46. #46 TB
    September 28, 2009

    Peter: “Which part of “conflict of interest” did you not understand?”

    Me: Apparently I understand it better than you since if we were to apply your understanding of it consistently then Coyne, as a member of the advisory board for the Reason Project http://www.reasonproject.org/about/advisory_board/ , would need to stop his personal writings about atheism and religion or be in a severe ethical breach. And it would do him or Josh no good to simply resign their positions with these non-profits because the association has already been made – alas they are tainted for life.
    Now I realize that, in a fit of intellectual honesty, you want to immediately go over to Coyne’s blog and demand he cease and desist. But if you could tarry for just a bit there’s a few other problems with your comment I’d like to address.
    First, I did not say that bias is “a rather serious charge to make without evidence to back it up,” I said that in reference to two possible motivations brought up by Blackford: “It might not look like it was part of his employment contract but it would damn sure look sycophantic…” or as I described them: “expressing personal opinion … as part of a hidden clause in an employment contract or with an underlying motive of sucking up to a superior…”

    While he may not endorse those motivations (“I don’t think that you’re suggesting that Josh doesn’t really believe in what he wrote but was only expressing it for cynical, self-serving reasons”), merely raising them as possibilities leads to the suggestion “that the opinion…” (Josh’s) “…expressed is not really a genuinely personal one.”
    To be clear, I’m asking that unless these two motivations actually apply then why raise them in the first place? In other outlets, this strategy has been used to inject assertions into a debate without actually taking responsibility for them, so there’s a basis for that question.

    Finally, I specifically divorced the idea of bias from those two motivations because bias in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing – especially if that bias is formally disclosed or reasonably understood. For instance, I believe that Russell’s personal relationship with or professional respect for Coyne would not automatically lead him to assume the worst about Coyne. That’s not a bad thing, we should all be biased in favor of our friends. I am. It doesn’t mean he wouldn’t disagree or criticize his positions, but it also doesn’t mean that he’s a hypocrite for not assuming – without sufficient evidence – that his friend is holding those positions due to cynical, ulterior motives.
    But you are right about one thing: People should try and quote actual words and not just interpretations of them.

  47. #47 TB
    September 28, 2009

    Deen: I hadn’t forgotten, and I do think there’s a double standard.

  48. #48 TB
    September 28, 2009

    Not only that, I think these criticisms are a cynical attempt to remove his voice from the debate. So, will you be heading over to Coyne’s blog and taking him to task as well?

  49. #49 Tulse
    September 28, 2009

    Speaking only for myself, I don’t understand what the issue is of claimed “conflict of interest”, as I don’t believe that’s the appropriate term for the problem here. But I do think it is reasonable to say that Josh is writing on his personal blog about issues that are directly relevant to the way he would approach his work at the NCSE, and as a result I think it is perfectly reasonable for folks to see his stated views as, at the very least, likely playing a part in the way the NCSE approaches issues.

    I’m certainly not trying to shut Josh up — indeed, I’m glad that he has been willing to state his views as he had, as that allows a deeper understanding of where he’s coming from.

  50. #50 Peter Beattie
    September 28, 2009

    Just to spell that one idea out too:

    I thought I was off Coyne’s shitlist

    Why is it so hard to understand that you are not on any of those guys’ shitlists that you mentioned but some of your silly ideas? It’s rather curious that you think that this is somehow about you personally or about the NCSE as an organisation. Time and again, Coyne et al. have said explicitly that the issue is a specific argument or a specific stance. Not even making reference to that doesn’t make you look too good.

  51. #51 J.J.E.
    September 28, 2009

    Josh:

    Scientists and secular people (especially secular scientists) have a strong interest in protecting the integrity of rational thinking in general and the scientific method in particular.

    The problem with your repeated assertions concerning alliance with liberal religions that just happen to align with you on your pet interests (i.e. removing creationism from the classrooms and protecting evolution) is that in endorsing those perspectives almost always requires you (both personally and professionally) to endorse theologically based thinking that is inimical to rational and scientific thinking.

    I have reviewed NCSE’s site extensively, all the way back to the ’90s, and in publication after publication, program after program, partnership after partnership, NCSE and the people that work for NCSE (including you and Eugenie Scott and Peter Hess among others) consistently advance theological positions, full stop. This type of advocacy is a classic example of short term gains at the expense of consistency and long term sustainability.

    Faith based thinking and tacit approval of such is corrosive to rational thinking. The NCSE and its employees can now be pointed to as providing succor to particular liberal theological perspectives with all their theological arbitrariness that doesn’t differ logically or materially to the arbitrariness of less “acceptable” religious perspectives.

    Once you start allowing for a squishy definition of “truth” and to allow for a supernatural arbiter of that truth, you’ve already conceded that anything is possible. The fact that you pick and choose among all those possibilities for the most “acceptable” incarnations is beside the point. You legitimize the the entire theological enterprise by endorsing one subset of it.

    Your arguments are missing the point of Harris and Coyne. They most equivocally do not center their arguments on what “forms of religion are somehow more valid than others” (your words). They are merely pointing out that all religions suffer the same underlying corrosive properties. They also point out that literal-minded religions often fully admit and encourage their contradiction to science and/or reason and that liberal sects often deny it. But in no case are they arguing for or against any of the nearly infinite alternative perspectives that religion has.

    In sum, religious thinking encourages appeal to authority and the dogma that encourages. Science and skeptical rationalism discourage such arguments, and as such are naturally incompatible. Which is why they are so opposed to the NCSE’s perspective which promotes theological perspectives. Is this all that difficult of an argument to understand?

    PS

    This comment never got posted. I stripped the url from the “URL” field. Let’s see if this posts this time.

  52. #52 TB
    September 29, 2009

    “The problem with your repeated assertions concerning alliance with liberal religions that just happen to align with you on your pet interests (i.e. removing creationism from the classrooms and protecting evolution) …”
    Interestingly, by not engaging with pro-science religious groups in the way New Atheists demand, would result in not neutrality but a defacto endorsement of the NAs anti-religious position.
    In reality, science advocacy is not science, it’s politics. And not engaging with interested, potentially pro-science groups would be a gross deriliction and a violation of their charter.
    It’s interesting that NAs would be fine with the NCSE to not address the concerns of a portion of members when they’re unwilling to allow the same treatment to be applied to them. Not willing to compromise for the team, not team players this lot.

  53. #53 Deen
    September 29, 2009

    @TB: You don’t have to agree with someone to engage with them. Do you really think the NCSE couldn’t engage with religious groups without promoting a particular theological position? Do you actually think religious organizations would walk out on the NCSE if they’d decided to just stick to the science? Do you really think the moderate believers need the NCSE to weigh in on the proper interpretation of scripture? If so, you’d actually have a lower opinion of the religious than most “New Atheists”.

    And if not, what the heck are you complaining about?

  54. #54 Kevin (NYC)
    September 29, 2009

    If this is some kind of poll I say.. I do not think that a solid understanding of evolution is compatible with any belief in any religion.

    I think that there is a section of people that will wish to ignore the evidence, understand that there is a fundamental contridiction, and participate in religious rituals for the sake of community.

    the problem quote:

    “The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem.”

    really means that people who care about the issue understand that the twain don’t meet and the vast uncaring middle goes about a weekly genuflection without much thought or care.

    Really. If xtians really believed in cannibalism or in intercession by saints it would be an even wierder world than it is now.

  55. #55 John Kwok
    October 2, 2009

    @ J. J. E. –

    A few months back both Ken Miller and I independently reviewed the “religious” content at the NCSE website, and neither of us came to the conclusion – which you, Coyne, Myers, Benson etc. etc. have – that NCSE is promoting some kind of “theological” perspective. Now before you say that we both reached the same conclusion because we’re friends, then can you explain to me how a devout Roman Catholic Christian (Miller) and a Deist (yours truly) independently arrived at the same conclusion? And yes, I didn’t e-mail Ken (or vice versa), asking him, “Hey Ken, where’s all the pro-religious stuff that Militant Atheists claim does exist over at the NCSE website?”

    All that I see on the NCSE website are teaching materials designed to educate those who are devoutly religious AND skeptical or hostile to evolution that they can retain their religious views and still accept as valid science. They do not go further – which is what Ken has stated publicly – that those who belong to faiths embracing religious views that are hostile or indifferent to modern science OUGHT TO QUIT such faiths ASAP.

    Instead of attacking NCSE each and every time, shouldn’t Jerry begin thinking as to whether his attacks – even if he believes that they are well-intended – might be misconstrued – and touted – by evolution denialists who think that all NCSE is doing is trying to promote its own “religious” agenda?

    Respectfully yours,

    John Kwok

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