Ophelia and Larry are upset. In particular, they are upset that Chad Orzel and I thought it was OK to have a panel about how scientists reconcile their religious faith and their scientific work but not to include panelists who reject the panel’s premise.
This was the point that Chad and I were raising, at least, but it is not quite clear that Ophelia and Larry realize what we were saying. Thus, Larry writes:
Chad Orzel at Uncertain Principles [Extremists Aren't Interesting] and Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas [Talking Sense] take the same position. Non-accommodationist atheists shouldn’t be allowed on the panel because they are extremists who can’t discuss anything calmly and rationally.
Which is not what either of us said. What I said was:
Someone like Dawkins would stop the World Science Festival panel cold. The whole point Affirmative Atheists are making is that there is no dialogue to be had. Which means that the panel would descend into a metaconversation about whether there should even be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having. And that wouldn’t inform anyone.
I’ll grant in principle that there is a way to have a civil and informative dialogue about science/religion compatibility between people who think it exists and those who don’t. I can’t say I’ve ever seen it work, but surely it can be done.
Larry quotes the first part, misses my specification that Dawkins would stop this particular panel cold, and then fails to quote the next paragraph, where I addressed myself to the broader question of whether it was ever worth having a panel discussion featuring Affirmative Atheists and religious scientists. And I answered that question in the affirmative, never asserting irrationality or lack of calm. If there’s anything in his post other than blatant misreading, I don’t see it.
Ophelia does slightly better. Quoting that same first paragraph as Larry (but, again, not the second), she asks:
Why wouldn’t that [a metaconversation about whether to have a conversation] inform anyone? Rosenau doesn’t say. Why should there be conversations like the one they were supposed to be having at a science fest? It’s certainly not obvious to me, given that science and “faith” operate in rather different ways. It’s also not obvious to me that, or why, an explanation of that fact would not be interesting.
First, I did say why such a conversation would be uninformative. All that came before what she quoted was about exactly that point. She is free to disagree with the argument, but if she thinks it didn’t exist, I think she needs new glasses.
That said, I’ll freely grant that there might be an interesting conversation to be had about whether science and religion are compatible. I even acknowledged that possibility in the paragraph after what she quoted. But the issues Orzel in reply to Coyne and Carroll, the points I was endorsing, were not about whether the panel ought to exist. The question was, given that the panel did exist with a goal of exploring the question of how scientists reconcile science and faith, should someone who finds no compatibility should be on the panel?
My point, and I think Chad’s, is that adding an Affirmative Atheist to the panel would change the panel’s nature. The World Science Festival decided to have the panel that they did, and is entitled to populated it with panelists who will not take the panel on a tangent. If the objection is simply to having the panel at all, that’s a different conversation than what I thought I was entering, and nothing I said was addressed to that question.
This gets to a quotation of Poe’s that I remember periodically. Edgar Allen Poe, was, among other things, an accomplished literary critic, and as the publisher of a magazine of criticism, he laid out some clear aims for critics:
Criticism is not, we think, an essay, nor a sermon, nor an oration, nor a chapter in history, nor a philosophical speculation, nor a prose poem, nor an art-novel, nor a dialogue. … Following the highest authority, we would wish, in a word, to limit criticism to comment upon Art. A book is written – and it is only as the book that we subject it to review. With the opinions of the work itself, the critic has really nothing to do. It is his part simply to decide upon the mode in which these opinions are brought to bear.
That is to say, the question is not “should a book on this topic and employing this angle have been published?,” but “does this book accomplish what it set out to do?” Roger Ebert employs a similar system in his movie reviews. Similarly for the panel, it strikes me as better to ask whether it would accomplish the goal it sets for itself than to ask whether it should exist. Undoubtedly Coyne and Carroll and Benson and Moran all have ideas about great panels that WSF ought to run, but this year, those are not the panels that were chosen from the many suggestions they surely received.
If World Science Forum decides to host a discussion of whether science has any relationship at all with religion, I won’t think that’s a bad choice, and I’d be upset if they didn’t have any Affirmative Atheists on such a panel. But that’s not the panel they have this year, and trying to wedge an Affirmative Atheist into this discussion would force the discussion away from the topic that the panelists and the audience were promised.
Here’s an analogy: A panel at a physics conference about the latest research on string theory need not include someone who thinks string theory is a dead end and advocates an entirely different form of unifying theory. Including that person would change the panel from a discussion about the current work being done within the field of string theory into a discussion about whether anyone should be doing string theory work. And that’s a fine conversation to have, but not if the panelists all expected the narrower discussion.
Or another analogy: My fiancée runs a program bringing together community members to discuss how they – individually and as a community – can reduce their carbon footprints and fight global warming. The programs are explicitly not about policy changes, they are about changes in individual behavior either alone or through collective action. Sometimes people come into her groups and really want to talk about the cap-and-trade legislation in Congress, or how to be more effective lobbyists. And she has to shut that discussion down. Not because it isn’t important. We need political change; it needs to be enacted by cities, states, nations, and international bodies. It needs to happen now. But that’s not what her program is about. So while agreeing that the issue is important, she can still say it isn’t appropriate for that setting.
Maybe World Science Festival will have a panel on whether science is compatible with religion next year. And an Affirmative Atheist or two should be on that panel if they do. But this year, they’re having a different conversation, and it’s a fine conversation to have. Lots of scientists are religious. At least a third of working scientists are theists, half partake of religious ceremonies, and even some atheist scientists feel that spirituality is important to their lives. A general audience is interested in finding out how scientists who navigate those waters do so. This panel is for that audience, and it isn’t clear what an Affirmative Atheist would add to that discussion. They add plenty to other discussions, of course. Sometimes they do so calmly and rationally.