Alienating Moderates

In the course of a generally favorable review of Among the Creationists over at The Panda's Thumb blog, Matt Young wrote the following:

Nevertheless, he takes a dim view of, for example, an argument that reinterprets original sin as the selfishness that drives evolution. I will not go into detail, but this kind of thinking ultimately leads Rosenhouse to conclude that the creationists are essentially correct and that evolution and Christianity are not compatible. In this sense, he has the same narrow view of religion as the creationists – that it is all or nothing – and he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side.

Since this is almost the exact opposite of what I say in the book, I do feel the need to clarify a few things.

In the book's epilogue I summarize my views on compatibility as follows:

In 2001, philosopher Michael Ruse published a book entitled Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? He presented his answer in the book's epilogue: “Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Absolutely! Is it always easy for a Darwinian to be a Christian? No. but whoever said that the worthwhile things in life are easy?”

Though I have made my own sympathies perfectly clear, I do not propose to give a definitive answer to Ruse's question. Instead I ask simply that we recognize it as a matter of opinion and not of fact. How you answer depends on what you believe is central to Christian faith and on what you consider it plausible to believe.

Ruse continued with, “Is the Darwinian obligated to be a Christian? No, but try to be understanding of those who are.” I would ask that the same understanding be extended to those who find the reconciliation too difficult to manage. Once you have acknowledged that evolution forces a profound rethinking of traditional faith -- and how can you not? -- why is it unreasonable to conclude our reappraisal with the finding that one of the two systems must simply give way? (218-219)

With regard to reinterpreting original sin I write (referring to Daryl Domning's idea that original sin refers to the selfishness inherent in the evolutionary process):

There is no “fact of the matter” regarding the proper understanding of original sin. If Domning, or anyone else, finds it fruitful to view things this way, then it is not for me to tell them they are wrong. Under Domning's view, however, one can reasonably wonder whether the concept of original sin is making any contribution at all to our understanding of the human condition. It seems that we are just taking a body of knowledge provided by science and attaching a Christian label to it. (172)

This is typical of what I say throughout the book. I really don't see how I could have been more clear that I don't think that the question of compatibility is “all or nothing.” It's a judgment that people have to make for themselves based on whatever Christianity means to them and whatever they think is plausible.

A further example is the conclusion to my chapter on the problem of evil:

This brings to an end our brief tour of evolutionary theodicy. As with most theological questions, we can do no more than consider the arguments on offer and decide for ourselves what we find it plausible to believe. Considering the manifest weaknesses in the attempts we have considered, it is unsurprising that so many people find it impossible to think of Darwinian natural selection as the sort of creative mechanism a loving God would employ. (152)

Whenever I discuss points of conflict between evolution and Christianity I mostly take the same approach. I explain what the problem is, point to possible resolutions offered in the scholarly literature, and then explain my reasons for finding those proposed resolutions unpersuasive. But I also make it clear that there are no definitive answers to be found, and that all such judgments are matters of opinion and not of fact. That's about as far from “all or nothing” as you can get.

But I'd also like to address Matt's remark about alienating moderates, since that's something that really bugs me. Why is it that, in these sorts of discussions, religious moderates are always made to seem like complete ninnies?

Whatever you think of my arguments as presented in the book, I think you would have to agree that I am not polemical or snide or insulting. I am circumspect in all my conclusions. According to Matt, even that's enough to bring the moderates to tears, and to send them running to the fundamentalists.

It's bizarre. Could you imagine an atheist saying, “Gosh, I'd like to support quality science education, but I just can't stand the fact that Ken Miller and Francis Collins write about how evolution strengthens their faith.”? Of course not. So why should it alienate moderates that I believe evolution and Christianity cannot be reconciled in a plausible way? Are they really so delicate? Do they really find it too complicated to say, “I think he's right about the science and wrong about the religion?” (which is, after all, precisely what people like me say about Collins and Miller.)

The actual religious moderates can handle people like me. There's really no need to walk on eggshells around them, or to endlessly there-there them when someone like me points out that science and religion don't really play well together. As for the ones who just can't abide the thought that someone might demur from their religious views, let me suggest they were never really so moderate to begin with.

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"....he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side."
It works both ways though doesn't it. Christians who think their religion and science are incompatible are just as likely to risk alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on their side. I want to know whose side moderate theists are actually on - is it science or religion? And if they are alienated on both sides, where are they likely to end up.

By Michael Fugate (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

"I would ask that the same understanding be extended"
In The Netherlands we have our fundienuts as well of course, but far less than in The States. I'd say most believers (muslim protests against the Evolution Theory aren't successful either) have acquired that understanding.
In my Dutch experience we atheists don't alienate moderate theists if we make clear we attack creacrappers and other fundies and thus realize that our arguments don't apply to the moderates.
Dutch moderate believers don't want to find themselves in the fundie camp, simply because "fundies say the darndest things". Let me give an elementary example. According to 1 Kings 7:23 and 2 Chronicles 4:2 pi equals 3,0. That's a nice quote to confront fundies with. Moderates will just shrug it off. Does Matt Young really think we should not bring this up because of moderate sensitivities? Then he simply assumes that American moderate theists are way more stupid then their Dutch counterparts.

If a "moderate" is so easily offended by a frank discussion of the current state of evidence for X that they would prefer to side with fundamentalist X-deniers than participate in that discussion, it is neither the fault of X nor the fault of those doing the discussing.

We do no favours to moderates by coddling them; in fact, we infantilise and condescend to them when we do so. Were I a moderate and someone patronised me by soft-peddling the truth about something that happened to sail near the waters of my faith, I'd be a lot more offended than if they just presented the facts and the evidence without qualification. You simply don't read about this aversion to "offence" when discussions of particle physics arise; it's inevitably biological subjects that get this special treatment because a large proportion of the population still objects to being apes. Again, that's not the apes' fault, nor is that the fault of the scientists whose lines of inquiry cross over this topic.

I'm aware that the religious culture in the US is different to that here in Australia, and that accomodationist positions regarding the discussion of uncomfortable scientific facts seems prudent given the vehement fundamentalist opposition to them. Having said that, I think that anyone calling themselves moderate should be treated as though they have the requisite intellectual honesty & courage to be able to look a fact as it is; and not an abridged, sanitised version of it designed to assuage any fears or doubts they may have. If a religious believer is unable to comprehend and appreciate a scientific fact (and its metaphysical implications, if any), without storming off to join the fundamentalists in "shooting the messenger", then I must question any person who would describe that believer as "moderate". As an aside, I would also question the harm done by alienating a person who behaves in such a childish manner.

Given the well-known extremist elements of religious culture in the US - and that country's overtly religious nature compared to other first-world nations - I'm of the opinion that the only way to combat the influence of religious extremism and the only way to encourage more input from moderates is to be honest about scientific facts, theories and processes, give said moderates some credit for maturity and intelligence and not to allow the discussion of said facts to be plagued by frets about who will be offended.

By Mandrellian (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

To continue that line of thought, placing such overwrought concern over who may be offended by an unequivocal discussion of the current state of scientific knowledge merely validates the frequent claim of fundamentalists that there are some scientific facts that are indeed devastating enough to a person's faith to render it mute, dilute it to meaninglessness or destroy it. If someone abandons or modifies their faith because it, or crucial aspects of it, have been falsified by verifiable knowledge, I must again question whether any real harm is being done. A person led away from fundamentalism (which, being inherently dishonest, intentionally ignorant and therefore unavoidably harmful) to a more moderate faith - or away from faith entirely - by facts and evidence should be celebrated. In fact, isn't leading people from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge the primary goal of science and science education? Should really we spend much concern on people who will turn their backs and sulk when presented with knowledge?

I do not advocate getting in the faces of religious people and barking at them that Scientific Theory X proves their god is a bunch of hooey and nonsense and that they should abandon it; but I will advocate equal frankness when discussing all aspects of scientific inquiry. If there happen to be metaphysical or theological implications that make some believers feel uncomfortable or ask questions or experience religious doubts, that's for them to grapple with. Scientific familiarity among laypeople does not advance when facts are cushioned; moderates gain nothing when they're pandered to by well-meaning science advocates acting as if they know what's good for others.

The bottom line: we should show people enough respect for their intelligence and maturity that we present the unvarnished truth as it is currently known.

To close, a note for Matt Young: when reviewing a book, we should show its author enough respect to present their arguments and views as they are written; to do our best not to project whatever existing opinions we may have onto the words of others.

(apologies for the double post)

By Mandrellian (not verified) on 18 Jul 2012 #permalink

Though you should on occasion bark into the faces of the faithiests that X proves their god wrong.


Because they, and all self-proclaimed moderates, are entirely happy with the colloquialisms of certainty. They only demand the scientific rigour that doesn't give certainty of those promoting science.

So use 'your god does not exist' because they will use the obverse when they know 'I know' is not rigorously correct.

Just IMO, but I don't think moderate theists (and accommodationist atheists!) need or desire coddling at all. As individuals, I think most would be perfectly happy and perfectly capable of handling a discussion about the interrelationship between faith and science...if you want to engage them in private conversation about it.

It seems to me that its more the public airing of these differences that they object to. Bluntly put, their attitude seems to be: "your philosophical discussion is making my political job more difficult. So shhhhh for now."

Personally, I don't think they are right about that. But they seem to really believe that evangelicals and fundamentalist rejection of moderate theism is due, at least in part, to non-compatibilists being vocal with their opinions.

But why is it anyone else's job to make theirs easier?

Indeed, what IS "their job"?

As someone pointed out earlier, they don't seem to be worried about religion's excesses, nor about ensuring that SCIENCE is treated with appropriate respect.

It looks to me like "their job" is to ensure that religion gets a place of equality with science.

Indeed, what IS “their job”?

Improving public support for sound science education, particularly in evolution. (In the context of my post - it's obviously that's not many people's day jobs.)

That might be the job you think they have, but their activities being pretty one-sided against rationalists and science, indicate that this isn't the job THEY think they're doing.

At best, they're trying to clear the science side first and foremost, but then the eternal whine about "well, you HAVE to compromise, else you're not being reasonable" means that the cleared ground has changed the balance point of "the compromise position".

Before even starting on the fundie side, they've won ground.

It's demonstrably counterproductive to do as they are doing IF your statement on the question were their job.

A simpler explanation would be that it isn't what they see as their job. A simpler explanation is to let religion and faith stand beside science, without having to earn that position.

That might be the job you think they have, but their activities being pretty one-sided against rationalists and science, indicate that this isn’t the job THEY think they’re doing.

Do you honestly think their activities are one-sided against rationalism? I'd be one of the people who complain about how organizations such as AAAS or NCSE address accommodationism, but I think its insane to claim that they spend most of their time or effort on doing that. Accommodationism is a side issue for them. Its a side issue they get wrong, but they clearly spend more of their time, effort, and resources on promoting sound science education than they spend on debates about accommodationism.

Not entirely, one-sided.

But very strongly biased in direction, eric.

You may consider it a consequence of the ubiquity of tone trolling on skeptic blogs by self-professed moderates, but I hear literally nothing about how fundies are damaging to the christian (or any) faith initiatives.