Being nice to evangelicals

Nicholas Kristof, one of the best voices on the New York Times op-ed pages, wants us all to stop being so mean to evangelicals. Why? Because so many of them are doing so darn much good. Yes, but...

Last weekend's column, Evangelicals a Liberal Can Love, drew a fair bit of contrary comment, to which he has replied at his On The Ground blog. One line of argument is particularly relevant to these ScienceBlogs. Here's a piece of the opening to the column:

... few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama's race or Hillary Clinton's sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee's religious faith.

Now here's his summary of one of the most common objections to that argument:

It's okay to deride evangelicals because they're Neanderthals on science and other issues. If people don't believe in evolution, they invite mockery. If we call them nuts, it's because we have good evidence that they are nuts.

It's his response that is most curious:

I agree that the fundamentalist opposition to evolution is ridiculous, and it's certainly fair to argue that point or to criticize people's scientific beliefs. But mocking religious beliefs is different because religions are neither rational or irrational. As Kant argued, breaking the old Cartesian paradigm, religion is neither provable nor disprovable. And Kant was no nut.

Religions are neither rational nor irrational, eh? I think Kristof should have been more careful with his words here. Technically, of course, "religion" is all very real and provable. God is not provable. The intended notion that the existence of god is also not disprovable is sophistry writ large ;;;;; we can't disprove there's a giant invisible tea pot in orbit around the Earth, either, but so what? ;;;;; and I'm surprised to see someone of Kristof's caliber go there.

We all agree that we're justified in mocking belief in silly things. Ask any 12-year-old if it's OK to believe in the tooth fairy. The real question is, at what point on the wide spectrum of belief in that for which there is no evidence do we grant the respect that Christians ask of rationalists? And should we grant respect to a belief simply because a lot of people hold it? A pragmatic answer is not easy to find. I'm sure Kristof would agree if he pursued the subject with his usual degree of intellectual rigor.

Incidentally, the rest of Kristof's debate is just an attempt to argue that evangelical missionaries do so much good fighting AIDS that it outweighs the annoying elements of fundamentalist Christianity -- a mug's game if there every was one.

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"... few would dare make a pejorative comment about Barack Obama's race or Hillary Clinton's sex. Yet it would be easy to get away with deriding Mike Huckabee's religious faith."

Sorry if it's in bad taste to turn a religious argument around on itself but: Evangelism is a choice, indeed hundreds of choices over decades to not know, not learn, not reassess your beliefs, and not to care, really.

"Incidentally, the rest of Kristof's debate is just an attempt to argue that evangelical missionaries do so much good fighting AIDS that it outweighs the annoying elements of fundamentalist Christianity"

Denying comprehensive sex education and vilifying condoms and other contraception, while promoting worthless abstinence-only policies does not fight AIDS. I know you know this, I just wanted to emphasize it for new readers who might think missionaries do any good whatsoever.

By Jason Faiels (not verified) on 07 Feb 2008 #permalink

I've been told by travelers in deepest Africa and other such colorful spots that many missionaries - even the Catholics - do perform good medical and educational services, including distribution of condoms.

Most of the problems, it appears, trickle down from the upper levels of the hierarchy. I wonder if even Kristof can find any sort of apologia for the likes of Ratzinger, Dobson, Land, et alia?

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 07 Feb 2008 #permalink

You're completely wrong about one thing, you know --

The giant invisible teapot is in orbit around Mars, silly, not Earth.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

The problem with Kristof's comment is, as indicated by the use of the apostrophes, the idea of "religion" v. faith or belief system (not to mention the personalizing of one's faith v. the finger pointing variety of bible-thumping and hellfire-proselytizing).

Religion is a set of man-made rules... It is a doctrine made by some to dictate the practices by which others should develop their relationship with God (or other diety, as it may be). Religion does not = faith... In a word, religion stinks as we have seen throughout history that it can be a brutally oppressive force. I will say that I am religious in that I attend a church and engage in the religious practices implemented there... but I am not religious to the effect that I presume religion is the only way to form said relationship (it is a choice).

I do believe in God, and I am Christian... but I am also a Biologist and believe in evolution as wholeheartedly as I believe in the God. That being said, the evidence that I rely on for this belief, which admittedly is not empirical, is the sense that I am (we are) greater than the sum of my (our) parts. There is a consciousness within us (not in a spatial sense, mind you) that I infer is not the product solely of electical impulses coursing through neurons. From there, I understand the Law of Conservation of Energy, which tells us that energy is neither created nor destroyed, only changed in form... Extrapolating that principle to any notions of an independant consciousness suggests that our consciousness (soul, if you will) comes from somewhere/thing and will eventually return to somewhere/thing... However, none of my beliefs or the above ponderings leads me to the conclusion that I ought to impose my views of morality on others through legislation, interpret the Bible in a literal sense, or marginalize the rights of others who do not share my beliefs / views... So Gov. Huckabee views and the views of like minded Evangelicals (fundamentalists and Pat Robertson-types) are indeed contemptible.