Down the rabbit hole .. again

Poor Chris Mooney. He's found himself deep in the old "are science and religion compatible" debate. I usually try to stay out of this particular rabbit hole, but the Island of Doubt could use a traffic boost to make up for my upcoming vacation, so...

Chris and his Unscientific America co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum have drawn the ire of the New Atheistis by blaming Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, et al. for a good part of the yawning gap between science and the humanities.

It's funny, because the contempt that the issue draws out of otherwise mild-mannered folks is rarely matched anywhere in the science-oriented blogosphere. It's also a bit ironic. Yes, some atheists display precious little patience or tolerance for their religious debating counterparts, but many of those who say religion and science are compatible are exhibiting the very same behaviors debating the non-accommodationists.

Here's my take: whether or not religion and science are compatible, there isn't much point in arguing that they aren't if the objective is to convert someone of faith. A more successful strategy would be to pretend that they are, for the sake of the argument. I suspect a good many advocates for reason and secular public policy are doing exactly this.

This isn't a particularly honest way to go about making a case, and there are many who refuse to accept this approach for just that reason. But it's all about understanding your audience. Remember that atheists are no more than 15% of the American public. Given that fact, this strategy makes a proponent appear wise and reasonable, wins more adherents and generally advances reputation, stature or even a career.

More importantly, once a target has warmed up to the scientific way of thinking, pointing out the obvious contradictions between the laws of thermodynamics and the resurrection won't be so easily dismissed. Eventually, a person of faith might come around to the truth, which is that only a deist conception of god (it created the universe but never tinkers with its creation) is compatible with reality.

I'm not saying I endorse this particular strategy. I'm just pointing out that there's probably a difference between what you might expect atheists to say among themselves and what some of those same atheists might say in a more public forum.

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James, atheists make up far more than that in many places (I live in Sweden, for instance, where religious believers are in a minority). Dawkins lives in the UK, a place far less religious than the USA. These are places where its not at all unusual to see prominent politicians professing unbelief without the slightest worry that it will send their electoral chances down the proverbial toilet.
Without going into your point that scientists should lie to the public (ooops, I meant 'pretend') for politically expedient purposes it raises the question of how one can enforce this policy on foreign based scientists where it is certainly not politically expedient to behave in the same way. As an example Tony Blair, the ex PM of Richard Dawkins UK decided to wait until he was retired before he announced that he had converted to Roman Catholicism since he felt the UK public wouldn't take him seriously if they thought he was overtly religious. How on earth would it benefit Dawkins to act as an accomodationist(liar) in such a situation?
And how condescending to the public to think that they cannot handle the truth (Jack Nicholson to Tom Cruise?).
If I was an adult who still believed in Santa Claus I would sincerely hope my friends took a hold of me and explained the error of my ways rather than said it was compatible with reality.

That argument sounds altogether too much for my liking like the kinds of arguments concerned white liberals were making in the 1960s, telling black people they had to be cautious and careful and accommodating of bigoted white people in asking for civil rights, right down to the fact that black people are only about 15% of the population too.

Also, make no mistake, in a country where open atheists have approximately no chance of holding high public office (all protestations about religious tests to the contrary), this is a civil rights issue, especially with the intersection of science and religion driving so much of contemporary politics. No group ever got civil rights by being polite about it and sparing bigots' feelings.

By Interrobang (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

You need more categories in addition to "religiosity". May I suggest 'truth', 'Forrest Gump', 'attention-whore(ing)', etc. ?

By Matt Platte (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

I agree that there is a place for a more deferential approach, especially in court cases, but I do not agree with Mooney that the "new atheists" shouldn't broadcast their more insolent views, as these are the sorts of views that can jolt some apathetic atheists into action. It also paints a much more inspiring and powerful picture of science and atheism that would be tragic to lose from American public discourse.

I agree that there is a place for a more deferential approach, especially in court cases, but I do not agree with Mooney that the "new atheists" shouldn't broadcast their more insolent views, as these are the sorts of views that can jolt some apathetic atheists into action. It also paints a much more inspiring and powerful picture of science and atheism that would be tragic to lose from American public discourse.

Christianity, Islam and Judaism make claims about the origins of life, of the universe, of morality, of exceptions to physical constants, of the future of the universe, the lineage of humanity, etc. That's the realm of science. If those religious texts are wrong about those claims, then they are wrong. But, one cannot believe in those religious claims and accept many (tentatively held to be approximately true) current scientific facts and theories. Science and religion are, in that sense, conflicted. However, claims that go beyond the realm of falsifiability are fair game. They're mere vapors to be clutched onto.

Atheists don't want to pretend something is compatible when it isn't.

"...whether or not religion and science are compatible, there isn't much point in arguing that they aren't if the objective is to convert someone of faith. A more successful strategy would be to pretend that they are, for the sake of the argument."

Well, that's a bit cynical (aka dishonest) for my taste.

Mind you, I don't find the tactics of Myers et al to be convincing or effective. In fact, I think Myers has crossed the line to being someone who's famous for being famous, rather than for having accomplished anything much.

But here's an approach that appeals to me that involves no dishonesty - if I believe that religion is purely a human construct, that's essentially saying it's all in the mind. Why should I not take the next step in discussions with a religious believer and say, "Well, it then follows that it's entirely up to you whether you find religion and science compatible. Your judgement on that question is of no interest to me ... as long as you don't use it to try to influence the work of science or science education"?

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 10 Jul 2009 #permalink

There is a perfectly coherent worldview in the form of "I am in favor of the advancement of science. I don't care about the advancement of atheism." If you hold that view, well, you rationally would want the "new atheists" to shut up, because politically speaking, atheism has high negatives, so you'd rather publicly minimize the connection.

you rationally would want the "new atheists" to shut up

There are plenty of people I wish would just shut up but I don't think it would be particularly "rational" (or effective) for me to start publicly ordering them to do so.


Lying for Science? ... Not only does that contradict the purpose of science, but it puts us in the same boat as all those that Lie For Jesus.

The difference being: They don't see it as Lying For Jesus because they feel their interpretation of Jesus can't ever be wrong. To them, the Truth changes to maintain their interpretation of Jesus and therefore their lies are not lies.

But as scientists, we understand full well that our scientific interpretation of the truth is often wrong and must be corrected. By your flawed method we would be knowingly lying.

Hmmm, Same boat? No. This makes it worse than sinking to their level.

'Your take' is nothing but a corruption of Science. This accommadationist corruption method is what allows Mooney and Kirshenbaum, despite admitted advancements in Science, to irrationally think that Pluto must remain designated as a planet.

Enjoy your vacation.

Wow, no responses.

Seems glomming on to the popular story didn't bring all that much traffic here after all.

Obviously some accomodationists are doing exactly this. But it erodes your rational high ground when you claim the right to stand on it based on your accomodationism with ideas that are entirely irrational.

You're also ignoring the fact that this is essentially one of the open fronts in a cultural discourse--or war, as long as you realise it should be a bloodless one--on the merits of reason. The evidence is on our side, and has been for some time now. There's no reason to halt the advance to give the other chaps a 'fighting chance'. We've got superstition on the run -- let's bury it.

William Tecumseh Sherman said: âWar is cruelty. There's no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.â And luckily, this isn't a war on people but ideas. On our side, we're perfectly capable of keeping the war on unreason entirely bloodless. The fact that the other side isn't willing to do the same is certainly justification enough for our continued and thorough prosecution of that war.

By Nils Ross (not verified) on 11 Jul 2009 #permalink

Sigmund. Sweden is weather you like it or not, an extreme outlier. The number of people who call themselves atheists in the world, is marginal. In light of this I think that James argument makes sense.

The basic problem is that a theist can never prove the existence of god(s), but atheists can never disprove the existence of god(s). Hamlet can´t prove neither the existence nor the nonexistence of Shakespeare. And whatever argument an atheist uses, a theist can always reply "you only base your conclusion on what you can observe". That is the way science should be conducted, but it´s not the same as being able to conclude that there aren´t things that we never will be able to observe.

Anthony (#8) - The advancement of science and the advancement of atheism may be separate goals but in many cases they overlap. The "virtue" of faith is an affront to science and atheism alike. Science relies on evidence, so a populace that is unable to put aside faith at least part of the time and think critically about a body of evidence on a non-religious issue such as anthropogenic climate change is as bad for the advancement of science as faith in the specific truth-claims of religion is bad for the advancement of non-belief. Granted, conditioning the faithful to turn off faith when dealing when issues of real-life importance is an option, and it is certainly possible for such people to gain an appreciation of the evaluation of evidence in the process, a skill that they may later apply to their religion. But an equally cogent argument can be made that we are going to be attacked by people with an agenda either way; a more sceptical populace is necessarily a threat to the world's main religions, whether that scepticism is focused on them or not. It is also a threat to governments and corporations; how many Bibles and brochures have been handed out in Iraq and Afghanistan by soldiers who are fighting for their government and their religion? Hell, Bush manipulated nearly an entire country into starting those wars in the first place for reasons that were barely scrutinised by a largely ignorant and credulous populace. Would critical thinking skills have helped him sell them? Furthermore, how many corporations would lose money if their products and services were scrutinised more carefully?

It seems that fighting ignorance necessarily entails fighting faith. And the line between faith in stuff that doesn't really affect the state of the world and faith in stuff that does is murky and insignificant anyway: faith is faith and a people used to believing in stuff without proof will be quickly manipulated by those with an agenda, those who attack any attempt to promote science OR atheism. You don't defeat a mindset by catering to it...the accomodationists have a very naive perspective here. Ultimately, without attacking faith head-on, it will always be there, ready to rear its ugly head whenever someone stands to gain by convincing people to believe something without proof.

By VolcanoMan (not verified) on 16 Aug 2009 #permalink