Sean Carroll reads Jerry Coyne so you don't have to. His summary of Jerry Coyne's post about his talk at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago is decidedly kinder than John Pieret's, or my own last post, and so it serves as a good starting point for the promised kinder, gentler reaction to Coyne's piece.
As you recall, Coyne went to the church to talk with a book group there about his book Why Evolution Is True. Sean summarizes:
You can guess what happened â or maybe not. There was a productive two-hour conversation in which both sides learned something.
There was indeed a lot of learning, and Coyne seems to see the question of dialog with the religious from a slightly different angle, and may be rethinking some of his other positions.
Sean picks up on the most salient result Coyne derived from his captivity among the theists:
Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents. This is a true but subtle point, as of course there are those who love to accuse scientists and/or atheists of unwarranted certitude. I think the difference is that we feel relatively sure about some things, while weâre quite ready to admit that we donât know the answer to other questions, and we have a clear notion of where the distinction lies. But I would think that, wouldnât I?
This is an important observation with important implications, so it's worth examining how Coyne came at this issue:
Finally, one thing that impressed me very strongly about the group was its sense of doubt. Just as we scientists canât be absolutely confident that what we discover are timeless and unalterable truths, so several of these Methodists said they werenât so sure about the âtruthsâ of the Bible, or, importantly, about the nature of God. (The difference between scientific and religious doubt is, of course, that scientists have good ways to resolve doubt. [Josh: I'd say we have a way "to quantify and to reduce doubt," rather than "to resolve." But that's a quibble.]) While this doubt was not ubiquitous, Iâm sure I wouldnât have sensed it in, say, a confab with Southern Baptists.
In the end, it struck me that the harmful and destructive nature of faiths may be correlated with how much doubt resides in their adherents. These Methodists, unsure about the natureâor perhaps even the existenceâof God, are certainly not wreaking much harm on the world. Indeed, with their outreach programs, help for the poor, and so on, their net effect on the world may be positive. (Also, they seemed like nice peopleâpeople trying to live their lives according to the morality they derive from faith). This is not the kind of faith that I spend a lot of time attacking, even though I consider their religious beliefsâinsofar as they even have religious beliefsâlargely irrational. And Iâm not sure how much their own belief enables beliefs of more harmful faiths, like Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. My impression is that most of these people are not enablers in that sense.
The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know Godâs will and Godâs mind. Itâs that certainty that leads to suicide bombing, repression of women and gays, religious wars, the Holocaust, burning of witches, banning of birth control, repression of sex, and so on. The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others. These Methodists seem riddled with doubt, and that defuses potential harm. But though they may doubt the nature of God and the truth of scripture, they do not doubt the value of helping others, and that prompts their many charitable acts.
I think this is right. I think it's so right that I've written the same thing on this blog. For instance, a discussion of the importance of fear and a search for certainty, originally posted in 2005. And a defense of doubt from 2006. And a post from 2007, arguing that the certainty of fundamentalists is linked to an authoritarian tendency, and wondering about what this might imply about the certainty I saw from the "New Atheists" (as they were known then). And a followup on the same point. Various of those posts generated a lot of criticism and comments, and I don't bring them up to revive fights from 5 years ago, or necessarily to endorse everything I said then. I might write those posts differently today. Check out the disclaimer in the sidebar for this blog's standing policy on old posts.
I bring this up just to emphasize that the issue of certainty as something I've seen as central to discussions of the dangers some religions pose, and to endorse Coyne's diagnosis of the harmful forms of religion. I'm hopeful this might produce a useful meeting of the minds.
The section of Coyne's that I quoted above looks like it was written by someone wrestling with an important question, a question I answered a few years ago partly through wrestling with this same issue of certainty. The question Coyne seems to be asking himself is: are the members of First United Methodist of Chicago in need of deconversion? Asked another way: if every religious person were religious in the manner of the Methodists he met, would he still be justified in seeking to eradicate religion?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but he seems to be wrestling with the possibility that the accommodationist position may not be entirely wrong, that some churches may be legitimate allies against fundamentalism and superstition and various harmful forms of woo. Not that he'd go whole hog accommodationist (whatever that means!), but he may have seen a glimpse of where we're coming from.
And his question about whether these Methodists somehow enable Islamic fundamentalists seems to be the most relevant to that internal struggle.
To me, it's a silly question to ask in the first place, but this idea that moderate religious folks enable fundamentalists is a central creed of gnu atheism, and especially of Sam Harris's End of Faith. This argument's obvious (to me) absurdity is why I could never finish that book. It's necessary to make some form of this argument in order to justify the sweeping opposition to all theistic belief that defines gnu atheism. It's never hard to justify opposition to the religion of Fred Phelps and Osama bin Laden. It's a lot harder to come out against the religion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr or Gandhi. I still think it's absurd to say that King's faith or Gandhi's justifies bin Laden's, but you have to get there somehow if you want to say that religion is inherently toxic.
Conveniently, the reading group answered this question about enabling early in Coyne's visit. He explains:
Because the church members were liberal, urban Methodists, apparently well off, they were obviously not raving fundamentalists. Their approach to faith was far more ânuancedâ (I hate that word!) and circumspect. Several of them struck me as being a hairsbreadth from atheism, seeing God as some kind of distant entity who neither concerns himself with the world nor was even involved in creating it. In fact, they spent a fair amount of time denigrating fundamentalists like Southern Baptists, reassuring me that they disliked those folks more than I did!
I don't think the exclamation mark is meant to express Coyne's surprise, at least I hope not. Fundamentalism â the American Christian enterprise that originated the term about a century ago â emerged in cities like Chicago as a reaction largely against liberal, nuanced, thoughtful congregations that wanted to take the Higher Criticism seriously, and treat the Bible as a human document, a book with authors and a history of edits. Fundamentalism didn't become a southern, rural, socially conservative movement until later, nor did it take atheism as a major enemy until later. There has always been a deep tension between fundamentalists and moderate and liberal congregations.
Even today, groups like the Discovery Institute and Southern Baptists and Answers in Genesis and your usual band of advocates for fundamentalism reserve their harshest attacks not for atheists, not for scientists, not even for gays and lesbians, but for moderate and liberal co-religionists. Compare their rhetoric around NCSE or People for the American Way or the ACLU with the bile they unleash at Biologos or at Ken Miller or Francis Collins! (Nor has it ever been clear to me how Rev. Barry Lynn's work at Americans United for Separation of Church and State could conceivably be said to enable fundamentalism, given that he's devoted much of his life to opposing fundamentalism.)
Sam Harris's argument, to the extent I can summarize and restate a bad argument, is that fundamentalism relies on and is motivated by a belief in the existence of a deity, and that moderate theists validate fundamentalism by also believing in a deity. All theism is therefore bad because some theists use their theism for bad ends, and the theists who don't do bad things don't undermine the belief in a deity which causes some but not all theists to do bad things. He gussies it up to cover the cracks, but that's the gist.
What Coyne seems to be grappling with in his post is the observation that the faith of moderate and liberal theists is pretty different from the faith of fundamentalists. Again, this isn't news to fundamentalists, nor to moderate theists, but it seems to have taken Coyne off guard. The sort of theism he found in this church is not the same theism as that of a fundamentalist, and that means it doesn't validate the theism of fundamentalists.
You see Coyne dealing with this complexity as he describes a discussion about how he'd handle a fundamentalist who rejects evolution based only on the Bible. He said that he couldn't do anything about such a person (I agree) and added:
My own strategy for promoting evolution, I said, had evolved into trying to âget rid of religion,â which is the source of creationism, and far worse things besides. I believe that statement shocked some folks, but I hastened to add that the types of religion I was most concerned with eliminating were those that promoted Biblical literalism or had invidious effects on society, like promoting suicide bombing, repression of women, and prohibition of birth control. I doubt that these Methodists fit into those categories!
Two things are interesting here. First, that he felt any need to soften the blow. It's not necessarily surprising, of course, but given the gnu atheists' denunciations of "framing" and other suggestions that people might do well to adjust their messages for different audiences, it's at least noteworthy. Second, that he softened the blow by creating two categories: religions that do bad things, and religions that don't do bad things. He's really concerned about the former, and while he ultimately might like to make both groups otiose, he'll start with the first. He doesn't note that churches like FUMC are also not "the source of creationism," but they aren't.
Aside from the (presumably quite long term) issue of how to deal with these harmless moderate theists, Coyne's reply is the accommodationist stance (to the extent "accommodationism" is a real thing that has a real stance). Nontheist accommodationists do not argue that religion ought to exist, (we do tend to resist the claim that all religion ought not to exist, but we'd be fine if they didn't). We can all work hard against the religions that harm people, that force themselves on others, that interfere with the rights of people who don't share their particular moral stances, etc. But the religions that don't do those things, we can't get agitated against, especially when those religions are often good allies against the harmful religions. Gnus get agitated about the idea of forming alliances with theistic groups (though they do it when necessary), and of saying the sorts of nice things that one says about allies. Even so, Coyne's description of his comment at the church strikes me as different in degree, but not in kind, from the way I've talked about the issue in talking in various settings, including churches. I don't go so far as to say eliminating religion is my goal (because it's not, and it'd be dishonest of me to say that!), but I look past diehard Bible-thumping fundamentalists, and discuss the dangers of toxic forms of religion, and look for ways to move people toward beliefs that aren't toxic and toward acceptance of evolution (which is my main concern).
This is the point in a discussion where gnus often start talking about the Overton Window and whatnot, and where I start asking for something a little more theoretically and empirically grounded, and the discussion gets boring and stale, so let's skirt that for now.
Because for all the acrimony, there's some important common ground here, and maybe that's a place to build something. We agree that various authoritarian religious movements are the really bad sorts of religion, and that those are â at minimum âÂ the best place to start activist efforts. We agree that at least some moderate and liberal theists are not enablers of those worst sorts of religion, and might even be helpful allies against those bad guys. And importantly, we seem to agree that the most compelling way to divide these two groups may well be the certainty with which they adhere to their beliefs.
To press the point â hopefully not too far â I'll even suggest that, adopting a widely-used two-axis model of atheism and agnosticism, we should worry more about the axis of "what you think we can know" and less about "what you believe." Agnostic (at least somewhat agnostic) theists like the ones Coyne describes at FUMC, and of the sort I've met in churches and citizens for science groups across the country, are the enemy of the authoritarians, precisely because they ask the questions scientists always have to ask: How do you know? Are you sure? How can you know? The more we strengthen their hands, and the more we weaken the True Believers, the better off we are. The result of that shift may well produce some atheists, but the important thing is that it will produce people who question themselves and the claims of those around them.
I'll also suggest that this discussion of the dangers of excess certainty may inspire some of the gnus to examine their own rhetoric. Because (not singling anyone out, so as not to argue about details), gnus have a tendency to talk about their own views as Truth, and others' views as lies, and that sure seems like certainty to me, and it's a habit that has triggered by aversion to excess certainty more than a few times over the years. When pressed, gnus will acknowledge that it's impossible to show certainly that god doesn't exist, but that qualification tends to get lost in their sallies against theism. I'm happy to chalk it up to exuberance, but I'll note that it's hard to ask other people to question their beliefs if we don't act like we question our own, or if we come down like a ton of bricks when we get challenged on our claims.
An analogy of religion that I find helpful is that of drug treatments. While both accomodationists and gnus agree that fundamentalism is bad medicine the gnus tend to view moderate liberal religion as a placebo. Like a medical placebo the moderate religions might have practical benefits on occasion for some individuals. On the other hand medical placebos do not address the underlying medical problems and can often lead to people not seeking the best medical solution. This is pretty much the entire argument against pseudo-medicine like homeopathy. Just as the medical profession is divided on the benefits of placebos, the non-religious community is divided on the value of moderate religion - the gnus taking the view that it is better overall that reality is what everyone uses to base their world view.
The dangers of certainty was most eloquently expressed by Jacob Bronowski in his TV series "The Ascent of Man" about 40 years ago.
Jason, anti-accommodationists don't want science organizations to go around saying that science and religion are compatible. That's all. It's not that vague, or hard to understand.
"...gnus have a tendency to talk about their own views as Truth, and others' views as lies..."
Beliefs aren't Bayesian to the extent they aren't Bayesian. What else do you want?
If theists had any humanity and imagination at all they'd at least have the good grace to believe in Captain Planet or the Thundercats or something instead of an unjustified nullity like Methodism or Unitarianism.
Does the NCSE pay a Thundercat outreach theologian (yet)? How about a Nation of Islam one, or a KKK one - those are more popular atavistic belief systems? Evolution is compatible with the all, so what's the harm in extolling describing how they reconcile their beliefs with it?
In any case, no, no Gnu atheist thinks all who disagree are lying. For one thing, many people are misinformed, muddled, biased, or otherwise wrong without being deliberately misleading.
With some people, it's hard to judge if they can be characterized by the word "lying". Their jaundiced ill-intent prevents them from understanding others' arguments and so blocks them from having relevant commentary or criticism.
I recently read some blog posts about Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris that seem to be the product of that.
As has been argued on the previous thread, I think there should be a distinction between a group saying "some religious people believe X" and that same group saying "X is true." Statements by several groups to the former are often used as evidence that they state the latter, but I think that argument doesn't hold water. By that logic, Coyne would be endorsing the Methodist faith in his latest post, and that's preposterous, no?
"In any case, no, no Gnu atheist thinks all who disagree are lying. For one thing, many people are misinformed, muddled, biased, or otherwise wrong without being deliberately misleading."
I urge you to read Russell Blackford's response to Josh's recent post, as well as the previous back-and-forth between Josh and Coyne from several weeks ago. Both Coyne and Blackford invoke "blatant misrepresentation" and "deliberate distortion" as reasons for their disagreement. Those are both dressed up synonyms for lying in my eyes, perhaps the latter moreso than the former. Two people and two instances doesn't make "all gnus," and I realize that. But it does happen, and quite frequently, and it seems necessary to dispense with in order to reach the common ground and productivity in dialogue that Rosenau mentions in the OP.
@ Hamill #5
If you prefer, you can answer my #26 from the other thread here, since you have raised the point again.
In brief, in telling people "some people believe X", what do you hope to accomplish if not to present belief X as a viable alternative to rejecting science? Can you honestly say that you don't present that alternative with the hope of influencing that person's religious beliefs, if only to provide an opening for science?
In the previous thread, my discomfort with accommodationists on the grounds that it is a disingenuous position caused you to take exception to my position. But I cannot see any way that a non religious person or a person trying to promote scientific understanding ISN'T being disingenuous when they claim to not be promoting religion in the same breath as asserting "People believe X".
I just now saw your #26, so I will offer an answer here. As one hypothetical example, pretend that I am asked to participate in a forum at one like the Methodist church Coyne attended. During the forum, it becomes apparent that the congregation holds the preconception (for whatever reason, perhaps they have been told this by a pastor or read it on a blog) that they must choose between accepting evolution and maintaining their faith. That is clearly a misconception, based on the simple existence of those who do both (the philosophical validity of these people's beliefs is really not the relevant issue in this case). I think it is perfectly acceptable and intellectually honest to point out that there indeed exist religious people who both maintain their faith and accept science/evolution. That is an empirical fact, regardless of the validity of the mental contortions necessary to reach that position, and it in no way logically follows that my mentioning that fact automatically constitutes my personal endorsement of that position or a claim on my part that those beliefs are true. I am pointing out a fact that the group I am speaking to appears to be unaware of. It is then their responsibility to consider that fact and come to conclusions on their own. Perhaps my mentioning of this fact would lead to further discussion of the personal conflicts that can arise if grappling with that position, not all of which might paint religion in a good light. It's clear in my mind that one can do this without promoting compatibility.
In #6 here I think you say something telling. You switch from the previous topic of science-religion compatibility being the issue to "promoting religion" as the issue in your last sentence here. Those are two different animals. If you are simply concerned about people saying anything that might paint religion in a good light, you've moved into a less pro-science argument and more of a general anti-religion argument. Those, I would argue, are again very different even though they may not seem so. I am examining my approaches based on whether they are grounded in some sort of empirical fact and, as I said in the previous thread, on the contextual situations of the group I might be dealing with (this is why I don't feel it honest to give a blanket, universal yes/no answer to the appropriateness of the statement at issue here). An anti-religious argument, IMO, would instead examine approaches based only on whether or not they might end up making religion 'look good.' The latter is a bit different issue (and a bit less logically grounded), I'd wager, than the one being discussed in this series of posts.
"Those are both dressed up synonyms for lying in my eyes, perhaps the latter moreso than the former."
I didn't for a moment claim that Rosenau is not a blatantly misrepresenting, deliberately misrepresenting liar. I am only uncertain about how far the English word "lying" goes, not how malleable the other terms are and whether they are being accurately used or not.
I also noted that his implication that gnu atheists think a great many who disagree with them liars is false, though it's obvious why he might think that. Gnu atheists admirably generally read others' arguments charitably, and almost always conclude that those with opposing views are just mistaken. Sometimes it seems likely some critics aren't intelligent enough to understand, others appear to negligently misread and misunderstand, while yet others willfully dissemble. Rosenau's crude description of gnu atheist responses to these different sorts of critics is badly lacking in nuance.
Looking at gnu atheist responses to just one person, it might seem that gnu atheist views of opposing ideas only range from bemusement to scorn, suggestions that that one hasn't understood to accusations that that one is malevolently pretending not to understand, and so forth. At the same time, with others gnu atheists might respond with serious reply or respectful debate. Clearly, more than the presence of a different view is required before gnu atheists denounce that view as lies.
Sean: I'm Josh, not Jason (Thoughts from Kansas, not Evolutionblog). Also, I don't think you'll find that science organizations go around asserting a compatibility of science and religion.
May I have the short answer? Is it your contention that you have no intention of suggesting an acceptable alternative belief when making the obvservation: "Some people believe X?" If not, why make the suggestion at all? What motivation remains if you aren't trying to encourage acceptance of a particular type of faith?
Again, we're talking about NCSE (if I recall properly) and the willingness of people like me to support them financially. I don't want to financially support the promotion of religion, even liberal religion that accepts evolution. Clearly, if anybody wants to promote religion on their own time, more power to them.
Re: Science religion compatibility vs. "promoting religion". Your opinion is exactly backward from what a reasonable, liberal accommodationist should take, much less a firebreathing Gnu atheist. I don't think anybody disagrees that promoting religion is a huge no-no and is at least nominally if not far more objectionable than compatibility. I'm not sure why you equate opposing "promoting religion" with "anti-religion", then you have a sever understanding of what secularism is. And I unequivocally reject any suggestion that I am encouraging NCSE to be anti-religion. To say otherwise is to put words in my mouth and is a tendentious misunderstanding of common secular practice.
But I don't want to get sidetracked by these other issues (as interesting as they are) to the exclusion of what I think is a telling point. What possible purpose can be served by NCSE saying "Some people believe X" if not promotion of X as a faith alternative to anti-science?
"I'll even suggest that, adopting a widely-used two-axis model of atheism and agnosticism, we should worry more about the axis of "what you think we can know" and less about "what you believe." Agnostic (at least somewhat agnostic) theists like the ones Coyne describes at FUMC, and of the sort I've met in churches and citizens for science groups across the country, are the enemy of the authoritarians, "
Personally I've come around to seeing three assumptions that allow one to do science and accept those discoveries: Atheism, agnosticism and agnostic/religious.
Agnostic/religious would be those who believe in god but understand that belief is not based on any empirical evidence (kind of like multiverse theory) and they assume that god doesn't interfere with our discovery of the natural world through scientific discovery. They doubt, they're uncertain but they find value in the possibility.
And they defend the integrity of science as well as atheists and agnostics - as the people in the Dover trial have shown.
I can respect and work with people who fall into all three categories, and I think it's a waste of time for the people inside those three categories to keep arguing with each other.
And yet here I am posting - I should follow my own advice.
Josh, sorry about that. Should never comment that early in the morning.
If we all agree that science organizations shouldn't say science is compatible with religion, that's great.
(Preemptive apologies for the long post)
"Gnu atheists admirably generally read others' arguments charitably, and almost always conclude that those with opposing views are just mistaken."
Based on recent posts of note, I'm afraid this seems a place where we'll simply have to agree to disagree! I do wish, however, that such a dialogue was taking place.
"May I have the short answer? Is it your contention that you have no intention of suggesting an acceptable alternative belief when making the obvservation: "Some people believe X?"
It is, in my opinion, very possible to make that observation without suggesting X as an "acceptable alternative belief." The keyword, of course, is acceptable. It is always an alternative belief, but its mere mention in no way implies its acceptability. (I say this knowing well that there are organizations and cases that explicitly endorse compatibility. I just feel that pointing out religious people who find personal compatibility is not an example.)
"Again, we're talking about NCSE (if I recall properly) and the willingness of people like me to support them financially. I don't want to financially support the promotion of religion, even liberal religion that accepts evolution."
I think the place where our positions fundamentally differ is whether or not the NCSE (or any one of the other groups that has been similarly criticized) is "promoting religion." I think it is a very large stretch to make the claim that they are.
"I'm not sure why you equate opposing "promoting religion" with "anti-religion"..."
I'm not necessarily equating the two. It seemed that this was the direction your previous comment was headed in based on my reading, and since you've clarified, of course that's not what you're doing.
On the subject of confusing definitions, I think the definition of the term "accommodationist" is a source of a ton of disagreement on this issue. For example, is accommodationist referring to:
(i) someone who supports the philosophical compatibility of science and religion
(ii) someone who argues for increased civility when engaging the faithful and emphasizes the role of moderate believers as allies, or
(iii) a pejorative, catch-all term for someone who disagrees with a position of a gnu atheist?
I think the term has been used inconsistently as all three definitions, sometimes even by the same person at different times. What Coyne seems to have done is very accommmodationist in the second sense, and he has, in fact, argued against this position quite a bit in the past. (And, of course, he's not promoting accommodationism #1 from above!) In my reading, this was the point of Josh's post, and I think he has a good point here that this definition of "accommodationism" is (or, perhaps more correctly, should) not be a major source of disagreement based on Coyne's newly-restated opinions on some aspects of moderate belief. I think it's hardly controversial to state that Coyne has done some substantial backpeddling here on the subject of moderate believers. He used to be quite caustic towards them in a way that has formed the core platform for disagreement among people like Coyne and Rosenau, from my reading of past posts on the subject.
The term "accommodationist" is so muddled, in fact, that Coyne almost introduces a fourth definition in his latest post: "But this latest post, in which Josh claims that Iâm his brother in accommodationism because I talked nicely to Methodists (while firmly maintaining my atheist views), is particularly bizarre." Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but is this implying that accommodationists to Coyne are those that somehow pretend not to be atheists when in dialogue with the faithful, or that these people are somehow "lesser" atheists in some unstated way? That's what I get out of such a comment, and it's a new one to me. I don't see how branding others with terms that reflect some supposed lapse in "atheist views" serves those on either side of the fence.
"But I don't want to get sidetracked by these other issues (as interesting as they are) to the exclusion of what I think is a telling point. What possible purpose can be served by NCSE saying "Some people believe X" if not promotion of X as a faith alternative to anti-science?"
I find that I use a very similar phrasing to that when talking about or writing philosophy. I almost always use it to mean "Here's an argument that people use against Idea X. I don't think them right, but the argument's at least not obviously wrong, if not somewhat credible as an argument". Essentially, it's "You could say that, and it's not obviously wrong". That doesn't mean that I promote the idea; as I just said, I only use it in cases where I [i]don't[/i] promote the idea. It's more intellectual honesty; I can't claim a position without acknowledging the not refuted, somewhat decent arguments against that position.
I make no claims about what the NCSE is actually trying to do.
> It is, in my opinion, very possible to make that observation without suggesting X as an "acceptable alternative belief." The keyword, of course, is acceptable. It is always an alternative belief, but its mere mention in no way implies its acceptability.
I just can't seem to get my head around this. There seems to be too much circumlocution and hedging. On the one hand, it seems as if you aren't recommending "belief X" (it is indeed an alternative, but not an acceptable one) but you also claim to not being disingenuous. If you are neither recommending a belief nor being disingenuous, then I can't see what point pointing out alternatives has? Is there another reason?
If you don't accept liberal theology (or evolution accepting theology) as an acceptable belief and claim to avoid encouraging theological beliefs, then I see no path to pointing to belief X without either becoming an advocate of that belief or being disingenuous about your motives.
I'll ask the question with a slightly different tilt to get my point across better:
1) You aren't promoting religious beliefs of any flavor;
2) You don't see liberal theology as an acceptable alternative to fundamentalist theology (either because you withhold judgment or because you don't privilege one theology over others).
3) Pointing out that "some people accept belief X" neither promotes particular religious beliefs nor suggests that religious people privilege one religious belief over others.
1) Does pointing out that "some people accept belief X" assist in educating people about evolution?
2) If so, how?
1) Does pointing out that "some people accept belief X" assist in educating people about evolution?
2) If so, how?
We've been over this a thousand times, and I'm surprised that you don't know the usual answers to these questions, which are as follows: (1) Yes, (2) by assuring people that they don't have to give up their faith entirely in order to accept evolution -- which means that they are more likely to listen to the evidence regarding it.
As for whether discussing a belief is necessarily an endorsement, let me make an analogy to a sex education class. Suppose a teacher is showing kids below the age of consent how to put on a condom (using a banana, plastic prop, or whatever). Is she endorsing underage sex by doing so? Heck no. Is she educating the students so that in the likely event that they have sex, they'll be more likely to use protection from STDs and pregnancy? Of course! I'd rather people not be religious, but if they are going to be religious -- and practically speaking, they are -- then we're all better off if they practice their religions in ways that make them less prone to getting in the way of science. I don't see the NCSE pointing to ways for the religious to accept evolution as any more sinister than an educational institution pointing to safe sex practices.
To get at what I believe is the source of your confusion (and also at least one of your follow-up questions), I think it's best to examine the following statement:
"If you are neither recommending a belief nor being disingenuous, then I can't see what point pointing out alternatives has? Is there another reason?"
This goes back to my much earlier point about context that seems to have been overlooked. As I said then, there are many different situational contexts within which the topic of religion might come up in a discussion about evolution and, more broadly, science. And not all of these contexts are suited by a one-size-fits-all response. What you seem to be desiring is a universal, "yes; pointing out fact X is always an endorsement of X" or "no; pointing out fact X is never an endorsement of X" kind of resolution where we can wipe our hands clean of the issue, declare it closed, and one of us will be right and the other utterly wrong in every situation - mentioning individual beliefs will always be wrong or always be OK. Period.
I simply don't think that's reality....although reality would admittedly be much easier if it were! For example, if Jerry Coyne were at his Methodist meeting in Chicago and the topic of how believers view science came up, would Coyne be "endorsing compatitiblity" or, to use your words, "endorsing religion" if he mentioned the beliefs of someone like Francis Collins (even if he neither voiced approval nor disapproval of Collins' views)? Does Coyne's mention of Collins tack on an implicit "...and I agree entirely with him, and you should, too!" by default?
That's the kind of situation that I'm talking about, and there are infinitely other different situations that might lead to different conclusions about the validity of what we're saying. Keep in mind that we're not saying "some religious people believe X" in a vacuum. There will always be a prior conversation and a following conversation and situational contexts and presuppositions and differences in the audience and intent that can completely change how we're viewing this single statement. Perhaps we're not on the same page, but you seem to be jockeying for a yes or no answer to "If someone says that religious people believe X, they must be endorsing religion." To me, that's just an oversimplification, and a big one.
As for the assumption that if I say "some religious people believe X," and claim to not be endorsing those beliefs, I must be intentionally lying for some shadowy, unforeseen purpose, that's just not even worth taking seriously. As I said on the other thread, there's an incredibly persistent attempt to paint one side of this debate not as just those with alternative opinions but as malicious liars of poor moral character, almost to the point where it is becoming the default assumption, and that makes little sense to me. (Maybe that's not what you meant by "disingenuous," but throwing similar accusations about has become cavalier on this topic and thus I'm cautious when I see anything similar.)
Big Evolution Discovery !
British professor Nigel Swiggerton of Chapsworth College has recently found a missing link in the evolution/creation debate. Everyone is familiar with the "stages of man" chart found in textbooks which begins with a naked, hairy, bent over, grunting Neanderthal type which over millions of years finally learns how to stand erect while sporting a 1930s-style haircut. Well, Dr. Swiggerton discovered that someone accidentally reversed the negative. It turns out that the first man was actually standing erect with a short haircut but has been descending over the years until he has finally reached the last stage - the stage at any rock concert filled with naked, hairy, bent over, grunting Neanderthal types!
@ J. J. Ramsey
I see your point in that example, but I would modify the focus of the analogy just to make it a bit more appropriate. Instead discussing an issue of when it is appropriate for a state versus parents to educate children (which comes with its own set of complexities in addition to the desired ones) I'll try to maintain the analogy as much as possible (I'll still use the health class/condom frame) while changing the focus to one of recommending religion rather than recommending sex. I hope this doesn't do violence to your intention.
If the health teacher instead said: "Today we are discussing condoms. Now, when someone is faced with a situation where the alternatives are: no condom + sex versus using a condom + sex, it is scientifically verified that the condom option provides more protection against unwanted pregnancy and STDs. For those who feel that wearing a condom might conflict with their faith, I hasten to point out that there are many religious people who believe that wearing condoms is not in conflict with their faith."
then I would consider the analogy to be a bit more appropriate. In this case, it seems clear to me that an important boundary has been crossed. Who is the health teacher to offer such commentary on faith? If somebody actually did that, I'm sure we'd hear no end of it in the media, especially when the Catholic media machine got busy.
But, to answer your first questions, yes, many have gone over it 1,000 times and I know the answers. Which is why I continue to be confused as to how everything gets reconciled.
"As for the assumption that if I say "some religious people believe X," and claim to not be endorsing those beliefs, I must be intentionally lying for some shadowy, unforeseen purpose, that's just not even worth taking seriously."
On the contrary, I don't think you are lying for shady reasons, or necessarily even lying. I think your position is inconsistent with your stated goals and outside conventional constraints about how an science education organization ought to behave. Your position could be inconsistent because you're lying and unscrupulous, sure (I don't believe it is, though). But it could even more easily be inconsistent because you think it is a very innocent inconsistency (a white lie if you will) or perhaps because respecting religion even in contexts where it is irrelevant is so ingrained into society, that you don't even treat that inconsistency in the same way you might treat other inconsistencies.
There need be no shady purpose. But I still can't see how one goes from: a) pointing out that Methodists and Presbyterians (for example) don't reject evolution; to b) claiming that you had no intention of persuading your listeners to import the evolution accepting aspects of Methodists and Presbyterians (for example) into their own beliefs.
"But it could even more easily be inconsistent because you think it is a very innocent inconsistency (a white lie if you will) or perhaps because respecting religion even in contexts where it is irrelevant is so ingrained into society, that you don't even treat that inconsistency in the same way you might treat other inconsistencies."
I suppose I'm still not seeing the jump from - or I suppose the equivalency between - stating facts about religious people to "respecting religion." If respecting religion is wrong, and not doing so requires not stating facts about the real world (however inconvenient they may be to a goal of making religion look bad), I'd suggest that that might be more of a disingenuous position. (Not that this is really what you're arguing, but I could see it head that way.)
"I still can't see how one goes from: a) pointing out that Methodists and Presbyterians (for example) don't reject evolution; to b) claiming that you had no intention of persuading your listeners to import the evolution accepting aspects of Methodists and Presbyterians (for example) into their own beliefs."
OK, consider the following two statements:
Statement A: "It appears that you are aware of opinions X and Z on religion and science. Did you know that another large range of views, falling loosely into opinion Y, also exists? I urge you to consider the totality of opinions on this issue (Y-Z), along with what you've been told about the strengths and nature of science, when personally grappling with how science affects your faith, and make informed decisions for yourself."
Statement B: "It appears that you are aware of opinions X and Z on religion and science. Did you know that another large range of views, falling loosely into opinion Y, also exists? Opinion Y is really the correct one, and you should just import it into your own belief system in order to reconcile your faith with science."
Do you see a difference in statements A and B?
I see the difference. I think you are advocating the former with the hopes that the religious person will make a religiously based decision to listen to you about actual scientific topics. If it were a Muslim group that had doubts about evolution, you likely wouldn't mention a Presbyterian minister, you'd probably mention a liberal Imam as an example. Similarly for Jews, etc. The way the person perceives the religious examples is indeed very important for the strategy you advocate.
"If respecting religion is wrong"
"[R]especting religion" isn't right or wrong any more than "respecting the president" is right wrong. It simply isn't a good justification for bringing religion into the science classroom. My point about respecting religion wasn't that it was right or wrong, it was that social conventions can offer very strong justification for certain types of behavior that would otherwise be less common.
This is why it is much more offensive-sounding to hear "Catholicism promotes cannibalism involving a Jewish zombie carpenter" than to hear "Scientology claims billions of people were duped by psychologists into spaceworthy DC-8's and were nuked inside volcanoes, and their tortured souls cause the world's problems". Objectively, both statements are flippant and dismissive of wacky myths. But the former feels much worse to most people (maybe not you or me, but most people). It is a convention of unearned respect which is given only to certain privileged traditions like Christianity and not others like Scientology.
This convention is pernicious, but very common and very human. I'm simply mentioning that as a non-lying reason why you may not recognize your own inconsistencies. It is my way of saying: "I don't think you're lying. I think your position is a very natural one for any person to take because of the power of social convention. But after long consideration, I think it is wrong, and here's why..."
I think this phrase is particularly telling:
"If respecting religion is wrong, and not doing so requires not stating facts about the real world (however inconvenient they may be to a goal of making religion look bad)"
You see, I don't want NCSE to make religion look bad, and your implication that I do is odd. I want NCSE to stay out of religion and stick to science. The reason why is because I think such statements are: a) irrelevant to science; b) theological (directly or indirectly, depending on whether or not one is careful enough to say "some people say religion is compatible with science" instead of "religion is compatible with science"); c) at least partially in opposition to what I think science really shows, namely that, when science and religion actually end up overlapping, religion is forced to retreat in the face of science (and of course the perfect example is creationism and evolution, where the position retreated to liberal theology).
It is because of these reasons, I think that treating religious people with respect requires us to stick to the scientific goal. It is fair to say that religion has never successfully challenged the veracity of evolution, to say that evolution doesn't seek to establish religious ideas, etc. But for a professional organization to time and time again promote the compatibility thesis and hire a theologian/historian to support that goal is definitely a foray into theology. I think NCSE's heart is in the right place, but in the end, I think they will advertise (if not outright promote) liberal theology if they think it will earn evolution a hearing by doubters. It is this religious advertising strategy which I think is disingenuous (for the NCSE atheists) or inappropriate (for the NCSE believers). And yes, even if you were to fully agree with me (which I doubt you actually will, but bear with me) I understand that you would consider this to be a peccadillo. And if I could agree it was a peccadillo, I'd be happy to just let it slide like any other small thing. However, I do have a rational conviction that decreasing the religiosity in the world will make it a better place. As a result, I don't agree it is an unimportant offense, but a large one. This is why I advocate what I do. What I can't understand is why you can't even acknowledge it is a peccadillo worth overlooking instead of denying it is even a tiny bit wrong.
You see, I don't want NCSE to make religion look bad, and your implication that I do is odd.
I suppose it comes from statements like this one, which was used as justification about why you care so much about what the NCSE does:
"I do have a rational conviction that decreasing the religiosity in the world will make it a better place. As a result, I don't agree it is an unimportant offense, but a large one. This is why I advocate what I do."
That, along with your earlier replacement of people stating "some religious people believe X" with people "promoting religion," is perhaps why I think this way. You ultimately seem more concerned with whether or not something ends up making religion look good than you are with whether or not something inaccurately reflects science. Maybe you see those as one and the same, but I don't, and we're likely not going to reach agreement there!
I will agree, however, that this issue is not one "worth overlooking." I'm not sure if I've fostered the idea that I do, and if I have, that wasn't the intent. I just (1) find it ridiculous that so many people (not really yourself) are seemingly trying to brand this as groups like the NCSE maliciously lying and not sharing a different opinion or approach and (2) feel that there are different degrees of gravity and certainty with the particular statements of compatibility at issue that make this a bit more complex - not unimportant - issue than it often gets represented as.
There is much truth in your intuition about my personal motives, though they don't play directly in my beef with NCSE. I do indeed oppose religion, but I don't think NCSE should. In fact, if I could wave a magic wand and convince NCSE to oppose religion, I wouldn't. This is for many many reasons including respect for an areligion/secular approach as opposed to an anti-religion approach as well as a recognition that such a move would move an organization occupying one niche that needs to be occupied (teaching all comers about evolution) to another niche (opposing religion). As things stand currently, it is my understanding that such a move (made possible by my magic wand, no less) would leave a vacuum in the evolution defending/science education niche, which is a bad thing.
But honestly, my opposition to religion (which is real) makes me more sensitive to the privilege certain religions enjoy. However, the chain of causation isn't "I oppose religion therefore I want to make it look bad." On the contrary, the chain of causation for me is "Religion looks bad, therefore despite being raised religious in a society hostile to atheists, I oppose religion."
I know most commenters here are people of good will regarding issues important to me like evolutin* (even Josh, despite his misrepresentations of the positions of his interlocutors). But it is frustrating to have a nominally secular organization like the NCSE even dip its toe into religion and then have so many people deny that the shoes even came off.
* This is a typo, but it is funny to read it in a Texas accent. What can I say, I appreciate the occasional whimsy.
@9: Josh: "Also, I don't think you'll find that science organizations go around asserting a compatibility of science and religion."
You mean that the National Academy posting on the "Compatibility of Science and Religion" (http://www.nationalacademies.org/evolution/Compatibility.html ) doesn't happen very frequently?
Conversational Atheist: That link doesn't assert a compatibility. It accepts that compatibility may be possible, which is different.
"I do indeed oppose religion, but I don't think NCSE should. In fact, if I could wave a magic wand and convince NCSE to oppose religion, I wouldn't. This is for many many reasons including respect for an areligion/secular approach as opposed to an anti-religion approach as well as a recognition that such a move would move an organization occupying one niche that needs to be occupied (teaching all comers about evolution) to another niche (opposing religion)."
That's fair enough, I think.
"But it is frustrating to have a nominally secular organization like the NCSE even dip its toe into religion and then have so many people deny that the shoes even came off."
I don't think I've ever denied that the NCSE isn't really talking about religion or devling into religious matters. I think it's blindly obvious that they do. My argument - and perhaps I've done a poor job of communicating it - has been that they do it in a way that isn't an explcit endorsement. It may be an implicit one to some (I don't think it's a stretch to say that you think this is true), but I think that's up for debate and OK for disagreement.
As for the NCSE simply staying out of mentioning religion altogether (as has been argued in the past by some, such as Coyne), I think that displays a naivete about the official mission of the NCSE, which is to, at least in part (bold mine), "educate the press and public about the scientific, educational, and legal aspects of the creation and evolution controversy." I think it's impossible to address the evolution-creation controversy (really a science contra religion issue) while maintaining a position that they will do so without mentioning religion whatsoever. It just makes little logical sense, and I wonder if the confusion comes from people assuming that the NCSE pretends to be a science-only organization rather than one designed, in part, specifically for addressing issues at the intersection of science and religion. I think the argument for strict neutrality/not mentioning religion is much stronger for an official scientific society (like the Society for the Study of Evolution, for example), that doesn't bill its mission as one addressing religious matters.
Of course, that doesn't mean that the NCSE can't be going about discussing religion incorrectly, and I see nothing wrong with the criticism. I just can't personally follow those who criticize an organization created to address issue of science and faith not for talking about faith the wrong way but for simply talking about faith too much (or at all!).
This article is spot-on because a bunch of wibbly, agnostic Deists are 'moderate' Christianity in the United States.