Civility and the New Atheists

By Chris Mooney | May 31, 2009 4:39 pm

Yesterday at the Michigan State C.P. Snow conference, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Barbara Forrest, a philosopher and author of the pioneering and immensely important book Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design, which exposed the true religious nature of the ID movement. Based on this work, Forrest played a critical role in defense of evolution as a witness in the Dover trial of 2005.

At Michigan State, the “two cultures” issue that Forrest tackled was science vs religion, and I really enjoyed her take, as it dovetails so closely with my own view. So let me attempt to summarize her argument and why it resonated for me.

Like Forrest, I’m not personally religious. Like Forrest, I believe that in a society of diverse faiths–one that is also comprised of many nontheists–public policy must be based upon secular arguments and facts we can all agree on. You can’t base public policy on religion because it is impossible for the everyone in such a diverse society to agree about religion–period. This is the classic liberal argument for the separation of church and state.

Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are “epistemological and civic humility”–providing the groundwork for “civic friendship.” To which I can only say: Amen.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (121)

Links to this Post

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  1. Skeptikor

    I agree. Unfortunately, politeness and humility are so easy to forget in the heat of argument…and I count myself as one of the transgressers in that regard. Kenneth Miller has produced what is perhaps the most entertaining…certainly the most devestating counter argument to the notion of irreducible complexity imaginable. Cudos to all who have made room in their theistic worldviews for scientific reason and evolution.

  2. giotto

    Religion is a very private matter

    This is very very wrong, the latest evidence being a murdered doctor in Kansas. Perhaps we would like to think religion is a private matter, and perhaps we would like to think that fundamentalist Christians (or fundamentalist Muslims for that matter) will just abandon the public sphere with their beliefs in tow and, more to the point, with their grievances against modernity and secularism also in tow. Unfortunately, privately held beliefs have public consequences, which is why the Christian right has been so much trouble the past three decades. Go read what these people have been saying about “Dr. Death” all these years, and then we can talk about my lapses in etiquette. I fear this murder is probably just the opening to a renewed round of ugliness from the Right now that moderates are running the country, and I fail to see how playing nice is going to provide any respite.

    The point about humility is a red herring. It is not in any way a question of proving or disproving the existence of god; it is whether or not we allow supernatural explanations into scientific discourse. As near as I can tell, we will welcome liberal Christians to the table to the extent that they agree with our methaphysics regarding the natural world (no divine interventions in the mechanisms of nature) and to the extent that they’ve modified their epistemology to accord with ours. That is a strange sort of humility we are being asked to demonstrate.

  3. A random passing physicist

    “You can’t base public policy on religion because it is impossible for the everyone in such a diverse society to agree about religion–period. This is the classic liberal argument for the separation of church and state.”

    Huh? You can’t base a public policy on something people can’t all agree on? That’s news to me. So what *do* we all agree on, to be able to base public policy on?

    As far as I am aware, the classical Liberal argument is the one given by J.S. Mill, in his essay ‘On Liberty’. According to Mill’s famous ‘Harm Principle’, society is only ever justified in coercion to prevent harm to others. The state is the body to which a great deal of such coercion is delegated, so as long as individual religious belief does no harm to others, the state is not justified in interfering with it, or being granted any power over it.

    (Note, actions based on a belief are considered distinct from that belief. It’s possible to be permitted to *believe* a harmful act is required or morally encouraged, but not be permitted to perform it.)

    In Mill’s own words:

    “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
    J.S. Mill, On Liberty, 1859.

    Go read the whole thing, if you never have before. It’s what being a real Liberal is all about.

  4. I am sorry but it’s very hard to agree especially with point 1 simply because it generally does not hold up to the facts. If religion truly were private we would not have any beef with it, at least I won’t. The problem with religion is precisely that it tries to tell other people what to do, what’s moral and not, and tries to mix politics with its own ideology so that such fiats could be imposed on the entire population. The moment a religious person is convinced that his worldview is the correct one- and all religious people generally have to be convinced about this to varying extents as a matter of definition- it is very difficult for him or her to keep the religious view private. Such is human nature. I am with giotto here.

    I also don’t really agree with point 3. The argument that science cannot disprove a negative tries to pit the issue in black and white terms. Science may not prove the existence of an all-powerful deity but it can certainly provide estimates on the probability of that deity’s existence. Let science analyze the typical personal God and it’s pretty clear that the probability of such a God existing is vanishingly small, even if not zero. Just because science cannot disprove the existence of God does not mean we should regard the possibilities of existence and non-existence as equally likely. In fact science admirably stands up to its purpose here- to provide the best possible picture of the world in current terms.

    I do agree with point 2. Singling Christianity out for rebuke ignores the fundamental problems with all blind faith in every religion that should be addressed.

  5. A random passing physicist


    There should be no issue with the religious telling other people what to do. The only issue arises when they can force you to do it, and the force isn’t justified by the need to prevent harm to others.

    On point 3, I agree with you that this isn’t quite correct. Theists usually put this argument forward by first shifting to a form of vague Deism. Proving the non-existence of a Deity who does not interact and leaves no evidence is indeed impossible. It’s also unnecessary, because it’s not the sort of Deity any reasonable atheist is actually bothered about. But having seen off the invader back to their own magisterium, the Theists return to their more specific Theism, which generally *is* subject to scientific proof or disproof.

  6. Jon

    “epistemological and civic humility”

    Yes. Nice phrase.

    The problem with religion is precisely that it tries to tell other people what to do…

    I’d argue for taking that on a case by case basis. Who doesn’t, at some point, “try to tell other people what to do”? When atheists proselytize, they’re not “trying to tell other people what to do”? Of course they are.

    Unless they’re actually engaged in scientific practice, people are free not to be strict empiricists. It’s a free country. And also, I find the arguments that proselytizing atheists frequently make do a sloppy job at understanding what they’re studying and tend to make fundamental “errors of category“…

    We have enough on our plate without trying to resolve issues that haven’t been resolved in centuries, with discussion participants who aren’t even well briefed on what they’re studying…

  7. MadScientist

    What people want to believe is their own business, but I am absolutely against people making the ridiculous claim that science and religion get along. So for scientists who also want to believe in some religion, fine – but don’t make up nonsense about how science fits into the religious world. I also have issues with the nonsensical term “moderate”. What does it mean? “Only moderately deluded”? “Only moderately stupid”? Even the so-called “moderate” practitioners of religion still affirm the horrid dogma which inspires the “extremists” and then they have the gall to claim “we have nothing to do with that” and “we don’t support that”. There is no such thing as a “moderate” religion; all religions demote thought and promote mindlessness. So, although I frequently disagree with things that Jerry says, I’m with him on this one.

    As for “science cannot prove a negative” that is another fallacy; I will not go into details because many others have refuted that fallacy and their essays are easily found on the internet. However, as an example, I would mention Carl Sagan’s invisible dragon in the garage; the dragon certainly does not exist, but go ahead and disprove its existence. It is a neat conundrum but also an absolutely trivial one to come up with; before the dragon there was the large invisible bunny Harvey. Sagan also promoted the “non overlapping magisteria” of Stephen Gould although he didn’t refer to the idea by that name and perhaps they came up with the idea independently; I never agreed with that position but he was entitled to his own opinions.

  8. David Bruggeman

    “all religions demote thought and promote mindlessness”

    It’s hard to reconcile this perspective with your claim that what people want to believe is their own business. You may be genuine in those claims, but your actions spark a significant form of congitive dissoance.

    I’m equally pissed off by those who foist their faith on me as those who fell obligated to declaim how stupid they think people are who subscribe to a particular faith. Neither group seems interested in civil discourse with tactics like that, so they are both welcome to continue their logorrhea, just don’t force me to listen.

  9. Jon

    …all religions demote thought and promote mindlessness…

    Man, that’s a mindless, unthinking generalization.

  10. I agree with all three of Forrest’s points, for the most part, in the context of liberal Xians. And I think that was the point being made here. It was no liberal deist who shot that doctor in Kansas (and it hasn’t even been proven yet that the murder was done by an anti-abortionist — likely, yes; proven, no). Nor is a liberal Xian waving a “God hates fags” banner at a gay pride parade. And they aren’t demanding the Bible be taught in schools, and so on and so forth. The liberal Xians are our allies in many ways, and I think we (non-theists) should treat them well as such.

    To A random passing physicist Says,
    Re: “the force isn’t justified by the need to prevent harm to others.”
    I think many of the fundamentalist deists would argue that they have the right to force you to do their bidding, justifying it with the argument that they are doing so to prevent harm to their children. Fundamentalists love to whip out the kids whenever they are trying to get non-fundies in line.

    An example would be their argument against pornography — their god hates it, and their innocent kids may get hold of some porn, be turned on and then turned against their god and toward the dark side, thereby leaving their god behind, dooming their souls to hell. To these fundamentalists, losing the soul to the devil is the worst harm imaginable. Therefore, outlaw all porn in order to prevent harm to their children.

    Now, I’m not saying this is a good argument, but it is what they like to use. And the prevention of harm is basic in it. So then, are they liberal? I certainly wouldn’t use that term to describe them. “Harm” is an incredibly subjective word, and I think it’s there that my troubles lie with Mill’s essay, in regards to liberalism.

  11. Erasmussimo

    I take strong exception with the claim offered by several correspondents here that “privately held beliefs have public consequences”. It is absolutely fundamental to our moral and legal code that mental acts have no ethical implications whatsoever. Nobody should ever be held liable for their beliefs, be they religious, political, moral, or economic. If another person believes that sexually abusing infant orphans, torturing and murdering them, and eating their bodies is a good and desirable thing, we have no basis in law or ethics for taking any action against that person. We punish actions, not beliefs.

    Let people think whatever they damn well want to think. Leave them alone. Respect their intellectual and spiritual sovereignty.

  12. Blogger

    “Like Forrest, I’m not personally religious. ”

    What about Sheril K.?

  13. Bronstein

    Whats this civility talk? Neville Chamberlain was civil.

    The Christians are delusional and must be stopped. If they are indoctrinating kids, they are child abusers and should be locked up.

    The Constitution will be amended to allow this as our numbers increase.

    Atheists don’t have to hide any more.

  14. giotto

    It is absolutely fundamental to our moral and legal code that mental acts have no ethical implications whatsoever.

    Nonsense. The law, in both criminal and tort law, has a pretty elaborate apparatus for gauging people’s mental acts; this is fundamental to the difference between manslaughter and first degree murder, for example.

  15. David Bruggeman

    But both manslaughter and first degree murder require a “physical act” (I don’t think mental act is the best phrase here, but it’s what’s been used) for there to be a crime.

    Atheists don’t have to hide, but they don’t have to stoop down to the level of militant religionists. If you think you’re better than them, act like it.

    The religious perspectives of the bloggers here are none of my business.

  16. Erasmussimo

    giotto, David Bruggeman has already made the point, but I want to emphasize it: personal belief is not a crime. Actions are crimes; mental state can act as an ameliorating factor, but it is the action, not the mental state, that constitutes the crime. It is not a crime to hate people for any reason; it is not a crime to believe in a god; it is not a crime to refuse to believe in a god. I consider it an imperative that we maintain this distinction. Criminalizing thought is profoundly wrong.

    Bronstein continues this line of thinking with this comment:

    “The Christians are delusional and must be stopped”

    Stopped from what? From believing in their religion? I don’t think so. I see no difference between your intolerance of Christians and the intolerance of some Christians towards atheists. Civilized people are tolerant. Intolerant people, be they intolerant of religion or intolerant of atheism, are uncivilized.

  17. Once again, it sounds like Mooney is taking Coyne (and others) to task for choosing reason and science over compromise and political sentiment.

    Forrest even admits that Coyne (and presumably, the other “New Atheists” who are inevitably lumped together into one ideological unit) may be right in his assertions; but then rather than discuss or debate those assertions, castigates him for being ‘uncivil’ for daring to suggest that even most liberal theology has incompatibilities with science.

    In fact, Coyne’s critique of the recent works by Giberson and Miller was anything *but* uncivil. On the contrary, I found it in-depth and insightful. Coyne went to lengths to explain what he did and did not like about their books in particular and their positions in general. Agree or disagree with Coyne’s point, I fail to see how he is being uncivil. I challenge Forrest and Mooney to find an example of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett being ‘uncivil’ when discussing religion. (Hitchens, the most common bogeyman of the Christian apologists, is not a scientist.) In fact, the only incivilities I am witnessing here are coming from the likes of Mooney, who is more or less telling Coyne to shut up, for the second time.

    Apparently, taking a scientifically-minded theist to task, no matter what the tone or strength of one’s argument, is ‘uncivil’ and impolitic. We must maintain, I suppose, a bunker mentality: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Anyone paying lip-service to Darwinism must be welcomed as an ally in the great war against Intelligent Design. In the interest of ‘civility’, we must accommodate one version of creationism over another one.

    Nevermind that ID has already been legally forbidden from our nation’s public schools; in this post-Dover world, you’re either with us or again’ us. Any creationist willing to ally with us against ID must be our friend, and anyone like Coyne who disagrees is a traitor to the cause. I wonder if, in the interests of science, Francis Galton would be equally welcomed into the fold.

    This is the second article I know of in which, for purely political reasons, Mooney has decided to favor the theological side of the argument. If I’m reading Mooney correctly, the pro-evolution forces cannot afford any divisiveness, and that’s why vocal atheists like Coyne must either be quiet, or be called out. The irony appears to escape him.

    Coyne previously called individuals with this mentality “accomodationists”. Given these unfair attacks against evolution’s most ardent defenders, I’m beginning to think a more appropriate term is “collaborationists”.

  18. @Erasmussimo:

    Don’t fall for Bronstein’s obvious ‘agent provocateur’ trolling.


    Try to be a little less obvious.

  19. MadScientist

    @Bruggemann & Jon: Oh, please do give us the single example of religion which does not promote mindlessness and demote thought.

  20. Gina Mel

    The problem with the reconciliation of science and liberal Christianity is it feeds the frame that there are gaps in scientific knowledge that can only be filled by invoking a God. Those sects of Christianity still try to explain how the universe works and how we came to be. They don’t just focus on “meaning”. The “God in Gaps” frame only fuels the intelligent design movement. It is not hard to go from invoking God here and there to invoking intelligent design. I know Kenneth Miller and others are opposed to intellectual design but their arguments are not what most people hear. To them the Millers of the world are splitting hairs and arguing for a Designer just one that is “PC”.

  21. I guess I should have made it clearer what I meant by “tell others”. Atheists don’t threaten people who don’t “believe” in their “beliefs” with dire consequences. For religious people though, hell is a perfectly natural habitat that non-believers would inhabit. Even moderate Christians tell others that they have “lost their way and would not be redeemed” if they don’t believe. There is in my mind a clear distinction between the “proselytizing” that most atheists engage in and the dogmatic persuasion that religious people employ.

    And please remember that Coyne and others’ complaints against Miller etc. constitute a rather minor part of their set of grievances. I am sure Coyne still finds Miller a valuable ally even if he thinks some of Miller’s tactics amount to “appeasement”. Most of Coyne’s and others’ ire is still directed at the ID lobby. Let’s not focus too much on Coyne vs Miller because that sidetracks from the main argument.

  22. mk

    Can anyone please show us the full and proper evidence that the Chris Mooney approach is better or more effective than the Richard Dawkins or Jerry Coyne approach?

    If using the word “idiot” (as Charles Pierce has) in describing the views of others is a bad thing, then is the use of the word “absurd” (as Chris Mooney has) better? The same? Different?

  23. Jon

    MadScientist– I’m looking forward to your discussion of how Reinhold Niebuhr “demoted” the thought of the cold war foreign policy community and Martin Luther King. And also how the influence of St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Moore, Nagarjuna, Chuang Tzu, has been one of promoting “mindlessness” in their respective cultures.

  24. David Bruggeman

    My only point in response to the generalization was that it is hard to reconcile pronouncements like this:

    “all religions demote thought and promote mindlessness”

    With statements that what people believe is their own business. This latter statement suggests a live and let live approach, the first statement is no better than a believer presuming that anyone who does not subscribe to their approach is not worth anything.

    Back to the specific question – what religions do not demote thought or promote mindlessness? This will probably degenerate into debates over what does or does not demote thought or promote mindlessness, but the more contemplative aspects of religion, monasticism, meditation, scholasticism, do not. Of course, some would respond by saying that any acknowledgment of even the possibility of the supernatural is stupid. I see trying to win that argument as juice that’s not worth the squeeze.

  25. mk

    I just read Coyne’s review. It is a well reasoned argument, thoughtful and… civil! Seriously, what’s wrong with you Chris? After reading your post above I was really expecting much worse.

    You ask why Coyne would want to criticize Miller and others when we have the religious right to worry about. One could say the same thing of you: With IDers and other Creationists to worry about, why are you all over Coyne? You must believe your way is superior. If so, prove it. If not, why not accept that everyone has their own way of going about it and live and let live? Why is there no room in your world for PZ, Dawkins, Coyne AND you? Why are you being so dogmatic? So intolerant of differences in approaches?

    Your “shut up and be nice” attitude is helpful how?

  26. giotto

    16: Nothing I’ve said suggests I care to criminalize thought. You said, and I quote, “It is absolutely fundamental to our moral and legal code that mental acts have no ethical implications whatsoever” and I pointed out that this is wrong. The law acknowledges some connection between mental states, thoughts, beliefs, feelings etc. and behavior and often goes to great lengths to determine what those mental states were. This is settled law, and has been for quite some time. To equate this with Thought Crime is disingenuous, at best.

  27. Mike

    With regards to the three reasons not to alienate religious moderates, the first two hold some water, insomuch as the “lukewarm” christians might as well be secularists 6 days of the week. Might as well not upset them when they are mostly on our side.

    As for point three, they told me there were fairies in the garden or teapots orbiting the sun, I would not let my humility hold me back from informing them that they were mistaken. I’d prefer not to cede reason merely to appease my ally on the seventh day.

  28. Erasmussimo

    There seems to be a “this is war!” school of thought here. A number of commentators seem to think that we are locked in mortal combat with theists who must be defeated. I reject this thinking. Theists are not our enemies. We disagree with them; that is all. Liberals disagree with conservatives, but only the childish ones on each side see the other side as the enemy. Yes, the web is full of such people — but they don’t get to run the country. I disagree with lots of people about lots of things, but I never regard them as enemies. I oppose their attempts to realize their beliefs in law, but I don’t oppose them.

    This is fundamental: democracy works only when citizens recognize the inevitability of disagreement, and agree to work out their differences in the civilized framework. When democracies start fracturing into war-minded factions, they lose effectiveness and usually disintegrate into tyranny.

    Theists are not our enemy.

  29. I think what is too often missed is that more than one tactic could be useful.

    So the question is, might the more extreme religionists (especially younger, more open-minded ones) be driven toward more moderate religion by the “New Atheists”?

    For a while, I was sparring off and on with one of the “New Atheists” who seemed not willing to admit that moderates might have a proper role, as he seemed to attack anyone who wasn’t attacking the religious. I’ve long thought both the “moderates” and “new atheists” could be useful, and at any rate, both should have de jure and de facto freedom to speak their own minds.

    My sense is that most fighting for good science should not be out to alienate the moderate religionists. But the latter look more reasonable and moderate when the “New Atheists” are attacking the worst of the religionists. After all, the IDists and others are often attacking theistic evolutionists, and yet, I’ve seen them become at least somewhat defensive in favor of the theistic evolutionists when rather immoderate attacks have been aimed at the latter.

    Sometimes the extremists are needed so that the moderates look moderate. In the environmental movement, increasingly extreme groups were sometimes created with the express intent of making the other environmentalists look acceptable. In evolution, it’s more complicated, but I do think that the “New Atheists” have made other secularists and theistic evolutionists look like the reasonable ones.

    Glen Davidson

  30. Sorbet

    Theists are not our enemy but that is hardly a reason not to call at least some of them “idiots” when they deserve to be called that.

  31. tm61

    Curious Wavefunction says:
    “Science may not prove the existence of an all-powerful deity but it can certainly provide estimates on the probability of that deity’s existence. Let science analyze the typical personal God and it’s pretty clear that the probability of such a God existing is vanishingly small, even if not zero. Just because science cannot disprove the existence of God does not mean we should regard the possibilities of existence and non-existence as equally likely.”

    Ugh…The “probability” argument doesn’t work when creationists use it to say “the chances of a planet like earth being this close to a star like the are so slim it must be by design”. It also doesn’t work to “prove” the non-existence of God! Science is the act of asking questions about the material universe and looking for the answers within the material universe…this means it has nothing to say about “god” – one way or the other…

  32. The probability argument does not work with creationists because they simply take it to an even more improbable level. Saying that the probability of an earthlike planet being so close to the sun implies that it must have been intelligently designed is an absurd argument because the probability of such an intelligent being existing is even slimmer. Plus now you are clearly materially involving a creator in a physical process, opening yourself to every broadside from science. And probability by definition does not prove or disprove anything, since it just gives estimates. Most of us live our daily lives based on estimates and not on proof so it’s a sound argument.

  33. Spaceman Spiff

    tm61 says:

    “Ugh… It also doesn’t work to “prove” the non-existence of God! Science is the act of asking questions about the material universe and looking for the answers within the material universe…this means it has nothing to say about “god” – one way or the other…”

    Hmm…And so it follows then that you haven’t a problem with a significant (vast?) majority of theists who foist their ‘gods’ upon the ‘material universe’ with the resultant consequences? That sounds as if you’re holding science and its findings to a double-standard. It seems to me that you’re really arguing that theism is the act of asking questions about “one’s very own personal universe” and looking for answers within “one’s very own personal universe”. I suppose there is no problem with this as long as this latter universe isn’t mistaken for the “material” one — the universe that scientists study and the rest of us exist within. Not a lot of precedent for that, I’m afraid.

    And Curious Wavefunction was not arguing for “proving” the non-existence of god. He said (just as you quoted above):

    “Just because science cannot disprove the existence of God does not mean we should regard the possibilities of existence and non-existence as equally likely.” Simple.

  34. I stumbled into this conversation via the “Silence is the enemy” emphasis, something that I’m passionate about, precisely because of my Christian faith.

    After reading the comments, I take no personal exceptions to the views expressed because it reminds that inasmuch as my own beliefs and worldview have been shaped by my own experiences (from hard religious right to self-identified liberal mystic minister) I think theists and non-theists alike have an equal number of individuals for whom anything that is outside the bounds of a rigidly held system of belief must be condemned, vociferously if necessary. Fundamentalism knows only structure and is no slave to dogma. Invariably, the rest of the crowd on either side are people who try to maintain these as tensions and not structures. As one writer puts it, springs in a trampoline versus bricks in a wall.

    That caveat aside, the one thing I find being kicked around is the idea of the “God of the Gaps” that is allegedly maintained by a vast majority of liberal Christians. I would suggest that this is something of a caricature of the position in some ways and it risks missing the greatest opportunity for theists and non-theists (particularly within the scientific community) to shake hands.

    Admittedly, there a precious few who would maintain that God somehow preveniently interfered in the gaps where nature could not run it’s course, but these folks maintain a marginal position. The vast majority of folks I know simply choose to name God as the prime mover–the one who sets the thing in motion. The “God of the Gaps” is restricted, and moreover, ineffective–the creation rendered is apparently imperfect in it’s design, so it requires “reboots” like a bad hard drive or car.

    I maintain (as I think most liberal Christians do) that God is simply behind the ether somewhere–in the protons and neurons, quarks and cantilevers–showing elements of architecture, truth, symmetry and beauty. I recognize this sounds suspiciously like the ID language, but the problem is the right hijacked that language in an effort to not sound so ridiculous (and they blew it.)

    Moreover, I’m not particularly convinced that we have to call it the same thing. If non-theists deem it progress, growth, adaptation–whatever–I’m perfectly fine with that. I will consider it the work of something wholly Other, which by any other name is God.

  35. A random passing physicist


    Applying the probability argument to God in the same way as Creationists do to argument from design, one concludes that a God could only come about by evolving from simpler beginnings. It’s an interesting proposal.

    Descent from Titans, perhaps?

    Science has nothing to say about a God that does not act in any way with the material universe. But then, neither do religions. If it has no effect on the material universe, how could the religious people have found out about it?

    So the Gods the religions believe in must have physical effects, for physical beings to become aware of them, and therefore must by definition be physically detectable. They are therefore subject to scientific investigation.

    I really don’t know why religious people get so worked up about the supposed science-religion conflict. All you have to do is believe in both. Humans are very good at believing mutually contradictory propositions simultaneously, and propositions they know to be false, it’s part of the way we deal with the world. (Scientists do it too, in practice.) You just think one way in the lab, and another way in the temple, and don’t worry about it. Given all the internal contradictions that generally exist within a religion already, one more should be pretty easy.

  36. NewEnglandBob

    Here is why you are very off base Chris:

    1. Etiquette :

    A. Fundamentalist religionists are never ‘nice’ to atheists and have actually murdered some, so there is no need to be nice to them. As someone said: atheists have been the most hated group in America. There was no reeason for that aberrant behavior.

    B. If religion is so private, then why are they shouting it out all over the place. And yes, religionistas are trying to jam their ideas to force everyone to act as they want.

    2. Diversity: So what if there are many types of religion fantasies? How does that change the outlook? If there are 9 people who murdered three people each, does that mean that the tenth who only murdered one person should be looked upon favorably? Your argument is bogus here.

    3. Humility: Of all people, you Chris should know that science and scientists are not trying to prove a negative. None of the prominent atheists say there is no god. They say there is no evidence of any god. Nor do they need to. As Carl Sagan said: “Those with the extraordinary claims (supernatural, metaphysics) must supply the extraordinary evidence”. And we still await any evidence from them. Your argument is a straw man here.

    As far as strategy: The 20th century showed us that appeasement does not work. We also have many examples of how the slippery slope that excuses the moderates is an enabling factor for the fanatics. It is time to continue to educate everyone in the modern world that the reality we have is far better than the old Bronze age nonsense and fears and fantasies.

  37. Jo

    @tm61: Who says the chances of “a” planet like Earth being this close to “a” star like the Sun are low? From observation, and our knowledge of how solar systems form, we’ve got a pretty good idea of just how common they are, and we can refute any claim that the probability is so vanishingly small that a creator is the only probable explanation.

    You’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, methinks.

  38. Wes

    1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

    I’m sorry, but I can’t agree with this. Open discussion and free thinking entail that it is acceptable to question the beliefs of others. It’s not a breech of etiquette to say, “I do not believe in your God, and here’s why…” Of course, religious moderates are free to disagree with my atheism, too. I guess the difference between me and them is that I don’t view disagreement as a personal affront or bad etiquette.

  39. Let’s look at these arguments in the context of general science education and policy:

    1. “Religion is a very private matter…they’re not trying to force it on anybody else.” Francis Collins is considered a liberal theist, and, if anything, religion to him is a public matter. It’s right there in the name of his sect: Evangelical! He writes Op-Eds about it. He runs a site called BioLogos, which defends theistic evolution (whatever that is) and is intended to convince the public that they can hold thoughts about a 20o0 year old miracle-making man-god named Jesus and common descent in their heads at the same time. Also, there’s no reason to believe Collins won’t be the next head of the NIH.

    Argument 1 is off-base.

    2. “…why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when [the enemy is so much worse]?” Because highfalutin liberal theism falls on a continuum that ends in theocracy. When talking about the supernatural it is superficial to draw a line in the sand and say Soldiers for Christ on one side liberal, Christians on the other. Old Testament on one side New Testament on the other. ID one side theistic evolution the other.

    Dawkins et al. are subtle enough to recognize the theistic scientist as allies against the most ignorant of reactionary fundamentalism, but don’t presume to think science and superstition are in any way compatible. And they certainly don’t adopt the with us or against us attitude seen among the Nisbett/Mooney accommodationist crowd.

    3. “Humility. Science can’t prove a negative [yadda-yadda-yadda]” On first and last glance this is the weakest of the three reasons. Shame on Forrester: that statement is not elegant, and makes for bad science and worse philosophy. About humility: Francis Collins certainly has it. Nisbett and Mooney…not so much.

  40. Erasmussimo

    NewEnglandBob, I’d like to disagree with your arguments regarding etiquette. You start by claiming that we need not be civil because theists are not civil. I suppose that this is a matter of personal taste, but I myself do not consider civility (or honesty, fairness, or any other personal standard) to be a tradable commodity. I am civil, honest, and fair because that is the kind of person I am, not because other people are civil, honest, and fair to me. Indeed, I believe that somebody whose virtue is dependent upon other people’s virtues is not really a virtuous person at all.

    Next, you write:

    “If religion is so private, then why are they shouting it out all over the place. And yes, religionistas are trying to jam their ideas to force everyone to act as they want.”

    I take it from this that you concede the point for theists who do NOT shout their beliefs all over the place and do NOT seek to force everyone to act as they want. If that is indeed the case, then why are you combatting theists? The real problem that bothers you is the act of seeking to force others to act as they want. Block THAT action, not the religious beliefs that may or may not contribute to it. Keep your eye on the ball! Aim at what you want to hit, not some side factor!

  41. MadScientist

    @David Bruggeman:

    I don’t see why there is any difficulty reconciling the statements; they simply do not oppose eachother. Other people can believe whatever they want and in a free society I can tell them why I don’t believe and they can tell me why they believe, but they’d better not tell me I have to believe what they believe.

    @Jon: Oh yeah, good ol’ Niebuhr. Do tell me more of Niebuhrism; I did ask for an example of religion after all. You also omit Niebuhr’s greatest delusions: that the Jews *must* be converted to christians. Some out there claim that those views of Niebuhr were used as justification by the right-wing nuts to invade Iraq – some saw it as an opportunity to “save the Jews” (though none of my Jewish friends think they need any saving). So that’s Niebuhr in a nutshell. There is no “Lutheran” religion based on Martin Luther King either. St. Augustine was author of two of the most vile concepts in christianity: “original sin” which damns all future generations and “just war”; a “just war” is not only the Allies vs the Axis or the oppressed overthrowing their overlords, but also perfect justification for the various Inquisitions. The concept of “just war” can be used with little effort to justify all wars – I’m sure Osama Bin Laden believes his war is just – let’s all thank St. Augustine for that. You were asked about religions, not individuals. There are many good people out there who are religious, but that is no evidence that religion does not dull thought.

  42. Erasmussimo

    Gillt, we cross-posted, so I’d like to offer a thought. You and several others seem to be conflating religious advocacy with religious persecution. Let’s make a clear distinction between two concepts that, in my opinion, are completely different:

    1. Religious advocacy. “My god is great! Join my religion! Here, read this pamphlet!” This is, at most, a minor annoyance in the extreme cases where they actually come to your door (although such people provide atheists with grand opportunities for comedic mayhem… “Welcome! Our coven is just convening! Would you like to join us?”)

    2. Religious persecution. “My religion is the only way to live, and I’m going to force it down your throat!’

    Religious advocacy is not a threat to anybody. It’s no different from people selling Viagra, aluminum siding, or used cars. It can be a pain — so far we don’t see much religious spam (“We seek your aid in regaining the indulgences left by a Nigerian bishop who died unexpectedly…”) but it’s no worse than any other advertising. It’s the second form — religious persecution — that deserves our resistance. If a deeply religious person seeks political office, I have no objection whatsoever — unless they seek to impose their religious beliefs on me.

    Can we agree on this clear distinction?

  43. Davo

    Here’s the difference; simply put, religious advocacy can lead relatively easily to religious persecution and intolerance. I can’t remember the last time a used car or Viagra salesman became a car or Viagra bigot or Jihadist. The two might be distinct but the slope from one to the other is short and extremely slippery. I am afraid I cannot say the same for selling aluminum siding.

  44. Erasmussimo

    Davo, you explicitly use a slippery slope argument — surely you know that slippery slope arguments are seldom worthy of serious consideration. Moreover, you don’t even attempt to justify the slippery slope you claim. I know plenty of religious people who are not bigots. If you truly believe that most every theist is a dangerous bigot who seeks to impose their beliefs on others, it would help to provide some evidence to support such an extraordinary claim.

  45. mk

    If you truly believe that most every theist is a dangerous bigot who seeks to impose their beliefs on others, it would help to provide some evidence to support such an extraordinary claim.

    Wow. I have to admit, I don’t see the spot where Davo said he thought “most every theist is a dangerous bigot.” Straw-man much?

  46. NewEnglandBob

    reply to 40. Erasmussimo:

    Civility IS a tradable commodity because those who are not civil to us shows us no respect. Respect and civility are earned. I never bought into the christian ‘turn the other cheek’ because it a tactic of cowards and losers.

    As far as those who shout out their beliefs and try to force them upon others – Mooney and Coyne were talking about Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson. These are NOT silent people. If they are attempting to reconcile modern science and religion. If they want to keep it quiet then let them do so. One can not make public statements and then hide behind their ‘private’ religion.

  47. Davo

    Erasmussimo, I was just countering your rather flimsy comparison of religious people with Viagra and aluminum siding salesmen. I am trying to say that these possibilities of religious “advocacy” and religious “persecution” that you claim are really distinct are actually connected since one can rather easily lead to the other. You seem to have totally missed this point and launched into a tirade against the philosophy of slippery slope arguments.

    And “surely you know that slippery slope arguments are seldom worthy of serious consideration”?? Maybe that’s why people consider them to be a classic fallacy with an entire entry devoted to them on Wikipedia. And maybe that’s why everyone constantly issues warnings about guarding ourselves from such arguments- because they are not worthy of serious consideration.

  48. David Bruggeman

    “I don’t see why there is any difficulty reconciling the statements; they simply do not oppose eachother. Other people can believe whatever they want and in a free society I can tell them why I don’t believe and they can tell me why they believe, but they’d better not tell me I have to believe what they believe.”

    The problem in reconciliation comes from the tenor of the discussion, which comes across as atheists being as guilty of proselytizing as the religious believers they attack. You don’t say it, but it’s tough for me not to infer it from you or any of the other non-holy warriors who feel no compunction in fighting against atheist persecution with religious persecution. Any subtly expressed by you, Dawkins, or others who seem bent on castigating the bulk of humanity as delusional and not worth respect is lost in the thunder of hate. Some may feel better fighting fire with fire, but I have a hard time seeing this as a rational strategy.

  49. I fell off my chair laughing at this post. Chris, you have got to be kidding. I’m sorry, mate, but in post after post over the last year or two you show that you just don’t get it.

    Religion, including the Catholic version (Miller’s preferred brand IIRC), CONTINUALLY claims the authority to tell us how to live our lives, and tells the state what laws to pass to restrict our freedoms. Heard of abortion? Heard of stem-cell research? Euthanasia? Homosexuality? Contraception? By all means argue for separation of church and state, as I do, but that issue is far more complex than most people acknowledge. The fact is that once religions start bullying people and governments, as they do and have long done, there will, quite properly be a backlash, with people asking where these religions get their authority from in the first place. If they claim it’s from a god, does their god really say the things attributed to him? Does their god even exist? It’s good that these sorts of questions are now being asked with some scepticism and a degree of aggression.

    What’s more, secularism will never survive unless religion is controversial. You don’t get much separation of church of state in parts of the world where the moral authority of religion is taken for granted. We need to pursue both strategies: insist on a separation of church and state; but also, more fundamentally, go on the attack and relentlessly challenge the epistemic claims and moral authority of religion. Yes, by all means do so in a civil way … but, sheesh, civility does not rule out some aggression. And, generally speaking, the discourse coming from atheists is very civil, indeed, compared to, say, political discourse. Not to mention the discourse from religionists who continually tell us that we are sinners, etc.

  50. MadScientist

    @David Bruggeman: It is only you that accuses others of hate. Where does Dawkins ever espouse violence or hatred? He does not. The problem is that many people wrongly believe that they are being attacked and that is simply not the case, but it sure is typical of the non-thinking which religion promotes. What is being attacked are the ridiculous claims of religions, but many people get up in arms rather than looking into their own beliefs and accepting that they may not be true. Even if an individual decided they would rather not think, why would you believe that others have a problem with that? Dawkins himself is not dead set against religion; if you’re religious he won’t try to force his beliefs on you, but he believes you shouldn’t force your religious beliefs on others either, and that includes children.

  51. Erasmussimo

    Well, well, we certainly seem to be having problems communicating with each other. MK can’t see where Davo is implying that “most every theist is a dangerous bigot”. Please note #43 in which Davo writes that the slope from one to the other is short and extremely slippery.

    NewEnglandBob stands by his position that civility is a tradable commodity, arguing that the ‘turn the other cheek’ approach is for cowards and losers. Let me tell you a story about a fellow named Epictetus, a Greek slave who wrote much on this philosophy (it’s called Stoicism). At one time, according to the tale, Epictetus was being tortured for testimony in a court case (it was a common practice to torture slaves for testimony because it was assumed that it was impossible for them to tell the truth unless they were under torture.) Anyway, at one point Epictetus warned his torturer to be careful because he was about to break Epictetus’ leg. A moment later, the leg snapped, at which point Epictetus said, “See, I told you so.” The story is probably apocryphal, but it is certainly true to the philosophy Epictetus taught. But you dismiss him as a coward and a loser.

    Davo triumphantly declares that the slippery slope argument he used is not worthy of serious consideration. Yes, um, that was my point…

  52. Erasmussimo

    Again with the cross-posting! Russell Blackford writes:

    “Religion… tells the state what laws to pass to restrict our freedoms.”

    Here you anthropomorphize an idea. Religion doesn’t tell anybody anything. Adherents of religion do all the talking. The distinction is important because in a democracy, people have every right to advocate their values. Let me present the issue in this manner: Suppose that 99% of all American citizens believed in creationism and rejected evolution. You and I and a handful of other people know of a certainty that they are wrong. But they choose to forbid the teaching of evolution in schools, and they pass the appropriate amendment to the Constitution to make this possible. Would it be fair and proper for we rational few to impose our rationalism upon this ignorant mass?

    This argument has logical value ONLY because it assumes an extreme situation. As soon as we start talking about the real world, where opinion is nowhere near so uniform, the issue becomes much messier. There is a deep problem here that I have been mulling over for some time. Is Jeffersonian democracy a workable system? Can we truly be confident that the people as a whole are wiser than any aristocracy. Look at the microcosm of this little discussion group. We’re all the rational ones, right? So howcum we’re disagreeing so intensely? If rationalism always yields true results, then shouldn’t all rational people always agree on every point? And if they don’t, then how can we decide who’s rational and who’s not? With guns?

  53. “Is Jeffersonian democracy a workable system? Can we truly be confident that the people as a whole are wiser than any aristocracy?”

    No, we cannot be confident in the abstract. We can, however, incrementally approach confidence, which is kind of what democracy is all about: it’s necessarily imperfect and lumpen, because human nature is like that too. I know that I would rather live in an imperfect but incrementally improvable society than live in one that has been decreed perfect by people who don’t actually live there.

    Our arguments may be heated, but none of them have involved pulling guns on each other, and in that there’s hope. The minute someone pulls a gun, then there is the tacit agreement that we can never even choose to disagree politely.

    As far as the above issues go, I’ll quote what a friend of mine (a former MP) said: “Be nice, until it’s time not to be nice.” Civility is not a synonym for appeasement.

  54. Jon

    MadScientist– I wasn’t saying Niebuhr and St. Augustine were without flaws. I just said it’s silly to call them “mindless”, thought-demoting, etc. Whatever you think of them, they hardly dumbed people down. Or if you still say they did, some people think that Newton dumbed people down.

  55. MadScientist

    @Jon: I find absolutely amazing that you would stand by your claim that Augustine and Niebuhr were not mindless and thought-demoting.

    Here’s an erudite, well-reasoned, thought-promoting statement from your buddy Augustine:

    “the good Christian should beware of mathematicians, …. the danger already exists that the mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and to confine man in the bonds of Hell”

    Gracefully edited by others because, like Aquinas, Augustine never could get straight to the point.

    I cannot see that Niebuhr contributed anything unique; he failed to ask questions of relevance to everyone and this is why I don’t think Niebuhr is of much relevance; his ethics is unfortunately tied to his religion – that’s a very bad recipe for ethics. Long-dead frenchmen such as Voltaire wrote far more interesting and intelligent things. Niebuhr strikes me as something of a modern Augustine (including the belief that the Jews will all be ‘saved’ before the second coming). So although Niebuhr was one of the good guys, he was certainly breaking with his own religious traditions (such as condemning all Jews) while justifying what he does based on his own religious views – not at all unusual for religious people with a sense of fairness but who don’t want to give up their religion. Such people “reinterpret” their religion and there is nothing wrong with that; such rare people may contribute to a beneficial evolution of their religion, but such changes can hardly be said to be inspired by religion.

  56. Erasmussimo

    MadScientist, I’d like to point out that my personal hero, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, was unquestionably a churchman and simultaneously a serious and profound thinker. While there’s much to disagree with in his writings, I think it very wrong to dismiss him as unthinking. He worked hard all his life to disentangle religious thinking from superstition and scholasticism. He was a strong advocate for reason, irenicism, and fair-mindedness. He was still very much a man of his times, and so seems rather odd to us, but when seen in the intellectual context of his own times, he was definitely a reformer. We don’t have to accept his thinking but we shouldn’t reject it as mindless.

  57. Peter Lund


    Thomas More, when not writing brilliant humanist texts, actually had people executed for not being Catholics.

    For some reason I cannot fathom, few people seem to be aware of this.

  58. mk


    I saw no such implication. What I saw was you making stuff up for your argument. You are being silly and lame. Just stop it.

    Oh, and you really ought to get over your infantile hero worship.

  59. David Bruggeman

    “Dawkins himself is not dead set against religion; if you’re religious he won’t try to force his beliefs on you, but he believes you shouldn’t force your religious beliefs on others either, and that includes children.”

    Dawkins does, at least in my opinion, a lousy job of separating his harsh words for religious belief from his perspective on those who hold them. As do many of those commenting here, assuming they hold a similar perspective to Dawkins.

    And if he believes that parents shouldn’t pass their religious beliefs on to their kids, and is surprised when parents react badly to someone telling them how to raise their kids, then he’s not thinking through his tactics.

    If people believe they are being attacked, and those perceived of doing the attacking are not doing this, the fault for the problem is split between both parties. I don’t see the atheists bothering with adjusting their message to avoid this misperception. Maybe because there are too many of them who feel they must match tactics with those invoking hellfire and brimstone. That’s not an argument, it’s a fight. Dismissing those who don’t understand as simply unthinking will do you no favors if you want to persuade people.

  60. mk

    Dismissing those who are more aggressive and in-your-face when discussing religion and science does you no favor either. It shows you are unaware they are actually having an overall positive impact. Suggesting that the Kenneth Miller/Chris Mooney approach to this topic is the only wise and effective one is foolish… in my opinion. ;^}

  61. It may be late to add something to this chain of comments, but I just read Stephen Smoliar’s commentary at the rehearsal studio regarding the murder of Dr. Tiller. Smoliar quotes Max Weber to good effect.

    In the final analysis, in spite of all ‘social welfare policies,’ the whole course of the state’s inner political functions, of justice and administration, is repeatedly and unavoidably regulated by the objective pragmatist of ‘reasons of state.’ The state’s absolute end is to safeguard (or to change) the external and internal distribution of power; ultimately, this end must seem meaningless to any universalist religion of salvation.

    In other words, we will always have to live with the tension between these two totally different sets of values and, to my mind, that may be a good thing.

  62. Davo

    Erasmussimo, I said that there is a slippery slope between “advocacy” and “persuction” or dogmatism. This is not what is traditionally defined as a slippery slope argument. I am not making a slippery slope argument myself. Do you understand the difference? By the way, is preaching to the poor in Africa that AIDS is bad but condoms are worse religious “advocacy”? If it is, then I don’t really care what we call it, but it’s pernicious by any standards and should be soundly denounced. And did I ever say that every theist is a dangerous bigot?? Don’t misinterpret what I said; you are making me sound much more extreme than I meant to.

  63. Erasmussimo

    Davo, the subtlety of the distinction you draw between using an asserted slippery slope between advocacy and persecution to reject a differentiation between them, and actually making a slippery slope argument using them — that subtlety escapes me.

  64. David Bruggeman

    “Dismissing those who are more aggressive and in-your-face when discussing religion and science does you no favor either.”

    Nor does responding to them in kind. Both sides look like shrill people who argue for the sake of arguing rather than trying to accomplish something. Counter the action, don’t fight the people.

  65. NewEnglandBob

    Erasmussimo tells pointless little stories. I guess that is one tactic to use instead of logic and reason.

  66. Jerry Coyne

    o.k., Mr. Mooney, I’ve answered you on my website: I challenge you to provide an instance of my having been “uncivil,” and also tell me why I am not allowed to dissect the scientific claims of fellow anti-creationists.

  67. To all…I’ll be responding to Jerry Coyne shortly. Thanks for all the comments.

  68. Cross-posted from Coyne’s site:

    There is also a strong negative correlation among countries between acceptance of Darwin and belief in God. Countries with high belief in God, like Turkey and the US, have low acceptance of Darwinism.

    Those are convenient choices, for they leave out Mexico and other highly religious Roman Catholic countries which have no problem with evolution–or didn’t until evangelicals started meddling.

    What Mexico and like countries indicate is not certain, although one reason the US and Turkey may have problems is because they have more grass-roots religion, coupled with its attendant anti-intellectualism.

    My point is not that religion is necessarily compatible with science, but that the experiences of the US and of Turkey do not confirm that claim, for other nations are religious and not opposed to science.

    Glen Davidson

  69. Chris, before you reply to Jerry Coyne I would suggest that you also take a look at his book “Why Evolution is True” to get a better perspective of where he is coming from. The book provides more insight than is gained by just reading his blog and online articles.

  70. Jerry Coyne


    The data are from 34 countries; they’re not anecdotal. And the correlation is strongly negative. It includes countries like Italy, Japan, German, etc.


  71. The data are from 34 countries; they’re not anecdotal. And the correlation is strongly negative. It includes countries like Italy, Japan, German, etc.

    And the data do not include Mexico, nor many other highly religious countries without substantial opposition to science–nor, for that matter, the many Muslim countries other than Turkey which are very religious and mostly opposed to evolutionary science.

    The 34 are primarily comprised of the “more developed nations.” Turkey presumably was included because it is just barely European geographically, and it seeks greater integration with European countries. Does being a “more developed country” have an affect on the whole question? It may, indeed. And that’s my point, that one cannot simply decide a correlation between religion and acceptance of science without paying attention to many factors.

    Seriously, your thesis may be correct, but it cannot be supported from a deliberately biased survey of 34 countries out of the 200 or so that exist. The fact that Turkey and the US are two exceptions at the bottom of the numbers for science acceptance makes them very dicey to base any general conclusions upon, yet more importantly, the selection of the 34 countries is highly unrepresentative of the entire world of religion in the first place.

    Glen Davidson

  72. This is the blurb given on the web from the article “Public Acceptance of Evolution” in Science, v.313 p. 765 11 August 2006:

    Public Acceptance of Evolution
    Jon D. Miller,1* Eugenie C. Scott,2 Shinji Okamoto3

    The acceptance of evolution is lower in the United States than in Japan or Europe, largely because of widespread fundamentalism and the politicization of science in the United States.

    They do blame “fundamentalism” along with politicization for the state of affairs in the US, although they would have to be basing that on more than just the data coming from the polls. In the journal itself, they characterize the survey as covering 32 European countries, Japan, and the US.

    I would agree that “fundamentalism” is at least an important cause for the low acceptance of evolution in the US, and probably in Turkey as well. But that is another way of saying what I did previously as a possible explanation, grass-roots religion which tends toward anti-intellectualism.

    There was a study that showed that the more people accepted religious thinking, the less they were likely to credit scientific explanations, as I recall. Unfortunately, I have not located it in order to reference it. I will try some more, and intend to give a link if I find it soon. That may very well back up the idea that science and religion are in conflict. I just wish I could find it.

    Glen Davidson

  73. Here is an account of the study showing conflict between religious and scientific thought, “God Or Science? A Belief In One Weakens Positive Feelings For The Other”

    And here is reference data for the original paper:

    Science and God: An automatic opposition between ultimate explanations

    Jesse Preston a,*, Nicholas Epley b
    a Department of Psychology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 603 E Daniel St. Champaign, IL 61820, USA
    b University of Chicago, 5807 South Woodlawn Avenue Chicago, IL 60637-1610, USA

    a r t i c l e i n f o
    Article history:
    Received 14 May 2008
    Revised 8 July 2008
    Available online 22 August 2008
    Causal explanation

    a b s t r a c t
    Science and religion have come into conflict repeatedly throughout history, and one simple reason for
    this is the two offer competing explanations for many of the same phenomena. We present evidence that
    the conflict between these two concepts can occur automatically, such that increasing the perceived
    value of one decreases the automatic evaluation of the other. In Experiment 1, scientific theories
    described as poor explanations decreased automatic evaluations of science, but simultaneously increased
    automatic evaluations of God. In Experiment 2, using God as an explanation increased automatic evaluations
    of God, but decreased automatic evaluations of science. Religion and science both have the potential
    to be ultimate explanations, and these findings suggest that this competition for explanatory space
    can create an automatic opposition in evaluations.
     2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    So sure, the opposition has evidence for it.

    Glen Davidson

  74. Erasmussimo on advocacy vs persecution:

    You must from one of the post-religious countries. Here in the US there is only one person in all three branches of the federal government who openly declares himself a nontheist…the one and only Pete Stark, House Rep. D-CA.

    Is that because all the atheists in the US, a five of them, live in California? Nope. It’s because of the banality of religious persecution in this country. You can be a jew, muslim or christian and run for office–so long as you believe in something, anything!

    The whole accommodationist stance, even when made by atheists, is a direct byproduct of this idea that belief in belief is somehow a virtue.

  75. Kenneth Lawrence

    Now if only someone would write a book exposing the true religious nature of the modern evolutionist movement, which was actually begun by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, who was an evolutionist before Charles made it respectable and who undoutedly indoctrinated Charles in the religion of evolutionism.

  76. Erasmussimo

    So electoral prejudice is indistinguishable from persecution?

  77. MadScientist

    @Erasmussimo: You mistake the achievements of individuals with what is generally promoted by their religion. If you look around the modern world, nations in the clutches of the catholic church are encouraged to shun thought and education; the present pope has already made many ridiculous statements such as condoms increase the spread of HIV. Take a look at Egypt – a rigid islamic state – what good is their religion doing them? The coptic christians are barely tolerated although they preceeded muhammad by hundreds of years, and yet the herd does not find their treatments of the copts disgraceful. It wasn’t all that long ago that an imam in Saudi Arabia issued a decree that his followers must believe the earth is flat. Unlike the US government which was constructed in such a way as to hopefully avert abuse and prevent its subversion by tyrants, religions remain open to abuse.

  78. Anthony McCarthy

    Religion is a very private matter
    This is very very wrong, the latest evidence being a murdered doctor in Kansas.

    Right at the second comment and we see the “new atheism” in all of its intellectual rigor and accuracy. Dr. Tiller was murdered WHILE HE WAS USHERING AT HIS REFORMED LUTHERAN CHURCH!

    And these are the folks who think they represent logic and reality.

    I agree with what you said about Jerry Coyne, I was looking to order his book because my bookstore hadn’t stocked it yet and came across his blog of the same name. When he’s talking strictly within his professional competence, he’s good. When he steps out of it an inch his bigotry takes over and makes him say stupid and false things. I couldn’t believe what he said about Francis Collins. While you might argue with Collins’ style he’s never stepped over the line when it comes to his science. And unlike Coyne, he’s not unfair or inaccurate.

    Needless to say, I’m not going to buy the book now.

    The experience made me think of the late and infamous William Schockley, the Nobel physicist whose raging racism took over and made him just nuts. I think it’s almost always that way. When a bigot is required to put a sock in it, they can do brilliant stuff, when they can vent their irrational bigotry, their intelligence plunges.

    I’m glad to have found this blog, C. Mooney, I’d lost track in the last year.

  79. Anthony McCarthy

    Reading more of this thread, have any of these self-styled devotees of science and logic ever compared the numbers of people who accept evolution and the numbers who poll as being atheists and agnostics? How do they account for all those “xians” who are just as much evolutionists as they are “xians”?

    If you want to get some understanding of why the fundamentalists are so successful in their war on evolution, part of that could be because so many atheists are always claiming that it’s their property. Which is false and bound to make religious believers hostile to the science. I wonder, in regard to the comment mentioning E. Scott and the comparison of the U.S. and Japan, if there is “new atheist” propaganda trying to drive a wedge between science and Shinto, there.

  80. Pierce R. Butler

    I would like to call Mr. Mooney’s attention to the declaration of a “culture war” by a certain major political party and its allies, in which religion is both banner and weapon.

    Creationism is but a minor front in this conflict, most of which concerns sexually-related issues. It is “civil” only in the sense in which it approaches the status of civil war. Questions of etiquette and humility are at best malapropos in this context.

    That said, this is as yet only intermittently (last Sunday!) a shooting war, so the strategic & tactical questions – particularly regarding that muddy “middle ground” – do call for original and insightful thinking.

    In that light, here’s my question for the accommodationists (those who object to that term are requested to coin a better one): given that the vocal non-believers will not go away and cannot be persuaded to shut up “for the cause”, why don’t you come up with a more useful reaction than continued (and petty, and, per Coyne in #68, factually wrong) whining?

  81. Matt Penfold

    “While you might argue with Collins’ style he’s never stepped over the line when it comes to his science.”

    I can give you the names of a number of scientists, and especially biologists who would take issue with that. His comments on human evolution do not seem to very scientific, as he is onrecord as saying that humans are not the sole result of evolutionary processes.

  82. I would LIKE to agree with you. I actually totally agree that those three virtues are valuable and we should try to express them.

    But, then the right wing takes advantage and next thing we know we have either people giving away not the store but, say, the ice cream freezer (like allowing for origins to not be subject to scientific research) or we have people recommending to teachers that they hand out Miller’s “Finding” book to students who question evolution (which is a violation of the establishment clause … in this case promoting a particular religion … Ken’s).

    Be nice. Then when they take advantage, eviscerate. Which they will, so you’d better be ready.

  83. Erasmussimo

    Several thoughts: first, please don’t confuse libertarianism with outright support for religion. “Live and let live is NOT the same as “Praise the Lord!”
    Second, it is a mistake to generalize from the extremists to everybody. The fact that the 9/11 terrorists were Muslims does not justify invading Iraq. In the same way, a Christian terrorist does not justify losing one’s head and going after all Christians.

  84. Anthony McCarthy

    Matt Penfold Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 3:29 pm
    “While you might argue with Collins’ style he’s never stepped over the line when it comes to his science.”
    I can give you the names of a number of scientists, and especially biologists who would take issue with that. His comments on human evolution do not seem to very scientific, as he is onrecord as saying that humans are not the sole result of evolutionary processes.

    Matt, what Francis Collins says outside of his refereed, peer-reviewed publications, his professional work as a scientist, an administrator of a research program or in his work as a government official, is not a part of science. He has as much right to that as Coyne does to his hobby of anti-religious invective.

    If a scientist could make a charge of his over stepping the line in his science or professional life, they’d have hauled him up on charges and made them stick. He’s not answerable to the irrational demands of an ideology he doesn’t share. His ideological enemies are trying to set up a kind of, excuse the expression, McCarthyism within science and the general culture.

  85. I thought I’d share my own response to Jason Rosenhouse’s response to this article. 🙂

  86. Russell

    Just as it is important to respect those who smoke and those who are addicted to drugs, it is important to respect people who practice faith, solely because they are people, and faith, like addictions, is a weakness that preys on common human weaknesses. That should not stop us from condemning faith. Those who want faith itself respected must be answered as those who want addiction itself respect: sorry, but no, we do not and will not.

  87. Chris, I very much appreciate your post. I would request that we all be very careful with our words in how we frame our political opponents’ viewpoints on science. As I’m sure you realize, some conservatives oppose certain science policies because they do not recognize the validated research (such as in the case of evolution). However, when it comes to other matters (abortion, stem cell research), it is possible for someone to understand all of the relevant scientific facts, and yet still oppose someone else’s moral position about what is considered a legitimate life. I’d like to suggest that we recognize and distinguish between these different types of positions, because I do not believe that they all rightfully fit into one large “anti-science” category.

  88. Not at all convinced. You seem to be suggesting that we are meek and humble before proponents of religion when they have done nothing at all to deserve that attitude. Asking for humility just because ‘science cannot prove a negative’ is patently ridiculous – we’re just asking for a single shred of evidence regarding supernatural beings. Is it any wonder that we’re getting a tad impatient after waiting quite some time and being fed the same hollow garbage repeatedly?

    This is no time to be timid. Look at the world around you. Real live people are being KILLED because of beliefs in various ghosts and goblins. Real live people are DEAD because of this nonsense. I’m not just talking about religion, this covers all sorts of irrationality like homeopathy, faith healing and their ilk. Given the current situation, your recommendation that we kowtow to the religious borders on the immoral. Time to stand up and say “no more!”

  89. Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris…

    You wrote:

    “Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?”

    Ever hear of Russell’s teapot?

  90. Patrick ONeill

    Should we outlaw blasphemy again, as they do in so many countries ?

    “Civility” is a phony argument.

    I agree that attacking individuals simply because of their belief system is stupid and counter-productive.

    But my experience is that “moderate” religionists automatically personalize any criticism of their ideology.

    If you criticize christianity – as an ideology – they immediately say that you are a bigot who hates christians.

    This tactic – demanding that a religion be “respected” no matter how intellectually idiotic – insures that their religion be immune from the criticism that would apply to any other idea.

    Until recently, and still in most countries – criticizing a religion would be the crime of blasphemy.

    Luckily in the US it is still legal, but there will always be social pressure from the religionists to make it “incivil” to criticize their religion.

    Don’t fall for it – their ideas should be just as subject to public examination and criticism as any other ideologies.

  91. Tori

    You say: “why is he [Coyne] criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?….Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates…”

    Do you mean to tell everyone that Coyne cannot criticize anyone because it’s “impolite” and might “offend” some people?

    Feel free to disagree with him, but you’re not seriously suggesting Coyne, Dawkins, et al shut up are you? Your case for an “accomodationist” strategy is weak.

    Please, enlighten us: Why are religious moderates to be privileged and insulated from critique while religious fundamentalists remain open to criticism? Why should not *all* faith-based assertions be evaluated on their merits or lack thereof? Just because some faith-based people are moderates and some are fundamentalists does not negate the conclusion that to base one’s knowledge on faith rather than evidence is delusional and, as Cannonball ones says in comment 93 – and as Hitchens and Dawkins have so eloquently elucidated – dangerous.

  92. trimtab

    This is an utterly self-defeating argument.

    If secularists must adhere to the rationale of etiquette, diversity, and humility, then so should non-secularists, IMO. But if non-secularists do that, something weird follows:

    1) Atheistic must deny scientific reality.
    2) Theists must become 50/50-probability agnostics.


  93. CF

    Some points of reflection whilst reading through the comments
    (some of which were much more interesting than the original discussion).

    A (on the consideration of thinking and acting):
    Belief is a cause for personal action. This spectrum stretches
    all the way from not stepping on sidewalk cracks to murdering
    doctors, refusing sex education for children, writing apologetic
    tomes, stifling stem cell research, etc. etc. etc. If it is not a cause
    for action, then it is of no consequence in the world. Religion
    is hardly ever private except in those huts hidden in the mountains
    of Japan.

    B (on the consideration that belief stifles thought):
    Belief acts in loco authoritatus for rational thought. Whether it stands
    as a placemark for some established fact, or for the wildest bit
    of dogmatic assertion. In the case of believing the earth is roughly
    spherical, it saves a great deal of wasted time in research. In
    the case of dogma, of course, there is no research to qualify the
    belief, but some authoritative source such as ‘holy books’. Children
    see purpose everywhere and some adults never outgrow this illusion.
    Memetic belief includes the religious category of belief.

    C (on belief in society and culture):
    We can all look around and observe the effects of belief in various
    cultures, and in many aspects of them. Memes rely strongly on
    social contact and societies to spread and strengthen themselves.
    This can be seen in the strong urge that religious people have for
    both urging their memes on others and congregating to affirm them.
    It is here that memes become dangerous to the uninfected – the
    large segments of societies’ children who are indoctrinated, the
    women who are deprived of personal rights, the wars, and so on.
    We all know these points of illustration. Religiious memes are present
    in nearly all the minds of our leaders and citizens and they act on
    them with great effect – largely in detriment to other’s freedom.

    D (on what can be done, if anything):
    Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, for starters, should be told to shut up.
    No matter how well-meaning they (and Mooney) are, they are doing
    nothing more than offering a niche and succor for a memetic enemy,
    whether its ‘the god of the quarks’, or the idea that a couple of the same
    sex can’t enjoy the same social priviledges as other couples. Every
    concession to memetic beliefs – religion, superstition, medical quackery –
    is a concession that allows unreason the same priviledge as reason.

    We have struggled for ages in this argument and have prevailed to
    a remarkable extent. But the price of freedom is indeed vigilance and
    when we find men and women of science asking for that equality –
    the balance of reasoned and unreasoned belief – it is right to
    call them on it.

  94. Michael Shermer, although being no diplomat himself, has appealed to the “New Atheists” and expressed such sentiments but, apparently, to no avail:

    The New Atheist movement gives the friendly atheist next door a bad name as the movement does not only want to come out of the closet but kick your door down. This movement is certainly vociferous and media savvy but functionally dead:

  95. crowepps

    “Religion is a very private matter… After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.” Well, yeah, actually, they are trying to get their own personal religiously based views of science taught to everyone else’s children in the schools, they ignore the fact that the vast majority of parents want comprehensive sex education taught and insist on ‘abstinence education’ because it fits their religious view, they want their Bible verses and their Jesus prayers inflicted on all the children in the schools, they want the civil laws of the country to reflect their views about sexuality and medical care and premarital sex and all kinds of other issues, so actually, yeah, they ARE trying to force it on EVERYONE else, which is why everyone — not just athiests — but everyone is getting really irritated with them. If it was PRIVATE none of us would even know what their opinion is, would we?

  96. Jeff

    I stumbled upon this blog looking for a picture of earth. I am none of the above. I can honestly say, I am not 100% sure. So, I decline to state. What I will say is, both sides are guilty of not being willing to be open minded about these subjects. I am not going to try to tell you I am as intelligent as any of you either. I am a simple farmer who is quite content. I take classes on occasion at my local community college, only to keep my mind fresh. I recently listened to a lecture in geography, and questioned the lecturer, “Is Earth growing?”. Based upon what the lecturer had been saying the obvious answer would have been, it might be. But instead received an unsure, “Of course not!”. The answer didn’t satisfy my curiosity. I went home made a cutout of the continents then put them together. They fit on every side well enough for me to think that maybe science is wrong. After all science once agreed with religion that the world was flat.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs.For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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