Words to a Fellow Atheist

By Chris Mooney | June 9, 2009 2:23 pm

Although I don’t swear on the blog, and I try not to be “uncivil,” I nevertheless really appreciate DuWayne Brayton’s recent, profane post disagreeing with me and even defending incivility–most centrally because unlike much commentary out there coming from New Atheists, it gets my views right. To wit:

I do however, have a problem with Chris’ rhetoric about theists who accept evolution.  Put simply, he seems to think that there is a marked lack of civility on the part of the so called “new atheists,” when it comes to attacking the faith component, of those who reconcile their theism with evolution and science.  He also seems to think that there are a lot of factual errors to the arguments of the new atheists and ultimately, that attacking that reconciliation is a bad strategic move.   I know more than a little about this issue of reconciling theism and science, or more accurately, theism and reality.  I am less than a year out from having finally ending my twenty some year battle to maintain my faith, in the face of science and indeed other aspects of reality that aren’t strictly science related. In all honesty, I think that his problems with incivility and ultimately strategy are both ill-founded.  And while I think that the issue of factual errors is a little less clear, I tend to disagree with the accommodationist position – both from the theists themselves and the atheists who defend them.

From someone who is criticizing me on science and religion, this is probably the most accurate summary so far of what I think. Thank you for that.

To be sure, Brayton has a very different view of how we ought to act when discussions of religion come up:

And when they start in with what they think I need to know, to find my faith again, I am probably going to get really uncivil with them.  I give a fair warning when someone starts that line with me – after that, I am likely to get rather mean.  Or when they start with the notion that my lack of religious/spiritual belief offends them, I am quite likely to laugh in their face, in a markedly uncivil fashion.  I honestly don’t give a shit if this smacks of “they started it” type rhetoric.  I am not of the opinion that simply because someone isn’t being overtly rude, I need to maintain the same.  Frankly, I find the notion of pretending to be polite, when in reality one is being an asshole rather offensive.  I am pretty damned straightforward with people and expect the same in return.  I have a lot more respect for someone who calls me an asshole, or a moron, than I do for someone who says basically the same thing, pretending to be polite about it.

I understand how hard it is to be civil when one feels under fire, or when somebody’s in your face. But I highly doubt the effect of such a confrontational approach will be to change anybody’s views.

Still, Brayton’s post is bracingly honest, and I suspect captures why many atheists today are so fired up. It is because they have freed themselves from a religion they came to hate–probably for good reason–and now feel they were oppressed for many years by a worthless, false belief system. I never had that deconversion experience, because I never had religion to begin with. So perhaps I just don’t understand the force of it. But here is how Brayton puts it:

The only reason that I spent twenty years in an abusive, painful and sometimes debilitating relationship with Faith, is because I was constantly running into people who told me that it is possible to make the very reconciliations that you are so adamantly defending.  Were it not for Christians who accept homosexuality, were it not for Christians who accept evolution, were it not for Christians who are sex-positive, were it not for Christians who perform incredible feats of mental gymnastics and convinced me I could do the same, I would have become an atheist a very long time ago.  I would have been saved the pain, the doubts – the trauma, of fighting so desperately to make the absolutely incoherent, fit together coherently.

And were it not for the uncivil, ill-mannered “new atheists” you disagree with, I would probably still be suffering that relationship today…

Okay…and I can see how you would be angry. Everybody has to figure out their own road with respect to belief or the lack thereof; you’ve figured out one way of going, and I respect that. And you say what you think, which I also respect.

However, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame religious moderates for difficulties you may have had along the way.

Consider that for a lot of people out there who have doubts about their faith, but who unlike you are unable to go all the way to atheism, the moderate ground can be a very welcoming place to stop for a while (maybe for a very long while). Moreover, it is far better to end up there than to stay in fundamentalist land. In this sense, are the moderates really the enemies?

I really appreciate Brayton’s post–but I am no less convinced that religious moderates are very important, and that atheists should make allegiances with them, show them respect, and above all, appreciate the central role they play in this exceedingly contentious and personal issue.

Comments (20)

  1. mike

    I think Brayton has a very good point about the mental gymnastics of those around us convincing us that we can do the same. What is the point of putting an atheist ad on a bus? To let others know that it’s okay to think that way. Likewise, the effect of everyone around you doing mental gymnastics on faith and science or theism and reality is that you too think it’s okay to think that way. This was something I never managed to articulate until reading it here, but it was a big struggle in the early teen years for me.

    I was starting to pull at many other threads, but at the same time, lots of people I looked up to or idolized (my parents especially) were religious but also spent time teaching me that the world is not magic. Communion crackers at about the age of 7 or 8 is probably the first time the magic of religion and reality started to clash in my head. But my parents had been doing the parallel bars on that one for their whole lives, so I went with it and struggled to figure out why, if it was Jesus now, did it not taste like human meat.

    That is why the accommodationist position is wrong. Many of us who started in a faith and had to free our minds, rather than being born free, spent our youth trying that stance out. It doesn’t work.

  2. mike

    My follow up would be that I suppose you end-game matters. If you care about people just supporting evolution, then the accommodationist position is fine. If you care about people studying and understanding reality (which I think is closer to the New Atheist position) then all it does is put up road blocks.

  3. I agree with Mike, although I’d phrase it as a difference between promoting evolution science exclusively (Chris’ concern) on the one side and promoting both evolution and atheism on the other.

    I think the New Atheists complicate the discussion by denying there can ever be a conflict between promoting acceptance of evolution science and promoting atheism. I think there can be a conflict, but living in the real world we have to accept that one person’s goals can be in partial conflict.

    So for Chris to say the New Atheists are hurting evolution acceptance is kind of besides the point, IMO. The New Atheists have broader goals than he does.

  4. “The New Atheists have broader goals than he does.”
    Actually, I see that as entirely Chris’ point, and I think it’s a useful one. He’s not trying to get Coyne to “shut up” as he knows Coyne won’t – and shouldn’t. What Chris is doing is making sure that people know there is an alternative to Coyne’s view and that it’s just as valid.
    I posted this link in the previous thread:
    http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dover/day3am.html
    Works for me.

  5. Jon (alternate)

    “I understand how hard it is to be civil when one feels under fire, or when somebody’s in your face. But I highly doubt the effect of such a confrontational approach will be to change anybody’s views.”

    But does being nonconfrontational work significantly more often when discussing religion with people? I’d need more than an anecdote or two to be convinced.

    And I haven’t seen anything addressing different approaches (yours vs. Coyne’s) as part of a broader strategy. I suspect the biggest effect of having the more strident New Athiests tone down their rhetoric would be to simply have the notion of “moderate” shift somewhat in the direction of (note: the direction of is *not* all the way to) religious fanatics.

  6. Jon (alternate)

    BTW, there’s someone else who posts as simply “Jon” so I’m trying to distinguish myself, even if he hasn’t posted on this thread.

  7. I understand how hard it is to be civil when one feels under fire, or when somebody’s in your face. But I highly doubt the effect of such a confrontational approach will be to change anybody’s views.

    It may not change the views of the person it’s aimed at (though may contribute), but it may well sway people who aren’t the target. And ultimately, it isn’t always my intent to change someone’s views – I have on occasion taken that approach simply because it is better than engaging in physical violence.

    But I will use the example of a relatively recent incident (Warning – very profane) that actually illustrates both. In short, I was accused of being an addict and my psych meds just being another addiction – from someone who is in AA. He also made it clear that Satan was the source of all my problems. A mild version of my response was; “You can take your faith in God, your faith in Bill, your faith in Satan and stick it [somewhere rather impolite]. He responded by yelling at me that I was addicted to drugs and addicted to Satan, to which I responded; “I’m a ——- atheist you ——- moron!!” (I was dealing with changes in my meds, which made me extra prone to fits of temper)

    I got a lot of scowls from other patrons in the coffee shop after that one. But it also fostered several discussions later, with people who had heard it, or heard about it. It opened the door for me to discuss my experience with Faith, with a couple of people who are in much the same place I have been for much of my life – a discussion that has continued whenever I see either of them. And it opened the door for me to get into a very important discussion about alternatives to twelve step addiction programs, with someone who has had a lot of problems with the twelvesteps, because he’s an atheist.

    So I got to rhetorically sock someone in the jaw and something productive came out of it (though there are some folks who frequent that coffeehouse, who really don’t like me).

    However, I’m not sure it’s fair to blame religious moderates for difficulties you may have had along the way.

    I am not really blaming them – I wasn’t required to listen and indeed a lot of people don’t. I was a religious moderate for much of my life and am guilty of the same thing that those who influenced me are. I am not blaming them for what I went through, I am merely explaining why I am not willing to sit back and let what they have to say go unchallenged. Why I am not content to live and let live. Why, in spite of the fact that I support the fight for science education, I am not only willing, but feel compelled to challenge the ideas that many of the people having the strongest impact on the fight for science education hold sacred.

    Ultimately, I am making the point that while the people who are challenging the accommodationist position are running in clear conflict with the fight for science education and science, there is utility to what they are saying and doing. Not only is there utility, but what it accomplishes is just as important as what the religious moderates are accomplishing.

    And I also wanted to point out that the flip-side of us making your job harder, is that you are making our job harder…

  8. I am not really blaming them – I wasn’t required to listen and indeed a lot of people don’t. I was a religious moderate for much of my life and am guilty of the same thing that those who influenced me are. I am not blaming them for what I went through, I am merely explaining why I am not willing to sit back and let what they have to say go unchallenged. Why I am not content to live and let live. Why, in spite of the fact that I support the fight for science education, I am not only willing, but feel compelled to challenge the ideas that many of the people having the strongest impact on the fight for science education hold sacred.

    It sounded like you were blaming them, though I can understand it as an explanation for your current stance sans blame.

    What it sounds like is a lot of personal issues you’re working out, a therapeutic matter, rather than an actual strategy for combating nonsense in the schools. Well, I’m okay with that, since I think some extremes shed light on the moderation of others. However, it’s a bit difficult to see why theists who are relatively tolerant and moderate are supposed to be a problem, rather than allowing people a position from which they can make up their minds about atheism or theism.

    Mooney:

    I really appreciate Brayton’s post–but I am no less convinced that religious moderates are very important, and that atheists should make allegiances with them, show them respect, and above all, appreciate the central role they play in this exceedingly contentious and personal issue.

    Agreed. One of the cognitive/emotional problems that fundamentalists run into is that they have to either give up their understanding of the world and work through the problems of forging a new one, or stay where it is safe. I know that, because I didn’t find it at all easy, and probably could not have accomplished the feat if I had not been young at the time (and already experiencing the problems of adolescence).

    That there are religions which allow exploration and development has to count as a good thing. The mere fact that they’re not necessarily as philosophically or scientifically pure as some others ought not to be held against them.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/6mb592

  9. Alternate Jon: “But does being nonconfrontational work significantly more often when discussing religion with people? I’d need more than an anecdote or two to be convinced.”

    I’m trying to find the old Firing Line evolution debate with William F. Buckley. If I recall, it had a moment in there where Buckley admitted to being flummoxed by the position taken by the science team – which included Miller and Ruse I think – that methodological naturalism doesn’t necessarily exclude religion. The position pretty much summed up by Pennock at the Dover trial.

    Buckley apparently went in there ready to argue against atheism and found himself out-maneuvered. In the end, it didn’t change his mind but it was disarming, and allowed the science team to put the philosophy aside and focus on rational arguments.

    Nobody yelling, nobody screaming. But the strategy allowed them to put the philosophy aside and engage only in methodological naturalism.

    And (not directed at you, Jon) it’s well worth noting that debate happened in the 1990s. Buckley hadn’t heard about the idea of methodological naturalism not necessarily being in conflict with religion then, so I don’t buy the claim that its a tactic that’s had its chance and failed. This is the kind of thing that takes generations.

  10. If you care about people studying and understanding reality (which I think is closer to the New Atheist position) then all it does is put up road blocks.

    I’m astounded at the number of people writing on this subject who believe that all religions are fundamentally at odds with science. This is simply not true. I know of a great number of professional scientists who see no conflict at all between their personal religious views and Evolution, or Quantum theory, or the Age of the Earth, or any other branch of modern science you care to mention. I’m personally close to a Jesuit priest with a Ph.D. in Geology who has spent most of his lifetime studying plate tectonics and publishing in peer-reviewed journals and have other friends who attend church every Sunday and work on Physics problems for NASA during the week.

    This obsession about whether we should be “accommodationist” or not is both misguided and insulting. Worse-yet it inherently embraces the authority of people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson to decide who is truly religious is and who is not.

    If you care about scientific literacy, then argue science and when people counter with nonsense, fight them with facts.

    But if you believe that you need to promote the “New Atheist” position then you’re engaging in a religious crusade just as much as the Mormons and the Southern Baptists are.

  11. Glen Davidson –

    What it sounds like is a lot of personal issues you’re working out, a therapeutic matter, rather than an actual strategy for combating nonsense in the schools.

    I’m not advocating my position as a method for combating nonsense in public schools. Indeed I accept that my approach runs square into conflict with those who are, just as those who are trying to combat nonsense in public schools are using methods that conflict with my own very different goals. While I am quite supportive of efforts to combat nonsense in schools, I am dealing with something else entirely.

    And you peg right into it – I have a lot of personal issues I have worked out, with a great many more to deal with yet – I am quite open about having rather serious neurological issues and addiction . The thing is that as much as my ego might appreciate me being somehow unique in this, I am not. My experience with religion is certainly not the same as everyone elses, but it is also far from uncommon (see Ex-Christian.net for example – but keep in mind that is a safe place for people who have been abused by religion, not a debate forum).

    I am more interested in helping people who are in the same position that I spent most of my life in. I could care less about the fundamentalists or the moderates who are at peace with their faith – except insofar as the fundies try to legislate their faith. I could care less about people who are comfortable with the precarious epistemological positioning that accepting certain aspects of a revealed religion, while throwing other aspects away. I am only concerned about helping people like me, finally find peace after faith.

    So even while I accept the necessity of some people reconciling their faith with reality to some degree or another, the most effective way for me to help people like me, is to challenge those reconciliations. Because that is where a lot of people are stuck and I happen to know quite intimately what that place is like and I have experience with coming out the other side.

    Jinchi –

    This obsession about whether we should be “accommodationist” or not is both misguided and insulting. Worse-yet it inherently embraces the authority of people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson to decide who is truly religious is and who is not.

    No it doesn’t. You’re making an awful lot of assumptions about my motives – motives which would be quite clear if you actually bothered to read my post.

  12. I wrote a recent column for my local paper (circulation ~4k.. so no great accomplishment) in which I said that we need to first get the science right and then deal with the consequences. I wanted to call attention to those who deny the reality of the best science, especially regarding global warming and evolution.

    One direct reply was fairly interesting and surprising, considering that it came from a person, Eric Meese, whom I had known in an entirely different, political context.

    The idea that evolution is a settled issue is a common misconception, and promotes a dogmatic scientism. Darwinism as understood today is dehumanizing and anti-life, because it reduces life and its evolution to a mechancal process, as well as reducing it to a competitive rather than cooperative one. These issues are important to many Greens, not just religious people. If there is a spiritual, creative aspect to life, not just a mechanical one, then this aspect must be extended to all life and all being, not just to humans who see themselves as special and apart. In my opinion, we can’t reduce living beings to mechanical objects on the one hand, and on the other hand value them as sacred, mysterious and inherently valuable. We know some spiritual things by means of experiences that aren’t easily testable by empirical science, though some kinds of science substantiate these experiences (such as the evidence that prayer works, evidence for ESP, etc. etc.).

    . This was followed by several apt references to consiliance , both the concept and Wilson’s book, as well as a paragraph of epigenetics, now know to all acquired traits to be inherited.

    Meese referred me to a paper he had written earlier, focusing on consciousness and the various mean of acquiring knowledge.

    While I can’t say that I agree with all of this, there is a lot we don’t know and that is ample reason to resist dogmatism of any kind.

  13. You’re making an awful lot of assumptions about my motives – motives which would be quite clear if you actually bothered to read my post.

    I haven’t made any assumptions about your motives. You might have noticed that I was responding to a different comment if you had bothered to read my post.

    And whether you mean it or not, the word accommodationist is almost always used as as an insult intended to denigrate the character or intelligence of an opponent.

  14. My apologies – I did actually read your post, agreed rather strongly with the sentiment you were responding to, disagreed rather strongly with your point and went off from there…I am sorry about that.

    I do not intend accommodationist to mean anything more or less than what it means. Frankly, if you can let me know what you prefer, I would be happy to obglige – but quite honestly, I am generally inclined to use accommodationist, as I have since I actually accepted it as a reasonable descriptive for the views I used to hold.

    And I would also have to say that regardless of who’s motives you are making assumptions about, you’re still making them. I don’t know very many atheists who make the sorts of fundamental absolute statements that Dobson and Robertson make on a daily basis – this is certainly not something I have seen from prominent “new atheists.”

    When I am criticizing theism, I am not telling people they can or cannot believe something they obviously believe. I am merely pointing out the precariousness of their fundamental assumptions. And I honestly don’t care whether they are making claims that conflict with science or not – for me that’s largely irrelevant – as I suspect it is for a lot of the atheists you’re criticizing. Because while I think that your framing of it is rather provocative, I for one, am very interested in seeing society become less religious.

    No, it’s not a Crusade and for my own part, I am only interested in a small segment of the religious community – though I’m not going to shed a tear if my rhetoric convinces other theists to let go their theism. But I understand and support those who take it much further. Supernatural belief is not a good thing. At best, magical thinking is neutral – doesn’t cause problems, but also doesn’t improve anything. In general though, it causes a whole lot of problems…

  15. abb3w

    The main downside of incivility is it helps feed the stereotype. I feel, therefore, it is better strategy to save incivility for really special occasions. To misquote Vlad Taltos from Steven Brust’s novel Phoenix, “I’m cultivating a reputation for politeness so I can blow it when something big comes along. This ain’t it.”

  16. I haven’t made any assumptions about your motives. You might have noticed that I was responding to a different comment if you had bothered to read my post.

  17. wjv

    This argument for which particulars are “proper” for an athiest to accept reminds me eerily of the various denominations of the church in Christianity. Are “Strong” (Coyne) Athiests, New Athiests and Agnostics just various denominations of non-theism?

  18. Wes

    I’m sorry, Wes Rolley, but I’m gonna have to disagree with pretty much everything Meese said. His reply is nonsense from beginning to end.

    The idea that evolution is a settled issue is a common misconception, and promotes a dogmatic scientism.

    Evolution is settled in the same sense that the earth going around the sun is settled. It’s not “dogmatic” or “scientistic” to point this out. Rather, those who deny evolution usually do so because it contradicts some belief they have accepted for dogmatic rather than rational reasons, such as religious faith.

    Darwinism as understood today is dehumanizing and anti-life, because it reduces life and its evolution to a mechancal process, as well as reducing it to a competitive rather than cooperative one.

    Whenever I hear someone say “Darwinism” I know there’s going to be a load of BS to follow, and Meese surely didn’t disappoint. There is nothing “dehumanizing” about describing things in terms of mechanical processes, unless you automatically (and dogmatically) assume at the outset that “human” and “physical” are mutually exclusive. They are not, and the theory of evolution actually goes a ways in showing this. The claim that we evolved by a natural process is not dehumanizing.

    Also, “darwinism” is NOT “reducing [life] to a competitive rather than cooperative” process. This misleading false dichotomy is common amongst those who have never really bothered to understand the theory. Competition and cooperation are not mutually exclusive. Natural selection has plenty of room for both. Darwin states this explicitly on pg. 62 of the Origin, where he says that he means “competition” in a broad, figurative sense which includes interdependence of one being upon another. Meese here has betrayed some rather gross ignorance when it comes to evolution.

    These issues are important to many Greens, not just religious people. If there is a spiritual, creative aspect to life, not just a mechanical one, then this aspect must be extended to all life and all being, not just to humans who see themselves as special and apart.

    “Spiritual/Creative” vs. “Mechanical” is a false dichotomy. They are not mutually exclusive. I would suggest Meese read up on some recent developments in cognitive science, especially the work of Douglas Hofstadter.

    In my opinion, we can’t reduce living beings to mechanical objects on the one hand, and on the other hand value them as sacred, mysterious and inherently valuable.

    That’s not just Meese’s opinion. It’s an uncritically accepted belief that one encounters very often: Providing a physical, natural explanation of things somehow “de-values” them. This is an unwarranted assumption. It’s based on the old dogma that, without religion (which Meese calls “spirituality”) your life has no meaning. It’s nonsense.

    We know some spiritual things by means of experiences that aren’t easily testable by empirical science, though some kinds of science substantiate these experiences (such as the evidence that prayer works, evidence for ESP, etc. etc.).

    Nonsense. Tests of ESP, prayer, etc. have repeatedly found that there is no evidence that they work. But the true believers (such as Meese) just ignore this. This is because they WANT to believe these things, not because there is any rational reason to think they are true. Quite the opposite, there is considerable scientific evidence to show that prayer, psychic powers, etc have no effect at all.

    Comments like Meese’s are exactly why I side with DuWayne Brayton over Mooney on issues like this. People who believe in these kinds of things really are ignoring the evidence and grossly distorting the science in order to bolster their own wishful thinking. Meese’s “spirituality” is, in fact, directly in conflict with the scientific evidence, and rests on a gross misunderstanding of the relevant theories. There is no need to “accommodate” to his views any more than there is a need to “accommodate” to creationists or global warming deniers.

    He is flatly, demonstrably wrong.

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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 Salon.com 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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