More on Dawkins' Pro-Evolution Communication Strategy

By Chris Mooney | October 15, 2009 11:32 am

Given the discussion last week over whether Richard Dawkins is softening his message, I was really struck by a recent post by Jean Kazez, who is reading his new book and finds Dawkins yet again sounding very “accommodating.” From Dawkins’ page 6:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. This is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an antireligious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution. They may think God had a hand in starting the process off, and perhaps didn’t stay his hand in guiding its future progress. They probably think God cranked the Universe up in the first place, and solemnized its birth with a harmonious set of laws and physical constants calculated to fulfil some inscrutable purpose in which we were eventually to play a role. But, grudgingly in some cases, happily in others, thoughtful and rational churchmen and women accept the evidence for evolution. [Italics added.]

All this from the guy who previously denounced the “Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists.”

Dawkins may not accept the label “accommodationist.” His definition of the word may be different than mine or Kazez’s, and an unwelcome handle shouldn’t be forced upon him. Nevertheless, in the passage above he appears to be taking a cue from the very line of thinking that informs Unscientific America: When you want to promote evolution, it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith; rather, you want and desperately need religious allies.

Indeed, while there are very many things in The God Delusion that I object to and disagree with, on many levels–I discussed these over at Huffington Post last week, drawing a staggering 689 comments thus far–The Greatest Show on Earth sounds like a book very much after my own heart. I’m planning on going out and getting a copy.

Yet this also leaves me wondering: Has Dawkins made any intellectual movement that he himself would recognize, or would he just call this a difference of emphasis or message (wearing a new “T-shirt”)?

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Comments (129)

  1. And let the spittle fly…

  2. Dave

    Dawkins isn’t accommodating irrationalists nor is he undermining his previous arguments. He’s merely pointing out that evolution is so true that even deeply irrational people, like oxymoronic “rational churchmen and women,” can ignore the literal nature of their uninformed scripture.

    The book is about evolution, not God. Yes, Dawkins is emphasizing evolution, not de-emphasizing God (that was his last book, and shouldn’t have to keep repeating himself).

    It’s completely disingenuous for the above article to a) misinterpret Dawkins’ argument, b) provide transparently false fodder to be used by actual accommodationists, and c) hypocritically give credibility to said accommodationists by saying “it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith.”

    Faith is an attachment to some idea: and attacking not only the idea (all ideas are and should be susceptible to attack) but also the act of faith employed is necessary for the sake of separating truth from deluded fiction.

    Science does not need religious allies: Science needs the religious to get out of the way. Religion wants us all to revert to past principles, behavior, and adherence to anthropomorphic inventions and to do so with conviction — whereas science looks forward, traveling along a path that is paved by verifiable evidence and an openness to change in light of new evidence.

    What the hell happened to you, Mooney.

  3. Vindrisi

    “Science does not need religious allies”

    As a scientist funded by the tax dollars of millions of quite religious Americans who would be far less inclined to permit their hard earned monies to be spent in research if they got the impression that all scientists take the condescending and insulting view that you do, I respectfully disagree. I suspect my many religious colleagues would similarly disagree, but you likely think they are all idiots. Can you not see that your position is just as un-grounded in reality as that of creationists, or do you, like most ideologues, simply not notice your blindness?

  4. Religion wants us all to revert to past principles, behavior, and adherence to anthropomorphic inventions and to do so with conviction — whereas science looks forward, traveling along a path that is paved by verifiable evidence and an openness to change in light of new evidence.

    Dave,
    If that is your impression of religion in general, you have been seriously misled. If that is your impression of Christian religion in general, you have also been misled by a series of loud, but small in number apostate fundamentalists. Either way, you are off base.

    I know atheists like to shout about how humanity would be better off if we trashed religion altogether, but the overwhelming anthropological, paeolontological and archeological evidence is that religion – worship of a higher power, attempts to understand how that power interacts with humans, and development of social systems to both do the higher power’s bidding and meet human needs – has been a part of humankind since not long after Lucy walked the earth. It feeds something primal in all of us, so its not going away. Or rather, as both a moderate Christian, and a scienttists, we’re not going away.

    So, kindly tell us what you intend to replace religion with, since it appears to be anessential part of human existance. And, kindly tell us how your proposed replacement is different then modern relgion in something OTHER then name. If you choose not to, fine, but if you rage aginst the machine, at least have the decency to tell the machine what to expect next.

  5. Ryan

    Chris,
    You can’t possibly be that obtuse. If you actually read Dawkins’ book, you’d have a hard time pinning the label accommodationist on him. If anything, I think Professor Dawkins spends too much time in the TGSOE railing against creationists. I wholeheartedly agree with him, but I just got tired of it. I wanted more science, less religion. Hey, there’s an idea for a T-Shirt.

  6. Dave

    Vindrisi: The view of scientists has nothing to do with science itself: you’re mixing arguments. Just because you’re a scientist doesn’t mean your words are scientific. That’s the beauty of science: it’s unemotional and relentless and in the pursuit of unbiased truth. That’s why it works: it doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe, you have to back up what you say. Additionally, if the religious somehow influenced policy to defund scientific research because they were offended (aw…), that would be the greatest comedic tragedy of all time.

    Science gives us medicine, discovery, conscious advancement. If the religious don’t want to fund science, they can refrain from driving cars, using computers, or any other form of technology created as a result of using the scientific method. You can’t take advantage of the fruits of science while bashing it, or, in your example, defunding it.

    And exactly what blindness are you referring to? All religions claim to have a monopoly over spirituality, morality, and the articulated will of God (on top of the unfounded fact that they know He exists). Swallowing all that because it makes one feel better is irrational and yes, idiotic. Offensive has no bearing on the validity of my criticism.

    Philip H.: Is religion functional? Sure. But that doesn’t make it *true.* You can blather on about how religion was essential in the evolution of our species, that’s fine. Go right ahead. But again, that doesn’t make any of the religion’s claims accurate. You want to call religion a placebo? By all means.

    I never said religion is going away: it probably isn’t, unfortunately. The memes are too powerful for those who are blinded by the atmospheres of tradition and (empty) comfort. It’s easier to accept than it is to question.

    And try replacing boring, manmade religion with the overwhelm of nature, minus any pantheistic tendencies. To appreciate the Universe is to become spiritual, especially in light of the fact that we ourselves are the Universe. You don’t have to worship the bankrupt, mystical ideas and recycled stories of our ancestors who didn’t know a thing about nature or our brethren creatures. Instead you can bathe in the opportunity to be able to exist at all, free from the tyranny of dogmatic literature.

    People can believe whatever they want: so long as they do not impose those beliefs on others and they do not inhibit scientific advancement.

  7. Greg

    I think this is why it was said that attacking religion is counterproductive: it is almost inevitable that any discussion will quickly deteriorate into a base argument that nobody will learn anything from.

    Anyway, while I tend to gravitate towards the sciences, I bear no ill will towards perfectly reasonable people who just choose to believe in a higher power. There are scientists who believe in God just like there are atheists who are just plain idiots, so I don’t think it is right to be so quick to judge people on mere religious orientation alone. So to Dave; while my understanding of how the world works is probably very in line with your own scientifically oriented viewpoints, ultimately I think that attacking people’s views is just going to make them more resistant to listening to any points you might have, no matter how well informed.

    Now to Phillip; I do however disagree that religion is an absolutely essential part of human existence. I think what is vital in humans is the need to come up with some sort of framework for how life works and how we are supposed to pass through it. Personally I was raised in an environment that was for the most part bereft of religion, nobody was shouting at me to either believe or disbelieve in it, so it was kind of a non-issue to me until I decided to look into it on my own. Even then though it was just out of a desire to understand how people think. You’re right that people are always going to need something, I don’t think I would qualify it as a ‘machine’ as you jokingly did, but I think that as long as people nourish a healthy bit of curiosity, and an open mind tempered with cautious skepticism, I think someday we can get to a point where humanity doesn’t really ‘need’ religion at all. After all humans are a pretty young species in terms of how long we have been around, and civilization as we know it and especially religion is constantly changing. At this rate who know where we will be in a few thousand years.

    There’s nothing wrong with still believing in a higher power though, I think science is more at odds with organized religion as it is today than it is with the actual notion that there is a higher power at work somewhere. It is just when people become resistant to learning new things about our world that problems arise, and you can’t really pin that on religion, it’s just how many people are.

  8. NewEnglandBob

    The ones who think Dawkins is more accommodating are the delusional. He countered your nonsense directly, Chris.

    Stating a fact is not accommodation. Your italicization is juvenile. Is there no journalistic integrity here at all any more?

  9. So, here is my question on this issue. Will the focus of Dawkins et. al. on this issue prevent religious groups from working with the rest of us to deal with the biggest scientific issues of the day: climate change, water and healthy oceans.

    If they are not contributing to that and unwilling to work on those things, then I have no reason to pay attention to what any of them say.

  10. Anna K.

    Wes,

    Climate change and global warming will hurt all of us but it will disproportionately hurt the poor. This is a major concern of most of the religious groups I work with.

    Access to clean drinking water for all — also a major concern of most of the religious groups I work with. Issues such as pollution, overfishing — again, hurts all of us, but the major impact will be felt by the poor. Environmental issues are often intertwined with social justice issues.

    Religious groups are definitely working on climate change and fostering a healthy planet. If you’re truly interested, look at statements from major religious denominations, which guide religious advocacy groups when they work with legislatures and which also determine how dollars get spent. Two examples here:

    http://www2.elca.org/advocacy/corporate/climatechange.asp

    http://www.elca.org/Our-Faith-In-Action/Justice/Advocacy/Congregational-Resources/Caring-For-Creation.aspx

  11. Sven DIMilo

    When you want to promote evolution, it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith; rather, you want and desperately need religious allies.

    Would it be OK to attack the kind of faith which is the only salient reason anybody ever gives for denying evolution? Seriously, what don’t you get about this?

  12. Helioprogenus

    @Philip H,

    Your argument is completely baseless. It comes out of the scientific ignorance of an era that didn’t have all the tools we have not to put together a cohesive structure of nature. Religion is not a necessity for the human condition, but is a byproduct of ignorant thinking, indoctrination, and compartmentalized behavior. There are plenty of good theories as to why religion is so pervasive, but essentially, there is no proof that the absence of such is destructive. There are countries in Europe where the majority of the population is areligious (such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, etc.) and yet, few seem to be missing anything from it.

    It is true that without much critical thinking, we can easily be swayed by religion, and fears of death and the absolute provides us cold comfort. Therefore, we hope to somehow extend our lives, and in doing so, develop some beliefs in some sort of afterlife. Yet, that has nothing to do with science and with sufficient tools, we can come to terms with the random and chaotic nature of the universe, come to terms with the finality of death, and live for investigating the amazing universe around us. The modern tools and methods that we have were not well known even 100 years ago. It wasn’t until the 1950′s where we discovered how genetic information is stored and copied. Since then, since the 1950′s, with all the books and information available to us, there is no excuse for ignorance. Accommodationists find many excuses for the ignorant masses, but the truth is, eventually science wins out. Reality will always be there, and since we have the means to investigate it, why waste time playing soft with a useless philosophy? I guess some accommodationists are just believers at heart, and are unwilling to let go of religion. Those that are atheist, but think that most humans are too frail to be told the truth are doing a disservice to human nature.

  13. <facepalm>Why do you persist in this fallacious claim when Dawkins himself repudiates your interpretation?</facepalm>

  14. MartinH

    All this passage seems to be saying is that you can believe in religion and still accept evolution. In fact, it says that if you are as rational as you consider yourself, you won’t be able to reject it if you give the evidence a fair hearing. It doesn’t say anything sanctioning religious belief. It’s not an assault on religion, but it tells you that you can find one by the same author if you care to look.

    It touches sarcastically on all the writhing the religious may have to do to accommodate their beliefs to the fact of evolution, but it doesn’t suggest any willingness to modify views of evolution to make those contortions less painful.

    So what does this passage indicate that the author accommodates?

  15. The point is that there is in fact a different tone at the beginning of the book, no matter what RD says in person. “Thoughtful and rational churchmen and women” is pretty high praise! I don’t see how it can be “fallacious” to point out this change, even if it’s just a change in “communication strategy” (as Chris puts it).

  16. Jon

    Thanks, Jean Kazez, for pointing out the obvious.

  17. Marion Delgado

    Possibly you ponder these things too much, Chris.

    Again, to model the sort of communication you want to encourage, if you see someone moving in a direction you like, don’t point it out when it’s been an area of disputation. Instead, become that much less critical of the person behaving as you wish. Also, accept their self-description as much as possible. That takes things out of the realm of ego and being right and into the realm of problem-solving.

  18. Bob Thomas

    Jean,
    You either have only read Dawkins very selectively or your comprehension hasn’t been too good. Dawkins and PZ both make fun of fundies and the so called moderates who never call the fundies on their nonsense. Neither has spent much time criticizing moderate religious people who are pro-science education and pro-environment. Chris Mooney has lost a lot of respect from people like me who think that has too often taken attacks by atheists against fundies and spun them to be attacks on all forms of religious belief.
    Chris has criticized fundies plenty on his own and he is an atheist, so he should know better.

    People need to recognize that even though most of the religous types around this blog are strongly pro-science, polls consistently show that most of the active church goers in the U.S. are much more toward the fundy side (i.e. Earth is <10,000 yrs old). I think most people at some level know this since they often don't dare being too critical of the fundies unless they think they are talking to a favorable crowd.

  19. Jon

    too often taken attacks by atheists against fundies and spun them to be attacks on all forms of religious belief.

    Oh come on:

    “I was asked what I thought about the widely publicized cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in Ireland. I replied that, horrible as sexual abuse no doubt was, the damage was arguably less than the long-term psychological damage inflicted by bringing the child up Catholic in the first place.”

    This isn’t criticism of fundies, it’s anyone who would bring their child up Catholic.

  20. Jon

    And “criticism” is the wrong word. “Insult” is more accurate.

  21. Bob Thomas

    Yeah Jon, I’ll give you that one. That comment by Dawkins made me cringe. I’m sure you could fine a few others and you could find a few from PZ, but the point is that those comments have been rare. The Cracker incident is a good example of one that was clearly directed at fundies making death threats, yet it was spun to be about all Catholics. My point stands that it takes very selective reading to find these comments in the 1000s of pages of available material. Check out the comments by Mooney about Repubs and you can find some that might not have been as specifically targeted as they should have been. There hasn’t been a significant change in the tone, there just happens to be enough material out there that it is possible to use selective quoting to pretend like there has been a change. When in doubt ask the source.

  22. Jon

    These kinds of things create the atmosphere where dialog is effectively non-existent. As I’ve said before, trying to have a discussion in most of these comment threads is like trying to discuss philosophy with Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.

  23. bilbo

    From the looks of the comments here, the definition of accommodationism changes like a fart in the wind…and with whoever you’re looking to fight with today.

    I got called an accommodationist by my collegaues back when Jerry Coyne started ranting about it because I said “sure, people can be religious AND accept evolution.” Now that Dawkins has said it, those same people are telling me “Oh, that’s not what it means at all!!!”

    The more I hear New Atheists change their arguments around, the more they sound like religious fundies without the religion. Vague blanket statements are the staples of both groups.

  24. Tom Johnson

    Wes says:

    “So, here is my question on this issue. Will the focus of Dawkins et. al. on this issue prevent religious groups from working with the rest of us to deal with the biggest scientific issues of the day: climate change, water and healthy oceans.

    If they are not contributing to that and unwilling to work on those things, then I have no reason to pay attention to what any of them say.”

    From a scientist who works with the religious on a daily basis (and doesn’t need simple poll results to see how scientists’ attitudes affect the religious), I would give a resounding “YES!!!”

    Many of my colleagues are fans of Dawkins, PZ, and their ilk and make a point AT CONSERVATION EVENTS to mock the religious to their face, shout forced laughter at them, and call them “stupid,” “ignorant” and the like – and these are events hosted by religious moderates where we’ve been ASKED to attend. They think it’s the way to be a good scientist, after all.

    So what do you think happens when you spit in someone’s face, mock them openly, figuratively throw them to the ground and kick dirt in their face – and then ask “now we really need your help!!”? When my colleagues do this, you can watch the attention visibly disappear from the crowd when you finally start talking about conservation and real science.

    That’s the problem with the blogosphere – you can say all the extreme, controversial things you want without consequences. But when your readers start echoing those things to the public (the people that science desperately needs to translate research to action), I’m afraid the consequences are rather severe.

  25. bilbo

    Dave says: “Science does not need religious allies: Science needs the religious to get out of the way.”

    Then I suppose you’ve discovered a way to reverse the effects of climate change, biodiversity loss, and habitat destruction that only needs those scant few percent of unreligious folks to cooperate and change their lifestyles. Wow. Why have I never heard your name before??!! You must be freaking famous…

  26. Vindrisi

    Chris,

    Something to keep in mind when trying to glean anything from these apparent about-faces from Dawkins is that he doesn’t seem to have much a problem with being dishonest when it suits him. After all, this is a man who, when he was on an NPR show a few years ago (Science Friday, I think), he received a call-in question from someone with the old question of how evolutionary theory could explain bats given how highly adapted they are to flight and echolocation and such. Dawkins clearly didn’t want to deal with the question, but he begged off in what I thought at the time was a fairly graceful way, saying that he didn’t know much about bats, and he thus would have to go off and read up on the issue before he could address it. A few weeks later I finally got around to reading “The Blind Watchmaker”. Lo and behold, much of chapter 2 deals with how bats evolved. It is hard for me to really believe that he has had a change of heart about not thinking all religious people stupid because of that. Similarly, I had to laugh at his Newsweek interview when he protested that he wasn’t strident, that people only describe atheists as strident, and no one would ever dream of calling any Christians strident. Either he betraying terrible ignorance (I have heard the “strident” adjective applied by many mainstream Christian ministers to fundamentalists, and I don’t frequent Christian churches), or he is being tactically disingenuous. Given how learned he really is, I rather suspect the latter. Anyway, Chris, it is something to keep in mind the next time you run across a quote of his that makes it seem like he is finding a bit of reality and tolerance.

  27. Vindrisi

    Dave, you don’t work in science do you? Do you understand that making science look like the enemy of all religion is counterproductive to the advancement of science when so much crucial science is funded by tax dollars from a populace that is overwhelmingly religious and happily so?

  28. I fail to see any difference at all in Dawkins’ position. I think if you see a change then it’s only because you’ve unfairly stereotyped & straw-manned his position and are now seeing instances where he is failing to fit your stereotype. Dawkins is no more accommodating of religion than he was before; he’s simply promoting a book that focuses on the science and not religion.

  29. magistramorous

    I think that what is going on in Dawkins’ mind is that he would rather people be more like Francis Collins, as would I. Bilbo is right about the semantic problem with the definition of “accommodationist.”

  30. magistramorous

    Oops… He would rather they be more like Francis Collins than young-earthers.

  31. Anthony McCarthy

    Reading down this thread, seeing the usual scientistic romanticism of the new atheists, their hero worship of Richard Dawkins – THEIR Richard Dawkins, reading the commentary on his latest stuff, I’m reminded of E. O. Wilson who turned from his “new synthesis” to conserving bio-diversity.

    I think Dawkins can see the writing on the wall for several aspects of his career and it’s not looking all that good. I wonder if he’s regretting the new atheist stuff that couldn’t have ever been more than a distraction for someone who wants to be taken as a great scientist and, perhaps, live on in memory for a short time, the only form of immortality he believes in.

    But, that’s getting into my Richard Dawkins, which isn’t that important. Funding the science that might, by the skin of our teeth, save our species and the biosphere is. The new atheism isn’t anything but a hindrance for that, which is why it is dangerous.

  32. Anna K.

    @ Tom Johnson, #25,

    I’m surprised and saddened to hear that.

    I can certainly understand religious groups not wanting to work with scientists who accepted their invitation to speak, who then use the microphone to call the audience stupid and ignorant, before they wrap it all up with a sincere plea for said stupid audience’s monetary and volunteer support.

    What I can’t understand is how your colleagues could think that that would be a productive way to make alliances. That’s a shame.

  33. gillt

    What Mooney wants Dawkins to say: “Religious people can be rational; the concept of evolution is rational, therefore science and religion are compatible philosophies.

    What Dawkins actually says: “Rational people, even the religious, accept evolution because of the overwhelming evidence.”

    I remember when whole paragraphs of UA were online and commented on by those who hadn’t read (bought!) the book, which prompted repeated reprimands from Mooney, so Hypocrite Hat’s off to Mooney for failing to live up to the standards he sets for others.

  34. NewEnglandBob

    McCarthy, is it nice over there in that universe that you occupy all by yourself? Your comment is the ‘stupid of the week’. Thanks for the chuckle of your delusion.

  35. bilbo

    Gillt, I hate to break it to you, but you just called religious people rational in your “what Dawkins actually says” sentence after mocking Chris for ‘saying’ the same thing.

    I don’t think Chris is trying to malign Dawkins whatsoever (call me out if I’m wrong, Chris). To me, it seems he’s just trying to point out how people have taken some past remarks from Dawkins and blown them out of proportion to think “it should be impossible to be religious and accept evolution.” Obviously, that’s not that Dawkins thinks at all, and not all of his supporters think that, either. It’s the few who do who perpetuate the problem.

  36. Matt Penfold

    Mooney,

    Dawkins has already stated he has not changed his position.

    What part of his response did you not understand ?

  37. Tom Johnson

    @ Anna K.

    Those are my feelings, exactly. That’s why I find it so silly to hear many ‘New Atheists’ (not all of them, mind you) promoting open mockery like this because, somehow, it will “turn” the religious. To the contrary, I’ve seen more religious people (from what had been a rather receptive audience until the mocking and laughter started) get turned off to the notion of helping scientists than I have seen anyone change their minds. Scientists aren’t putting a stamp of approval on the beliefs of theists by NOT mocking them; one can disagree, even strongly, while still having respect.

    As one specific example, consider this anecdote from a recent outreach we had with a religious group. Myself and several colleagues were asked by a group of religious progressives (not creationists, not biblical literalists) to come speak about enegry conservation, climate change, etc. at their annual meeting. In other words, the theists had ASKED the scientists to come provide education on a scientific topic. On the way to the meeting, one of my colleagues kept talking about how she was “going to give it to these religious bimbos” because that’s what scientists should be doing to the religious (quoting PZ and Jerry Coyne all the while). At the meeting, I was having quite an interesting dicsussion about evolution with a pastor (he fully accepted evolution but still believed in God) when that same colleague walked up, asked “You believe in GOD??!!” incredulously, and laughed (loudly) in his face when he responded “yes.” She then said “we don’t NEED the help of the religious!” and walked away. The pastor never said another word that whole meeting.

    That’s a long story, but I hope you and others get the idea. You can say this kind of offensive stuff on the blogosphere, and it’s great because it gets you hits and comments and gets your name exposure. But try doing those same thing when you’re trying to apply science, and see just how far it gets you.

  38. Anthony McCarthy

    NEB, fun to see what you take as reasoned rebuttal, as always. Or maybe that should be “funny”. But new atheist standards in reason being what they are, you probably think you’re making a case. Just as I’m sure Mr. Heene and his friends really think they’re promoting science with their activities.

  39. gillt

    Bilbo, you’re confusing people with ideas. Who’s saying religious people can’t also be rational?

  40. Anthony McCarthy

    — I remember when whole paragraphs of UA were online and commented on by those who hadn’t read (bought!) the book, which prompted repeated reprimands from Mooney, so Hypocrite Hat’s off to Mooney for failing to live up to the standards he sets for others. gillt

    If it wasn’t for the irony of his denunciations like this one, there would be no ‘i’ in ‘gillt’.

  41. Anthony McCarthy

    —- Who’s saying religious people can’t also be rational? gillt

    —- like oxymoronic “rational churchmen and women,” Dave @ #3

    I’d go do the easy collection of evidence on other threads and blogs but as you can do that an infinite number of times and the new atheists will always insist it’s never enough, it would be a waste of time.

  42. gillt

    Meaningless, useless, content-free drivel as usual McCarthy.

  43. Anthony McCarthy

    There is a comment in moderation that will answer your charge.

  44. gillt

    Ha. Maybe you should post it on your website and then threaten to kick me off if I go over to read it.

  45. Anthony McCarthy

    gillt, I hear that remedial reading has made great strides but you’ve got to be willing to put in some of the work yourself.

  46. Let’s get our meanings clear, folks.

    The “Neville Chamberlain School”, in the context of TGD, is about NOMA. NOMA has to do with legitimating a hands-off attitude towards other spheres of life. i.e., no defensible activist atheism, no defensible discussion of an atheism-science connection. Dawkins thinks activist atheism is defensible, as is well known.

    Accommodationism is a similar term. It is used to describe those, like Mooney, who in writing waffle on NOMA, but in practice criticize atheists for arguing for atheism. It arises primarily in internet debates, so its meaning is slightly more of a term of art. Dawkins does not do this, either.

  47. Anna K.

    @ Tom Johnson, #38 (at least, at 38 last I checked!)

    WOW. That is, again, so sad, and if that’s what’s happening, it’s not outreach any more.

    I’m involved in various programs at my church, particularly with communications and education. Our denomination, which is a mainline Protestant denomination, fully accepts evolution and values and celebrates (real) science and scientific knowledge. Our denominational organization (like many, many others) consults with scientists as well as theologians, lay people and religious leaders when working out policies on social justice, environmental and educational issues. Our pastor has preached on the importance of understanding evolution and teaching real science. We have scientists in our congregation.

    Yet, because so many people are led to believe that science=atheism, we have other members in our congregation who are concerned that their kids are learning about evolution. Media loudmouths on both the YEC creationist side and the new atheist side insist that you can’t accept the fact of evolution and still be religious. Because of this kind of polemicism, people in the congregation who are not scientists or medical professionals are more receptive to ID.

    ‘Expelled’ just turned up in our church library, which is run by volunteers. No one on the library committee right now is a scientist, so the ID books and DVDs just keep creeping in. I donate books countering these, but of course that’s not enough. This false division harms support for genuine science education, and furthermore, it’s bad theology. Right now I’m working on scheduling an education program on science and religion this spring. All I can say is, thank God for Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins.

    I also was responsible for interviewing an expert on environmental issues to make a presentation at my church, and I asked him if he was comfortable speaking with religious audiences. As he was religious himself, this was not a problem. We have had other speakers at our church about environmental and conservation issues; luckily all of them were comfortable speaking with religious audiences, and people here were very receptive to their messages. (And again, when it comes to churches, environmental messages are very often intertwined with social justice issues: it’s the poor who end up with living next to the toxic waste dumps, after all.)

    I guess that’s why what you’ve observed took me by surprise. From what you’ve said, it sounds like this kind of polemicism is now extending from evolution to dialogues on climate change, and that’s bad news. It really is.

    I have to wonder if that religious group ended up working directly with your organization, or if they went elsewhere. I hope there is some way to open up conversation in your organization about effective outreach if you all continue to speak to religious groups. I’ve found that religious groups are eager to donate their time, money and creativity to environmental issues, so I really hope what you’ve observed is atypical.

    And indeed, I agree with you that people can disagree strongly on certain issues while still having respect for one another and while being able to work productively together in other ways. Our church just participated in an Interfaith Build for Habitat for Humanity. We had Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians of various denominations all working together to build a house. We’re ending the build with a big international dinner. (I called and asked early on if any humanist groups had gotten involved, but at that time, no.) So people can indeed set aside disagreements to work together to create something lasting and good.

    Tom, if you all are experts on energy conservation and climate change and you are able to translate your knowledge for the general public, your knowledge and expertise are desperately needed outside the scientific community!

    I hope your organizationl finds a way to communicate productively with religious groups and harness the tremendous energy, enthusiasm, creativity and thirst for creating good changes in society that so many of them have to give.

    You’ve given me so much to think about. Thanks, and all the best to you.

  48. Woody Tanaka

    “I think Dawkins can see the writing on the wall for several aspects of his career and it’s not looking all that good.”

    LOL!! I’m sure Dawkins is up nights worrying about what some nobody on the Internet believes about his career.

  49. John Kwok

    Chris,

    While Dawkins may seem “accomodating”, he does acknowledge in the first chapter (Only A Theory?) that he doesn’t dwell on religious issues since he acknowledges that’s been discussed at length in his “The God Delusion”, and he has indicated recently that he does stand behind what he wrote in that back. So I have to concur with certain Militant Atheists posting here that you are misinterpreting him, even though he’s visited with the leading proponent of “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists”, NCSE Executive Director Genie Scott, at, of all places, NCSE’s office in Oakland, CA.

    As for the book itself, “The Greatest Show on Earth” is quite simply the best, most lucid, most persuasive, and exceptionally well-written book for the public on the fact of biological evolution. If I were to criticize Dawkins, it would be in neglecting to mention the important role of mass extinctions in reshaping Earth’s biosphere several times over the past five hundred and fifty-odd million years, and for conflating geological period with geological error. But, as I have noted elsewhere, these are but relatively minor errors in what should be regarded as the most important book that Simon and Schuster has published since 1990 (And yes folks, it may be sacrilege coming from me, but it is a better, more important book than the bestselling memoir “Angela’s Ashes”. I can only hope that it sells as well as “Angela’s Ashes” has around the globe.).

    Respectively yours,

    John

    P. S. I mentioned “Unscientific America” in this letter to the editor that is posted online here:

    http://westsidespirit.com/?p=3458#more-3458

  50. Anthony McCarthy

    NOMA has to do with legitimating a hands-off attitude towards other spheres of life. i.e., no defensible activist atheism, no defensible discussion of an atheism-science connection.

    I don’t recall Gould going into that. I recall him making the true observation that religion can’t refute what science finds out about the material universe and that science is entirely unequipped to deal with the possibility of a supernatural.

    However Dawkins might want to define NOMA to suit his purposes, science is as ill-equipped to champion atheism as it is a belief in God. It’s methods are as useless on that question as it is on the correctness of the wall of separation of church and state or the right of individuals to due process.

  51. Matt Penfold

    Yet, because so many people are led to believe that science=atheism, we have other members in our congregation who are concerned that their kids are learning about evolution. Media loudmouths on both the YEC creationist side and the new atheist side insist that you can’t accept the fact of evolution and still be religious. Because of this kind of polemicism, people in the congregation who are not scientists or medical professionals are more receptive to ID.

    Anna,

    Can you cite a single atheist who claims you cannot accept evolution and be religious ? Only I am not aware of one, and if you cannot cite one I have to ask why you feel the need to lie.

  52. Anthony McCarthy

    Woody, I’m sure he might be concerned with what other scientists have said about it. And they’re not unanimous supporters of all of it.

  53. Matt Penfold

    I

    think Dawkins can see the writing on the wall for several aspects of his career and it’s not looking all that good.

    You are aware that Dawkins is now retired from his academic post ? I also suspect that he is financially secure. His books still seem to be selling well.

    So tell us, in what why is his career in trouble ?

  54. Anthony, that’s fine, but it seems to me that being an activist atheist for all practical intents and purposes is to deny that the assertion you attribute to Gould is tenable. That’s certainly Dawkins’s line, at any rate.

    You obviously disagree with Dawkins on this. Nevertheless, it should be clear what Dawkins’s argument is, and what still distinguishes him from accommodationism and the “Chamberlain School”.

  55. Jon

    Dawkins has already stated he has not changed his position. What part of his response did you not understand ?

    People “state” things all the time. That doesn’t mean we obsequiously ignore anything they do or say at odds with those statements.

  56. Matt Penfold

    Jon,

    You need to go back and read what Mooney has written.

    “Has Dawkins made any intellectual movement that he himself would recognize, or would he just call this a difference of emphasis or message (wearing a new “T-shirt”)?”

    The answer is no, Dawkins has not made any “intellectual movement that he himself would recognize”. We know this because Dawkins has said so.

    Got any thing even sillier to say ? Or is that your limit for the day ?

  57. John Die

    Jon,

    You need to go back and read what Mooney has written.

    “Has Dawkins made any intellectual movement that he himself would recognize, or would he just call this a difference of emphasis or message (wearing a new “T-shirt”)?”

    The answer is no, Dawkins has not made any “intellectual movement that he himself would recognize”. We know this because Dawkins has said so.

    Got any thing even sillier to say ? Or is that your limit for the day ?

  58. Matt Penfold

    Jon,

    You need to go back and read what Mooney has written.

    “Has Dawkins made any intellectual movement that he himself would recognize, or would he just call this a difference of emphasis or message (wearing a new “T-shirt”)?”

    The answer is no, Dawkins has not made any “intellectual movement that he himself would recognize”. We know this because Dawkins has said so.

  59. Jon, take a look at my comment above (46). It deals with definitions, ideas, beliefs, propositions, positions which can be suffixed by an “-ism”, and hence are relevant to the post. By contrast, tone does not attach to any “-isms”.

  60. Tom Johnson

    Anna, unfortunately we just have a fleeting relationship with the religious organization in question. What strikes (and scares) me the most is watching collegaues treat the public with double-standards: secular groups with trust and approval, religious groups (even progressive ones) with mockery and disdain. We’re usually very good at communicating science…until religion is involved. Then it becomes much less about science and much more about culture, from my personal experiences.

    I think at the heart of all this there’s something important to be said for accommodationism; whether or not science and religion are/are not philosophically compatible is an incredibly important discussion to have, and I think that’s what people like Dawkins and Coyne meant it to be. But as we’ve watched it evolve, the concept has become a label for simply anyone in science who wants to work with religion – even if it doesn’t mean sacrificing scientific standards for it. That’s where the term gets lost, devolves into a label, and, in my opinion, becomes dangerously stupid.

    Your point about this spilling over from evolution to climare change/conservation is important, and it’s what I’ve been seeing not just from overzealous nutjobs but from otherwise intelligent people I work with who know people like Coyne personally. The overwhelming sentiment among the New Atheists I know and work is that there’s a war afoot – and if we’re going to “win” we’d better not ask for help from the enemy. If we start making the front lines of that war applying science to societal/environmental issues that affect us all, regardless of affiliation, everyone is going to lose.

    I think (and this is all speculation) Dawkins senses this and is pulling back a little from the “take no prisoners; don’t give the religious an inch” rhetoric, not because he’s “changed” but because he sees how readers have grossly distorted his words to fuel a culture war (if I get flamed for this, I’ll know I’ve struck the correct chord). I can only hope from my own experiences that it promotes some change in those readers for the better.

  61. Jon

    We can get all Aristotelian, Benjamin, and put things in logical groupings, but in the end, what matters is how things work in the world. Who cares what “ism” you put yourself or others in? “Isms” often come after inclinations and behavior. In this case, do you alienate religious moderates or not? Chris has argued that it’s not wise to do so. Dawkins, despite his rhetorical gestures that he hasn’t changed, has decided *not* to alienate religious moderates as much as he has previously. What changed? My bet is that his colleagues at Oxford and elsewhere talked some sense into him.

  62. Anthony McCarthy

    — The answer is no, Dawkins has not made any “intellectual movement that he himself would recognize”. We know this because Dawkins has said so.John Die @#58

    You’re assuming that instead of “Dawkins has said so,” is the only criterion for deciding that. Change that to “that Dawkins has admitted to,” and see what happens.

    I don’t think that Dawkins’ intellectual consistency or even integrity is all that big a deal except for what he and his followers make of it. Thus the first two comments of this thread.

  63. Dave Morris

    Chris,
    Why the mancrush on Dawkins?
    Why is claiming him to be like-minded so vital to your own image?

  64. Anthony McCarthy

    — Why the mancrush on Dawkins? DM

    Oh, pleeease.

  65. Anna K.

    @Tom Johnson, #61

    That double standard you mention is very troubling. I retired from academic science in the mid ‘90s; the atmosphere sounds really different now. I wasn’t religious at that time, but I don’t remember such blanket condemnation of religious people then. I worked at a medical school; for obvious reasons we didn’t think much of evolution deniers and anti-vax types, but I don’t recall religion per se being a big issue.

    However about a year ago I read an account by a scientist who also edits a well respected journal. He had been doing science for decades. He said he had recently started to get some ugly comments from colleagues about the fact that he was active in his religion (he’s a practicing Jew). He was surprised and disturbed by that. His religion hadn’t ever been an issue before – and btw no one was questioning his science creds.

    I agree that what ought to be a philosophical discussion looks like it’s turning into a culture war.

    If religious people are all treated like enemies even when millions of them appreciate science, support it, practice it, and want to learn from it to shape their own views, you’re right, that’s a losing proposition for everyone who cares about dealing with environmental issues. Nobody wins when we try to shoehorn science into ideologies: It was bad when the Soviets did it, it’s bad when Republicans do it, it’s bad when religious fundamentalists do it, and it’s bad when new atheists do it.

    Thinking of my own denomination again, the church leadership is still going to be pro-science and in favor of advocating for dealing with climate change responsibly. But the church leadership can say all it wants; if the people in the pews feel that scientists in general are hostile toward them for being religious, they have a choice toward which churchwide efforts their dollars and volunteer hours support. And they’ll probably direct those dollars toward other church efforts such as microloan programs or Habitat for Humanity, where their participation is welcomed rather than insulted.

    Re flamers: the beauty of having teenagers is that it has taught me to be selectively deaf and to pick my battles. Or discussions. :-D I always consider it a compliment when I get flamed; as you say, it means I’ve struck a chord.

    After this discussion with you, I have to say right now I feel fortunate to be in a position to present material to get folks in our church more engaged with science and excited about science.

    Seeing as you too are a first-hand observer of this culture clash, do you have any thoughts on what can be done to build bridges on your side? Maybe a potluck? ;-)

  66. Sorbet

    If this is hailed as “accommodationism” on the part of Dawkins, then he has been accommodating for several years now. I don’t see why this is such a revelation for you. As for the book itself, it may be his best book up to date and is an absolutely marvelous presentation of the elegant evidence for evolution. I would recommend John Kwok’s extremely well-written review of it on Amazon. Chris should certainly read it.

  67. Tom Johnson

    One of my biggest strategies for combating the “culture clash” is to try as best I can and ignore the colleagues that seek to purposely flame others instead of spreading science around. From what I’ve seen, the public (including the religious) knows who to tune out and who to listen to when scientists come around, and I typically find myself getting much more open dialogue and discussion going with folks when I leave the scolding and mockery out of an outreach event. In contrast, those flaming the religious typically end up in a worthless shouting match or get ignored altogether.

    I work in the South, and maybe one of the reasons that the “debate” seems worse here is because things are a bit more polarized. The religious believers we talk with usually contain more than a few ultraconservative hardliners, and many of the Southern-born, vocal atheist scientists are “converts” from ultraconservative families who seem to have a chip on their shoulder (I know that’s a reach, and that characterization doesn’t hardly apply to all). Because of this, the dialogue takes on a tone of bitterness that can be especially hateful, and I stop to wonder sometimes if this doesn’t just magnify the existing friction between science and religion from a regional perspective.

    I’m rambling now, so I’ll stop. Hopefully though, those coming across this thread and associated comments will realize that this whole “debate” is more about keeping points on your favorite blogger or even keeping points in or winning an increasingly unrealistic culture war between science and religion. From personal experience, at least, the hateful ‘New Atheist’ rhetoric fails miserably when applied to the public.

  68. Marion Delgado

    Benjamin Nelson’s strawman revisionism about what Gould said about NOMAs speaks for itself. Very similar to the way sociobiology fanatics and conservative allies pretended that people that disagreed with E. O. Wilson et al. were exactly like the Progressive Labor Party – a tiny Maoist sect that disrupted everything from SDS meetings to one of Wilson’s speeches.

  69. Robert Gerst

    I don’t see how the quote supports the notion that Dawkins is “softening his message”. As the start of the quote makes clear, his topic in The Greatest Show on Earth is different from that in The God Delusion. One was an attack on religion the other is about providing “positive evidence that evolution is a fact”. This is not softening a message; it is presenting two different messages.

    We can only hope that Dawkins is not taking any cues from Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, a hopeless mess of a book. Readers expecting some discussion of how scientific or unscientific America is, or how scientific illiteracy threatens our future, will no doubt be surprised to find very little on either subject in Chris Mooney’s book. Rather, the focus is on how science is communicated and how best to promote the scientific view of things. Mr. Mooney believes that: “When you want to promote evolution, it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith; rather, you want and desperately need religious allies.”

    That may or may not be true. No evidence is offered to support this view or any of the arguments or prescriptions in Unscientific America. It seems we are meant to take everything Mr. Mooney tells us on faith. Worse, the perspective taken is one of marketing and spinning messages (note the phrase ‘promote’ evolution) as if changing someone’s world view is equivalent to hawking breakfast cereal. In this perspective, the truth of things is irrelevant and all that matters is how much you can sell. It’s science conducted by the Public Relations Department.

    Science is better without it.

  70. Jon, many of us presuppose by convention that when we’re having a reasonable and sincere discussion about the world, we ought to use a bit of logic. It strikes me as a trivialization of honest debate to do otherwise. Further, no, I don’t believe that principled religious persons (moderate or radical) are alienated by honest assertions of non-belief. It’s the charlatans of faith (moderate or radical) that get upset at mere disagreement, because charlatans of faith are overcompensating for their mere and paltry intuitions by putting forward aggressive social endorsements.

    At least, this is my experience, based on having plenty of fine conversations with genuine religious folks, who I will respectfully (and sometimes playfully) disagree with — but persistently, and even passionately. If you think this must be a wrong way of doing things, even or especially for the purposes of science education, then you are not like Dawkins, or like me. (And for all you know, I’m not even an atheist!)

    Marion, if this wasn’t clear to you, my comment was principally about Dawkins’s view of NOMA. It pays to make a distinction here between an interpretation of Gould and Dawkins’s disagreement with him, which led to Dawkins’s coining of the “Chamberlain School” phrase, as a reference to NOMA, and how this still doesn’t fit Dawkins’s current position. As for your allegation of revisionism: it’s true I do formulate NOMA in terms of disavowing a science-to-atheism connection as part of activist atheism, but I thought that was an uncontroversial interpretation of the idea of non-overlapping magesteria. I think it is curious of you to find this “revisionistic”, so please say why you’d say so, with references to Gould’s published materials. If I am in error, then I will happily change my views.

    And you chose an ironic example, by the way, since I agree with you about the machinations of the aftermath of the Wilson-Gould debate. On my reading, Wilson was a reductionist philosopher, then he got hammered by critics and quietly changed his mind, and Wilson’s defenders did some historical revisionism.

  71. Marion and Jon, I gave a single considered reply to both your posts, but it never made it past moderation. It was short and entirely benign. I do not know what is going on with the headspace of the editors here.

    Jon, any sincere conversation begins with logic. To deny the idea of going back to definitions is to trivialize honest debate. I have had good conversations with honest religious folks on these very issues. Honest ones (the ones with faith) find philosophical and scientific discussion unthreatening. Only charlatans get angry, because they have to loudly overcompensate for having mere intuitions instead of faith.

  72. (I apologize if I jumped the gun and my original comment referred to above does make it past moderation and somehow I don’t know about it.)

  73. Chris, must you be so divisive? Every time you make another post about UA or your “New Atheist” boogymen, it causes nothing but in-fighting in a community that should be working together. What I find interesting is that your book, which seems to have been meant to deal with how to promote scientific literacy in a non-confrontational way that will please everyone has managed to piss off lots of people while your arch-nemesis, the evil “New Atheist” Dawkins has seemingly succeeded in writing a book that actually does accommodate both the so-called “New Atheists” and the so-called “accommodationists.” I mean, even Kwok liked it. And that is high praise indeed. So instead of trying to make this all about you by suggesting that Dawkins is turning more towards your position when clearly he’s as “New Atheist” as ever, why not just congratulate him, encourage others to read it, and be done with it?

  74. Anthony McCarthy

    —- I don’t see how the quote supports the notion that Dawkins is “softening his message”. Robert G

    How about if I say he’s talking out of both sides of his mouth.

  75. bilbo

    Skepacabra says: “Chris, must you be so divisive? Every time you make another post about UA or your “New Atheist” boogymen, it causes nothing but in-fighting in a community that should be working together.”

    …lest we not forget several leading New Atheists started (and perpetuate) all this harmful “in-fighting” by throwing a rope around atheist scientists who suggest we can work with religion, accusing them of supporting creationism, and holding contests on their blogs to see who can come up with the most denegrating, mocking name for them.

    But I guess we can just forget all that….

  76. Tom Johnson

    Robert says: “Mooney believes that: “When you want to promote evolution, it’s just plain counterproductive to attack faith; rather, you want and desperately need religious allies.”

    That may or may not be true. No evidence is offered to support this view or any of the arguments or prescriptions in Unscientific America.”

    Au contaire. Read my comments to this post, Robert, as well as Anne K.’s. We experience evidence to support this almost daily.

  77. Jon

    To deny the idea of going back to definitions is to trivialize honest debate.

    Of course, but I’m disagreeing that you can abstract the passions from the “isms” you describe, and put them in a purely logical context. I think this guy is onto something when he suggests Isaiah Berlin as an antidote to Dawkins. A big argument of Isaiah Berlin’s is that if you believe in a Utopia, you’ll justify quite a bit on your way to getting there, because you’ll believe that the Utopian ends justifies the means. The New Atheists, in their pursuit of a society free from religious “superstitions”, are willing to alienate all religious people, even if that means a culture war interfering with our national ability to converse on important science-related issues such as science education or climate change. (This is essentially the argument of this New Republic article.) So anyway, I do think passions for new atheists run high, because they (naively, I think) believe they’re arguing about something that they think is the root cause for tons of societal problems. So who cares if they alienate everyone on their way to our New Atheist Utopia? Because once we get there, it will be like, totally awesome.

    I think, probably, enough people have talked to Dawkins that he’s having second thoughts about what he’s unleashed. Chris had these worries earlier on, and while Chris and Dawkins may still have disagreements, I think Chris is right to suspect that Dawkins’ recent comments indicates that Dawkins’ views have gotten closer to his.

  78. Anthony McCarthy

    Jon, the new atheists seem to be infected with a similar kind of millenarian zeal that some of the more alarming religious cults do. A lot of them are as convinced that they are the vanguard of an inevitable future as anyone who thinks that God is going to appoint them the rulers of the new order. And I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, when you strip aside the different means which they use to express it.

    I wonder if Dawkins on the new atheism might turn out to sound a lot like Dawkins on memes.

  79. Jon, the problem is that if you look at either the principles or the tone, things come out badly. Dawkins has held the same position as before: anti-NOMA, anti-accommodationist. If asked about religion today, he will say the same things he did before. He happens to be talking about evolution alone for his present project (contrasted with creationism), but that doesn’t mean he is part of the camp that disavows atheist activism related to science education.

    And if this is a debate over “tone”, then it is a merely verbal debate. Justifiable complaints about tone are relative to etiquette, not manners. I agree that passions may run high, but I see no fault in that. Quite the reverse. Curing diffidence demands passionate speech; people crave a reason to care. However, I do see fault in the inattentiveness of some of the debaters here on both sides of the accommodationism line (at least when they’re pretending to be serious).

  80. Jon

    he will say the same things he did before.

    I don’t doubt that. He’ll refuse to acknowledge anything has changed. But the change in tone is obvious.

  81. Jon

    And questions of tone are questions of militancy, which I think are relevant here. It’s about priorities. Are settling questions of everyones’ personal religious beliefs (yeah, right) worth refueling the culture wars? If your priorities lie in doing that, and there’s a whole mess of you that share those priorities, then yikes. I bet Dawkins at some point said yikes, which why the change in tone happened.

  82. Jon

    That, and he probably had some of talks with his colleagues in which he learned that some of the questions he thought were cut and dried, weren’t so much.

  83. No change has happened in terms of positions or substantive priorities. He’s temporarily focusing on the Evolution premise, so that he can go on to make the God Delusion argument. Clarification of premises is not a change of priorities in any non-trivial sense, though it is an expansion of the structure of one’s argument. I would agree that there may have been a “yikes” moment for Dawkins when he realized just how entirely intractable the anti-evolutionists in America are because of the structure of misinformation, which accounts for his felt need to clarify his premises with the new book. But that doesn’t put him in the same camp as Mooney, because Mooney views the very idea of activist atheism as wrongheaded, while Dawkins is still an activist atheist.

    While I understand that hyperbole is inevitable in American culture, I should point out that “militancy” is an inflammatory word to use to describe activists just because they’re activists. It’s part of a constellation of terms (like “culture war”) to describe people who you don’t agree with. When I have philosophical discussions with the UWO Campus Crusade for Christ over lunch, I did not describe their behavior as militant for trying to argue and explain their views (though “Crusade” is in fact a militant term). Honest debates are not wars. Reasoned passion is not hatred. Philosophy is not terrorism.

    Here is my alternative. Suppose we define “evangelicals” as ‘activists without reasons or evidence’. Let us suppose that evangelicals can be either atheist or theist. When dealing with evangelical theists, I don’t necessarily think they are soldiers. Rather, they are soldiers, loons, narcissists, or clowns. Similarly, if you find that Dawkins has not demonstrated attentiveness to reasons or evidence, as you seem to allude in your third reply, then I suppose you might call him an evangelical. I would disagree, and would think it unfair to say. But even still, I don’t think it would make sense to conclude that he is militant.

  84. Jon

    No change has happened in terms of positions or substantive priorities.

    You don’t convince, and there’s plenty of evidence otherwise.

    Mooney views the very idea of activist atheism as wrongheaded

    I think Chris is fine with some kinds of “activist atheism”, and I am too. It’s the poorly informed, identity-politics-infused, overgeneralizing, often prurient kind that people don’t like, and is likely to produce a backlash if it made inroads into the larger culture.

  85. bilbo

    Very correct on your latter point, Jon. One correction, however:

    Many forms of “activist atheism” are specifically tailored to cause a backlash. The “we hope to change people’s minds” jibberish is just that.

  86. Vindrisi

    Many forms of “activist atheism” are specifically tailored to cause a backlash.

    Like deliberate acts of religious desecration, or comparison of religious education to child abuse or, for that matter, encouragement of the use of pejorative terms like “faithhead” to describe devoutly religious individuals.

  87. Jon, the evidence you point to is, by rational standards, consistent with everything that’s been said before. You’ve argued that Dawkins now put a bit more work into emphasizing that intelligent people can be decent. That’s nice of him, but is entirely consistent with the belief (and argument) that they believe in an unnecessary and harmful delusion.

    Chris is not fine with activist atheism. This is clear in his callous response to Coyne, and made even more clear in the comments he made to me in person last month. Listening back on the audio recording, Chris believes that whatever utility that activist atheism has for those already inside the atheism community, doesn’t do a good enough job in engaging the wider world. (He does admit that it does do some work at convincing some people outside of the community, but not enough people.) To put it mildly, I think that’s underselling an indispensable point, and leads to disastrous consequences. I think that if you want it to be even possible for people to be engaged in some meaningful way, then you have to make a safe space for passionate public debate about inconvenient and uncomfortable issues. I think that if you’re not willing to do that then the public space will be taken up by bores and lunatics, and then people who are otherwise sound of mind will mentally tune out of the conversation. If you want to “rouse” the “silent middle”, give them honest debate and reasons to care; don’t just stand there and wag your finger at people who bother trying to make a difference.

    Vindrisi, let’s not conflate Myers and Dawkins. And Dawkins does indeed take a strong stand against raising one’s child dogmatically, without the autonomy to decide for themselves in what they believe. But the argument there is neither obviously aggressive, nor wrongheaded. This is a moderate form of the same intuition that we all (hopefully) have when we condemn children raised in cults. The real room for disagreement, I think, is on how we think Dawkins would have us act upon this moderate form of the intuition. If he says ‘ban churches’ then that’s one thing, if he says ‘stop publicly funding religious education’ then it’s another.

    On the other hand, I don’t think terms like “faithhead” or “bright” are in very good taste. They do seem like terms one would use when trolling. But

  88. Vindrisi

    I was not conflating Myers and Dawkins. I was giving examples that seem tailored to provoke backlash (Sure, Dawkins has said that he sees no reason why people would be offended by some things, like those I have cited, he has said, but I know him to be smart enough to not really be that naive – I hope). Hence the comment from Bilbo I quoted. I really have to disagree with you that Dawkins stand against religious upbringing (and he has made it clear that he is really talking about a religious upbringing in general) not being obviously aggressive. Go and ask religiously devout people what they think of the conflation of educating one’s children in the family faith and child abuse. I have little doubt that they would consider the notion patently offensive and aggressive (those I have asked about it certainly do, and show a good bit of anger at the idea). I think this is one of those instances that your version of philosophy falls short for being very unconnected with human reality. Unless, of course, you are simply playing the sophist.

  89. Anthony McCarthy

    — but is entirely consistent with the belief (and argument) that they believe in an unnecessary and harmful delusion. BSN

    If they’re behaving well, where is this evidence that what they believe is a “harmful delusion”? In the absence of harmful behavior, what does that consist of? And as to its being necessary, I’m glad to have to inform you that is for them to decide, not you or even the former Oxford Chair for the “Public Understanding of Science” to tell them.

    I’ve been watching “atheist activism” since before most of the new atheists were born. While there has been some which was amusing, little of it was an exercise in pure intellectual integrity and a most of it always had a lot in common with fundamentalist bigots and the worst of carny hucksterism. Not all of it, there was differing quality though I think most of the non-believers who were honest with themselves tended to identify with agnosticism.

    Dawkins is talking out of both sides of his mouth, which doesn’t really come as a big surprise to me. The guy’s always been more of an ideological advocate than a serious thinker.

    I happened to catch Haggerty’s spot on the schism between the new and the old atheist activists, which was not entirely accurate but which did tell us that Paul Kurtz was ousted in a “palace coup” last year (his words, not mine). I couldn’t help but think of Cardinal Woolsey. It’s something of an irony considering some of the controversies he was involved in, especially around Humanism and the early years of CSICOP. I do think he is right about the new atheism on two counts, it’s fundamentalist and it will not go far. I’d think, resting on a pretty superficial cultural fad as it does, it’s about due to reap the results of it’s own obnoxiousness right about now.

  90. Jon

    If you want to “rouse” the “silent middle”, give them honest debate and reasons to care…

    You guys are going to rouse the silent middle of the country against Christianity? Have you spent much time on this planet?

  91. bilbo

    “Chris is not fine with activist atheism. This is clear in his callous response to Coyne, and made even more clear in the comments he made to me in person last month.”

    I don’t know what you said that caused any comments in your direction, Benjamin, but I’m fine with most forms of activist atheism. It’s the kind of atheist activism that purposely broadbrushes believers and perpetuates false, negative stereotypes that I take issue with. Jerry Coyne is just one example. Most of his writing/blogging is fine, and I accept it without objection. But when he takes theists who are staunch advocates of evolution (and, more important, staunch adversaries of creationism and fundamentalism) and calls them “woolly-headed,” “ignorant,” “disgraceful,” and equates them to creationists – all the while refusing to work with them to stop creationism, his supposedly primary goal – he becomes litte more than a joke (and someone just trying to stoke an argument and get some cheers from the peanut gallery).

    I imagine that kind of foolishness (not all of Coyne’s writing, mind you) is the type of “activism” people like Chris take issue with. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in reading New Atheists like Coyne, Dawkins, and Myers (just to name a few), none of them are willing to concede a point (and I mean, never, even with other atheists “outside the circle”), and all of them consider criticism on a single blog entry from someone like Chris to mean that the sentiment is that ALL of their writing is bunk – not just the entry in question. I’ve always considered those kinds of actions to be limited to the moron shock-jocks on networks like Fox News…and it disturbs me to see scientists doing it.

  92. In ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’, Dawkins makes scant mention of the selfish gene theory that he promoted so much in ‘The Selfish Gene’. Does that mean he has softened his stance on the gene-centric view of evolution? Or does it just mean he decided not to write the same book twice?

    I tend to believe the latter. I think any change in tone detected in ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is more reflective of Dawkins’ ability to compartmentalize his message and to know his audience. ‘The God Delusion’ was an anti-theism book written mainly with atheists as the target audience. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is a pro-evolution book targeting not only atheists but believers with a mind willing to consider the evidence for evolution.

    I haven’t read ‘The God Delusion’, but based on appearances and debates I’ve seen with Dawkins, his reputation of being a shrill and belligerent ‘fundamentalist’ atheist is quite undeserved. In fact, I’ve heard Dawkins use similar phrases in referring to moderate believers and his various discussions and cooperations with moderate clerics go back years. If you watch the unfortunately-named British miniseries “Religion: The Root of All Evil?”, you’ll see that he tries to hold meaningful and insightful conversations with even the most ridiculous of theists (including a pre-scandal Ted Haggart, and a Jew who converted to an especially militant brand of Islam), with varying levels of success.

    Don’t assume that someone has changed their stripes just because they fail to fit within the mold that you have created for them.

  93. Vindrisi, I’ll tell you what, I’ll go back to TGD and read the relevant sections on child abuse with fresh eyes to see if we disagree. But I don’t recall him making practical suggestions that cross the line which we might fairly describe as “militant” or “aggressive”, let alone ‘out of this world’, etc. In fact, as far as the aspiration for autonomy of persons goes, then I find myself agreeing with Dawkins that you can’t force beliefs onto children, they should be able to choose what to believe when they have the tools to think for themselves. That’s a legitimate point that I don’t think in principle many established churches would disagree with it.

    Jon, people don’t have to be persuaded by an argument for it to be worth thinking and talking about, which is necessary if we want to think about changing the national dialogue. And if we’re looking at actual persuasion of actual people, then there’s no substitute short of brainwashing.

    Bilbo, we were having a conversation. I wasn’t heckling him, if that’s what you’re thinking! He was terribly polite, I was terribly polite, everyone was terribly polite, but we completely disagreed. I asked him about activist atheism, I emphasized that it had utility both in the in-group, in guiding the conversation, and even in persuading diffident persons, and he essentially said that while he agrees some people are persuaded it doesn’t pay off well enough as a strategy. He, rightly, pointed out that there is a difference in goals, and priorities, but that’s trivially true: activist atheists are activist atheists, not just activist naturalists like Chris.

    For most of these activists, atheism fits within a pragmatic framework in order to prioritize naturalism. People like Coyne argue that government science organizations should not be arguing that science and religion are compatible — but also not arguing that they’re incompatible, either. Coyne thinks that as a government organization they should say nothing. I don’t know if I agree with that perspective, but it’s not exactly pie-in-the-sky idealism either.

    I don’t know about your last remarks. When I think of the things wrong with Fox News, the fact that they can’t concede points in an argument is not at the top of my list. As for overdefensiveness… well, that’s a problem, but maybe it’s a symptom of a spoiled context: in this case, Coyne would say that it’s due to Chris’s chronic failures to communicate effectively to honest criticism. I’d agree.

  94. Vindrisi

    Benjamin, you have clearly missed the point. It does not matter if you regard Dawkins’ position as aggressive or militant, or if he regards his position as aggressive or militant – by religious individuals, be they devout or moderate, his position on religious education as child abuse is perceived as aggressive, militant, and bigoted. If you don’t believe me, find the relevant part of “The God Delusion”, go read it to a variety of religious individuals, and ask them their opinions. See if they find it off-putting or conducive to dialog. The message received is the message sent, after all (and please spare me your usual hand-waving sophistry about how this isn’t true so that you can simply skip dealing my point).

  95. bilbo

    Benjamin: “I don’t know about your last remarks. When I think of the things wrong with Fox News, the fact that they can’t concede points in an argument is not at the top of my list. As for overdefensiveness… well, that’s a problem, but maybe it’s a symptom of a spoiled context: in this case, Coyne would say that it’s due to Chris’s chronic failures to communicate effectively to honest criticism. I’d agree.”

    No offense, Benjamin. I apologize if I came off as abrasive, and you certainly are correct – there are a ton of other negatives about a place like Fox News. It was probably the worst example I could use.

    But that point still stands. I see people like Chris concede points to people like Coyne quite a bit, but the knee-jerk reaction by many of the New Atheists is to view criticism against them as support for religion, and I think this leads them to accept anything another New Atheist says at face value. To be honest, though, a failure in communication runs both ways in the ‘discussions’ between people like Coyne and Mooney. Mooney criticizes Coyne and Coyne calls Mooney an idiot and says he’s 100% wrong. Coyne criticizes Mooney and the same thing happens. There seems to be a lot more interest in point-keeping and playing to the sidelines in these “discussions” than there is an honest drive to have something useful come of it. And both sides are guilty of that.

    It would be interesting if we could see this same debate played out with the same people in the scientific literature, where peer-review could cull out most of the personal attacks and pettiness and unneeded hyperbole and get to the heart of the matter. Instead, we’re left to see who can “own” the other the most.

  96. Sorbet

    Looks like McCarthy’s wishful delusional thinking about atheists “worshipping” Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism being a “temporary fad” is still giving him moist dreams.

  97. Anthony McCarthy

    “moist dreams”, oh, you do have a way with words, Sorbet, even if they are the same words that one hears from mildly rebellious 14-year-olds wishing to feel daringly transgressive.

    Have I ever said that atheists “worship” Richard Dawkins? When and where? I think I have noted that I could find more Catholics who are critical of the pope than I’ve encountered new atheists who could tolerate someone pointing out some of RD’s lapses and hypocrisies. Which is true, as seen on this very blog, in fact, on this very comment thread.

    — Coyne would say that it’s due to Chris’s chronic failures to communicate effectively to honest criticism. B.S. Nelson

    There are few people with a blog who have a thinner skin than Jerry Coyne. But, then, ideological hatchet men so often do. See how amusingly Rush Limbaugh pouts and fusses when he doesn’t get his way.

  98. Sorbet

    -Have I ever said that atheists “worship” Richard Dawkins?

    seeing the usual scientistic romanticism of the new atheists, their hero worship of Richard Dawkins – THEIR Richard Dawkins.

    Don’t make us pity the rapid decline of your working memory.

  99. bilbo

    “There are few people with a blog who have a thinner skin than Jerry Coyne. But, then, ideological hatchet men so often do.”

    True true. There are also few people who write book reviews that succumb to out-of-context quotations and fail to detach personal blog-fight vendettas from objective analysis more than Jerry Coyne.

  100. Anthony McCarthy

    You’re keeping track of my every word? Sorbet as your Boswell isn’t exactly four star coverage is it?

    I guess I think of “hero worship” as being pretty much what I said, worship of a deity isn’t exactly in the same league is it. Oh, but, I’m forgetting, you wouldn’t know that.

    bilbo, it’s pretty shocking to see how low Coyne goes sometimes.

  101. Sorbet

    Trust McCarthy to first say something, then twist his words to imply he did not mean what he did. At least make the ploy less ludicrously transparent McCarthy.

  102. Anthony McCarthy

    Ludicrously transparent….. distinguishing between the kind of adoration Miley Cyrus’ fans bestow on her and the worship of God. I can assure you, Sorbet, I know the difference between them. I mean, I’d probably cross the country to hear Bessie Smith if she should rise from the dead but I wouldn’t thank her for my existence and the existence of existence.

  103. J.J.E.

    I think the major axis that both “camps” of atheists seem to miss is the dogma axis. They are so busy defining themselves in terms of accommodating, framing, assessing compatibility, etc. that they really miss their common cause.

    In general, Mooney and Dawkins (or Coyne, et al.) would both object to dogma as much as possible or feasible. And both would also grant that the overwhelming majority of religion contains at its heart dogma and both would probably also concede that there are a few rare exceptions (for example, I know Jerry excepts deists and Quakers for example from his general critique of religion). I think both would also accept that science seeks to avoid dogma, though it sometimes fails temporarily.

    Given what I think is a broad swath of agreement, I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that, insofar as religion seeks to perpetuate dogma and science seeks to free itself of dogma (however imperfect each is at its goal), they are incompatible on a very important point. Chris would seek to emphasize common ground between religious people and Coyne/Dawkins/et al. would, at least some of the time, attempt to discredit dogma, which is inimical to science.

    From the Dawkins et al. perspective, I don’t think it is contradictory, when communicating evolution, to emphasize the blindingly obvious facts of science. Nor would it be contradictory for Chris to acknowledge that, at least vis a vis dogma, science and religion are largely incompatible. In one case, Dawkins has shown flexibility and openness of mind sufficient to embrace multiple, productive perspectives. In the other, Mooney has still failed to do so to my knowledge.

  104. Anthony McCarthy

    J.J.E., would you be willing to also acknowledge that, while science can’t consider anything but its proper subject and remain science it is possible for religion to take full notice of the evidence of science and remain religion? Of course, religion not being dependent on universal methods or remaining within the same kinds of strict confines that science is can be many things, some of which are at the same time not compatible with all of science.

    It is a very rare religion that is entirely incompatible with science of some kind.

  105. Anthony McCarthy

    As to Jerry’s exceptions, window dressing.

  106. Jon

    In one case, Dawkins has shown flexibility and openness of mind sufficient to embrace multiple, productive perspectives. In the other, Mooney has still failed to do so to my knowledge.

    Chris is insufficiently pluralistic in his pluralism, even though his views were pluralistic before anyone else’s? File under “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”

  107. Jon

    I think both would also accept that science seeks to avoid dogma, though it sometimes fails temporarily.

    There’s no dogma in New Atheism? “Scientific empiricism is the only way to know anything worth knowing” is not dogma?

  108. J.J.E.

    @Jon:

    Chris has not to my knowledge willing to come out and say dogma is incompatible with the scientific method. This doesn’t mean anything because, as I suggest above, I haven’t noticed it put to him that way yet. If he (or anyone else) disagrees, then I think I could have a fruitful debate on the merits of why disagreeing is wrong. If he agrees, then he must be willing to say that any religion that accepts and promotes dogma is incompatible with the goals of science. And I must point out that this makes no claim whatsoever about applications of scientific method by people who are religious or otherwise dogmatic. Atheists, Christians, Muslims, etc can all knowingly defend dogmas of one sort or another and fruitfully conduct science that doesn’t contradict with those dogmas. (The “failure” part above.) However, any Atheist, Christian, or Muslim that subscribes to a WORLDVIEW that rejects questioning dogma is incompatible with the scientific worldview for at least those issues. Some religions are rife with easily disputed dogma (YECs for example) and some are less so (Unitarians or even Quakers).

    However, I find faith and/or religion without dogma to be a rare beast and a peculiar one. Jesus is the son of God. I have no idea what that even means. Mohamed is the prophet of Allah. What? Etc. Those are all propositions that I have to accept on some unquestionable authority. I can never hope to subject those to tests. So, they are dogmatic.

    My criteria for being compatible with a scientific worldview is that an honest attempt to root out and discard dogma is honestly attempted. I have no idea of how to discard the “dogma” of interpreting sensory input (a rather odd use of the word “dogma” I admit, but that’s where Jon appears to be going).

    In short, I would change Jon’s statement slightly: “Scientific empiricism is one reliable way to obtain knowledge that all s0-called ways of knowing have in common.” Reading and parsing the words of an ancient text, discussing ideas present in an elder’s mind, evaluating your personal emotional state, etc are all fundamentally empirical/observational in nature. But the next step in the chain of logic is that religion would have you accept many things on authority, science would not.

    That’s my only point. If there was an atheist that said, “You must not question the absence of god.” then that type of person goes in the same bin as the ardent theist. They are both dogmatic Stalin was an atheist of this sort. But as the rejection of Lysenkoism showed, science strives to get out from under dogma. I’d wager that Dawkins and Jerry, if forced to make the binary choice to identify as either adogmatic or atheistic, they’d choose adogmatic. After all, they’ve both suggested that there are conditions in which they would believe in a particular god. (Falwell’s 900′ Jesus for example.)

  109. J.J.E.

    @ Anthony McCarthy October 20th, 2009 at 6:41 am

    I have no quarrels with what you’ve written. If science is A, my claim is not that all religions are A’.

    As I told Jon above, my contention is simply that a willful defense of dogma is incompatible with the scientific ethos. So, in order to be simultaneously religious and scientific, exceptions have to be made to accommodate those contradictions. So, for example, Francis Collins maintains a dogmatic view on the presence and validity of the Trinity. A natural scientific impulse would be to ask, “How do I know that? Is that even reasonable? Can I test it? What predictions does that make?”. When Collins tries to share the way he wrestles with those issues, he must either refuse or fall back on a method of testing not accessible to everyone. His personal revelation of a tripartite frozen waterfall is no use to anyone but himself, and even if experienced by other people wouldn’t lead to a consensus of the correctness of his view.

    Therefore, at least in that one area, in order to reconcile his two beliefs, Collins must refrain from challenging that dogma. He can still be a capable scientist (duh), but is it really so rude to point out that he has some sacred issues and encourage him to challenge them? The issue for YECs is even more extreme and makes accepting vast swaths of modern science virtually impossible, although they can do many other things like organic chemistry, X-ray crystallography, classical mechanics, etc. Even they aren’t completely incompatible with science. (ie they aren’t A’).

  110. Jon

    Reading and parsing the words of an ancient text, discussing ideas present in an elder’s mind, evaluating your personal emotional state, etc are all fundamentally empirical/observational in nature. But the next step in the chain of logic is that religion would have you accept many things on authority, science would not.

    This is very well thought out–much more thoughtful than most who post here. I don’t have time to answer you as well as this deserves, but I would add more to the picture: Dialog (someone else’s mind is *not* something that you see, empirically). A priori knowledge (you rely on more of it than you think). Esthetic interpretation of the non-literal (it’s even in mideval philosophy, like Thomas Acquinas and Augustine). Imagination (check out how S.T. Coleridge distinguished fancy from imagination).

    These are admittedly subjective things (perhaps because they are so subjective they need a starting point–dogma literally means, “that which is taught.”) But what if we can’t do without them? Or at least, what if *some* people can’t do without them? What if they’re essential parts of human nature? What if they can’t just be freeze dried and removed and replaced by “Scientific Thinking” or whatever? (Especially when you’re talking about people with low levels of education.)

    And then there’s the political problem. If you claim to know The Truth in political dialog, you can create a backlash that can be exploited (and actually, the right has just about perfected the art of how to do that. I think very few New Atheists understand how this stuff works, because it’s much more rhetoric than it is science.)

  111. Anthony McCarthy

    An essential part of human nature is that we have no alternative but to depend on our personal experience for every part of what we know, including every part of logic, mathematics and science. There is no such thing as human thought that is truly objective, we can’t step outside of our minds and the context within which we exist. And what is concluded on the basis of individuals experience, even well within science, is not uniform and unanimous. I’ve quoted Eddington on that here, here is William James.

    It has always been a matter of surprise with me that philosophers of the absolute should have shown so little interest in this department of life, and so seldom put its phenomena in evidence, even when it seemed obvious that personal experience of some kind must have made their confidence in their own vision so strong. The logician’s bias has always been too much with them. They have preferred the thinner to the thicker method, dialectical abstraction being so much more dignified and academic than
    the confused and unwholesome facts of personal biography.

    William James: A Pluralistic Universe

    I’m always pressing people to remember what science is, an attempt to find methods and practices that arrive at an enhanced level of reliability in OUR dealing with the material universe. It is not anything but that, it can’t be anything but that or it ceases to be reliable, it ceases to be what has been agreed to include within science. Science is an entirely human activity, it has no objective existence outside of our species, outside of the individuals whose agreement creates the social phenomenon of science.

    What you see in the new atheism is a recent fad of scientism, the attempt to elevate science above its legitimate subject matter to make claims for it that can’t be sustained. That this unscientific fad has its opposite in various political movements to take parts of the proper subject matter of science outside of it, evolution, climate change, etc. doesn’t enhance the coherence or the honesty of the new atheism or scientism, for the most part. That’s the intellectual difficulty with it.

    Matched with that intellectual defect is an attitude of indiscriminate, adolescent bigotry including the crudest dishonesty and ridicule of every aspect of religion and of religious people, inconveniently, the largest part of the population by far. Included in this is dishonesty about history, theology, and literally every part of the long history of religion. Which is also matched by religious fundamentalists, but quite unmatched by most religious liberals.

  112. Anthony McCarthy

    J.J.E. you choose one particular dogma of trinitarian Christianity to question the compatibility of religious dogma and science when I don’t think that any other rational Christian would attempt to assert that. I’m quite certain that many devout believers in The Trinity would feel uneasy about that assertion if not hold it to be blasphemous to try to understand what they take as a mystical truth. It’s interesting that you take that often cited dogma because Richard Lewontin once pointed out that many materialists who have deep problems with that dogma have no problem with the dualistic nature of subatomic particles.

    But there’s another problem with your assertion. Not all dogmas are religious, many are philosophical or political. The virtue of the separation of church and state is a dogma that isn’t founded in material reality or logical necessity. The political equality of all people, ethnicities, etc. aren’t. That it’s preferable for the human species to favor science, even reason over their opposites is a dogmatic holding. How are people who hold with these dogmas in any more danger of suffering from incompatibility with science than those who hold religious dogmas.

    I’ve given a number of examples of dogmatic holdings of new atheists and others which are irrational and often directly in conflict with the basic requirements of science, the refusal to be honest about the nature of science and of the dependence on personal experience high among them. I think those dogmas of scientism that are rampant in the new atheism are brought into more direct conflict with science due to their very natures. Yet the defenders of scientific integrity refuse to acknowledge the clear conflicts, exaggerations, distortions that are right under their noses to concentrate on invented or inflated “problems” where none are a serious concern.

    I haven’t had any experience of someone asserting the doctrine of the trinity within science. There have been and to some extent are arguments within Christianity about the dogma of the trinity, not all Christians have or do hold it, by the way.

  113. Vindrisi, since I’ve already offered to go back and give TGD’s section on child abuse a second read, you have no relevant point to miss.

    It doesn’t help that in an effort to make your arguments clearer in the context of my objections, you presume the viability of some contentious unwritten laws. For instance, my intuitions tell me that “The message received is the message sent” only applies to special contexts — specifically, cases of sexual harassment, where there is a reasonable and reliable risk of bodily harm that follows from a speech act. But this is not a special context. Philosophy is not terrorism, and honest debate concerning human autonomous well-being is not holy war. If you receive a message, it may not be the one that was sent. (Especially when our discussion is over things like “tone”, which are nigh impossible to track except in egregious cases.)

    Bilbo, you’re right of course, this is how they make their living. Mooney sells books, Coyne publishes articles, and there are no mechanisms like peer review between them that would recommend better behavior, either in etiquette or manners (respectively).

    But nobody’s perfect. And to be completely honest, I have more respect for those that at least have the courage to give debate an honest shot than I do for those that react to any debate with shock and awe. There’s a kind of “split the difference to spare our feelings” culture out there that perceives any and every disagreement as potential grounds for nuclear holocaust. I oppose that first and foremost.

  114. Anthony McCarthy

    On some political blogs, I’d have to assert that I owed Jon a carbonated drink.

  115. Vindrisi

    Thank you, Benjamin, for confirming my suspicions about you. You are neither a philosopher nor serious (though your little cartoon of a while back showed that as well). I had thought so, but I had hoped I was incorrect. Oh well. Sadder but wiser.

  116. J.J.E.

    “J.J.E. you choose one particular dogma of trinitarian Christianity to question the compatibility of religious dogma and science when I don’t think that any other rational Christian would attempt to assert that.”

    Oh, I can be more general. How about this one: “A superhuman intelligence was directly (if not intimately) involved in the creation of humanity (if not the universe).” Of course my argument in no way depends on the Trinity.

    “But there’s another problem with your assertion. Not all dogmas are religious, many are philosophical or political.”

    That’s not a problem with my assertion. In fact, I asserted the contrary. For just two examples anti-theistic atheists and Stalin. So you’re arguing points I didn’t make.

    Again the feature of my framing of the argument is in terms of dogma minimization. I don’t assert it is possible for completely objective rationality without something somebody would call dogma. What I argue for is that science attempts (it may fail, but it attempts) to challenge every premise, overturn every dogma, to hold nothing sacred. That underlying ethos (as imperfect and incomplete as it is) is fundamentally at odds with a way of thinking that promotes the uncritical acceptance of assertions made by authority. Again, I’m not on a crusade to pit atheists against theists or to say atheists are flawless or that god is a priori an untenable position.

    But just because this is a contentious debate does not mean that I must present my conclusions as “fair and balanced”. Sometimes one perspective really is less acceptable than a given alternative. (Of course, no one person is A or A’, so this applies more to ideas than people.) And my contention is that if you are willing to adopt a scientific perspective, you must be willing to concede that some inconsistent accommodation MUST be made for it to be reconciled with traditional faith and the majority of organized religion. Of course, such inconsistent accommodation is neither difficult nor rare, nor relegated the religious divide. Psychology is replete with examples of where humans make such decisions. for all kinds of mental conflicts.

    I don’t think what I’m saying is controversial or even contradictory to the understanding of most religious people. For western monotheisms, “faith” is a cornerstone of religious practice. And a common refrain of religious people (my past self included) is “You just have to accept some things on faith.” Not “all things” and not even “most things”. That persistent and ubiquitous feature of religion is definitionally opposed to the ultimate goal of science.

    A brief off the cuff analogy that comes to me is the following: four people are tasked with keeping a large outdoor marble plot spotlessly clean. The non-religious person does a magnificent job for 95% of the plot, but reserves a corner (or the center!) of it for a small soil plot in which to grow flowers. The sloppy and lazy atheist tries (sorta) to clean up, but basically ends up with marble caked in dust and grime. He tries to keep it clean, but basically fails. He however doesn’t make a special place for dirt. The young earth creationist pretty much just sets aside a small plot of clean marble and devotes the rest of the room to depositing rich, deep soil in which to grow a mini-jungle. Finally, the successful atheist succeeds where the lazy one fails. He keeps his plot just as clean (but not necessarily cleaner) than the first religious person, except he has no space reserved for a garden plot.

    The point is, all 4 characters labor under the same constraints. Their tools (the mop, the water) and their circumstances (dust storms, airborne dust) make it in principle impossible to keep the plot spotless. The first and the fourth people would solve those problems if they could, but they can’t, so they have to play with the cards they’re dealt. The key issue that I see is that the first person is being disingenuous when they claim to adhering to the goal (if not the outcome) of keeping the plot clean. The fourth person may fail, but is in fact making no special room.

    Now there is no law written that you can’t make a garden on your marble plot. But doing so is making a special exception.

    Of course, by definition, if you point out some aspect of a “new atheist” that is in principle unassailable dogma that the person recognizes and refuses to challenge, then that person is no different than the religious or political dogmatist. Stalin comes to mind (as I mentioned before). Stalin made no bones about erecting a redwood forest in his plot. He may have had a tiny area in his plot that was more or less clean (because he rejected god), but damned if his whole damned plot weren’t full of other things.

    And one final note, as I have to get ready for work (not everyone is on U.S. time). Science is self evidently NOT an endeavor that “relies” on personal experience. It is a community enterprise that attempts to transcend personal experience. Peer review, replication, constant testing, synthesis, theory building, dissemination, etc. are all community efforts at coming to an explicitly non-personal consensus. That endeavor may often fail, but it is fundamentally trying NOT to be personal.

  117. Vindrisi, if you’re interested in serious arguments, they’ll be right where we left them: above.

    If not, we can always go the route of playful internet nonsense instead. It’s all the same to me, though you’ll perhaps understand that since it’s a busy season I have less time for the latter.

  118. Vindrisi

    Benjamin, I tried with you. You showed you weren’t interested in being serious or dealing with actual reality, but instead preferred to play sophistic games. I am not interested in that, as it doesn’t solve anything. I am truly sorry if you are incapable of understanding that. Based on your behavior here in the past, and the content of your blog, I feared that it was self-aggrandizing games you were more interested in, but I thought I would give you the benefit of the doubt. Your seemingly purposeful obtuseness in the above broke it for me. I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll let you play your games and stroke your ego with others, but I won’t waste any more of my time with you.

  119. Anthony McCarthy

    “A superhuman intelligence was directly (if not intimately) involved in the creation of humanity (if not the universe).”

    What was before the big bang? If that theory of the origin of the universe holds, which I’m no where near as confident of as I was only a year ago. Was it material existence? Was it anything that science will ever be able to touch? From what did the universe, including us, come? Is thinking about that incompatible with science? In what way is it incompatible with science, does it impede science? I strongly suspect you would think it wouldn’t.

    How about what do the lowest level subatomic entities that we know of now consist of? What about the forces that they seem to obey, at least to the extent that some of our cleverest people are able to tease out their existence? Are scientists who go beyond what science can find out to construct elaborate theories about that, and the math bugs who abet them, guilty of scientific incompatibility? Do they impede science? I haven’t read “Not Even Wrong” yet but I hope to get to it someday.

    ” In fact, I asserted the contrary. For just two examples anti-theistic atheists and Stalin. So you’re arguing points I didn’t make. ” JJE

    Which is why I chose the wall of separation and political equality to point out that dogmas can be quite unscientific, and in the case of ethnic and gender equality, those ideas have been and are under direct attack by people with careers in science as we discuss this. I fully hold both that the virtue of the wall of separation and the right to political (and more controversially economic) equality are as fully founded in human experience as evolution is in biology or any theory of chemistry or physics, I have no hesitation to admit that both are dogmas founded in the authoritative assertions of history and the result of personal experience and, in my case of religion.

    What is the way in which holding dogmatic beliefs so seriously incompatible with science that it is necessary to campaign against those dogmas? I pointed out that the foundational dogmas of the new atheism about the nature and virtue of science are dogmas and at times in direct conflict with what science actually is.

    The idea of a creator God isn’t an idea that can be contained within science because science can only deal with those aspects of the physical universe it is equipped to process. But the idea that science is able to deal with questions of the supernatural, outside of what it can process, is a foundational aspect of the new atheism. You can’t try to do with science things that they want to do with science without promoting a lot of stuff as science which is clearly no more science than “intelligent design”. Yet the new atheists hold themselves up as the defenders of science as they are allowed to distort it for their own, quite extra-scientific, and dogmatic purposes.

    I am going to have to consider your scenario and might get back to it if there is something that seems apropos comes to me.

    As to science being something that doesn’t rely on personal experience, I have to say that is exactly the kind of unreflective thinking that the new atheism seems to be built on. Science IS the result of HUMAN observation. Human beings don’t observe collectively, they observe individually. They might then publish the results of their observation and another person or group of people might then replicate the conditions the noted in the report of the original observation but what they observe will be just as much of an individual experience as the original experience. In fact, their reading of the original report was ALSO A PERSONAL EXPERIENCE. If they observed something other than what was reported by the first individual, that would also be personal experience and would lead to a conflict of the kind that modern science is built to provoke.

    How did people come up with the methods of science except through the individual experiences that led them to believe those were effective in both discovering how things work and how to more effectively manipulate the external universe. Logic is the product of our experience and of our personal knowledge of what works. Mathematics is the extension of logic but the logic itself is the result of personal experience. In people who lack the ability to have those kinds of experience or who choose to ignore that experience or to avoid it, logic is quite absent.

    If it didn’t there wouldn’t be so much as a single scientist in existence. Not a single person, of the kind that come together to comprise any kind of community knows the first thing about the universe without experience of it. Where would “science” come from if no one who practiced it contributed the results of their experience?

  120. Anthony McCarthy

    I forgot I wanted to address the idea of a “super human intelligence” as God.

    God isn’t a person, not an animal of any kind. Even what we could dimly imagine as “super human intelligence” would be an all too human attempt to try to comprehend what God might be, how God might think. The inadequacy of that attempt was appreciated in the early days of Abrahamic monotheism in the well known declaration by God that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. I would also point out that it was also appreciated in non-theistic Buddhism through equally clear but less forthrightly stated comments about the Dharma.

    You might be accurate about the concepts of God held rather superficially by people who don’t think about it very often or very deeply, though even a lot of them report experiences that are quite a bit more profound than what they might describe more casually.

    The assertions of new atheism in this area aren’t serious, they’re cartoon renderings to be ridiculed and mocked.

  121. Passerby

    In this context let me recommend an interesting book, Fritjof Capra’s “The Tao of Physics” which finds interesting parallels between quantum physics and Eastern philosophy and religion.

  122. J.J.E.

    No Anthony, personal experience is worthless as science until shared. Reading a report is a shared experience, replicating an experiment is a shared experience, conducting peer review is a shared experience. Science is a social endeavor based on achieving a collective description of the world. In a trivial sense, since being social and coming to consensus involves individual actors that make up the community, of course each individual experiences the world through themselves. I’m obviously not advocating a hive mind, telepathy, or whatever else. But any personal experience that can’t be translated into a collective experience doesn’t contribute to science. Which is why personal revelation of any sort is worthless in science. It may be a good starting point occasionally (at least according to Kary Mullis), but until personal experience makes the transition from personal to collective, it isn’t really science as we know it.

    And you persist in discussing all kindsa ideas that are beyond current understanding. O.K. What’s your point? I’m happy to say “I don’t know…yet.” Some things I’ll never know, some things humanity won’t know until well after I’m dead, and some knowledge I’ve actually contributed myself. I really don’t see the point of showcasing ignorance as if such ignorance proves anything.

    And finally, I didn’t mention “supernatural” because that’s just plain silly, definitionally. Why on earth would I ever try to assert that methodological naturalism has anything to say about something that isn’t natural? I did say “superhuman”, which is far from implying supernatural. Frankly, I find the term “supernatural” to be a rather useless term when used in this type of debate (though it is fruitful in more colloquial contexts). It is fodder for silly semantic word games and serves no real purpose for either side other than to distract.

    Finally, I remind you that just because certain types of moral behavior are defined in your worldview through something you consider dogma doesn’t mean that other people don’t find it necessary to do that way. There are plenty of philosophers who have made serious attempts at arriving at a system of ethics without recourse to dogma, some with more success than others. Hume is a great example. If you get to your moral system through willfully accepting dogma, fine, but that doesn’t mean that I do too. As an imperfect person, I’m certain to have hidden dogmas and I can tell you that I have many examined ones that are works in progress. But don’t presume to tell me that because I have been imperfect in abandoning mine that I should accept or tolerate those willfully maintained dogmas of others.

    Again, as my analogy above illustrates, I find the PROCESS to be quite important. A willingness to challenge dogmas is perhaps as important as success in overturning them. A great many people refuse to even question certain topics, and I hope my words will decrease that number, however slightly.

  123. Anthony McCarthy

    — No Anthony, personal experience is worthless as science until shared. JJE

    As the shared information has to come from a personal experience, I don’t think you can devalue it to that extent. It doesn’t work within science until it is shared and evaluated (as a result of others personal experience) but the experience itself is the raw material of science.

    Wednesday is one of my busiest work days so I will answer more of this later.

  124. Anthony McCarthy

    — In a trivial sense, since being social and coming to consensus involves individual actors that make up the community, of course each individual experiences the world through themselves. JJE

    Since the community effort consists of and depends on the individual experience of each of the people within the community there is nothing trivial about it. In fact, the peer review process and the eventual changing of consensus in the communal phenomenon of science is very much dependent on individuals having a different experience, often in the form of coming to a different conclusion, very often on the basis of having experienced something novel to the common experience of the group.

    It’s not to minimize the communal aspect of science, I held that science, itself, is the result of communal agreement, but neither can you minimize the individual, personal aspect of experience in the matter. The communal agreement perhaps is at its least personal when it comes to agreed to methods and standards but that agreement is entered into by individuals on the basis of their own knowledge and volition. What makes one person capable of producing science and another only able to produce hoaxes of the kind recently in the news here? One of the most annoying aspects of the “news” coverage of the balloon boy infamy was that people kept talking about the “scientific” interest of the father, some of the worst referred to him as a “scientist”. It would seem he has some aspirations to science, if of the cable TV variety, but the educational experience and willingness to abide by the requirements of science are clearly not there. It’s a question of both personal experience and personal choices.

    As in that quote from Wm. James at 112, you can choose the thinner instead of the thicker method of consideration. You might get neater results from the latter but not without a heightened possibility of leaving something crucial out. I’ve noted here before how many of the new atheists either are in the profession of the behavioral sciences or are great fans of them. I’ve come to the conclusion that isn’t to be marveled at, the social sciences are among the worst practitioners of exclusion for purposes of convenience. If they’re willing to do that with observable behavior in order to draw conclusions within human and animal experience it’s no wonder that they reject huge parts of what individuals conclude on the basis of their individual experience of life.

    More later, perhaps.

  125. Anthony McCarthy

    — And you persist in discussing all kindsa ideas that are beyond current understanding. O.K. What’s your point? JJE

    You brought up the issue of a creator God, even if you didn’t use that word it’s what you meant. All I was pointing out is that there are foundational issues of material existence that are not only beyond current science, someone could be forgiven for suspecting that in order to go beyond the origin of the universe or down to to the actual foundation of material existence (if there is any) what we know as science today would probably have to change drastically. It’s possible that Eddington was right and that there are aspects of the material universe, “laws” of the universe that are incomprehensible to us and, therefore, will never be known to us. If that is true about the material universe it’s not impossible that what we call God is equally inaccessible to us but still very much there. Science can’t dispose of God, it’s not going to happen according to the new atheist plan because they make claims for their ability to do that with science isn’t matched by the capabilities of science, not without distorting those.

    This point, the one Eddington made about the impossibility of human beings to process aspects of the material universe that are beyond our logical-scientistic capacity will always make the idea of a supernatural beyond those. Logical positivist style denials of the possibility on the basis of it being “irrational” is silly. That the supernatural would be outside of the abilities of procedures we developed to deal with the natural universe would be about as surprising as the inability of our ears to see color.

    I have looked at a number of attempts to do ethics without reliance on dogmatic holdings and have never seen one that was successful at doing so, even if those who tried it can be rather ingenious in their trying to hide that fact. The fact is any statement of ethics is outside of what can be shown empirically or logically, they have to be founded in one or more foudational dogmas. That wasn’t changed by the dishonest attempts to deny that was exactly what was happening. Even the idea that reason is preferable to unreason is to assert something that is not objectively founded.

  126. J.J.E.

    “Science can’t dispose of God”

    I have the humility to admit that. Do you have the humility to admit that you can’t know anything about god? Because they are two sides of the same coin. The reason science can’t dispose of god (or promote god either) is because humans cannot know anything about god. Once you admit the possibility for knowledge of god, you open up the door for either disposing of god or proving god.

    “I have looked at a number of attempts to do ethics without reliance on dogmatic holdings and have never seen one that was successful at doing so”

    Perhaps this is the improper venue to discuss such philosophical work. However, your statement is in fact structurally no different than a YEC who says: “I have looked at a number of attempts to demonstrate evolution and have never seen one that was successful at doing so”

    Out of curiosity, what are your objections to Hume?

  127. Anthony McCarthy

    I would certainly say people can’t understand God, and have said it in my comments to you. As to knowing anything about God, that statement comes up against several issues, one of them what gets to be called knowledge and how complete it has to be before you call it that. Which is an issue I confronted about mathematics and physics before I considered what I learned there to anything in religion.

    As to your comparison with the failed attempts to derive ethics without dependence on unfounded, dogmatic assertions, that’s a very, very different enterprise than the demonstration of evolution with huge amounts of physical data and confirmed predictions based in theories derived from the analysis of those data. And in the assertion of ethics, you run straight into the problem that any “ought” statement is outside of science and logic. There is no logical or scientific reason that you could give as to why the human species should continue for another week. At least none I’ve ever seen. However, since I’d very much like our kind to continue, I’d really love for science to get about its proper business of trying to save life on this, our only planet, and stop handing the reactionaries the political fuel to gain power and through what they consider their enlightened self-interest to destroy us all.

    Thursday is my heaviest teaching day of the week, I doubt I’ll get to Hume before tomorrow.

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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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