The New York Times on Atheist Infighting

By Chris Mooney | October 16, 2010 9:29 am

See here for Mark Oppenheimer’s report from last weekend’s secular humanism conference. He focuses closely on the panel featuring PZ Myers, Victor Stenger, Eugenie Scott, and myself:

At the liveliest panel, on Friday night, the science writer Chris Mooney pointed to research that shows that many Christians “are rejecting science because of a perceived conflict with moral values.” Atheists should be mindful of this perception, Mr. Mooney argued. For example, an atheist fighting to keep the theory of evolution in schools should reassure Christians that their faith is compatible with modern science.

“They resist evolution because they think everyone will lose morals,” Mr. Mooney said. “Knowing this, why would you go directly at these deeply held beliefs?”

The research I was pointing to includes a Time magazine poll from 2006, showing that for most Americans, if scientific research were to refute a strongly held religious belief, they would still cling to the belief; and things like the Wedge document, where moral decline is cited directly by anti-evolutionists as the reason for resisting the theory.

The article continues:

The panel must have been organized by someone mischievous, because the next speaker was the biologist and blogger PZ Myers — a confrontationalist, to put it mildly. In 2008, to make a stand for freedom of speech, he publicly desecrated a Communion wafer, a Koran and (for good measure) a copy of Mr. Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion.” He likes to say that he tries to commit blasphemy every day.

“I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases,” Mr. Myers said. “Do you think I care? I didn’t become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers.

“The word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars,’ ” he added.

That seemed close to the view held by the physicist Victor Stenger, the last speaker. He accused those who live without God of cowardice: “It’s time for secularists to stop sucking up to Christians” and other religious people, he said.

I gave a response to this line of argument–about “truth”–on the panel and on the latest Point of Inquiry. Of course truth is important. However, practically speaking, we also have to pick and choose where we can set the record straight–there is a vast amount of nonsense out there, religiously impelled and otherwise, and it doesn’t go away easily, if at all. There is far more of it than any single person can argue with or refute, and not all of it is equally damaging or pernicious.

In this context, setting priorities is not dishonest.

Then comes what I suspect will be the most noted part of this Times article–the “clown” scene:

Afterward, Mr. Mooney and Mr. Myers quarreled about a figure frequently cited as living proof of accommodation between science and religion: Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. In the past, Mr. Myers has called Mr. Collins “a clown” because of his religious beliefs.

According to Mr. Mooney, Mr. Collins, who was not at the conference, is an important ally for atheists: a leading proponent of the theory of evolution and a supporter of embryonic stem cell research. “By what metric is that a clown?” he asked.

“When it comes to the way he’s thinking about science, everything I’ve read that he’s written has been complete garbage,” Mr. Myers replied, adding later that he “will continue to call him a clown.”

You can read Mark Oppenheimer’s full article here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (28)

Links to this Post

  1. Quick Links | A Blog Around The Clock | October 16, 2010
  2. The new isms. « The Key of Atheist | October 30, 2010
  1. Sean McCorkle

    From the above,

    I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases,” Mr. Myers said. “Do you think I care? I didn’t become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers.

    On the one hand, this is admirable for its backbone and defiant attitude and individual spunk. On the other hand, we are in no way truly independent of each other; we are part of a larger society & civilization. The scientific endeavor is dependent on convincing that society of its value.

    Of particular importance, scientific funding depends largely on the membership of that society. The case and reasons for scientific funding must continually be made to the public. Thats in danger now: while the Obama administration is friendly to science, the opposing party that may soon control congress has shown ever increasing signs that it is not. Less funding, less science.

    No less important is education (including science education), especially at the college level. For no other reason, this is probably the most effective route to bring people into the fold of reason and evidence-based living that Dr Myers and many of us desire. This is also in particular danger now: state universities are cutting back everywhere I look, college graduation rates are dropping like a rock. Less scientists, less science. Less people who understand science, less science funding.

    We’re more than individuals in this culture war, and we need to reach people, or we’ll lose. If you want to connect to people, to educate them, to really communicate with them, there has to be some level of affinity between you and them. I don’t mean superficially or on the surface – the most jaded or outwardly contemptuous individual will listen to you if, at some deep level, they like you enough to temporarily suspend their disbelieve and give you enough attention to try to understand what you’re saying.

    Offending them works against this goal; it cuts connections to those who are already hostile to your ideas, and causes them to dig in. A defiant attitude will do some troop rallying of the like-minded, but if their numbers are still a minority at the end of the day, though it may be admirable, its a losing strategy. We need to start thinking of ourselves as educators spreading the word, and start connecting with people, and trying to lead them towards our perspective. We need to apply evidence-based reasoning to that goal, we need to study human psychology, and examine and determine what works and what doesn’t, and why, and then adapt accordingly.

  2. Hephaestus

    The time has come to call Poe’s Law on PZ. He’s left the reservation and is now in the land of Beck, Coulter, and Limbaugh. We shall all mourn his passing.

    As for the rest of us, we must decide what’s more important: winning the culture wars or demonstrating that we are so brilliant that it doesn’t matter that we’re sociopathic.

  3. Over at Age of Engagement, I have some thoughts on why it was a strategic blunder to invite PZ Myers to speak at the meeting. And no, it’s not about censoring PZ.

    http://bigthink.com/ideas/24535

  4. Sean McCorkle

    Something just now occurred to me:

    Maybe the “war” metaphor is not the best way to frame this. Maybe its evening hurting the cause because it implies a polarization into “us vs the enemies” and therefore hostility and enmity. Which in turn implies a disloyalty or treason if someone changes sides. Which in turn makes it difficult to win converts.

    I wonder if there’s a better metaphor. Instead of “warrior”, maybe something like “educator” or “teacher”? “guide”? “navigator”? (I’m trying to steer clear of terms with strong religious overtones). The more I think about it, the more I like “guide” – a guide is someone who already knows the territory, who can steer one clear of danger and lead them to food or water. A guide is someone who is to be trusted. It seems like an analogy that most anyone can relate to.

    Or maybe “scout” – one who ventures into unknown territory, possibly facing danger, to return with information for the benifit of the tribe. Who wouldn’t value a “scout”?

  5. ChH

    I think athiests should speak of those who disagree not merely as wrong or misguided, but stupid, insane and dangers to society.

  6. For those scientists who think that you can just beat someone over the head with facts and convince them to change their mind, you have been hanging out with too many scientists and not enough non-scientists. However, if you are of this mind set, then I imagine that data is the only thing that will convince you that Mr. Mooney may actually have a point. If you go to http://www.culturalcognition.net/ you will find peer reviewed research on the appropriate tack to take when trying to persuade people. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that people are more likely to change their minds on a particular issue if they hear the counter-arguments from someone they believe shares most of their ideals and values. Thus, someone like Francis Collins may actually be the best person to convince other Evangelical Christians that Evolution is a fact and that Stem Cell research is incredibly valuable.

  7. ChH

    Brad, research on STDs using unknowing Tuskegee airmen or Guatemalan prisoners might also have been incredibly valuable, but it didn’t make it right.

  8. MP

    I find the way atheists talk about Christians very annoying and I am not a Christian. By definition I would be an atheist myself, but I don’t identify like some do. I understand that some atheists feel like Christians are judging them and such. But, there is not need to be flat out hateful, even if the Christians are being that way. After all, according to people like ChH, Christans are stupid and insane and the atheists are the highly gifted and smart. Why must you go so low when you are clearly on a higher plane?
    On a side note, Christians give way more money and time to charity than atheists do. There are still priests who die every year from being in leper collinies. Maybe it’s just because they are dangerous and stupid? I don’t know. I do know that the many churches do many great things. In my city, the churches are the only group that opens the doors on cold nights so homless don’t freeze and that give out food so they don’t starve. In stead of making a blanket statement about a group of people why don’t you look in the mirror and find your faults?

  9. “The word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’.” Just plain not true! If you really are neutral about some particular truth (e.g. maybe you’re neutral about whether or not Obama is an atheist–you don’t know and don’t care), and you never discuss it, obviously you’re not a liar. Lying is saying something you know to be false–saying he’s a Muslim, for example. So this sentence is just flat out false. Irony alert! Furthermore, it ought to be obvious that “people who are neutral about truth” doesn’t refer to “accommodationists.” We all know what it’s like to care about and feel strongly about a truth, but set it aside when something more important is at stake. It happens all the time.

  10. Cameron

    Being neutral about “Obama is an atheist” is stupid. He’s not. He goes to church. He says he believes in God. That pretty much ends the debate there, in the same way that “he was born in Hawaii” ends the birthers nonsense to all but the most insane/anti-fact.

    Dreadful example.

    And moral decline is the reason that so many creationists are anti-evolution? More nonsense. Evolution is opposed to a literal interpretation of the Bible. That’s the stumbling block for evangelical nutjobs. For other Christians, even the Catholic Church, evolution is accepted as a reality.

  11. agnostic

    Atheists believe there is no God. They don’t know it. It is unknowable. Those who are too sure they are right are the ones that really cause problem. Scientists should never be so close-minded. Fundamentalism is dangerous.

  12. AL

    Atheists believe there is no God. They don’t know it. It is unknowable. Those who are too sure they are right are the ones that really cause problem. Scientists should never be so close-minded. Fundamentalism is dangerous.

    How do you know that god is unknowable? Are you (too) sure you’re right about that? Or are you willing to concede that god is knowable? This is naive agnosticism at its finest. There’s nothing wrong with knowing something with a great deal of certainty, even, dare I say it, ABSOLUTE certainty. Tautologies, for instance, are absolutely certain. It is not knowing with certainty that makes ideas dangerous. Ideas only become dangerous when people actually, you know, do dangerous things like killing and blowing things up over the ideas. But just being certain about something is not inherently dangerous. I’m certain that 2+2 = 4, just as I’m certain that particular naive conceptualizations of “god” cannot exist because they are so poorly defined (thus making me a “fundamentalist” atheist, as it were). No, I’m not dangerous. I’m not going to kill you or blow you up if you happen to believe that 2+2 = 5, but you will hear me correct you on it. If you feel that these corrections can be dismissed by a false equivocation with actual dangerous fundamentalists, then have at it. You’ll be corrected on said fallacies too.

  13. agnostic

    Yes, the existence of an omnipotent being and “2+2=4″ are the same type of knowledge… of course… and killers are the only dangerous ones. And I’m the naive one.
    Dismissing those who have different beliefs is intolerance and will breed more intolerance. That is dangerous. Those who teach close-mindedness are dangerous too.

    Most religious (at least the thoughtful ones I know) claim to have “faith”. There is no faith without doubt. I can respect that. Scientists and teachers who are absolutely sure about something that is a matter of faith I have to question.

  14. AL

    Yes, the existence of an omnipotent being and “2+2=4″ are the same type of knowledge…

    I did not say or imply anything of that sort. In fact, I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean. Same “type?” A “god” can be refuted if it is poorly defined and self-contradictory. We don’t need to discuss what “type” of knowledge this is, whatever that may mean (I suspect you don’t know what it means either, let alone its relevance here…you are “agnostic,” after all).

    Dismissing those who have different beliefs is intolerance and will breed more intolerance. That is dangerous. Those who teach close-mindedness are dangerous too.

    Dismissing a belief is not “intolerance.” If it were, then you are being intolerant for dismissing my opposing beliefs, as well as those of other hard atheists and even hard theists for that matter who don’t share your agnosticism. Again, naive agnosticism that fails to see where it contradicts itself. You cannot claim, as you originally did, that god is unknowable while knowing this to be true, just as you cannot claim that dismissing a belief is “intolerance” while you dismiss mine in the name of combating “intolerance.” This is the definition of naivete. You are guilty of the very thing you decry.

    Once again, believing someone to be wrong is not “intolerance” and “closed-mindedness.” And each and every time you insist that I’m wrong about that, and that it really is intolerant and closed-minded to believe someone to be wrong, another irony meter will lose its life. Dangerous and destructive ideas indeed.

  15. So, as usual, the fact there is no proof a God exists gets kind of left out of the story. Is religion on the short bus of academic disciplines?

  16. Thorny

    At the liveliest panel, on Friday night, the science writer Chris Mooney pointed to research that shows that many Christians “are rejecting science because of a perceived conflict with moral values.” Atheists should be mindful of this perception, Mr. Mooney argued. For example, an atheist fighting to keep the theory of evolution in schools should reassure Christians that their faith is compatible with modern science.

    If the perceived conflict is about moral values, then the discussion should be about moral values. Science and moral values are perfectly compatible, and a significant part of the current morality arose due to scientific progress and due to people engaged in science. Faith, in itself, without the accompaniment of its sociocultural aspects, is actively harmful, as it allows unrealistic beliefs which have the power to override basic human decency.


    On a side note, Christians give way more money and time to charity than atheists do.

    Are you counting the donations to the churches themselves? Are you counting the donations at source or at target? Being a secular charity in a heavily religious environment, for example, is far from easy. Also, I would rather have better ways to treat social problems systematically, without the need for charity, which taxes the more deserving people more and tends to have the drawback of following the economic cycles creating lacks and surpluses at exactly the wrong times.

    By the way, Christians are overrepresented not only in charity, but also in prison population. If you want to draw consequences from the former, please also consider the latter.


    There are still priests who die every year from being in leper collinies. Maybe it’s just because they are dangerous and stupid?

    There are teachers (secular or just not officially endorsed by an organized church) who spend their lives in extremely poor countries. While priests provide some degree of comfort, I believe it is the teachers and doctors who are actual heros, helping to remove the root causes of (largely needless and avoidable) suffering rather than offering ways to endure said suffering. In a terribly simplified way: it is probably better to train a doctor, equip her with appropriate (clinically tested) medicine and send her to a leper colony than to train a priest, equip him with religious literature and send him to a leper colony.


    I don’t know. I do know that the many churches do many great things. In my city, the churches are the only group that opens the doors on cold nights so homless don’t freeze and that give out food so they don’t starve.

    Thank you for an illustration of what I am talking about. Shouldn’t the local government, elected by the people, supplied with money by the people, be doing something about homelessness? Through official, necessarily transparent channels, not through the opaque finances of a church; in compliance with standards that the people help form and enforce, with accountability and reliability that a local church just cannot provide?

  17. ChH

    MP: I am a Christian – my #6 was facetious while my #8 was deadly serious. I appreciate your approach to this.

    Agnostic & AL: God is knowable, but His existance is not scientifically or mathematically provable or disprovable. After all, science is the study of natural laws, so trying to prove or disprove the existance of something supernatural is not logical.

    Thorny: our countries and its citizens – including the poor ones – would be in much better shape if charity was done by private entities (religious and secular) than by government. Gov’t officials have every incentive to waste tax-money in order to buy votes, accumulate power, and prevent the beaurocratic budgets from shinking. Privately funded charities have the incentive to actually discern who needs temporary help, who needs help for the rest of their lives, and who just needs a little counseling and encouragement. And if one charity makes the wrong call on an individual who really needs help, they would be thousands more to appeal to.

  18. ChH

    One other point on scientifically proving or disproving the existance of the supernatural: The decision to require scientific proof of God as a prerequisite of belief in Him is a philosophical choice, not a scientific or logical one.

  19. Thorny

    ChH: what you say is letting the poor compete for the attention of a myriad of private charities. The result is that a few “marketable” cases get support, sometimes in excess of what they can sensibly accomodate (to be fair, this latter outcome is very rare), whereas the less obvious appeals are lucky to get the crumbs after appealing to a load of such organisations. Even when there are only a few, well-separated charities, they do not have an obligation to help everybody, so why would they spend their money to support a bum who happens to need medical attention, and then get annoyed questions about him continuing to ruin the carefully built-up image of the streets, when they can pick a pretty, small girl with big, teary eyes who needs some kind of scary, complicated-sounding surgery that will open up the coffers of the donors? After all, if you don’t have donors, you don’t have a functioning charity at all …

    By the way, I have lived in a state (Ukraine) at a time when the governmental sources of support were essentially nonexistent. Charity did not pick up the job, at all, even when it became obvious that there are quite a few people wealthy enough to afford being charitable.

    With respect to the other question, if the existence of God is not scientifically provable, then maybe we should not support ideas that can only build upon a specific version (or existence) of God? Maybe we should rather support things that can withstand scrutiny and repeatedly, testably produce objectively measurable results? Maybe we should point out, politely but firmly, that basing anything solely upon an untestable, often explicitely self-contradictory, vague idea of a deity is just wishful thinking and should not carry more weight than a mere opinion? I think this has to be said, every time when settling a serious question is attempted in an essentially unreliable way.

  20. Dubliner

    I’ve been a big fan of the new atheists and still am of Dawkins who, despite some calling him arrogant, is a gentleman in comparison to most of the others who fall under that appellation nowadays. But now my identification with these people is rapidly eroding. I’m happy to see foolish ideas attacked but when good and decent people are attacked personally and demonised roundly I have to draw the line. I don’t want to be associated with those who resort to name calling nor do I want to be part of a movement that castigates whole religions as terrorists. I prefer to leave that kind of behaviour to the Tea Party.

    I’ll always be an atheist but I’m more comfortable with Collins Christianity however deluded than I am with Myers spiteful hostility or Harris’ broad brush rabble rousing.

  21. vel

    “There are always a lot of people so afraid of rocking the boat that they stop rowing. We can never get ahead that way” — Harry S. Truman, 1952

    This is where we are with the right not to have a religion, where civil rights were back in the 1950s. Accomodationists are riding on the shoulders of the agressive.

  22. there’s some rich irony in an evo-devo “researcher” of zebrafish at a third tier school calling Francis Collins a “clown”… PZ is rapidly becoming a caricature of a real scientist.

  23. Scott

    Well Shecky, I’d argue that Collins is an administrator and politician, not a scientist – hasn’t been for a very long time.

  24. Jon

    I’d argue that Collins is an administrator and politician, not a scientist…

    Well what does PZ Myers do? How much blogging about religion, etc. versus publishing actual science?

  25. AL

    there’s some rich irony in an evo-devo “researcher” of zebrafish at a third tier school calling Francis Collins a “clown”… PZ is rapidly becoming a caricature of a real scientist.

    I’m not going to defend PZ’s use of the clown epithet, but being that I am a staunch anti-accomodationist, Collins’ compatibility views should not be given a free pass just because he’s an accomplished scientist. PZ does have legitimate criticisms of the views Collins has been publically espousing, and these criticisms aren’t suddenly deficient in merit because PZ’s a mean guy who says mean things, or because his scientific accomplishments aren’t nearly as impressive as Collins. If scientific accomplishment were necessary to weigh in on this matter, thenn the rich irony is that this suggestion was made on the blog of Chris Mooney, who is not a scientist at all, but has weighed in nonetheless.

  26. Seems most of the commenters just want to talk to each other. I’ll take this shot to write to Mr. Mooney:

    It seems to me that treating people as equals with the ability to think for themselves is an obligation for all of us. There is a wonderful tale written by Plato called “The Allegory of the Cave”. To summarize the story, a man makes a discovery and wishes to tell everyone he knows. But his description goes against the beliefs of those around him and he feels his knowledge separates him from them. Eventually, he realizes that the only way for them to understand him is for them to find the truth themselves.

    As a science teacher, I face high school students from a myriad of backgrounds. Their sphere of influence contains many people more important than me. So am I to directly challenge the people in their lives who don’t believe in human evolution or the Big Bang? Well, I must. But I have to be tactful. I tell my kids the story of how minds were changed over many centuries of searching. I tell them of the people who made those discoveries, many of whom believed in God — like Newton and Darwin (at first) — and many did not — like Feynman and Hawking. But I try to make these scientists ‘real’ to them. I’m not trying to simply show them that they’re wrong. I’m trying to change their way of thinking.

    Chris, I’m glad you’re pressing for science educators and communicators to be conscious of the backgrounds of their listeners. It seems to me that many of your more vocal agitators act as though they’ve never been wrong about anything. Well, we all have. And we have to think our way through to the answer ourselves.

    I appreciate you taking a stand.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »