I haven’t been able to post on this until now, but we did a special Point of Inquiry last week from my cabin on board the MSC Musica as it was docked in Venice–and to judge by downloads (18,000 so far), the episode is exceedingly popular. In it, I sit in the hot seat and Ron Lindsay, the head of CFI, grills me about my views on what is labeled “accommodationism” and also my acceptance of a Templeton Cambridge journalism fellowship. Later, we also go into detail about my Mother Jones piece on the science of why we deny science.
The response to the show is, typically, polarized. The more I study how we reason on contested issues, the less it surprises me that on this topic, the things I say become a Rorschach. (That includes this comment, by the way.)
Richard Dawkins himself (or whoever operates his feed) tweeted the show, and then Dawkins reposted a passage from Sam Harris, which Dawkins called “brilliant” and which takes Sheril Kirshenbaum and myself to task on “accommodationism.” We responded to Harris a long time ago; that response is here.
PZ Myers criticized the show; Josh Rosenau argued back; there and elsewhere, hundreds of comments have been generated. I agree with Rosenau, not surprisingly, but what I find more interesting is that PZ seems to accept the premise from which I’m now arguing:
…the problem revolves around a central argument for the Mooneyites: that harsh criticism of cherished beliefs, like religion, leads to an immediate, emotion-based shutdown of critical faculties by the target, and makes them refractory to rational evaluation of their ideas. To which I say, yeah, so? I agree with that. I know that happens. It’s what I expect to happen.
I’m glad we agree on this. PZ then goes on to argue that something else will happen in the longer term, which may be–but I’d like to know why we would think so. Here are his words:
What I’m interested in seeing happen is the development of a strong cadre of vocal atheists who will make a sustained argument, over the course of years or generations, who will keep pressing on the foolishness of faith. I also don’t mind seeing believers get angry and stomping off determined to prove I’m a colossal jackhole — that means they’re thinking, even if they’re disagreeing with me. At the very least, I hope that a few of them will realize, even if they don’t change their mind about the god nonsense, that quoting the Bible at me has no effect, and maybe some years down the road I won’t be hearing as many idiots telling me “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'” as if they’ve made a profound point.
The problem is, they’re not really “thinking” in the sense PZ means–there are reasons to believe they are responding automatically, emotionally, and then subsequently rationalizing. “Maybe some years down the road I won’t be hearing as many idiots telling me ‘The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God” as if they’ve made a profound point”–the problem is that it’s not a profound point to PZ or to me, but it is a profound point to many other people–and right or wrong, why do we think that is going to change?
I’m not saying it can’t change, by the way. Societies do change; US society is itself becoming more secular, although I doubt New Atheism is the reason. I’m just saying I have pretty good reasons for doubting there will be change in response to confrontational arguments among those for whom religion is a core of their identity. Maybe PZ will be more persuaded if I quote George Lakoff, from his book The Political Mind, p. 59:
One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change–for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely.