Et Tu, Chris Mooney?

Last year, I read and greatly enjoyed Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science as an invaluable exposition of the harm that ideologically driven antiscience has done to the state of scientific knowledge in this country. But to my great distress, he has taken a turn toward the dark side. In a column published this week in the Washington Post, along with his colleague Matthew Nisbet, Mooney advocates that atheists who want to support science education should stop defending or speaking about atheism, and should begin promoting the idea that science and religious faith are compatible so as to appease a believing public.

At least, I’m fairly sure that’s what they’re advocating. The article never states explicitly what they recommend (all their articles on “framing” have been curiously light on specific policy proposals, actually), but given comments such as this, it’s hard to tell what else they might be saying:

If the defenders of evolution wanted to give their creationist adversaries a boost, it’s hard to see how they could do better than Richard Dawkins…

…many fear that teaching evolution in our schools could undermine the belief system they consider the foundation of morality. Dawkins not only reinforces and validates such fears — baseless though they may be — but lends them an exclamation point.

So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public.

There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

In the first place, what evidence is there, other than Mooney and Nisbet’s assertions, that atheists’ attacks on religion are “backfiring”? The numbers of atheists and other nonbelievers are surging, and there is evidence that they now make up a critical bloc of swing voters. Atheist books are burning up the bestseller lists. Intelligent design has been dealt a decisive blow in the courts. The religious right was trounced in last November’s elections and is now in a state of disarray. Far from getting a “boost”, creationists and their allies have been routed on all fronts. What on earth drives Mooney and Nisbet to look out across this landscape and see defeat looming at every turn? The forces of reason are winning. And that victory, I have no doubt, is partly thanks to strong, effective advocacy by passionate scientists like Richard Dawkins. Mooney and Nisbet seem to be saying that we should send our best players to the bench to sit out the game. I think not.

Part of the reason this piece has drawn such anger is that Mooney and Nisbet appear to be recommending that sincere atheists should shut up about their convictions, or worse, say things they do not actually believe. What if I really do believe that the scientific method is a means of gaining knowledge about the world and religious faith is not? What if I happen to think that uncritical belief in hoary and antiquated dogmas is not the best way to advance our society and may well be counterproductive and dangerous in the long run? As I wrote in a recent post, “On Atheist Fundamentalism“, “Should I lie through a pasted-on smile, speaking words I do not believe, just for the sake of ensuring that people I disagree with don’t feel bad?” That is insulting – both to me and to the people I would be trying to communicate with – and worse, it is dishonest.

There is no shortage of religious believers who are scientists, and who spread the notion that faith and reason are equally valid ways of understanding the world. Good. Let them do so. That is their viewpoint, and they have every right to voice it. I, likewise, will continue to voice mine.

And what is my viewpoint? As it happens, I do believe that the scientific method fatally undermines the literalist religious view of the world. The planet was not created six thousand years ago, all species did not exist simultaneously, the human race did not begin with just two individuals created from dust and a rib, and there was not a global flood which one breeding pair of each species survived on an ark. There is evidence proving all these things beyond a reasonable doubt, and I will not shrink from saying so, nor should anyone else.

When it comes to less literal, less anthropomorphic conceptions of God, on the other hand, I will freely admit that science can do nothing. If you define your deity as a mystical reality or a deist watchmaker with no empirical point of contact with the world, there is no experiment that can be done one way or the other to test that belief. Even if a believer defines miracles as one-off events which by their nature cannot be reproduced and leave no evidence, I will again admit that science cannot say anything. But in this case, I demand a concession that faith and reason are not equally valid ways of gaining knowledge, but that faith-based beliefs can never disprove or take priority over findings based on evidence.

If Mooney and Nisbet were merely saying that atheists should take care to phrase their arguments in ways that do not cause needless personal offense or impugn the character of theists in general, I would support them without reservation. I have previously said so myself. But instead, they are asking that we nonbelievers treat religion with kid gloves, that we not voice our opinions at all. No, a thousand times no. I will state my position honestly and without sugarcoating, and I know Richard Dawkins will continue to do so as well; I would be disappointed if he did anything less.

Even if every atheist in the world were to fall silent tomorrow, creationist leaders would continue attacking evolution as evil and godless. And the real problem is that the two of those are seen as equivalent. If atheism is seen as a pejorative, Mooney and Nisbet are saying, then we should accept this as the default state of affairs and make accommodations with it, rather than trying to change people’s minds about it. Is it any wonder that an atheist would take umbrage with this proposal?

Instead, I happen to believe we can do both. We can have more than one cultural shift at the same time. Both atheists and theistic scientists should speak out in defense of evolution. But at the same time, atheists can and should be arguing that we are not the miscreants we have always been depicted as, that we have good and positive things to contribute to society, and that the uncritical acceptance of ancient myths is dangerous and ill-advised. Mooney and Nisbet seem to think that public opinion is an immovable weight that cannot be shifted, only accepted. I do not agree, and I think everyone should come out and state their beliefs forthrightly, because I am confident that the truth will emerge from open debate.

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  • OMGF

    I’ve read Mooney’s blog until recently for a number of years, and I’m pretty sure he’s not saying what you think he is saying. As a fellow atheist, he is not asking you to be silent about your atheism. He’s asking you to separate the two battles and fight them as different issues. Is there any reason why we have to agree with the Creationists that evolution equals atheism? Mooney is worried that when atheists make statements that evolution or science disprove god that the believing public will choose god over science every time. The problem is that science doesn’t disprove god, only literalist interpretations, which I know that Mooney would not disagree with. There’s always room for god to hide in the gaps somewhere, however, so we should be arguing the facts behind evolution and geology, etc, and not trying to make a religious crusade out of it. I don’t see that as being the same as hiding our atheist beliefs in the closet. I see it as telling the truth, that science can not prove or disprove the supernatural.

    Even if every atheist in the world were to fall silent tomorrow, creationist leaders would continue attacking evolution as evil and godless. And the real problem is that the two of those are seen as equivalent. If atheism is seen as a pejorative, Mooney and Nisbet are saying, then we should accept this as the default state of affairs and make accommodations with it, rather than trying to change people’s minds about it. Is it any wonder that an atheist would take umbrage with this proposal?

    I disagree that they are making that case. I think they are saying that we should decouple atheism and evolution in our arguments. The Creationists would love nothing better than for the general public to associate evolution with atheism.

  • The Exterminator


    Unfortunately, it’s not possible to “separate the two battles and fight them as separate issues.” The creationists have encroached on scientific territory. I agree that their views are a threat not only to atheists, but to all educated people. However, the fundamental — get it? — point the ignorati make is that evolution is, in itself, atheistic. Well, you know what? They’re right! There’s no way a person can make a cogent and complete argument for evolution without conceding that there’s no Big Sky Guy fiddling around. There are no reasonable gaps for him to hide in.

    We atheists have accommodated superstition and kowtowed to theocratic thugs for years. By doing so, we’ve ducked our responsibility to confront the issues head on. We don’t have to proselytize for 100% freethought and secularism to be practiced in any other venues than the science classroom (although, I would add the history classroom, as well). I’m not advocating that atheists conduct a general campaign against religion. But we ought to couple atheism and not only evolution, but all science in our arguments. it’s important that every single student studying any science must take an atheistic attitude. God doesn’t work as a scientific explanation for anything, and we should stop pretending that he does.

  • OMGF

    The Exterminator,
    IMHO, I think you are conflating methodological naturalism with philosophical naturalism. Science indeed does work through MN and every scientist, theistic or atheistic, must follow the scientific method. That doesn’t mean that a scientist can’t go home and believe in god, nor is there anything in science that will disprove some arcane notions of some theists. Look at Ken Miller. Miller is an extremely accomplished biologist and though I disagree with his religious ideas, he is not the enemy when it comes to science and science teaching.

    Yes, where the Creationists have encroached on scientific territory they should be slapped down. The age of the Earth is one area, for instance, where the science is as certain as science will ever be against the literalist Biblical view. But, there are more moderate views (which may not be Biblically viable, but that’s another matter) that are not necessarily opposed by science. They generally don’t even coincide, as Ebonmuse talks about in the fourth to last paragraph. If they say that the science proves their god exists, they are wrong, but aren’t we equally wrong to say that science disproves it? (On a tangent, since the burden of proof lies with the theist, I don’t have a problem saying the science doesn’t disprove god and holding to my atheism.)

    So, let’s combat the Creationists and not let them frame the debate as religion vs. science. Let’s make it into two different debates. Let’s make them try to actually disprove the science with scientific arguments, because we all know they can’t do it (which is why they bring up cheap arguments, like evolution = atheism in the first place.) Then in other venues we can proudly state why we are atheists and make them back up their theistic stance with logic and reason (which they also can’t do.)

  • anti-nonsense

    The problem is that creationists AREN’T being ignored they are gaining more and more power and we can’t just shut up and allow that to happen. We have to keep standing up for science and and reason and against creationist nonsense.

    We can’t keep handling religion with kid gloves, it’s too dangerous now, religious fanatics are too powerful and they have too many weapons, we can’t blunt our own weapons against fanaticism out of fear of offending people. It’s too late for that now. We need to stand up, voice our opinions and make it clear that we are tired of society being ruled by irrational Bronze Age beliefs.

  • Ebonmuse

    As a fellow atheist, he is not asking you to be silent about your atheism.

    I’d certainly like to believe that, but what’s your evidence for it? Mooney and Nisbet say that Dawkins “reinforces and validates” religious fears about the moral implications of evolution. They say that criticism of religion will “backfire” when it reaches the public. Although it’s hard to tell because they have so far failed to put forth any specific policy prescriptions, I find it very difficult to believe that they are saying something other than that atheists should go back into the closet.

    He’s asking you to separate the two battles and fight them as different issues.

    I very strongly disagree. Look at this comment from their original editorial:

    Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins’s arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism. (emphasis added)

    Mooney and Nisbet claim that, even if Dawkins himself (and other atheists) try to fight these as separate battles, the public will not be able to tell the difference and it will still harm the effort to defend good science. Again, I really can’t see what they’re saying if not “Dawkins and other atheists should stop advocating atheism”.

  • The Exterminator


    Of course, I agree with you that science cannot disprove theism. But I’m not recommending that it try. You’re putting words in my mouth, because that’s not what I’m saying.

    Here’s my argument: The debate IS religion vs. science, whether you’re talking about methodology or philosophy or both. You suggest: Let’s make them [the creationists] try to actually disprove the science with scientific arguments. But your suggestion presupposes that they accept scientific arguments as valid — which they DON’T. Your argument is circular here.

    All I’m saying is that in a science of any kind, students and practitioners must take an atheistic viewpoint while engaged in scientific study, dialogue, research, or analysis. They don’t actually have to be atheists, but they must act, at those times only, as if they are. That is, they should not have any preconceived notions, supernatural or otherwise. All scientific theories must be potentially falsifiable. And, of course, god isn’t.

    So, no, scientists don’t have to disbelieve in god during any part of their lives other than during the time when they’re “doing” science. When they are, they must suspend their belief in their deities and not resort to fanciful explanations, no matter how attractive. Students, even at the lowest levels, should be taught this. They’re free to go home and worship any gods they choose. But they most decidedly may not bring god into their studies. They must act, at least for those moments devoted to science, as if they are atheists.

    I understand that this concept makes many people uncomfortable, but there’s a precedent showing that the religious right can overcome their fear of science, at least for those brief periods when their children are in the classroom. Let me throw a little history at you. During the so-called “space race” of the 1950s and ’60s, America’s religious fanatics, for the most part, put their opposition to evolution on hold. When they did argue against it, they did so outside the schoolhouse. Why? Because they recognized that the U.S. could not train young scientists if the kids’ thoughts were constrained and limited by religious objections. So even the most conservative Christian groups accepted atheistic science in their mania to combat godless communism.

    Why not insist that they do so again — and forever?

  • OMGF

    I admit that I don’t have evidence other than what I’ve gotten from my reading on Mooney’s blog in the past and the comments that he’s made around this very issue.

    I greatly appreciate Dawkins and the tireless efforts he makes on behalf of science and atheism. If there is one thing that I disagree with him on though, is that he makes statements at times to the effect that science disproves god. What I think he means is that science disproves literal, Biblical interpretations of god, but most people will not pick that up. I believe that this is the distinction that Mooney is trying to make. It doesn’t mean that we should stay in the closet, and I surely would never advocate that. I’m just as sick as you of the constant ramming of Christianity down the throats of Americans. I know Mooney has in the past directly said that he doesn’t wish atheists to go into the closet or to stop advocating atheism.

    I guess the question is why we have to tie the two fights together. Why can’t we ally ourselves with Ken Miller, Wesley Elsberry, Nick Matzke, etc (the second two are contributors to Panda’s Thumb along with PZ Myers) on the issue of evolution? Why must we insist on atheism when dealing with a scientific issue? Why can’t we simply argue the science when dealing with evolution and argue the religion when dealing with religion and rationality? Having a god belief doesn’t preclude someone from accepting good science or doing good science, right? So, why should we tie atheism to science, which is exactly what the Creationists want?

    Disclaimer: Please don’t think any of this is a criticism of you or your blog in any way. I’ve put your blog in my favorites list because I think your writing is interesting and good.

  • OMGF

    The Exterminator,
    If I have put words in your mouth, please know it was not my intent. I simply missed your meaning.

    I understand that your argument is that it is science vs. religion, and in one context you are completely correct. That context is that the Creationists have been trying to frame the fight in that way. They want to be able to fight against scientific theories by making people choose either science or their god, because they feel that most people will choose god over science, and they are generally right, although as your historical example shows, they aren’t always right. What I’m saying is that we should not allow them to employ this cheap rhetorical trick. When faced with this argument, I have no problem stating the truth, that science does not deal with god belief, and that Creationists need to actually disprove evolution through scientific means if they want to gain any traction. I don’t see this as a circular argument, and I’m not sure why you do. If we can frame the debate around actually arguing evidence instead of cheap rhetorical tricks, they will be forced to try and produce actual science to back up their claims, which they can’t do.

    All I’m saying is that in a science of any kind, students and practitioners must take an atheistic viewpoint while engaged in scientific study, dialogue, research, or analysis.

    I find this statement to be imprecise. Atheism, to me, is simply a statement that god belief has not been proven with rational means, and therefore there is no reason to believe in a god. I don’t see it as necessary for science because I think that they are orthogonal ideas. Scientists should not try to shoehorn god into their experiments, but I don’t see that as being the same as being atheistic. Following methodological naturalism, or the scientific method, is not the same as being atheistic in my mind, and framing the issue in this way is something that Mooney is cautioning us against.

  • The Exterminator


    A-theist = no god. Nothing imprecise about it. That’s the sense in which I’m using the word. I’m not asking for religionists to adopt a specific worldview, only to be without god in their science.

  • OMGF

    OK, that’s something we can work with. Now, all we have to do is figure out how to ask people to do just that, right? Instead of saying, “Be atheistic about your science,” why can’t we say, “Use the scientific method?” I think this is the point that Mooney is ultimately trying to get at. How we frame things makes all the difference. A theist may balk at the suggestion of being atheistic when doing science, but probably won’t when shown the rules for the scientific method and asked to simply follow those rules.

    Now, to be clear, the reason I thought your language was imprecise was because I was attributing a more political (I suppose) meaning to the word. My fault, but I feel somewhat justified in that my definition, I think, more clearly holds to the original point to all this. I understand what you mean and I understand what you were getting at, but a lot of theists will not. Does it hurt you in any way to explain things differently? Do you feel that by doing so that you will be forced to hide your atheism in the closet? I hope that you can see my side of things now.

  • OMGF

    I see that you’ve asked Chris pointblank whether he is saying what you think. I applaud you for going to the source. I’ll keep an eye open on that to see if I’ve been correct in my points or not. I certainly hope that we can all come to agreement on this issue.

  • Eric

    The proponents of “framing” have some interesting points to make, but this is the third time they’ve been around. The first was George Lakoff with “Don’t Think of an Elephant” in 2004. Then came Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shallenberger with “Death of Environmentalism.” The playbook for these guys was:

    * Make a big stir by accusing some well meaning folks of screwing up

    * Promise to solve the problem, if only some funders will cough up big bucks for research. Use copious buzzwords to describe the research you intend to conduct.

    * Disappear from whence they came, without making any specific recommendations for what the target of their critique could do better.

    Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet have followed the first two steps of this playbook to the letter. Let’s hope they break the pattern and actually put forward some useful suggestions on how the scientific community can do a better job.

    If not, start the clock ticking on their 15 minutes.


  • Ebonmuse

    For the record, neither Mooney nor Nisbet has so far shown any inclination to answer what I thought was a simple question: “Are you saying that atheists should not speak out in defense of atheism, and if not, then what are you saying they should do?” Nisbet has even commented in the same thread since I posed this question, but he declined to address it.

    I recognize they’re both busy people, but I think this question lies at the very heart of the debate they’ve stirred up, and it does not require a lengthy answer. One sentence or even one word would do. The longer it continues, the more their reluctance to address this leads me to conclude – much to my regret – that they are in fact advocating that atheists should sit down and shut up.

  • OMGF

    To be fair, he has at least mentioned in this post:


    Frankly, I think we’re having a healthy–if sometimes quite passionate–discussion over all of this. To be clear: Nobody is saying anybody else ought to shut up or stop talking. (I could read this post in that way, but I will not; and PZ should not read our articles in that way either.)

    Look, the big issue I see is mostly in things like the exchange above that I had with The Exterminator (not to pick on him/her). Saying that one must act as an atheist when doing science is just a big no-no in a culture where atheists are deemed to be the least trustworthy people in the country, even behind Muslims, which is saying a lot after 9/11. Let me stress again, that it doesn’t undermine atheism or make you hide your thoughts in a closet to use different wording, like that one should follow the scientific method.

  • michael behrens

    Einstein once said that even though science is made up of facts, a collection of facts is no more a science than a pile of rocks is a house. Simply telling a fundamentalist Christian that your facts are true and theirs are false does not do much. Where you see a house they see a pile of rocks and vice versa. Would Darwin have immediately understood Dawkins’ idea of the selfish gene? Many of the great chemists of the 19th century never believed that atoms and molecules were actually real physical entities and most of the physicists of the latter part of that century wanted nothing to do with the mathematical electromagnetic theories of Maxwell. Einstein famously refused to accept parts of the quantum theory and neither Einstein or Eddington could accept the reality of black holes. Shouldn’t we have a little pity on those poor people who don’t understand anything?