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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