On Being Judgmental

It’s been a few weeks since any Serious Person told us atheists to shut up, so we’re overdue. Well, Chris Mooney doesn’t disappoint, writing a gushing post on a recent “science/faith dialogue” held by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and funded by the Templeton Foundation. As you’d expect from anything underwritten by Templeton, the AAAS panel was carefully chosen to contain several vocally religious scientists, but no one who believes that science and faith are incompatible. As you’d probably also expect, it had plenty of flowery proclamations on how scientists and theologians should “learn from each other”, but no concrete examples of any verifiable truths that religious people can teach scientists. (See also Russell Blackford and Jerry Coyne‘s respective takes.)

Here’s why Mooney was so pleased:

…the idea is to find new ways to bring science and religion into a humble, nonjudgmental dialogue, and break down the barriers between the two. It is not to drive toward a particular conclusion.

Mooney thinks scientists shouldn’t be judgmental of religious claims. But the role of science is to be judgmental. That’s what science does; in fact, that’s what science is: a means of judging factual claims. And religion, whatever its apologists claim for it, clearly does make a broad range of factual assertions about the true nature of reality.

To plead with scientists that certain kinds of claims be kept off-limits from their scrutiny – that they be sanctified, set apart, exempted from skeptical examination and judgment – is to ask them to stop being scientists. Mooney doesn’t seem to have a problem with scientists scrutinizing and judging other aspects of the world, yet he demands that religious claims be protected, as if they were an endangered species and had to be sheltered in some sort of wild game preserve.

The lesson of this is that you don’t need to be a religious believer yourself to fall into the corrupting delusion that society needs religious beliefs and so they should be protected from criticism. As Daniel Dennett puts it, Mooney is one of the ones who “believes in belief” – and he clearly does so more fervently than many people who are actually theists.

At the close of the session, I rose and posed a question. One can never remember exact words, but in essence, it was this: “I’m glad you’re trying to foster dialogue between scientists and the religious community, and I’m sure you’ll succeed. But here is a harder question – how will you foster dialogue with the New Atheists?”

A very good question, and it’s interesting that Mooney, the self-proclaimed communications expert, feels the need to ask this of others. Because, as far as I know, he’s never offered a single suggestion in this vein – other than the repeated drumbeat of assertions that atheists need to be quiet and not offend religious believers by existing visibly.

Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate, had a very interesting answer. He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people – people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked – they could no longer maintain their point of view.

Please note that the hundreds of millions of theists worldwide who believe in a vindictive, anthropomorphic god who created the earth in six days, and who does miracles when his followers ask him to, are dismissed as a “parody”. This is similar to the way that other high-minded apologists dismiss all believers whose view of religion is different from their own as “not serious”, regardless of how numerous or how influential those people are.

With his next thought, Mooney dives deeper into the mire of accommodationism:

Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives – which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.

Granted, the social and emotional pressures in favor of religion are powerful. Yet we know people can break free, because we’ve seen it happen many times. Mooney’s argument reduces to asserting that because something is hard, we shouldn’t try to do it. Using the same argument, a pre-Civil-War slavery accommodationist could have said: “Still, surely the abolitionists must on some level recognize the critical importance that slavery plays in the South’s economy – which implies that we can hardly expect slaveholders to release their slaves based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many social progressives or reformers.”

At the AAAS event, the pastor David Anderson told an unforgettable story underscoring this point – the story of a single mother who just lost her husband, and has two poorly behaved kids, disciplinary problems who keep getting in trouble at school. Does this woman care about the latest scientific discoveries about, say, asteroids? No, explained Anderson, “because an asteroid has just hit her family.”

Science, alone, is no consolation in this context. Religion gives this single mother something she can lean on. Religion, explained Anderson, provides one with inspiration, whereas science provides information…

This is just an incredibly fallacious and dishonest comparison. The proper comparison would be to ask, would this woman care if a theologian lectures her on the differences between apophatic and cataphatic theology, or a lengthy analysis of the penal substitution theory of how Christ’s death atoned for sin? Of course not, because those things don’t help her, and what she needs is help. And leaving aside Anderson’s highly contrived example about asteroids, if there are scientific discoveries about how better nutrition improves children’s ability to pay attention in school, or what kind of behavioral interventions are most effective, I would think that woman would have a very good reason to care about those findings.

What this passage shows is how apologists for religion conflate the communal aspects of religion with its factual claims. Yes, churches and religious groups build hospitals and schools, run charities and soup kitchens, comfort the grieving and care for members of the community. But they also make factual claims about God’s will, the existence of the afterlife, the proper roles of men and women, and so on. The two are not at all related, or if they are, it’s in the wrong direction: the false factual beliefs of religion often hobble its usefulness to the community and cause it to accomplish less good than it otherwise would have. These, again, are the beliefs that Mooney and others want us not to challenge.

[Anderson] said his church would certainly welcome scientists who wanted to come and visit, and talk to the attendees – and added that many churches, and many pastors, feel the same way.

But, Anderson added, that will not be the case if the scientists show up wanting to convert, or deconvert, or debunk, or whatever. Or if they give off an air of superiority, the sense that they are smarter than everybody else. That won’t fly. It will shut down dialogue, rather than encouraging it.

So, let me get this straight: scientists are welcome to visit his church and talk to the attendees, but only if they don’t offend or disagree with anyone or contradict anyone’s beliefs. (Notice that the pastor made no such promise in return.) So what, exactly, are they supposed to do there? Sit quietly and nod while the pastor expounds on his own beliefs? Stand up to praise the congregation for how wise and humble and wonderful they all are? He’s not “inviting” them there for a free and equal exchange of ideas – he’s inviting them only on the condition that they agree to become members of his congregation!

What Mooney and his faitheist allies demand is that any conversation must take place on their terms: scientists must be “polite” and “humble” and “nonjudgmental”, must listen to believers speak without contradicting them, and must take care not to say anything that any religious person might disagree with. Does this sound like the recipe for a productive dialogue? I think not. When one side dictates in advance what the other is allowed to say and how they may say it, you don’t have a dialogue at all. You have… a sermon.

But if there’s anything that makes me feel good every time I write a post like this, it’s knowing what a futile goal the accommodationists have set for themselves. They want us to be quiet, which means we win just by speaking up. The only way they can win is if they convince us to shut up, which, of course, they aren’t going to. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t make a tidy profit from trying – witness how eagerly Mooney and the rest have lined up under the Templeton cash spigot – but in the long run, anyone whose goal is to have a particular viewpoint shut out cannot help but lose.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives – which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.

    He seems to think all atheists want to eliminate the faith of believers.

    I personally don’t care what anyone else believes, so long as they don’t push it on me, via legislation, textbook, or, as in the case, an undeserved soapbox.

  • http://www.noforbiddenquestions.com NFQ

    So, which version of religion is supposed to be the serious one? I’ve never understood what that’s supposed to mean. They all sound like parodies to me.

  • Paul

    He seems to think all atheists want to eliminate the faith of believers.

    You don’t give Mooney enough credit. He knows what New Atheists want. He simply makes good money and gets a lot of free press by misrepresenting them. There’s a whole lot of money found in whipping religious people into fearful masses and telling them comforting lies (I’d know, I used to work in a bookstore at a megachurch…). Note how he never tries to actually dialogue with NAs anymore. It’s more effective to talk about them than to talk with them, because the latter would result in NAs getting press where people realize they don’t breathe fire and drink Christian blood.

  • bbk

    Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives – which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.

    “Still, surely the Abolitionists must on some level recognize the critical importance slavery plays in many people’s lives – which implies that we can hardly expect slave owners to free their slaves based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many Abolitionists.”

  • L.Long

    Mooney is an arse!!! He knows what atheists want…Religious people can follow their religion all they want…JUST KEEP THEIR BS TO THEMSELVES!!!!!

    Religion and science and be on good terms in 2secs……
    All religions admit they know nothing as FACT. and keep their beliefs out of the real world and to themselves. As soon as some theistard says something like ‘evolution is wrong because my holey buybull says all things were created in 6 24hr days my a miracle’ then he has shoveled his BS into the real world and rams his ‘tiny brain’ into the brick wall of science….it wont be pleasant.
    Science and atheist have no problems with FAITH it is religious dogmatic politics that causes the problems.
    Personally I have no problem with g0d …. as an a-theist, g0d is irrelevant. I don’t care if S/He/It is or is not real, S/He/It is irrelevant to the way LIFE/NATURE works. I will concern myself with S/He/It when I meet S/He/It.

    The example of the woman and how religion gives her support. BS!!!!
    She can believe and pray for years and get nothing!!!! Go to the secular welfare system and get real help. The only religious help she can use is the ones that supply food-clothes-house and a jail to put the two kids into.

  • sophi

    paul, i breath fire and drink christian blood… but i’m one of the cool new atheists. or new new atheists… we haven’t really picked a name yet.

    i guess if i ever end up going into a church would be to politely inform the people there that i’m an atheist, and a bit of a cosmology/theoretical physics junky. (i loves me some science channel) and that i will refrain from questioning the legitimacy of their claims about the natural world. and that i won’t laugh out loud when they same ridiculous things. and i suppose that i’d have to apologize for being so blatantly queer… and won’t complain when they use the wrong pronouns…. and just nod and smile when they talk about how god hates me… and how i’ve committed unforgivable mortal sins…. and i should probably avoid breathing any fire or drinking the blood of their parishioners… at least while the service is going on… flailing and screaming for ones life is a little distracting i guess…

  • bbk

    Sorry Ebon, I wrote my comment as soon as I read the Moonie quote. If I had only read the next paragraph… That quote was just so ripe for that comparison.

    I was thinking back to my days in church and Sunday School. On many occasions, a priest or a nun came in to lecture the children about the difference between “white lies” and lies; how “white lies” are really good things that protect the weak and powerless against a hurtful truth that they’re not ready for. That’s what we were taught. It never occurred to me back then how peculiar that was. I never sat in a science class and heard a science teacher say that it’s important to cover up scientific findings if they contradict some important theory. Only in church. Today, I can see how the same exact priest would be willing to cover up the exploits of his pedophile cohorts. This is the morality of religion.

    What doesn’t seem to get through to the apologists is that to atheists, truth is a moral imperative. Until the Abolitionist movement gained momentum, slavery was not a very important moral consideration. The Bible defended it. Economies relied upon it. But at one point, some people started pointing out that slavery was simply wrong. It was immoral. What New Atheists are saying is the same thing. Atheism is not just a choice between rationality and willful deception, it’s a choice between right and wrong.

  • ambrosia

    Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate, had a very interesting answer. He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people – people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked – they could no longer maintain their point of view.

    I am so sick of the “parody” argument. AFIK, every christian church in the world uses some form of the Nicene and/or Apostle’s creed for the declaration of their faith. Those specifically require members to unequivocally agree to various elements of magical thinking. Unless they are going to define words beyond anything otherwise recognizable, they believe in a bunch of superstitious nonsense.

  • Mrnaglfar

    I’d love to know which believers were sincere and which are merely poseurs. I’m sure specific elaboration would go over well with the believers he judged as insincere or mere strawmen of real belief too.

  • http://superhappyjen.blogspot.com Superhappyjen

    I’ve always suspected that most people don’t seriously believe in God and are only pretending to themselves and to others (with the exception of the “parody” fundamentalists who are just delusional). Perhaps they want to be part of a community or congregation, or keep up family traditions, or just go along with what is considered normal. I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks this. Does anyone know of any research to test this hypothesis?

  • ambrosia

    If they don’t really believe, why make such a big deal about it? Is it all just a big authoritarian conspiracy?

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    …other high-minded apologists dismiss all believers whose view of religion is different from their own as “not serious”, regardless of how numerous or how influential those people are.

    This fact never ceases to amaze me. So many are willing to say, “Yes, yes, we agree that their version of God is ridiculous, but you haven’t considered mine.” In the first place, I say all conceptions of god are ridiculous; in the second, the carefully considered academic ideas of god are a splintered minority, as academics tend to be at the cutting edge of this or that field (and everyone is always at the cutting edge of making shit up). It’s precisely those ideas which we agree are foolish that run so rampant in society, that are used by opportunistic authoritarians to manipulate the masses, that are taken by so many as a substitute for critical thought and meaningful discussion. How can some people be so pathologically unable to grasp that the assholes have the world by the tail?

    Also:

    …if there are scientific discoveries about how better nutrition improves children’s ability to pay attention in school, or what kind of behavioral interventions are most effective, I would think that woman would have a very good reason to care about those findings.

    Hell fuck yes. This is so absolutely on-point.

  • bbk

    What makes me really mad is that it isn’t just religious leaders who make these feigned attempts at dialog. They are just so privileged in their beliefs that each and every single one of them has the audacity to make the same demands. You can’t possibly disagree with these kind of people on anything regarding their religion lest they call you a saboteur, a negative creep who is out to undermine their personal quest for holiness by making them doubt. They go on to pontificate about how they are “further along” or “on a higher level” spiritually and then tell the atheist that they’ll be sorry when god sends them to burn in hell for all eternity. This is about as much fairness as theists can muster.

  • Ruana

    He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people – people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked – they could no longer maintain their point of view.

    My irony meter just exploded. Along with my head. WTF? This guy’s talking about parody New Atheists! Apparently we were all born from test tubes and reared on reservations.

    Yes, I know ordinary, non-parodic Christians. My mother. My sister and brother-in-law. The Sunday School teachers I remember with affection; after all, they didn’t mean to mislead me.

    Seriously, this man thinks that no New Atheists have sprung from the ranks of people raised in perfectly normal, middle-of-the-road and definitely non-parodic faiths?

  • 2-D Man

    Oh, I get it, Phillips! Ken Ham spent $27,000,000 on a building in Kentucky because he’s not really a ‘serious religious person’.

    And those guys who flew planes into buildings? That was all just a bit of a joke.

    It turns out the Crusades – greatest. stand-up. routine. ever!

    No one ever takes that crazy shit seriously.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate…

    They give a Nobel prize for Methodism? Who knew?

    This is clearly an attempted argument from authority. But Phillips’ Nobel prize (for physics, not Methodism) gives him just as much authority outside his field as I am willing to grant to Jacques Benveniste on homeopathy or Kary Mullis on HIV/AIDS.

  • Siamang

    This article is so well-argued and thoughtful that I always wonder why is it that Chris Mooney is somehow a leading voice and not Ebon/Adam.

    Mooney is a horrible conversant. If you seek to engage him he refuses to listen, then starts acting strange. He’ll do anything possible to avoid valid, measured critical dialog that might require him to change his mind.

    In short, he doesn’t get blogging at all. And because of that, his views are really unsupportable because he hasn’t listened to the criticism and provided supporting arguments for them. He just chooses to find a commenter who says a bad word, then preaches about tone and hopes the rest of us forgot about the criticism.

    Anyway, back to this article, I agree completely with everyone above.

    Gee, what would it be like to live in a world where an atheist like me might meet a normal, non-strange, non fringe Christian!? I might have to, you know, talk to my own mother.

    [Anderson] said his church would certainly welcome scientists who wanted to come and visit, and talk to the attendees – and added that many churches, and many pastors, feel the same way.

    Notice he didn’t say “all” or “most”. He said ‘many’. So a minority of Churches, then.. Those must be the non-parody type.

    My take on the quote from the article:

    If these Christian dialog-seekers could meet some real New Atheists – people who do not in any way represent the parody version of New Atheists that Mooney and his ilk trot out – they could no longer maintain their point of view.

  • Paul

    This article is so well-argued and thoughtful that I always wonder why is it that Chris Mooney is somehow a leading voice and not Ebon/Adam.

    One doesn’t have to think long. Consider that Mooney used to argue in the same tack as New Atheists. His current media love-fest only started when he started burning strawman atheists. He’s telling the media and the majority of the public what they want to hear. Ebon’s telling a niche what they want to hear (and doing it infinitely better, but it’s still a niche at this point).

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    You make a good point; I’d never thought of it that way — that science’s job is to be judgmental. Judgmental seems to have a negative connotation, but sometimes, it can be a good thing, like in science, as you mentioned.

    It seems to me that one of the reasons atheist get asked to not judge religious claims is not just because they give comfort to people, but also because so many people believe them. Atheists and scientists aren’t told to be accommodating towards smaller religions like Scientology, which almost everyone knows is ridiculous. They’re told to specifically be accommodating towards whichever religion a lot of people believe in, in this case the beliefs of the three monotheisms. Why should they get special treatment?

    Concerning your point about religious groups wanting a sermon and not a dialogue, I think Jen McCreight made a good point in her blog about “Religious accommodationism at Evolution 2010″ (http://www.blaghag.com/2010/06/religious-accommodationism-at-evolution.html)

    Yep – we don’t want to potentially alienate theistic allies, but it’s totally okay to ignore those atheist extremists. Why is theism worth accommodation, but secular opinions are not? I commented on this in the Q&A, saying if they’re accommodating religion they should also accommodate secular opinions, but all I received was an awkward “Okay” and the Q&A ended – where every other question got a long reply.

    I guess it’s just disappointing seeing such a one sided representation of “communication” at a large conference. Should have spent my morning going to the research based talks.

    To give credit, I got to her blog via Russell Blackford/MetaMagician and the Hellfire Club’s Oh no, those dogmatic atheists (http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2010/06/oh-no-those-dogmatic-atheists.html). He makes a good point about how someone with a position in the middle (such as believing in theistic evolution) can still be dogmatic.

    Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson made a good point about how excluding atheists or considering them extreme is like throwing allies under the bus (http://www.butterfliesandwheels.org/2010/et-tu-aaas/).

    Thanks for writing!

  • Archimedez

    Great analysis, Ebonmuse.

    Mooney shows himself to be ignorant, or at least unmindful, of psychological science in suggesting that the woman with the misbehaving children would be helped by religion but not at all by science or its applications. Has he been living in a cave for the past 50 years?

    Is it really the specifically or uniquely “religious” (or spiritual, theological) aspects of religion that would help her and the children, or would it be other aspects that can also be found outside the religion, such as social support, practical advice, general philosophical attitudes or bits of wisdom that could be found elsewhere and do not depend on a belief in a deity as such? Mooney might argue that the belief in a afterlife provides consolation, but this could also provide more fear than consolation (i.e., fear of hell, fear of not meeting all of god’s demands, etc.).

    Speaking of hell, I often find a huge double-standard in these Mooney-style appeals for atheist self-censorship in the name of (one-way) tolerance. So atheists are supposed to be worried about saying anything that might make theists uncomfortable, whereas most of the theists in question (chiefly, Christians and Muslims) believe that non-believers should be burned and tortured in hell-fire for not believing. In other words, they believe that it is true, right, and good that people ought to be burned, tortured, and destroyed for not believing in something for which no evidence has been presented. Most might not say this publicly and gratuitously, but they will acknowledge that they believe in the hell-fire penalty and what that entails. Even some theists who don’t literally believe in a hell-fire penalty of this sort are nevertheless telling us, in not so direct words, to shut up about those who do believe in it. These latter “moderate” theists have nonetheless signed on to these theist documents; they have committed themselves to defending the documents overall. They have chosen to side with their fundamentalist co-religionists when they say atheists need to tolerate this horrendous belief in the hell-fire penalty for mere disbelief.

    If atheists start calling for theists to be burned* and tortured and destroyed with fire and brimstone, or if they engage in other such harsh rhetoric that is regularly found in mainstream theist belief, texts, and discourse, I will begin to take seriously Mooney’s call for restraint.

    *An aside: Imagine you are reading along in a modern-day author’s essay on ethics, or even a scientific article, and suddenly in the midst of a normal flow of discourse the author writes “And by the way, those who disagree with my conclusions will, rightly, be burned and tortured in hell because of their disagreement. Moving along now to the next point…” Imagine the outrage and the controversy that would be generated were this to happen; it would end up being front page news and would dominate the news cycle. Yet in the context of religions, this type of discourse is routine and is accepted. Indeed, most religious believers think that this type of discourse is good, right, and true.

    I see Mooney’s appeals as amounting to little more than soft, unofficial, subtle appeals for regulating “blasphemy” through social pressure. This may not be his intention, but it is this attitude that allows a buffer and a support for those who are pressing for legal restrictions on critical expressions about religion.

  • PenguinFactory

    He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people – people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked – they could no longer maintain their point of view.

    This assertion comes up frequently, and it always annoys me because the “parody version” of religion is the majority position among theists. These people are everywhere in our society and express their beliefs with conviction and sincerity, so it’s impossible that Mooney and his fellows aren’t aware of this fact.

    Essentially their argument boils down to the following exchange:

    Atheist: “The belief in [ridiculous opinion X] is very silly.”

    Theist: “Well I’m a Christian and I don’t believe that! My religion is more sophisticated than that, so you’re just criticizing a strawman.”

    To which the atheist could reply: “Well yes, but that comment was clearly aimed at the millions of people who demonstrably do believe those things, and I never said that all Christians hold those beliefs, so why are you even responding to this?”

    To date I have never seen anyone attempt to respond that couunter-argument. If anyone here has encountered one I would be happy to see it.

  • Jurjen S.

    And leaving aside Anderson’s highly contrived example about asteroids, if there are scientific discoveries about how better nutrition improves children’s ability to pay attention in school, or what kind of behavioral interventions are most effective, I would think that woman would have a very good reason to care about those findings.

    For starters, science might well come up with something that would prevent the hypothetical husband from dying in the first place. For example, my father contracted chronic myelogenous leukemia several years ago, and he’d most likely have been dead by now if it hadn’t been for the medical screening that caught it early, and the availability of Gleevec/Glivec (imatinib), which had been released earlier that year.