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.

Why People Are Flocking to a New Wave of Secular Communities: Atheist Churches
New on the Guardian: The Peaceful Side of Atheism
New on the Guardian: Beyond Debating God's Existence
The Atheist Community Is Diversifying
About Adam Lee

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


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X