Did Chris Mooney have a point?

On my previous post on Chris Mooney, James Croft left a comment which I’m very grateful for and want to respond to. Here’s the meat of James’ comment:

I think that Mooney is making a general case that supporters of science and critics of religion need to pay closer attention to the well-developed science of communication, persuasion, and political activism in order to achieve their aims. This includes framing our political arguments effectively, ensuring we are civil in our attempts to persuade the other side, building coalitions where necessary to make progress (for example on support for science in schools or gay rights).

I think Mooney is dead right on those questions: if the freethinking movement wishes to become a true movement with political power it will need to rapidly embrace proven strategies of communication and organizing which are well-documented in the research and by professionals in the relevant fields. And his point, let’s be clear, is not that its rude to criticize religion, but that it is unwise, if we wish to achieve the goal of getting science taught in schools, to alienate religious people who support that goal. I.e. his complaint is strategic.


In many ways the freethinking movement is exceedingly bad at conveying its message: worse, I think, than pretty much any other movement I can think of. And one of the critical needs for us now, I believe, is to listen to what the research and the professionals are telling us and begin to be much more strategic and intelligent (and, hell, rational) about how we craft a message.

I obviously agree that science is worth paying attention to, and it’s possible that many people in the freethought movement pay too little attention to what science says about how to do things well, rather than just what the world is like. There may be a place for a lot more stuff like Luke Muehlhauser’s blog post “How to Be Happy.”

That said, “pay attention to the science of communication” is pretty generic advice, which doesn’t necessarily entail any particular approach to communication. Some things are hard to study scientifically. A scientific experiment on the effectiveness of different types of political soundbites may not tell us much about the effectiveness of a book like The God Delusion. A study of the effect of a generic college degree on people’s scientific beliefs may not tell us much about the effect of good popular science writing.

That makes the issue of the science of communication tricky to discuss. If James or anyone else reading this knows of particular studies they think are relevant, I’d love to take a look at them, though. (It’s especially useful if you can find a PDF on Google Scholar or the author’s website and post the link.)

On civility, a couple of points. One, I think there are some things that will be perceived as rude to say no matter how you say them. Two, I recognize that it’s often a good idea to be polite, but that doesn’t mean we need to be polite 100% of the time. Sometimes, it’s worth trying to very gently talk believers out of their beliefs, but I think it’s important to sometimes be frank about the disturbingly delusional nature of many of those beliefs. I support having a mix of strategies.

On coalition building, I don’t think there’s any disagreement at all there. I think the folks on the Gnu Atheist side of the divide have made pretty clear they have no problem working with believers on issues they agree on, like supporting gay rights or keeping creationism out of schools. They aren’t, for example, asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization.

And I think it’s clearly false that the freethought movement has done a bad job at conveying its message. We’ve done amazingly well in the past ten years given what we’ve been up against. Remember that many people will be offended by our merely announcing our existence.

One example of our success: it’s clear that The God Delusion had an impact on a lot of people, not just atheists, but people who were previously religious or on the fence about religion. Dawkins has an entire section of his website where he posts the messages he’s gotten from people who left religion, or came out about their irreligion, as the result of reading his books. And Greta Christina has said The God Delusion turned her from calling herself agnostic to being an atheist activist. Greta’s such a great writer that this fact alone makes me glad Dawkins wrote his book.

But again, I’d very much like to know what studies James (or anyone who shares his point of view) has in mind–with links if possible!

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