The strange case of Chris Mooney

It isn’t just pointing out the ugly side of holy books that will have people saying how rude you are. Unfortunately, some people will call you rude for literally any criticism at all of religion. It’s hard to believe, I know, but if you’ve read chapter 1 I hope you won’t find it too surprising.

One example of this is Chris Mooney. Chris Mooney is a journalist who became a hero to many science-minded liberals with his 2005 book The Republic War on Science. But a few years later, he began arguing that popular atheists were hurting the pro-science cause. I won’t attempt to rehash the entire controversy, but one episode is telling.

Jerry Coyne, a biology professor at the University of Chicago and author of the excellent book Why Evolution is True, had written a review (published in the magazine The New Republic) of the books Saving Darwin by Karl Giberson and Only A Theory by Kenneth Miller. Coyne praised the books  for providing “an edifying summary of the tenets and the flaws of modern creationism,” but also criticized their attempts to reconcile science and religion.

In response, Mooney wrote a blog post saying:

Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Mooney also advised atheists in general to “be nice.” Mooney wrote this in spite of the fact that, as he clarified in a follow-up post, he thought Coyne’s review was “a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.” Previously, Mooney had often been accused of wanting atheists to “shut up” about their atheism, an accusation which Mooney continued to deny.

But if Mooney thought Coyne’s review was a very good, thoughtful article, that suggests his only objection to it was that Coyne was criticizing some attempts to reconcile science and religion. It suggests that was Mooney’s only reason for saying Coyne was “very misguided about strategy” and imply that Coyne had failed to “be nice.” Given that, it sounds like Mooney would have said the same about any criticism of religion.

As Jason Rosenhouse (a mathematics professor and owner of ScienceBlogs.com’s “EvolutionBlog”) said at the time:

No, he didn’t argue that Coyne should shut up. He only argued that writing a very good, thoughtful, extensive article for The New Republic was evidence of how woefully misguided Coyne is about strategy. Which raises the question: where should Coyne have expressed his views? If even a relatively tame article in a high-level venue like TNR is too much for liberal Christians, then what could Coyne have done, short of shutting up, that would have mollified them?

It sure sounds like Mooney is telling Coyne to shut up, if only for strategic reasons.

Mooney, in other words, appeared to be arguing that atheists should be quiet about their ideas, but he was not honest about the fact that that is what he was arguing. And that’s not all he wasn’t honest about when criticizing atheists’ “strategy.”

In 2008, a college student named Webster Cook improperly removed a communion wafer from a Catholic Church. In response, he got death threats. In response, leading atheist blogger PZ Myers wrote:

Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane. These people are demented fuckwits. (Emphasis in original.)

Here’s how Mooney, along with his co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum, represented the incident in their 2009 book Unscientific America: 

The most outspoken New Atheists publicly eviscerate believers, call them delusional and irrational (“demented fuckwits,” as Myers put it in the Webster Cook case). (p. 97) (quote grabbed from Rosenhouse.)

This is so misleading it stops just short of being a blatant lie. Yes Myers called believers “demented fuckwits,” namely the ones who were threatening to kill a young man for violating a religious taboo. This sort of misrepresentation (which Alistair McGrath’s misrepresentation of the BBQ is also an example of) is one of the most frustrating parts of the backlash against popular atheism: too often, the backlash is against something the atheist never said.

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