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’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.

  • Sigmund

    Chris Mooney versus the New Atheists.
    I remember those days. At the time the atheist community was pretty much united in its response to Mooney’s actions. The major issue was his decision to treat the matter, not as something that could be rationally argued and debated, but as a political line in the sand. Try to reason with him and you were banned from his blog – you were either with him or you were guilty of condoning whatever rare instance of bad behavior could be found (or in the Wally Smith case, made up!) in the new atheist community.
    It seems a lifetime away now.

    • joachim

      An atheist BANNED someone for speaking out!

      Say it ain’t so! …snicker…

    • windy

      And the evidence! I remember how people were always going on about ‘evidence’ and ‘peer-review’ and how it was irresponsible to destroy the reputation of a whole community based on a few anecdotes. At least we’re over that kind of nonsense now.

    • Iamcuriousblue

      Interesting. I’m only familiar with Chris Mooney from Point of Inquiry, and it seems to me like the discussions there are far more nuanced and not getting heated over small differences than what I see on most of the Freethougtblogs. So it surprises me that he’s accused of shouting down “new atheists”, considering he’s had had a few on POI, notably Greta Christina in the last few months, and has had some pretty interesting and cordial discussions with them. In fact, I have to say that I never even gathered he was an accommodationist, much less a strong one, from what he’s had to say on POI.

      • Chris Hallquist

        I listened to the POI with Greta, and I was expecting something awful given my past experience with Mooney, but I too was pleasantly surprised by how well it went.

    • Ophelia Benson

      I remember those days too. I remember your contribution! It does indeed seem like forever ago, doesn’t it.

  • Mike Haubrich

    There are a few things wrong with his approach that he never seemed to grasp. He was quite okay with taking conservatives to task for being unscientific in their approach to major policy issues. He wrote a book in which he attacked the right for engaging in a war against science, and didn’t seem to care about hurting their feelings nor finding allies among Republicans to help advance his cause at all. He wrote a new book explaining why their belief systems are inherently unscientific and it isn’t their fault. I am sure that most Republicans were quite all right with being patronized by him in that book.

    Second, by publicly shaming atheists who critiqued the problems with Miller’s and Gilberson’s approaches he was scoring an “own goal,” especially by responding to criticism by atheists with the protestation that he himself is an atheist. In the process he was giving ammunition to the creationists he was supposed to be fighting by making the whole process of studying science to be a post-modern exercise in valuing opinion over science. He was giving the Creationists the “wiggle room” they needed to use the argument against naturalism with “it could be that” there is more to knowing than science.

    My third complaint is that by trying to downplay naturalism and by shaming atheists, he was in fact patronizing the people he calls his “allies.” He was patting them on the head by saying “This atheist thinks it’s okay for you to insert god into the evolutionary process. Don’t worry about those mean guys who tell you it isn’t.” I see this as the biggest problem for most accommodationists when they talk about their allies.

    My final complaint is his, and to all of the science framers (whatever happened to that?) who were spreading the meme that scientists are bad communicators and that this is why science is losing out in our cultures. There is some fantastic science communication that is out there and available to be spread; and no matter how carefully “framed” the messages of science were disseminated there would not be all that much of a change in the acceptance of science when the mass media is so good at providing content that takes away the time that people would spend reading and learning and watching videos about science when the competition isn’t as much religion as it is TMZ or American Idol. I told this to him, but it didn’t seem to fit his own frame.

    • Leo

      My thoughts on some accommodationists in general is that they don’t want atheists to speak out in fear of losing liberal Christian allies. They have no problems in speaking out against us because I suspect they realize we’re still going to be pro-science allies.

      So, on Mooney and your complaints #1 and #3 more specifically…
      1. Mooney can be harsh on the Republicans because his liberal allies (Christian or not) won’t necessarily mind.
      3. Do his liberal allies care if he’s being patronizing? I suspect many don’t, therefore it’s not much of a loss to be this way.

      Otherwise, I share your concerns on complaint #2. I fear the accommodationists fail to realize that when they protect their liberal allies, they either offer the same protections to the fundamentalists or expose themselves as hypocrites.

  • cassmorrison

    Thanks for citing the start of the wafer thing accurately. I totally agree with your final statement. People really need some basic philosophy/critical thinking training, if only so they can go to the root statements.

    • Ophelia Benson

      The inaccuracy on the wafer thing was one of the more infuriating items to me at the time. I was one of the first people to receive the book, for some reason, so I was one of the first (or maybe the first) to post about that chapter. That didn’t work out well.

  • Iamcuriousblue

    I remember a discussion he was having on accomidationism with either Jonathan Haidt or Will Gervais on POI, discussing whether it was a good strategy to emphasize things like the fact that in-context biblical interpretation would show that homosexuality is no more seriously condemned in Leviticus than eating shellfish. On one hand, of course we don’t want to argue by recourse to something we know to be a work of mythology, and we want to stop basing their moral decisions on ancient mythology. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of people who simply will not make that break, and arguments like that offer them an “out” to not have to take a regressive position on gay rights because they think their most deeply held beliefs force them to take that position. It’s an interesting strategic argument, and I think one that boils down to the question that every movement faces of being maximalist in what one is trying to achieve vs pragmatic accommodation.

  • bad Jim

    Mooney’s changed his tune lately. Back in the Science Blog days he was teamed up with Matt Nisbet to promote the idea of “framing” science to make it more palatable to believers. It was in that context that he was taking sides against P.Z. Myers.

    Since then he’s been confronted with the intractability of the religious right, broken with Nisbet, and his newest book concentrates on the psychology of the other side. He was always mostly on our side, and nowadays he’s willing to admit he’s on our side.

    • Ophelia Benson

      No, your chronology is a bit jumbled there. He’d already broken with Nisbet when Unscientific America was published. That didn’t diminish his disagreement with PZ (and, later, me) in the least.

    • slc1

      As I have stated in several blogs, IMHO, Mr. Mooney was brainwashed by Prof. Nisbet into getting into the framing brouhaha. His sojourn in Los Angeles, which put him 3000 miles from Nisbet, a professor of communications at American University in DC, apparently helped him get over the brainwashing. I always thought it was rather pathetic as Mr. Mooney seems to have been a stand up guy BN (before Nisbet). I certainly found his first two book interesting and informative, particularly Storm Warning.

  • James Croft

    I find Chris Mooney a very interesting commentator on these topics, because I frequently agree with the broad thrust of his comments (that there have been some strategically foolish moves made by prominent atheist advocates, and a general disregard for the science for communication in much of the movement) but, ironically, often disagree with how he presents his case and with when he chooses to do so. So I agree – it’s a strange case: on the one hand I think he, almost as much as anyone writing about these issues, has a grasp on what the evidence and research says about how we are likely to be successful pushing our message. On the other, he seems ham-fisted in his own attempts to convey those ideas.

    I think many of us could learn a lot from the ideas he is espousing, though. On balance, I think, we need more Mooney, not less.

    • Chris Hallquist

      James, could you elaborate? I keep wondering if there’s some more plausible version of Mooney’s position out there, so if you could elaborate on your comment, it would be very helpful.

    • James Croft

      I will try, but it’s a bit difficult since the whole framing issue was long ago and I’ve since spoken to Mooney about it and done lots of my own research and so it’s tough to disentangle what I know now from what happened then. But I have reviewed the linked articles in order to refresh my memory.

      There are two issues here: first, the general argument Mooney has been making for some time, regarding how we might best achieve broad-based support for science and how best to critique religion, and second, the individual case mentioned here regarding the Coyne review. On the first point I am in broad agreement with what I understand Mooney’s position to be. 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.

      At the same time I think the way Mooney has sometimes presented these ideas has been odd and counter-productive – his response to the piece above seems to me a good example. He objects to the quite thorough review on rather spurious grounds (although he is doing so in the context of a piece the main purpose of which is to summarize a talk by another, so maybe it can be expected that he doesn’t elaborate much). And some in our community see him make those sorts of comments, when they are obviously out of place, and think therefore he is not “one of us” and therefore reject everything he has to say.

      I would argue that, despite mistakes like the response to Coyne here, the general message which I’ve articulated is crucially important. 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.

      So, in short, Mooney is sometimes wrong in the particulars, but I think he is generally right.

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