Chris Mooney's Apostasy

I've been watching with morbid fascination the way Chris Mooney has become the object of atheist wrath in the last couple of months. In his book Unscientific America (written with Sheril Kirshenbaum) he argues that there's a danger in science educators becoming religion-bashers. With the US so religious and so scientifically illiterate, it can't be good for science and religion-bashing to get coupled in people's minds.

I won't bother gathering all the links that show there's anger about this. But Chris is considered a very, very big idiot in some circles. The critics never tire of demanding his evidence. Where's the data that shows that religious folk are turned off to science messages, if the messenger is also bashing their religion?

Well, sure, it would be nice if the NSF poured a couple of million dollars into some social psychologist's longitudinal study of how religious folk react to religion-bashing scientists. But here's why I don't think they'll do that: the NSF doesn't fund research that aims to prove the obvious.

How could religious folk NOT be offended and alienated by religion-bashing scientists? Take, for example, a visit to a creation museum being planned by PZ Myers and the members of a secular student group. Now, I don't fault them for wanting to visit the museum. But on Pharyngula we read advice not to be rude during the visit that goes like this--
After we leave their private property, it will be time to laugh and mock and vent, and we will: this trip will produce over 200 experienced people who know exactly what kind of lunacy the Creation "Museum" represents, and we will express ourselves in opinion pieces, on blogs, at school board meetings, and in gatherings with our friends. That's where we get our payoff, not in rudeness during our visit that gets us evicted.
I dare say a few creationists have read this passage. Can it do anything but offend them to feel they are going to be laughed at and mocked (though not until after the visit)? And in that state of feeling offended, can they possibly become receptive to evolution?

Oh, but wait, what's my evidence that people lose receptiveness to a message when the messenger is disrespectful? Where's the data? Well, OK, I don't have it. So I have to admit that people could just conceivably remain receptive to science messages, even when their religion is being mocked by the messenger. For that matter, it could also be that you can mock people's race and gender, and still get through to them. So there's no evidence to hold someone back from creating a science blog that bashes people on the basis of race or gender.

But given the high degree of plausibility that Mooney's view enjoys, even without being supported by "hard evidence," why is he an apostate for stating it? Why does "the atheist community" demand such extraordinary fealty to its obstreperous, in-your-face ways? Why can't there be an open and respectful debate among skeptics about how to talk to the rest of the world?


Previous posts about Unscientific America:
Atheists Loud and Quiet
Atheists Loud and Quiet (Part 2)
The Intersection


Saving God

Here goes, as promised....some thoughts about Mark Johnston's Saving God: Religion after Idolatry (starting with the first four chapters).

About the "undergraduate atheists"--Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. I mentioned the phrase in an earlier post. Yes, as I speculated there, Johnston uses that label primarily because he thinks these guys are attacking undergraduate theism. They haven't bothered to read Spinoza, for example.

Johnston has so much ire that I think it biases him, making him misinterpret what "the new atheists" are up to. For example, he speculates that Dawkins and Hitchens are somehow trying to recreate their halcyon college days, when everyone they knew was an atheist. (Is he serious?) Harris is dismissed as almost literally an undergraduate himself.

My take on it is that "the new atheists" feel like the boy in "The Emperor's New Clothes." They have always privately thought religion was utterly inane. They resent that they've had to keep their thoughts to themselves, and that religion has such power in the modern world. So they've decide it's time to get it all out in the open. Of course, the religion that concerns them is the religion that makes the world go 'round, not the high-brow religion of Princeton philosophers...or Spinoza.

It's ironic that despite Johnston's ire about the new atheists, some of his complaints are the same as theirs. His catologuing of the moral depravities of Yahweh is even more extensive than Dawkins's in The God Delusion. He even quotes Dawkins half-way through: "Yahweh is the most unpleasant character in all fiction." Yet even at this point he finds a way to accuse Dawkins of some mistake or other (I didn't quite follow).

Why is Johnston so mad? I think he perceives Dawkins & Co. as hostile to all of religion. He's certainly right about their tone, even if they manage an occasional careful nanosecond. Johnston has a religious cast of mind, and he's not happy to find it under attack. Even his skewering of Yahweh comes about in a very different way than Dawkins's. Johnston is at pains to show that his dissatisfaction with Yahweh grows out of a basic idea common to all religions--the rejection of idolatry. The moral monster of the bible, with all his grotesque flaws, couldn't possibly be "the highest one." So worshiping him is idolatrous.

The real "highest one" is nothing monstrous, nothing supernatural, nothing incompatible with science, nothing that wants us to reject science...but more on that later.

I'm intrigued by the religious cast of mind that Johnston doesn't want to give up, but wants to give a "proper object of worship." It intrigues me, because I just don't have it. I wonder what it is, and how it's different from the religious cast of mind even Dawkins admits to having when he calls himself a "religious atheist."


The Gates Business

Are you Team Gates or Team Crowley? (Sorry, you have to have a teenaged daughter to get the reference.) I have to say, I'm a fence sitter. Not Team Gates, not quite Team Crowley. (Obama was right he had no reason to handcuff the guy in his own house.) As for why I'm not Team Gates, this video from The Daily Show says it better than I could...and the fact that the commentator is black really helps.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Henry Louis-Gate - Race Card
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day


Respecting Animals

I'm been slogging through more of The Ethics of Killing, by Jeff McMahan. I keep wondering--if the book is so clear and interesting (it is!), why's it such a slog? Maybe I've grown too accustomed to reading and thinking about the real world. I want things to be "in living color" and this book is strictly black and white.

I'm rereading the chapter on killing, which makes the claim that there are two types of morality, one based on the consideration of interests, the other based on respect. We owe no respect at all to animals, McMahan argues, but we must consider their interests.

I'm puzzled. The more we know about animals, the more that we respect them. Am I using the word "respect" incorrectly? Or has McMahan spent too much time at a reeducation camp run by Kantians, getting taught that respect is only owed to persons?

To satisfy my craving for color I've been reading this blog starting at the earliest entries. The writer is so thoughtful and honest I suspect as time passes he's going to start thinking he needs to free his parrot. He respects the bird too much to be content with confining him. We do respect animals (don't we?), and we don't put unreasonable limits on those we respect.

OK, back to the black and white pages of McMahan.


The Intersection

At The Intersection today, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum respond to the outrage of "new atheists" over their book Unscientific America, but I wish they'd respond to the serious arguments. There might be a lesson here--if you put your arguments in the middle of a lot of outrage, they're likely to be ignored. In chapter 8 of the book, they encourage science educators to teach that religion and science are compatible. But are they? And do scientists really have to broach that difficult question? I posted something about that from Hawaii a couple of weeks ago. What else are you going to do on a rainy day in Hawaii?

The Discipline of Blogging

I've always been ambivalent about blogging--I wrote something to that effect at Talking Philosophy way back when (here). Last summer I met Mark Vernon (at a fashionable bookstore in London...those were the good old days) who had a different take on blogging. I asked him how he managed to write something at his blog every day. He said he saw it as a "discipline" (a word with Buddhist overtones). I've been giving the discipline a go--writing daily for the last week. There are several aspects to blogging discipline--thinking of something to write about, keeping it short, and (drum roll) stopping when you're done. As in--closing the browser. That's the biggest challenge. Surfing the web is wondrously distracting--both the friend and the enemy of all with Things To Do.


Can you know if you believe in God?

It's Sunday, so let's go to church. From the promo for Saving God :
In this book, Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself.
The business about idolatrous tendencies sounds intriguing, and so does the attack on "undergraduate atheists." I take it they're undergraduate atheists, in Johnston's view, because they attack undergraduate theism. This is an insult you hear a lot. It's sort of odd, since the critics insult "the new atheists" by insulting 99.9% of believers. But OK. Dawkins & Co. are dismissers of religion, not just the religion of the masses. So the "post-graduate theism" of the .1% can't be ignored by them.

Judging from the first chapter, which can be downloaded for free, post-graduate theism is definitely not simple-minded stuff. Here's an idea that's tantalizingly counterintuitive. Johnston says believing in God isn't just thinking that God exists. If there's a devil, the devil presumably thinks that God exists, but the devil doesn't believe in God.

Believing in God "requires a certain success in hitting the correct target. Or, more exactly, it requires the arrow of God to have had you, or your religious tradition, as its target." You can't just look inward to find out if you stand in the proper relation to God to be a believer in him (her, it).

This is very, very post-graduate stuff. Here's the most counterintuitive part--at least as I read the argument. If the relation of believing in is between a believer and a something "out there," then if there isn't that something, nobody stands in that relation. If atheists are right, then there's no God, and there are no theists!


I'm awfully curious to see what Johnston thinks God is. In the first chapter and promo we can see he believes God is nothing supernatural, and God is not the idol described in scripture. But Johnston thinks God is still a source of salvation--believing in God will help us cope with the difficulties of life. What, then, is God? If I want to find out, I guess I'm going to have to break down and buy the book.


Philosophy and Pop Culture

How's this for completely nauseating academic snobbery? As a contributor to the forthcoming book Twilight and Philosophy, I do take offense!

Our intrepid (or not so intrepid) "anonymous philosopher" claims that people contribute to the many books like this because they
can't get their work into peer-reviewed venues and lack sufficient talent to work on real problems, but feel the need to compensate for their deficiencies by claiming that publishing incompetent philosophy in popular forums is a noble enterprise.
He goes on to say, in the comments--
The sad reality is that the volumes in the "pop culture and philosophy" series (either one) are saturated with poorly written junk philosophy. The entire enterprise is at this point a vanity project-- CV padding for those who couldn't (and don't) get their work published in the usual way, but somehow got a job in philosophy.
Further down, he reviles the whole notion of "public philosphy." (Stung twice! My animal book is being published as part of Blackwell's "public philosophy" series.)

Now, now. A vanity press is one that just satisfies the desire of authors to see their names in print. The philosophy and pop culture books published by Blackwell and Open Court (the Viagra one isn't from these publishers) are hardly vanity exercises. There's a lot of demand for these books. I believe they're quite profitable, and those profits enable the publishers to put out less salable, more academic books. So, a "win" for everyone, surely.

As to why people contribute to these volumes. It would be just too silly to mount a serious defense of contributors and their credentials or motives. Just for fun, let's suppose Mr. Elite Philosopher is entirely right. Folks like us are too dumb to get our work into peer-reviewed journals or think about real philosophy problems. Well, what should we do?

Surely we shouldn't leave the field and seek jobs as chimney sweeps or garbage collectors. There are vast numbers of philosophy departments all over the place--community colleges, backwater branch campuses etc. It's got to be good for us to stay in the field and teach at such places. And if, while we're at it, we want to write fun, light essays for philosophy and pop culture volumes, why not?

I believe Mr. Elite Philosopher's field is political philosophy. What his academic work is like we'll never know, but if it's anywhere near as elitist as his blog, let's hope he keeps on despising public philosophy. I really wouldn't want this kind of thing to have any influence.


Undercover Ethics

Interesting interview with the Ghanaian journalist Anas Anas on "Tell Me More" yesterday. President Obama had recently praised Anas to the Ghanaian parliament, in recognition of the undercover work he'd done to expose a sex-trafficking ring. So there he was basking in glory on the other end of the phone when host Michel Martin asked him to explain what he had done. So he explains: he penetrated a house of these fiends, and freed their captives, by getting a delivery girl to be his "girlfriend" and informant.

Michel immediately slams on the brakes. You did what? You got her to be your girlfriend, under false pretenses? Anas defends himself. The wrong of that is trivial, he says, compared to the great harm that was taking place inside that house. And no, the girl didn't hold his subterfuge against him when his work was done and the relationship ended.

True, the journalist's misdeed was trivial compared to the harm he prevented, but we still have mixed feelings (Michel did, I do, maybe you do). For anyone who has taken/taught Ethics 101, the first thing that comes to mind is Kant's categorical imperative. We are not to treat any person solely as a means. Anas was in violation of that principle. But I think something else is really going on here.

Our misgivings seems to stem from a distinction we make between doing and allowing. We hold ourselves to very high standards when it comes to the things we do. We shouldn't lie, steal, manipulate, enslave, etc. But we think allowing others to do all those things is OK, especially if the "others" are strangers. People who sell women into slavery are evil, but people who stand by and let them do it are innocent. Putting together these reactions to doing and allowing, we might find ourselves disapproving of Anas. Granted, he had to manipulate the girl to stop the sex traffickers. But we think he didn't really have to stop the sex traffickers, as bad as they are.

If we attached more importance to what people allow, we'd have to be a bit more tolerant about what they do. Anas couldn't have saved the women in the house without some mildly shady dealings with the girl outside the house. But I wonder...how much shadiness would have been justified? What if he'd done to that one girl exactly what the bad guys were doing inside to a large number of women? How bad can you be in the name of being good?



Houston, we have a cover!
Also, a publication date--January 8, 2010.

Description--"Animals are both like and not like human beings. Animalkind is about the similarities and differences and what they mean for us, morally speaking. If we owe animals anything, Kazez asks, must we owe them exactly what we owe each other? Drawing on philosophical analysis, empirical evidence, and engaging tales, Animalkind urges 'all due respect' for other creatures, instead of egalitarianism or outright dismissal. Kazez urges that even on this moderate basis, we must recognize our current treatment of animals as a moral outrage and initiate reforms on a personal and societal level. Both philosophical and practical, the book will appeal to the general reader as well as students and professionals." Table of contents here.



A few issues back, I used my column in The Philosopher's Magazine to lament the fact that I'd missed the Coldplay concert in the fall (and to confess that I am a Coldplay-lover), but now all is well. They were back in Dallas last night.

Here's the thing about hearing live music. It kind of disrupts a certain illusion that I enjoy. You see, Chris Martin and I have kind of a special connection. I understand him, and he understands me. In fact, he wrote many of his songs specifically for me--like "Clocks" and "Viva La Vida" and "Lost". So what are all those 20,000 other idiots doing there, acting like his greatest fans? How, in fact, do they even know his songs and the lyrics, considering that they're MY songs?

Sigh. The band was good. But back to the audience. Not only did they barge in on my special thing with Chris, but they made me notice that I'm no longer the age of a typical Coldplay fan. No, I'm not 24. I'm not even 34. One of the ways the 20,000 called this to my attention was by engaging in Strange Youth Behaviors.

Um, must one listen to music while waving around cellphones? I asked my two 12-year olds about this, because they got into the cellphone thing too. In fact, they took to it like...well, like ducks take to water. After the concert I attempted to provoke them by hypothesizing that this is all about the deep and intimate connection that people have with their phones these days. To hold your phone is practically like holding your heart in your hand, so raising it is a gesture of love and exultation.

But they wouldn't be provoked. In fact, they just looked at me like I was an ignoramus. The point is that the phone lights up, they said. It's like holding a candle. Sure. Whatever. I'm sure Chris thinks it's silly too. He encouraged it a bit, getting people to do that wave thing, but I think he was just pretending. He and I think just alike.


Believing in Unbelief

This is interesting, but I think HE Baber is making a vain attempt to hoist atheists on their own petard...as they say (hey, I'm suffering from jet-lag--don't blame me for stale metaphors today).

New Atheists believe in unbelief. For some reason they think it important to assure their followers in the village that religious belief is not merely false but uncontroversially false and that educated people who profess to be religious believers or claim that theism is compatible with science are out to dupe them.

I don't believe in belief. Beliefs about metaphysical issues, including the existence of God, are inconsequential. In the aggregate, religious believers are no better or worse than atheists and, historically, societies that have embodied strong religious commitments are no better or worse than those committed to atheism.

I would be very interested in hearing why the New Atheists and their followers believe, with such manifest conviction, in unbelief.

Baber is alluding to an argument from Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell -- the one about how our religious society "believes in belief." We think it's admirable to remain a believer, even if you doubt. Doubts are like the temptations that a husband or wife might resist to remain a faithful spouse. The effect--Dennett argues--is to valorize irrationality--turning away from arguments and evidence that foster doubt instead of following them where they lead. Baber is trying to pin a similar sort of irrationality on atheists--except she claims they believe in unbelief. But do they?

If atheists believe in unbelief, it's in nothing like the sense in which theists believe in belief. Atheists don't feel tempted by theism. They don't reinforce unbelief in each other by stressing the virtue of unbelief. They don't ignore arguments and evidence for theism; they pay attention and find it all lacking. Let's face it--the epistemic situation of the theist and the atheist are very different. Believing in "things unseen" is hard; disbelieving in them is easy!

So no, atheists don't believe in unbelief in the sense in which theists believe in belief. But do they believe in unbelief in some other sense? We speak of believing in X when we think X is really important, or central to our lives, or worth promoting, or worth giving additional influence. You can believe in people, or concepts, or "isms" in that way. I believe in my kids, and democracy, and moral realism (the view that there are moral truths) in that sense.

I think some atheists believe (in this sense) in atheism--particularly the crowd that's often labelled "the new atheists." They are excercised by the continued existence of religion in the world, and would like to get rid of it--even the liberal, non-literal variety. I'll leave it to those folks to answer the question Baber asks at the end, because I can't say I'm in that camp.

The Lives of Plants

I find animals interesting, but have always been ho-hum about plants. The problem with plants is that they just...sit there. Animals move around, have lives that are more exciting, or even have lives that tell a story.

But now I've met the exciting plants of Hawaii. Take, for example, the banyan tree, famous for being the type of tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. I had no idea the life of a tree could be so exciting. Here we have a gigantic one, in Hilo on the big island--

This is a tree with a dramatic life. It starts as a vine that wraps around some other tree. Gradually the vines multiply and hang down low enough to take root in the soil. When enough of the vines have surrounded the original tree, it's choked off and replaced by the new banyan tree.

There's drama in the life of each individual banyan tree, but I suspect that for a lot of plants, the drama is in the story of the species' evolution--the way they wound up in threatening niches and certain mutants were lucky enough to survive. There's got to be a good story behind the completely marvelous appendages of a banana tree.


Atheism, Loud and Quiet (part 2)

Now that I've read the infamous 8th chapter of Unscientific American (by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum--see here for background), I'm still on board with the basic idea, but not sold on some of their subarguments. The basic idea is that science educators, who are less religious than the average American, should avoid religion-bashing. The important thing is to get people to accept evolution, climate science, etc., not to get them to renounce religious ideas that are central to their lives. That's the important thing because sound public policy in this country hinges on having a scientifically well-informed populace. And religion-bashing is likely to alienate people, in a very religious country like the US.

But now what about the subarguments? CM and SK think "the new atheists" are guilty of a very basic error about the relationship between science and religion. Dawkins & Co. are misguided in supposing that the two are incompatible. As the authors see it, they are not only compatible but rather obviously so.

They start to make their case with some examples of famous scientists who have been religious. But that's underwhelming. It's like arguing that abolitionism and slave ownership are compatible by pointing out that Thomas Jefferson had slaves. Then there's a point they make about the difference between methodological and philosophical naturalism. They think science just eschews religious hypotheses as a matter of methodology. It takes no position on religious entities and processes. CM and SK quote the philosopher of science Rob Pennock as saying that science is methodologically naturalistic in the way plumbing is. People "do" science and plumbing without gods and fairies and the like, but that doesn't mean scientists and plumbers can't believe in gods and fairies.

But hold on. It could be very odd to "do" science and plumbing naturalistically, depending on what you think gods and fairies are up to. Why spend the whole day looking for a block in the drainage pipes, if you think the pipe fairies might be at it again? Why be determined to find natural causes for diseases and disasters, if you think there's a god out there who sometimes punishes people for their sins?

It's a Very Hard Question whether science and religion are compatible, not one that CM and CK can settle quickly, or that atheists are necessarily getting wrong. In fact, it's this hardness that the authors could have used in their argument. Science educators should stick to transmitting science--evolution, climate scientists, neuroscience, etc. etc. It's not their job to teach what are in fact extremely contentious philosophical theories about science and religion. Don't teach incompatibility, don't teach compatibility, I'd say. Stick to teaching science.

That would be my prescription. And now I will get back to cursing the coqui frogs, which have started their nightly singing. (See previous post.)


I'm fond of E. O. Wilson's notion of "biophilia"--the deep attraction we have toward living things. The fact that we are biophiles is one good reason we ought to preserve the biological diversity of the planet. But (I wonder) ... am I a true biophile?

Here on the Big Island of Hawaii, it turns out the answer is "yes and no." Yes to loving the spinner dolphins we consorted with in kayaks a few days ago, but no to loving the sea urchin I stepped on as I was getting out of the kayak.

A big yes to loving the big sea turtles we saw crawling up onto a black sand beach on the southern end of the island. But I am having a big problem loving the coqui frog.

The males have a very loud mating call they repeat starting at dusk, continuing way past midnight. It's an eerie, minor key two-note melody that only a girl frog could love. Maybe, though, I have an excuse. Environmentalists distinguish indigenous animals from exotics, and these guys are definitely exotic. Apparently they hitched a ride on a boat or plane from Puerto Rico some years ago. The Puerto Ricans really like them, but here they sing much louder, fit badly into the local ecosystem, and are treated as pests. I could maybe be on their side, if they didn't sound so macabre and desperate. I'm not such a purist myself. The mongoose is an exotic, brought in somewhere else to kill the local rats. they look like stretched out rats themselves--a bit like ferrets--but they're downright appealing.

Not so appealing is some respectably local plant that fills the air around Hilo with a pungent skunk-onion smell, especially when it's raining or windy. Where's my biophilia when I need it? Today's goal--figure out what it is. So far, my attempts to find out have been met with vacant stares. "Those wacky tourists from the mainland!"

OK, I'm a fair weather biophile. But I wonder--is it even really "bio" that we all "phile"? Last night we trekked down to a spot where a flow of lava meets the sea...us and several hundred other volocano-lovers clutching flashlights in the rain. Earth. Air. Fire. Water. Really cool! Well, biophiles can also be geophiles. There's no reason for the nature lover to be exclusive. But I wonder if "bio" is really inherently more lovable than "geo"--as Wilson's biophilia hypothesis seems to suggest.

Today we shall make a close study of the banyan tree, aptly described as "grotesquely beautiful" by my son. A true biophile would probably leave out the "grotesque" and just say "beautiful." We shall see.


Saving God...Saving WHAT?

What could possibly be the thesis of this book, coming soon from Princeton philosopher Mark Johnston? Here's the most mysterious book description I've read in a long time.

In this book (Saving God) Mark Johnston argues that God needs to be saved not only from the distortions of the "undergraduate atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris) but, more importantly, from the idolatrous tendencies of religion itself. Each monotheistic religion has its characteristic ways of domesticating True Divinity, of taming God's demands so that they do not radically threaten our self-love and false righteousness. Turning the monotheistic critique of idolatry on the monotheisms themselves, Johnston shows that much in these traditions must be condemned as false and spiritually debilitating.

A central claim of the book is that supernaturalism is idolatry. If this is right, everything changes; we cannot place our salvation in jeopardy by tying it essentially to the supernatural cosmologies of the ancient Near East. Remarkably, Johnston rehabilitates the ideas of the Fall and of salvation within a naturalistic framework; he then presents a conception of God that both resists idolatry and is wholly consistent with the deliverances of the natural sciences.

Princeton University Press is publishing Saving God in conjunction with Johnston's forthcoming book Surviving Death, which takes up the crux of supernaturalist belief, namely, the belief in life after death.

God without supernaturalism. What? I am sufficiently mystified that I may have to read the book, which comes out in a few weeks.


Atheism, Loud and Quiet

I shall now tread into a combat zone, gingerly...inadvisedly..and without really having done my homework. What's with all the criticism of Chris Mooney, here, here, here, and elsewhere? From what I gather, Chris Mooney is a promoter of science literacy and science-based policy-making. He also happens to be an atheist. His view, I take it, is that it's problematic to promote atheism and science literacy at the same time. The receptive audience for science is vastly larger than the receptive audience for atheism, and religious folk can get turned off to science messages when they're mixed up with anti-religious messages.

My experience teaching and interacting with religious folk tells me this is a very plausible hypothesis. I bet someone could even test it out. For example, I wonder if religious people are still buying Richard Dawkins' superb science books, now that he's so closely associated with atheism. Has he undercut his power to explain science to the masses? Could be!

Lots of people have such problems to deal with--they want to convince people that X and have to decide whether to expose or conceal a more provocative and divisive belief about Y. Even where there might be a connection between X and Y, it can be wise to downplay Y, if X is really, really important. For another example involving religion, take Peter Singer's new book The Life You Can Save (see review link in the previous post). He's downright respectful toward religion in the book, never letting on that he's actually an atheist. Well of course not--he's trying to alleviate the vast problem of extreme poverty, and the last thing he wants to do is alienate religious readers.

I notice the same thing in Ingrid Newkirk, whose agenda is to improve the lot of animals. Asked about religion in the movie biography I am an Animal, she says she's an atheist. But this is something you don't see her talking about in any of her books or in other media appearances.

My own daughter finds herself having to make strategic decisions about what she says about her beliefs. At 12 years old, she's an outspoken vegetarian and animal advocate. She's often told by her friends that God put animals on earth to be eaten and even taunted with the question "Don't you believe in God?" She wisely gets the conversation back to the topic of animals and away from religion.

So...sure. If increasing science literacy is your ultimate goal, you ought to make careful strategic decisions about the way you discuss religion. Of course, that's not everyone's ultimate goal. Some people are interested in the debate about the existence of God for its own sake. Let them have at it. But there is some real and legitimate worry when our best science writers become notoriously anti-religious. Of course there is. Without getting into exactly what Chris Mooney is saying about specific science writers, I have to say the guy just sounds to me like the voice of common sense.