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.


amos said...

I haven't followed the Chris Mooney debate very closely myself, but yes, I agree with you that teaching science is a priority over convincing people that God doesn't exist. In another group in which I participate there is a Unitarian-Universalist minister, who is the most fervid defender of science and the theory of evolution. And contrary to what I thought, the Unitarian-Universalists are not just a club of do-gooders, but genuinely believe in God and a whole lot of spiritual stuff that atheists like myself reject. Why turn off people like the guy I refer to?
I much more concerned that people learn science and the theory of evolution in the schools than that they reject religion completely. By the way, said minister, although far from a fundamentalist, identifies with the Christian (and Jewish) religious tradition and does not like to see it attacked.

amos said...

A clarification: there is a perfectly valid philosophical debate as to whether religious faith is compatible with scientific rationality, and there is a political issue on how best to get children, many of whom come from religious backgrounds, to learn science. The two things should be keep separate, so as to avoid the possibility of a backlash against science among religious believers.

Kenneth said...

Some people believe in evolution.There's so many holes in it it has become Holy. After Mt St Helens. Catastrophe theory was proved that Nature solidifiers alot faster then science put forward. Petrification Works much faster than stated. I'm to believe that a simple organism came out of the ocean and a super complex intelligence organism developed thru random selection. In other words No intellect created Super intelligence Ha Ha Ha Ha Wake Up This is real life. Science corrects itself all the time.That means that it is an inexact learning. True Believers have a inner peace and happiness knowing that without God your really just a blob of protoplasm. an amoeba going nowhere with no purpose. Just think when you die without it just ends. With Jesus you go on FOREVER. Last Truth is telling it the way it is always. Real Science KENNETH

Tea Logar said...

Jean, I think you could only describe what Mooney is doing as common sense if you concede that we should treat science like any other product that is put on the market. In words of PR: let's use the most effective means to convince people that this product is good for them - no matter how deceiving and manipulative those means are!

But it seems to me that advocating science and critical thinking shouldn't become just another PR campaign. This approach seems to undermine the very core of what science and reason stand for. Pretending that you can consistently embrace critical and scientific thinking while at the same time believing unreasonable things is just that: pretending, deceiving, manipulating. Science shouldn't work like this, and neither should its promotion.

Jean Kazez said...

Tea, I haven't read it, but from the title of Mooney's first book, "The Republican War on Science," he is worried about US policy being developed without a scientific basis. So what's in the balance, as he sees it, is doing the right stuff about climate change, avoiding species extinctions, preventing teenage pregnancy...and the like. I take it he thinks we need a scientifically well-informed electorate to demand good policy. Which sounds right to me.

What if you can only get that well informed electorate by letting people think science is compatible with religion (even if it isn't)? Maybe it's bad for people individually to have false beliefs, but being scientifically misinformed is bad for us all.

In any event, the issue of compatibility is subtle stuff, with smart people disagreeing about it. It doesn't really seem so bad to promote science and leave the compatibility issue in the background. If someone embraces science and some science-compatible religion, that's all that matters from a public standpoint.

amos said...

People, all of us, have an amazing ability to compartmentalize the way their mind functions. The same person who can view scientific facts with a cold eye may believe that Jesus saves, and the same person who has a rigorously rational view of both science and religion is a fool in love, etc. I doubt that anyone, outside of a philosophy seminar, views all his or her life with consistent rationality, nor do I think that it would be a good idea. What's important, as Jean says, is that rationality operates in the public sphere, especially when issues like global warming and reproductive rights are concerned. Just as I feel that all have the right to fall in love with the wrong person, I also don't see why people, who choose to believe in God or to participate in religion, should not be allowed to indulge in what seems to me to be a harmless fantasy. I turned on the radio this morning, and a priest was raising money for the homeless. The radio announcer, obviously not a believer, said that Bertrand Russell asked how if God is so benevolent, people have to suffer situations such as being homeless. The priest fumbled his answer badly, and the radio announcer, instead of pressing the point, continued about the need to give money to help the homeless. I would have done exactly what the radio announcer did. The priority is to help the homeless, not to enlighten well-intentioned Catholics who are willing to donate money to a good cause.

Faust said...

Some relevant quotes from some of the participants in this debate:

Jerry Coyne sums it up in a recent blog post:
Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend. By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one. By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist. Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

It’s as I suggested to you over at TP: The “New Atheists” (or whatever I’m supposed to call this: Movement? Philosophy? Ideological group?) are not merely about being atheists. They are about pushing a particular set of (uncompromisable) valuations about epistemology in the naturalist mold. To Coyne accomodationist/compatabilist tendencies like Moodys are simply a betrayal of the very thing he is fighting for, a sacrifice too great, ultimately doomed to failure. And insofar as the NCSE is concerned his concerns seem quite legitimate to me. His final point in his blog on this topic:

I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution. If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended.

Faust said...

Chris Moody responding to the blog post discussed here writes:

Coyne, however, seems to think it is possible to more or less ignore this religious diversity. He says there is “significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled”–but which “religion” are we talking about here? It makes all the difference. Again, it is irrefutable that for some people, religion and science can definitely be reconciled. Forget for the moment how it is that they perform such a reconciliation in their minds–the point is, these people exist, and in large numbers.

Ophelia responds to this point (as he raises it in his recent book):

Yes of course, but the issue is whether there is in fact a contradiction, not whether or not people have an internal sense of such a contradiction. The chapter never comes to grips with that distinction but instead relies on pointing out the brute fact that many people have combined science and religion in their own heads. The fact that this is fundamentally beside the point never gets a look in.

For Ophelia Moody’s emphasis is beside the point and I take her to mean something like: the TRUTH of whether or not science and religion are compatible trumps whatever compatibalism people have managed to generate in their own heads, and we should discuss that truth and not fret too much about their bad theories and whatever comfort they derive from them.

So the criticism here seem to me to come from a rejection of Moody’s accomodationist tendencies on the grounds that accommodating is simply throwing out the baby with the bathwater—giving up the very thing being fought for in the interest of saving it.

Now Jean writes

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.

If I put on my atheist (new? old? drum? violin?) hat I might say but we have to talk about religion because the damn religionists keep trying to connect their religion to our science! If we keep accommodating this impulse it will corrupt the scientific enterprise and render useless the very thing we are trying to promote! So while we can leave God out of it (as Coyne instructs the NCSE to do), the religionists won’t let us, and we are going to have to rebuff their attempts at accommodation, as well as the attempts of scientists within our own ranks that are sympathetic to their enterprise.

Here are a couple questions we could try to answer:

How damaging really has the neo-atheist movement (or whatever it is) been to the cause of science? Is there any empirical evidence that recent atheist polemics have been bad for the cause of science? If not then Moody’s pleas for better tactics may simply be superfluous, a strategy for a game that doesn’t need to be played.

How damaging is accommodation to the cause of science? Are religious scientists less productive? Do they come up with bad theories? Can we show that their religious faith interferes in a demonstrable and systematic way with their scientific work? If not then perhaps the fears that accomodationism is inherently destructive to science is, pace the naturalist critics, fundamentally beside the point.

Jean Kazez said...

I just have a minute, because I have about 10 things on my plate, but..

#1 It's "Mooney" not "Moody."

#2 Re the Coyne quote. I don't think "acommodationists" imply any non-existent unity on whether religion and science can be reconciled. I think they imply that reasonable people will disagree about this, and that it's not urgently important to settle the matter.

Now I'll get back to the 10 things...

Faust said...

1. Oooops. Not quite sure how I got that so wrong. Thanks.

2. When you get done with your 10 things could you clarify what you mean here. Are you saying that Coyne isn't saying what I thik he's saying or are you saying that Coyne misreads "acommodationists" as saying something they don't really say?

Jean Kazez said...

The 10 things are still on my plate (I'm desperately seeking distraction...)

Say I know someone who is very religious and rejects evolution. I want to convince her to believe in evolution, because I think some public policy depends on voters accepting evolution. It could be she is a biblical literalist, in which case I really am going to have to urge her to drop some of her religious ideas. In that case, religion is incompatible with the science I am promoting. But lots of people have more vague and non-literal religious beliefs. They just have a general sense that evolution and religion don't mix. I think it's fair and truthful to tell them that reasonable people disagree about this (they do!). Some say they mix, some say they don't mix. It may be that I'm on the "don't mix" side of the debate, but there's no particular reason for me to try to convert my friend to that position. It's just not clear that we always need to persuade other people to accept the truth as we see it, in every single instance.

As to what other people are saying, the 10 things on my plate prevent me from making a thorough study of the matter today. I plead ignorance.

Faust said...

Well I concur with this pragmatic vision. I think that there are goals that can be accomplished here that do not require we settle compatability v incompatabiliy.

What I tried to show above by quoting Coyne and Benson was that (it seems to me) they do not agree that the kind of pragmatism being advocated for by Mooney (and organizations like the NCSE) are acceptable because they undermine science itself.

Again Coyne:

by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

So it seems to me that Coyne sees religion as fundamentaly corrupting to the scientific enterprise to the point where adopting the kind of pragmatic results oriented approach advocated by "accomodationists" is going too far.

You say "It's just not clear that we always need to persuade other people to accept the truth as we see it, in every single instance." If I play devils advocate (as best I can based on my understanding) then I would respond that you are simply wrong that we can "let the bleivers bad ideas slide" because this is NOT about the "truth as I see it" but rather that it is about the "truth of science itself" and that we cannot corrupt that enterprise with "perspectivism" that blends incompatible epistemologies. Something like that is what I think undergirds the kind of criticism being directed at Mooney.

Again from Coyne:

By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one.

NOT tactical, NOT pragmatic. FUNDAMENTAL to the enterprise of science. This is how I read this.

I should emphasize that my only purpose here is to try and offer you one possible answer to the question in your OP: What's with all the criticism of Chris Mooney?

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm, I wonder what "fundamentally corrupting to the scientific enterprise" means.

On Coyne's view, does religion corrupt in the sense of blocking the way to good theories or making scientific research go worse? Do religious scientists do worse science? Or does religion corrupt in the sense that it creates an outlook that's flawed, even though the scientific parts are OK? That seems more plausible. But if that's it, why does it matter so much?

I don't go in for perspectivism or relativism, or anything less than plain vanilla truth. What I wonder is whether it's always important to convert other people to the truth (as I see it). I wouldn't think so.

Faust said...

I think your questions for Coyne are very good. I think I will keep them in mind while reading some of this material.

My inclination is to say that Coyne is seeing a critical difference where there isn't one. But I need to read more carefully to decide one way or another. It seems he would have to be saying that they are blocking good theories, preventing progress, skewing results based on their agendas. Because otherwise where is the difference that makes a difference?

Faust said...

Coyne has provided a nice list of links to the debate that is relevant here:


If you want to understand what all the hubub is about this is a good place to start.

Oh, and happy 4th.

Jim Lippard said...

Hi, Jean! It's been a while!

I agree with Mooney, and with you, that it may be strategic for some people and especially for some organizations to remain silent about atheism and to point out the fact that some people have found ways to make their religious views compatible with science without compromising science.

But where I disagree, and where those like P.Z. Myers and Russell Blackford disagree, is that it follows that atheists should shut up and not express their viewpoints at all. The fact is that science is at odds with many of the empirical claims that religious people make, and it is wrong to pretend that it doesn't.

For example, in Mooney's new book with Sheril Kirshenbaum he writes that "America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made."

His first sentence is correct, but I would rewrite it as follows, which is also correct, but falsifies the second: "America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between *empirical claims made by religions which have been falsified by science* and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former."

Mooney seems to suggest that those of us who are atheists should just remain silent about those areas of conflict.

Jean Kazez said...

Jim, I lean toward the idea that science and religion really do make incompatible claims about the world--even "sophisticated" liberal religion. But would I go around saying so, if I were in the science education business? I don't think so. I think I'd keep my eye on the ball--the ball being getting people to believe the science they need to believe, so that they support sound policy. Mooney, I take it, is saying "let sleeping dogs lie." Don't make "science vs religion" a frontline issue, because you risk alienating potential "converts" to science.

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry--last comment was very rushed. The 10 things on my plate have now become 20. I look forward to more chat when I get back from ....

Well, I'll explain when I get back.

Jim Lippard said...

Just to be completely clear--ch. 8 of Mooney and Kirshenbaum's book is about P.Z. Myers and "crackergate."

This is the incident where University of Central Florida student (and student senator) Webster Cook took a communion wafer from a mass on campus to show a friend, and was physically assaulted, stripped of his position in student government, received death threats, and threatened with expulsion. William Donohue of the Catholic League railed against Cook and compared what he did to kidnapping or murder. He returned the cracker.

P.Z. Myers, in response to Donohue, asked on his blog for someone to send him a communion wafer and he would desecrate it, and asked for suggestions. He ended up piercing it with a rusty nail, along with a page from the Koran and a page from Dawkins' _The God Delusion_, and tossed it in the garbage. His point--it's just a cracker, regardless of superstition about transsubstantiation, and that neither the Koran nor Dawkins' writing should be treated as sacred, either.

For his efforts, he received death threats and attempts to get him fired.

Mooney recounts only part of the story--and to all intents and purposes, sides with those who issued the death threats, committed assault, and tried to get Webster Cook expelled and P.Z. Myers fired.

I would likely not have done what P.Z. Myers did, but he didn't do anything illegal or unethical--he didn't steal anything and he didn't kill or injure Jesus Christ. What he did showed that there are Catholics today who are just as irrational as Muslims who riot and call for heads to roll over cartoons of Mohammed. Fortunately, they aren't so irrational as to commit murder--though he did get multiple death threats (which Mooney chooses not to mention).

You can read a lot of the detail on Myers' blog, Pharyngula, including the text of many of the emails he received. One death threat came from the husband of a woman employed at 1-800-Flowers, who foolishly allowed her husband to use her laptop and work account to send the email, for which she was rightly fired. They both showed up and attempted to defend themselves with some convoluted rationalization.

Jim Lippard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jim Lippard said...

BTW, I should point out that Myers' "great desecration" was revealed at the end of a long, serious post at Pharyngula that you should read for yourself.

amos said...

Once when I was a lot younger, I blew my nose with a picture of Jesus Christ just to shock people, and that shocked and irritated some people. Given the level of irrationality that surrounds religion, which you describe above, Jim, why go out of your way to shock and irritate people, unless you want to shock and irritate them? It would be great if all people could learn a rational way of examining data, but that doesn't seem to be the case, especially when so-called religious data is concerned. Finally, we all have to live together, believers and non-believers, naturalists and those who believe that God is their co-pilot. However, certain basic issues, as Jean points out, are non-negotiable, one being the teaching of evolution in science classes in public schools. In order to force feed the theory of evolution to those who believe that God is concerned about their caloric intake of crackers, you might have to neglect to point out that a naturalistic and a religious explanation of data are not consistent. Is that such a sin? Do you really go through life telling everyone exactly what you think or do you, like almost all of us, adjust what you say according to the situation?

Faust said...


You write that Mooney, for

all intents and purposes, sides with those who issued the death threats, committed assault, and tried to get Webster Cook expelled and P.Z. Myers fired.

Point of clarification: do you wish to indicate that Mooney thinks that the death threats, assault, and the expulsion attempt, and the desire to have PZ Myers fired were acceptable responses to the student's taking of the cracker?

If not, then I would like a better sense of what "siding with" means in this context.

Jim Lippard said...


By failing to mention those details in recounting the events, I think Mooney is presenting a distorted and inaccurate account that implicitly favors the advocates of superstition.

If pressed, he would no doubt offer a repudiation of that activity.

But I find it difficult to distinguish his position from saying that First Amendment rights should not be exercised by atheists (at least, if they're also scientists) to criticize religion, while offering no such discouragement to theistic scientists who promote accomodationism and compatibilism.

Amos: Personally, I wouldn't have done what Myers did. But I think the fact that he did, and the consequences that arose, were quite eye-opening about how irrational some religious believers are in this country.

Myers isn't someone who should be working for the National Center for Science Education, or testifying in court cases regarding creationism. But he isn't doing those things--he's teaching and popularizing science, and doing so very effectively. He's got the most-read blog on ScienceBlogs.com, by far. What he's doing is successfully reaching a lot of people, and sparking a lot of conversations in part because of the controversy.

I think there's room for P.Z. Myers, Richard Dawkins, and Jerry Coyne, and for the NCSE, Kenneth Miller, and Eugenie Scott.

Unlike Mooney, I don't want anyone to shut up. I value both the more sober-minded, tolerantly worded works that attempt to reach across the aisle, as well as the more inflammatory works. I am grateful that Mark Twain, Voltaire, and Thomas Paine didn't shut up and be accomodating.

Jim Lippard said...

BTW, I think Myers extends the Overton window in the right direction.

Russell Blackford said...

First, Singer is quite openly an atheist and pretty scornful of religion in some of his work. He was happy enough to contribute an essay (co-written with Marc Hauser) to 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists (the book edited by me and Udo Schuklenk, which will be published soon).

The fact that he doesn't mention atheism in a particular book proves nothing. Jerry Coyne likewise doesn't mention atheism in his book Why Evolution Is True. In a book where he is simply focused on defending X, he does not defend Y. He's obviousy well aware of the point that you make (which you think, mistakenly, is all that Mooney is saying or what we object to about Mooney).

Let's look at your main argument. It's correct in principle ... as far as it goes. We all do a bit of what you're saying, i.e. not damaging our credibility when defending position X by also defending more controversial position Y which we also believe, in circumstances where we think position X is very, very important.

Again, we didn't need Mooney to tell us this, since we're not stupid. The non-accommodationists (me, Coyne, and others) are well aware of it.

But, although your point is correct in principle, it doesn't necessarily work in this case. People who reject evolution are generally so opposed to it that any mention of atheism isn't likely to make things much worse. People who accept it are unlikely to stop accepting the scientific evidence just because some folks believe that evolution provides arguments for atheism. They already know that. So this is not a very good case to apply your principle (unlike the case with Singer, where the circumstances are totally different).

In a book like Why Evolution Is True there's no point in antagonising theists gratuitously, so no point in taking even the slightest risk. So its author doesn't. But there's no reason to believe much damage will be done to the cause of evolution if, elsewhere, Jerry Coyne talks about atheism. It's possible, even likely, that long-term success for atheists will more than cancel out any bad effects.

Still, Coyne probably did the smart thing in not advocating atheism in that particular book. There was no reason to it, and some reason not to do it.

Russell Blackford said...

But even putting that (important) quibble to one side, what if I think position X and position Y are BOTH very, very important? What if, at the same time some of my arguments for Y, and some of my arguments against ~Y, are actually based on X?

As it happens, I have reasons for arguing for position Y, viz. atheism, that go far beyond establishing the truth of evolutionary theory. However, I would also like to argue for position X (evolution) for its own sake. Moreover, I will need to mention position X, and rely on it to an extent, in order to argue for position Y.

Therefore, in some cases I will talk about X and Y in the same discussion. So will Jerry Coyne. So will PZ Myers and others.

Say I also happen to hold controversial position Z, which is not very, very important to me and is not required for my arguments in favour of either X or Y.

Z could be anything, but let's imagine it my be something to do with the wonders of, I dunno, let's say cryonics (something that the real me is rather sceptical about, but this is a hypothetical example). Well, yes, in defending (the very, very important) X and Y, I will be wise to keep quiet about irrelevant, controversial and less important Z rather than harming my own credibility.

But, I repeat, we non-accommodationists already understand all this. We don't need Chris Mooney (or you) to tell us the obvious.

Mooney does not get to say to us: "Shut up about Y because I, Chris Mooney, do not think that Y is very, very important whereas I do think that X is very, very important. By talking about both, you are harming the cause of X." Even if this had a grain of truth (which, again, I strongly doubt in the particular circumstances of the evolution/atheism argument), it would be an incredibly presumptuous thing for him to say. He doesn't get to decide other people's priorities.

This has been explained to him over and over, but he still refuses to understand why we are resentful about his call to us to shut up about atheism.

The fact is that defending atheism is very, very important, at least to some of us. It's time to establish that the religious organisations base their claims to authority on a lie.

Some of the arguments (such as arguments about the appearance of design in nature and arguments about whether the world looks as if it is under the control of a providential God) go via defending evolution. Therefore, we will sometimes defend both X and Y, or we'll assume X and mention this in defending Y.

We are perfectly entitled to do so. If Mooney goes on attacking us, we'll go on counterattacking. He can say what he likes, but he can't expect to say it with impunity.

amos said...

Russell: C'est la guerre. Allons enfants.... Poor Chris Mooney. There is no impunity for him or mercy on his soul. Me, I declare myself Switzerland in this conflict.

Faust said...

So we’ve moved from Mooney “for all intents and purposes, sides with those who issued the death threats [and who did other bad things] “ To Mooney “presenting a distorted and inaccurate account that implicitly favors the advocates of superstition.” Once we start peeling away the invidious rhetoric I have a better understanding of what your concerns are about his presentation. Of course according to Ophelia Benson’s blog, some of your original claims about his omissions are false. Benson writes:

It starts with two pages scolding PZ Myers for the eucharist incident, mentioning the death threats against Webster Cook (the student who removed a communion wafer) but not mentioning the campaign to get Cook expelled. It says it's a good thing that Myers wasn't fired or disciplined, but..

The “but” is followed by another quote from Mooney scolding Myers.

So here we have an account where Mooney DOES mention the death threats, and says that it’s a good thing that Myers wasn’t fired or disciplined. Thus we would have to amend Mooney’s alleged “distortion” of the events to an omission of the fact that some people tried to get Mooney expelled. I’ll admit I’m starting to get confused about who I should classify as “distorting” things in this particular instance. I guess I'll have to get a hold of the book and make up my own mind.

As far as Myers and the Overton window are concerned, this seems a legitimate way to read Myers actions in way that, from the perspective of moving the overall dialogue forward, frames them in a way where they can be seen to do more good than harm all things considered. It seems worth noting of course, that the whole point of playing the Overton Window is to generate ideas/behaviors so extreme that it shifts what constitutes “the center.” In other words, Mooney is here playing the good cop and Myers the bad cop to the superstitious bad guys. Both are needed to get the bad guys "to convert." I doubt you would disagree with that, I take it as being your point (though I could be wrong of course).

Of course if we take the good cop/bad cop metaphor seriously then being a bad cop scold is exactly what Mooney needs to do to give him increased credibility in the new center that Myers creates through his extremity (thus playing "the enemy of my enemy is my friend card" to the superstitious). Conversely, all the “bad cops” will hardly being doing the overall dialogue a favor if they cave to Mooney’s demands and meekly accommodate the superstitious opposition since their efforts are needed to shift the center. On this view everyone should be doing exactly what they are doing…i.e. telling each other to back off so they can do their jobs. “You shut up about telling me to shut up!” etc. etc. etc.

Anyway I have quite a bit to say about compatibility (and the lack thereof) but my time is done for now. I’ll have to get to that next round.

amos said...

Russell: There is one thing in your statement above that puzzles me: you say that religious organizations base their claim to authority on a lie. Do you have any evidence that major religious traditions lie, that is, consciously deceive believers? I had always thought that religion was based on a fantasy or a delusion/illusion (Freud uses the word "illusion") that founders of religions and priests (of all sects) believe themselves. Now, if you can show that religions consciously attempt to deceive us, there are good reasons to attack religion as tremendously evil. Otherwise, if it's merely a fantasy shared by priests and church-goers, as I believe, then......

Russell Blackford said...

Amos, nothing turns on the word "lie". Replace it with "fantasy" or "falsehood" or whatever word you prefer. The point isn't whether these people are consciously trying to deceive us (some of the most egregious televangelists possibly are, but that was not what I was attempting to convey); the point is that they have no epistemic or moral authority. The further point is that we have good reasons to point this out to the public, or at least some of us do.

As long as we think that, Mooney is never going to get us to shut up, and all his attacks on us - which are becoming tiresome by now - merely waste time and energy. He's unrelenting; but he's also missing the point.

Jim Lippard said...


I've not read the book, but I'm glad to hear that it does refer to death threats against Cook. My knowledge of its omissions is solely dependent upon the blog posts by Ophelia Benson and P.Z. Myers. If I've misrepresented the book based on my own mistaken recollections of what they wrote about it--which it appears that I am in that single particular--I apologize.

From Myers' post, I got the impression that there was no mention made of the death threats against Myers (and his children), which he received in email and posted on his blog, as I mentioned above.

I think the good cop/bad cop metaphor is a bit of an oversimplification, but I think there's something to it. There is a benefit to the overall dialogue from a diversity of opinions being expressed. It's an empirical question as to whether Mooney's good cop strategy reaches more or different audiences persuasively vs. Myers' bad cop strategy. In my opinion Myers, Coyne, and Blackford have generally had the better arguments, as well as being completely forthright about their positions. (It's ironic that in the good cop/bad cop strategy, the "good cop" is the one being more deceptive, and the "bad cop" is the one being more transparent about his position and motives, if perhaps exaggerated.)

Re: the Overton window--note that things are so biased against atheism in the U.S. today that many atheists are afraid to even publicly reveal their views. Atheists are less trusted than homosexuals and Muslims, according to a Univ. of Minnesota study. Public officials regularly make statements critical of atheism and atheists that would be identified as highly offensive bigotry if directed at other groups. This seems to be starting to change, as a result of the popularity of the "new atheists." At this point the "extremeness" necessary to shift the Overton window in this country is not very extreme. In Phoenix, the Arizona Coalition for Reason, on whose behalf I've spoken to the media, put up a billboard that said "Don't believe in God? You're not alone. www.arizonacor.org"--that alone provoked media talk of a "controversy," and they aired people saying that such a billboard shouldn't be allowed.

Faust said...


Thank you for you comments. On the singular particular-apology accepted.

Yes I don't want to oversell the good/cop bad cop metaphor, though I think it can help illustrate some things. In particular I think the irony you point out about a certain "deceptiveness" on the part of the good cop probably goes through to some extent. More on that in a bit. Another metaphor I've seen proffered came from Jean. Posting over at TP, she asked "can't we view the new atheists as the drums and more "friendly" (Coyne would say "accomodating)atheists like violins? Can't we have both drums and violins?" In either case we try to arrange the atheist cause as being worked out a different levels and in different ways.

As to the "deceptiveness" of the "good cops" I think there is some truth to it. I think it is true in this respect: I think most people who are sypathetic to the religious instinct but who also want to see what basically ammounts to the end of fundamentalism and religious dogmatism, are interested in changing (in a variety of ways)the theology of religious people. But this ammounts to changing NOT their epistemology as such, but changing the (theological) values that have caused them to reject scientific epistemology. Are there Christian, Muslim, Jewish, etc theologies that can be made to mesh with a naturalistic worldview, or is this impossible a priori? If there are such theologies, how can we help them to become more widespread? This is the only route, in my view, that an accomodationist can take. So ironically a lot of the subtext of this debate seems to me to be about theology rather than about science. For example from what I've read of Miller he doesn't seem to me to be trying to change science, but trying to figure out a way to fiddle with his theology so that it can fit the science. As long as he can show that he is ONLY fiddling with his theology then it's hard to see how science can be affected. Of course this is the debate between Miller and Coyne which I would want to break down pretty thoroughly before I offered my own judgement on it.

In any case when you are trying to convince someone to change their normative views is it a good strategy to say this out loud up front? Some say yes this is the best rehtorical strategy. Be honest, be forthright. Others say no is it better to do it indirectly by redescribing the world in a way that shows them how they can hold on to (most) of what they care about even if they give up (the bulk) of their bad epistemology.

Obviously there can be all sorts of disagreement about how all of this might work, i.e. if there are such theologies, how appealing they can be made to the public at large and so forth. But it seems to describe what at least some of the compatablists are attempting. To the degree that they are simply unaware of it rather than being "clever" about it, they need to wake up. In Mooney's case I think it may be a bit of both.

amos said...

I think one of my problems (and perhaps that of others) in understanding the so-called new atheists is that they are always atheists out of naturalism, while others are atheists because of the problem of evil (that point was made by our missing guru, Jean, in the TPM blog) and still others, myself included, become atheists out of a premature and even preadolescent skepticism, which was later confirmed by reading books like Russell's Why I am not a Christian. Hebrew school, which my parents insisted that I attend, seemed so ridiculous to me that I became skeptical of all religions, but I never I tied my rejection of religion in with science. Atheists who arrive at the same conclusion through different paths may not always have that much in common.

Faust said...

I wouldn't mind an alternative to "new atheist" but it seems to be a label that has stuck. What context did it start in? Was it meant to be perjorative? Or was it meant like "neo-atheist"...like we might say "neo-Kantian" or "neo-hegalian." If the latter it hardly seems obnoxious.

I was thinking I might start calling it "enthusiastic atheism." Seems to cover what it is with no perjoritive connotations. I mean if I just say "atheists" it's too broad because the whole fight between atheist: Chris Mooney and atheist: Jerry Coyne is between atheists.

On the other hand "new atheist" is now so popular a term that if I start saying "enthusiastic atheists" no one will know what I'm talking about.

amos said...

No, if we call them "enthusiastic", we'll be the object of shock and awe just as Mr. Mooney has been. The word "enthusiasm" in the 17th and 18th century was used by writers such as Jonathan Swift to refer to fanatical religious sects.

Faust said...

LOL! Ok. Not a good plan then. Interesting history for the word, never really checked it out before.

Jim Lippard said...

Faust: I'm very sympathetic to the picture you paint, and I can appreciate that compatibilists have good intent and may produce good outcomes.

I have previously strongly supported old earth creationists' excellent work criticizing young earth creationism, in part because I think they are in a better position to persuade the audience in question.

amos said...


Given this data, which most everybody must have seen, wouldn't it be a good idea to concentrate on teaching evolution and basic scientific facts, like global warming, without worrying about whether people believe in Santa Claus or not?

Jean Kazez said...

Sorry to have abandoned ship here. I am busy worshiping nature in Hawaii. I am tempted to grab the book on my Kindle so I can say something a bit better-informed about it, but then I think I'd deserve a medal for reading it here, and I doubt one would be forthcoming.

Just one comment--Russell Blackford says Singer's attitude toward religion in The Life You Can Save "proves nothing." But what was I trying to prove? I wasn't trying to deny that he's an open atheist (of course he is...or how would I know he's an atheist?). The point is that in that book, he is prepared to argue "ad hominem"--i.e. using religious premises a reader accepts, but he doesn't. E.O. Wilson does the same thing in his book "The Creation". I take it that this sort of acceptance of religion in the interest of advancing higher causes is what Mooney is advocating.

Obviously, not ever writer has to have this accepting tone. Some people are trying to confront types of religion that just can't be accepted, because they're so dangerous. Some people are interested in philosophical issues about religion. What makes Richard Dawkins especially open to criticism is that he is such an incredible science educator. It's not unreasonable to wonder if he gets in the way of himself by being so scathing about religion.

Maybe, though, that's his nature. In "The Ancestor's Tale," written before TGD, he can't resist periodic bouts of Bush bashing, thereby scaring away a big chunk of his US audience. For some of us, it's all very entertaining, but it isn't really strategically wise.

Alright--back to enjoying paradise.

Faust said...

I will have my daughter make you a medal out of contruction paper and glitter!

Awww who am I kidding. Enjoy the sun!

Jean Kazez said...

Ha...not a lot of sun on this side of the Big Island, but there's a gigantic waterfall just outside my window, and it seems like I ought to pay attention to it. And yet, and yet...I'm curious. The medal from your daughter is tempting.

amos said...

Enjoy Hawaii.

Anonymous said...

It's good that your daughter is an animal advocate. You said that she's a vegetarian. If by the word "vegetarian" you mean that she avoids flesh but still eats dairy products and eggs, you may want to point out (gently) that there is more cruelty in an egg or a glass of milk than there is in a steak. There is no moral difference between eating flesh and eating other animal products.

People who are biophiles and animal advocates would do well to consider veganism. Veganism is non-violence in action.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree with your cruelty index, at least roughly. Yes, there's more cruelty behind an egg than behind a steak. It's good for people to be aware of that.

We aspire to be vegans, but just aren't "there" yet. At this point, we get "more humane" eggs and milk and try to eat more vegan meals, but that's all. No excuses...all I can say is that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Anonymous said...

I'm not here to judge, but I would like to make another point: There are reasons to believe that "more humane" eggs and milk are at least as bad -- if not actually worse -- than conventional eggs and milk.

There is empirical evidence that has been gathered by people who have visited cage-free facilities (and the like). Also, animal-rights lawyer Gary Francione has made theoretical arguments to that effect.


I thought veganism was difficult until I actually tried it.

Jean Kazez said...

"At least as bad -- if not actually worse -- than conventional eggs and milk"

What I have read makes me think "humane products" are better than conventional, but not as humane as you might think. That's the message I get out of books by Peter Singer/Jim Mason and Michael Pollan. I haven't read anything that makes me think they're worse.

I've read and taught Gary Francione and at least see the coherence of his argument--that humane products reassure people and stop them from making that final step to veganism. There's some truth to that...Thanks for the link--I'll have a look.