You go far away for a couple of weeks, and it kind of feels like big changes must have taken place in your absence. Maybe the oil spill got cleaned up. Maybe the new atheists stopped being upset about "accommodationists." Stuff like that.
Alas, I see there's yet another round of railing against Chris Mooney at some of my favorite atheist websites (for example here, and that post includes more links). What did he say this time? For one, he related this story about a comment he made at an AAAS session on science and religion:
At the close of the session, I rose and posed a question. One can never remember exact words, but in essence, it was this: “I’m glad you’re trying to foster dialogue between scientists and the religious community, and I’m sure you’ll succeed. But here is a harder question–how will you foster dialogue with the New Atheists?”More interestingly, he told this story:
At the AAAS event, the pastor David Anderson told an unforgettable story underscoring this point–the story of a single mother who just lost her husband, and has two poorly behaved kids, disciplinary problems who keep getting in trouble at school. Does this woman care about the latest scientific discoveries about, say, asteroids? No, explained Anderson, “because an asteroid has just hit her family.”
Science, alone, is no consolation in this context. Religion gives this single mother something she can lean on. Religion, explained Anderson, provides one with inspiration, whereas science provides information (and science fiction provides entertainment).It was naughty of Mooney to relate the pastor's tale because... because he shouldn't have bought into the pastor's notion that religion could offer this mother something science couldn't?
Why shouldn't he buy into that? The pastor didn't say every single mother with problems must rely on religion. I should think he left it open that some would rely on sports...or on art...or psychotherapy... or whatever.
I can imagine the pastor saying different things about what religion provides. Must it be inspiration, rather than connection, community? Presumably he wasn't ruling out a more complex story.
I suspect that for some atheists it's simply hard to accept that religion can provide all these wholesome and yummy things--much as for vegans (I have noticed) it's hard to accept that animal products have anything to offer. In both cases, it seems there's a fear that once X is recognized as sufficient for some purpose, it's inevitable that X will be seen as necessary.
But that's just a logical confusion. Being sufficient isn't being necessary.
Of course, once you've adopted some practice, because it's sufficient to fulfill some important need, you get used to it. It's not easy to shift from one sufficient practice to another. The mother who relies on her church for social support and comfort can't just cut the cord and immediately get the same needs met through art and psychotherapy (as it might be). Similarly, it's not easy to shift from one diet to a very different one.
Given all of that--you might argue--it's not wise for science educators to stress the incompatibility of religion and science. Though religion isn't really necessary to meet people's needs, it does do important things for people and so has a "felt necessity." So the message of incompatibility will likely alienate many people from science.
I take it that's Mooney's basic position. You could argue with it, but I find it completely unfathomable why he's viewed as such a bad, bad boy.