Russell objects that the kids in my story are not like "gnus" and the adults are not like their critics. Gnus are gnice, and their critics are not only against contempt, but also against candor. He thinks the "ur" event is Chris Mooney commenting on Jerry Coyne's 2009 New Republic article--
What we actually tend to see is reasonably civil, courteous, thoughtful critiques of religion from the Gnus being met with the response that it is so far beyond the pale that it should not be said. Thus, the crucial moment that set off the current round of debates was when Jerry Coyne reviewed two books by religious authors who argued for a compatibility of religion and science. The review was as civil as one could expect from any reviewer who disagrees strongly with key elements of non-fiction books that he or she is reviewing. It was thoughtful, detailed, and followed all the courtesies. See for yourself.I'll come back to Mooney-contra-Coyne in a moment, but when I wrote my post, no, I wasn't looking back as far as the summer of 2009. I wrote the post on January 25, 2011, and I was actually thinking about what I'd been reading at atheist blogs in the weeks and months before that. There had been lots of talk about "adults" who are critical of "gnus".
The response from Chris Mooney was that such things should not be said. Again, see for yourself.
The "adults" are...whom? At Butterflies and Wheels, Phil Plait came under withering criticism on Dec. 6, partly because he wasn't sufficiently critical of Chris Mooney and (see the comments) also because of his "Don't be a Dick" speech. I take it Plait is against contempt, but not against candor. There was also upsetness (October 17) about Julian Baggini's speech at Westminister Abbey, in which he encouraged atheists not to be anti-theists. As the author of an excellent book about atheism he's hardly a should not be said kind of a guy. There was also upsetness about Andrew Lovley (Jan. 6), who wrote a post encouraging atheists to be conciliatory instead of antagonistic. He's for lots of interfaith talk, not atheists shutting up.
Of course, I'm as prone as anyone to the "primacy and recency effect"--so I was probably at least unconsciously thinking of Chris Mooney, who is the first persistent critic of new/"gnu" atheism I ever paid attention to. At his blog, Chris said many times he was not telling anyone to shut up, and he thinks there's a time and a place for candid atheism. But yes, he thought Coyne's stance in the New Republic article was ill-advised.
If you're for candor, should you make that a consistent stance, being for candor in all things? Surely not. I'm not for Constant Candor (sounds like a type of tea). Let's move this closer to where Russell and I both live. A view Russell's been promoting lately is not science/religion incompatibility but atheism/objective morality incompatibility. He argues that atheism leads to an "error theory" of morality like that defended by J. L. Mackie and Richard Joyce. Take the sentence below--
Torturing babies just for fun is wrong.Most people think it's true. The error theory disputes this. Mackie says all moral statements are false, while Joyce just says they're not true. (There's a difference--with different logical problems whichever way you go.)
Suppose Russell gets lots of fame and acclaim, and starts promoting the error theory all over the place. So he starts influencing people to think that atheists must believe the sentence above is false, or at least not true. I wouldn't hesitate to say I thought that was a bad idea. It wouldn't be my place to address him in the second person and tell him what to talk about, but I'd be perfectly entitled to my opinion that spreading this view is unwise.
And it would be a perfectly cogent and respectable opinion. This sort of meta-ethics would likely increase public distrust of atheism and discourage people from accepting atheism. I'd also make another sort of argument--that meta-ethics can't be discussed coherently in the public square. It's a highly technical area of philosophy, where philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and logic intersect. There is simply no way that the ordinary person, with little or no education in philosophy, can get a grip on the pertinent issues.
Furthermore, there's just no point in the public worrying about meta-ethics. All sane people are committed to not torturing babies just for fun and will do the very same things to stop would-be baby torturers. For all intents and purposes, we may as well say the sentence above is true. Everyone in philosophy converges on the idea that roughly speaking, anyway, it's at least kind of like true. Nothing whatever is gained by associating atheism with an anti-realist view of morality.
Now, that doesn't mean the error theory should never be discussed. Of course it should. In philosophy books and philosophy seminar rooms, and by anyone who's willing to spend a couple of years gaining the expertise required to discuss these things proficiently. If you get yourself into that milieu, you'll find out there are big problems with the error theory, and there are many, many impressive competitors in logical space. In fact, there's a very close competitor that [on some versions...] makes the sentence above true (moral fictionalism, which compares it to "Harry Potter is a wizard"). There is no reason at all to foist the error theory on the public (at the price of atheists seeming bizarre), and not one of these competitors, given the total lack of consensus even among meta-ethics experts.
In any event--the point is that there's nothing remotely scandalous about saying that the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism/objective morality incompatibility*. Likewise, I don't see much point in discussing religion/science incompatibility in the public square. We can all agree on very plain and simple things--if science, then no creation in 6 days. If science, then no dinosaurs living at the same time as humans. Lots of limited incompatibilities like that are indisputable. But the more sweeping assertion that science rules out most of religion is complicated and technical (what is science? what is religion? what is compatibility?). And there are important issues about the impact of making that assertion. There's room for debate here--I feel more confident about the meta-ethics example--but there's certainly nothing appalling about the position that sweeping assertions of science/religion incompatibility are ill-advised.
Long story (sorry!) short: Russell has really just sidestepped what my "gnu" story was about. It was about critics of contempt who are all for candor. On the other hand, if some do say should not be said (about some topics), I fail to see what's surprising or upsetting about that.
I was amazed to discover that some people read this sentence as if the "/" meant "or." So they think I'm saying it's wrong to promote atheism or "objective morality incompatibility" (what's that?) in the public square. But no. "x/y incompatibility" is the incompatibility of x and y. It's just a little shorthand.
The screaming and yelling from Coyne & Co. has been ... interesting. More about it in the comments.
I respond to all the confusion (at other blogs) here.