Wednesday, 26 August 2009

O, Moonenbaum...

It was with a weary sigh that I opened up the Guardian's CiF section to note that they'd lazily republished a two-week old LA Times editorial about how frightfully nasty The New Atheists are. You might think that Andrew Brown's tireless moans about Richard Dawkins and the huge CiF Belief section would be enough, but apparently you'd be wrong. Science and religion need a truce was written by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, a pair of 'accomodationists' who promote the idea that religion and science should try harder to get along by writing books and articles as one voice. Anyway, they're the young, hip science advocates who seem to have found that telling Dawkins he's a bad man is a good way to get noticed, a notion sadly proved correct by the fact I'm writing about them.

Their basic premise is one you'll have heard plenty of times; Dawkins, PZ Myers and chums are all a bit too confrontational, and maybe if we were a bit nicer to fundamentalists we'd be able to go back to the halcyon days where everyone believed in evolution, before 'The God Delusion' ruined everything. This particular article starts off badly by bizarrely criticising Dawkins for writing a book about science:

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins – most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, The God Delusion – returns to writing about science. Dawkins's new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, will inform and regale us with the stunning "evidence for evolution", as the subtitle says. It will surely be an impressive display, as Dawkins excels at making the case for evolution. But it's also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins's new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

Surely not those who need it most: America's anti-evolutionists.

This is a bit of a straw man; I don't think even Dawkins believes he can convert fundamentalist Christians who believe the Bible is literally true and that the world is less than 10,000 years old. The strange part is though, that having been roundly criticised for writing about atheism, Dawkins is continuing to take heat for going back to writing books about evolution. Of course, Mooney and Kirshenbaum haven't read the book, but then that isn't really the point. The upcoming release of this book is just a hook on which to hang another reheated complaint about 'the New Atheists'.

These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they'll heed.
I'm struggling to understand what Moonenbaum's point is here. If, as they say, the religious 'view science itself as an assault on their faith', what good is it going to do to start being nice to them? How is accomodationism going to get through to them? For the extremists, I don't think it really matters whether you offer them a cup of tea and a hug or leave a flaming bag of shit on their doorstep; if they're not interested in science then being a bit mealy-mouthed and cuddly about it doesn't seem like it's going to help. Let's not forget that pre-'New Atheism' everyone was telling religion how nice its hair was, and the acceptance of evolution wasn't any greater than it is now. I mean;

More moderate scientists, however – let us call them the accommodationists – still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science.
Yeah, and has it led to an America which overwhelmingly accepts the theory of evolution? It seems not. The weird thing about Moonenbaum (I mean beyond being a weird two-headed writing entity, one of whom appears to be Seth MacFarlane) is that while they're nominally all about respecting everyone's beliefs, they seem to really, really wish Dawkins and Myers and Jerry Coyne would all shut the fuck up and quit interrupting the big group hug they're trying to initiate. They seem to advocate the 'concerned friend' approach to empathising with creationists, but then criticise evolutionists for not being on-message with them. For example, they write this about Jerry Coyne:

Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science. The atheist biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for instance, has drawn much attention by assaulting the centre's Faith Project, which seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions.
Now, Coyne is no enemy of the NCSE (National Center for Science Education). His criticism of the NCSE's faith project is exactly the kind of friendly intervention they ought to endorse, but because it disagrees with their position they describe it as an 'assault'. A terrifying assault which begins;

Let me first affirm that I enormously admire the work of the NCSE and of its director, Eugenie Scott and its president, Kevin Padian. They have worked tirelessly to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, most visibly in the Dover trial. But they’re also active at school-board hearings and other venues throughout the country, as well as providing extensive resources for the rest of us in the battle for Darwin. They are the good guys.
Coyne merely disagrees with the NCSE's policy in this particular area, arguing that the teaching of evolution doesn't really need to cosy up to religion to make its point; the science stands perfectly well on its own without having to get a big Jesus-shaped endorsement on it.

The article ends by suggesting that, hey, Charles Darwin wasn't nasty about religion, so there. But, as PZ Myers pointed out in his rebuttal, the whole point of science is that it's not about slavish obedience to Darwin; we don't have to agree with Darwin about everything because he was a brilliant scientist, just as we don't have agree with the NCSE's every policy just because Eugenie Scott is awesome. The most important thing in any debate is honesty, and what Mooney and Kirshenbaum, Andrew Brown, Michael Ruse and others seem to preach is a kind of weirdly dishonest approach where atheist scientists should keep quiet about religion even if they believe that unempirical faith-based thinking sits awkwardly alongside science, because God help us if we upset the odd Christian along the way. It's perfectly valid for Dawkins to put his cards on the table about what he believes; if you don't like it, criticise his arguments on their own merits. Don't start suggesting that he shouldn't make them in the first place.

(Predictably, Andrew Brown arrives in the comments, demanding that Jerry Coyne supply evidence that religion is hampering the teaching of evolution but failing to demand that Mooney and Kirshenbaum supply any evidence that Dawkins, Myers and Coyne's method isn't working).

The reality is that we're not seeking to win over the hardcore fundamentalists, it's about reaching the people in the middle ground. Some of them might object to any criticism of religion alongside their evolution, and for them there's Ken Miller, Mooney/Kirshenbaum and Francis Collins. Some of them might, though, appreciate the honesty of scientists who aren't afraid to say that there's no convincing evidence for God. The religious are attacking evolution and atheism all the time, why shouldn't some evolutionists fight back? We all have our own ways of debating, so let's all put our ideas out there and see whose wins, with less of this tedious nonsense about 'framing' the debate in the right way. And fuck, I'm willing to suggest that Dawkins' many science books have done more for the popular underestanding of evolution than a million boring op-eds which amount to little more than attempts to referee the debate.


  1. Lets turn this around for a moment.

    In the town where I live you will find quite regularly in the market square a youngish chap, I'd put him at about 25, who stands and preaches. And we are not talking modern liberal Christianity whihc believes in the big band and evolution but fundamentalist young earth stuff. Now I am Christian myself, but of the more modern varierty, and I wish this guy would just shut the fuck up. He may think he is doing the right thing but I would put good money on the fact that he has probably put more people off Christianity than he has ever converted.

    I think Moonebaum makes a similar good point about Dawkins. I have no doubt that he has explained evolution to many that did not understand before, but how many has he also put off with his confrontational style? I don't think he is attacking him for writing about evolution as such, more that some of his previous material has not put him in a position where some people are going to listen to him.

    Also, and this is something that you will rarely read from either side of the debate, many moderate Christians (and indeed the moderates of many other religions) who believe in evolution, often feel that Dawkins etal tar them with the same brush as the fudamentalists. In failing to make that distinction Dawkins et al once again repel a large swaith of people.

  2. I know what their point is, I've heard it from plenty of atheists and Christians alike, I just think the net result when Mooney and Kirshenbaum write like this is a load of pointless squabbling between people who are broadly on the same side, when they could be doing something more productive than criticising a man for writing a fucking science book.

    I think if people put as much effort into promoting the theory of evolution 'nicely' as they did moaning about Dawkins' style we might actually get somewhere. Dawkins has his beliefs, he's honest about them, and I think he's perfectly entitled to do so. I also find him far less objectionable than a lot of people make out; his interview with Wendy Wright is a great example of how polite and patient he can be. I won't defend everything he says, but then I don't have to. I just think there's room enough in this debate for everyone to adopt the tone they're most comfortable with. No-one expects us bloggers to be scrupulously polite when we're dissecting Littlejohn or Hitchens or having a go at politicians, but we are required to clam up and watch what we say when discussing religion, and I can see why some people get frustrated that the robustness of, for example, scientific debate can't be carried over into discussions of religion.

    In this particular case, I think Mooney and Kirshenbaum's do a spectacularly weak job of backing up their actual points; they don't really provide any evidence of why Dawkins is such a twat, and the one vaguely attributed criticism they do provide is a pretty crass misrepresentation of Jerry Coyne's opinion of the NCSE, an organisation which Coyne, Dawkins and Myers all generally admire.

    "Also, and this is something that you will rarely read from either side of the debate, many moderate Christians (and indeed the moderates of many other religions) who believe in evolution, often feel that Dawkins etal tar them with the same brush as the fudamentalists"

    Heh, maybe it's the places I read, but I've heard that complaint frequently. It's certainly something you can't get away from in any discussion of something as broad as religion, which varies wildly in adherence and interpretion. It's very difficult to have a debate about it if you have to caveat the shit out of everything. But y'know, Dawkins' main problem with religion is where it contradicts science teaching, and the bulk of his criticism is reserved for the fundamentalists.