Attention conservation notice: This post should have been broken into about three parts, but it’s written now and I don’t care. Read it at your risk. Consists of points I’ve made before to little avail, thinly veiled disdain for people I respect, and cartoons.
As I’ve said before, reading anti-accommodationists is bad for the health and bad for the brain. It was a habit I kicked, and getting back to it, even slightly, has not been a cheering experience.
It reminds me of the reason I don’t write about Israel/Palestine. One side commits some atrocity, and this leads the other side to commit its own atrocity, justifying it by pointing to the previous evil act. “Oh, no,” says the first group, “we did that because of some earlier atrocity.” And pretty soon you’re arguing about who offered what in a private meeting between two dead people with no witnesses on a balcony in 1948. Sometimes you wind up debating who did what in the desert 5000 years ago. And the atrocities continue apace.
At the end of the day, you decide that all involved are assholes, and start wondering if it would be possible for them all to lose. Then you remember that it’s the grownups who are assholes, and not all of them. There are children who need homes, and schools, there are quiet farmers and programmers and engineers who just want to build a society and raise families, and you realize that you can’t throw your hands in the air and consign the whole mess to the ash heap. You need to find some way to fix the atrocious situation, and fuck the people standing in the way.
That greatest disanalogy between that and the accommodationism wars is that resolving Israel/Palestine affects people’s daily lives in a measurable way. Sure, the atrocities in Israel and Palestine are greater than anything done by either side of the accommodationism wars (or the framing wars, or the various earlier iterations of this leading back through Gould and Ruse and Dawkins in the ’80s, and on to Huxley and Darwin and Wilberforce if you like). But that’s a matter of magnitude, not of substance. The difference of substance is that resolving the status of the Palestinian territories actually matters to the way real people live their lives every day, while resolving whether scientists should advocate against religion really doesn’t.
Nonetheless, we’ve had our own version of the cycle of rhetoric so elegantly laid out by Tom Tomorrow above.
In the most recent iteration, we’ve had Chris Mooney winning a grant so he can write a book. In this day and age, any science writer or journalist of any stripe who can stay employed and be funded to do research deserves praise and congratulations. But because Mooney’s funding comes from the John Templeton Foundation, a group dedicated to promoting a particular view on the compatibility of science and religion, that praiseworthy achievement has won opprobrium.
No, opprobrium is too gentle. It’s won Chris yet another outpouring of bile. Apparently now it’s “bribery” for a foundation to award grants to journalists. There’s really no response possible to Coyne’s rant except to post the Dinosaur comic above. People do a job and get paid for it. Coyne is paid in part by The New Republic, where his editor is among Chris’s fellow fellows at Templeton. Is Coyne being bribed by getting money from a stooge of Templeton? Has bribery from the NIH silenced his criticism of NIH Director Collins? Might bribery be the wrong word to describe getting a grant?
I commented on the latter blog post, agreeing with others that it was a cheap shot and reminding PZ of his own wise words:
Don’t fall for their subtle attempts to divide the unbelievers. Religious institutions would love to see atheists continually demonized, even by, especially by, agnostics. It furthers their ends, not ours. There is no meaningful division â we are all abandoning the old superstitions together.
Chris is an atheist. He’s stated it publicly, and is now working with a secular humanist organization (producing a smart podcast on science issues for Center for Inquiry). When called on the cheap shot, PZ first replied: “Did you read Mooney’s last book, Josh? It’s a bit late to tell ME that I’m taking cheap shots.” I left another comment, noting that two wrongs don’t make a right, but got no reply.
Ophelia Benson picked up not on that post but on [a discussion of Chris’s grant spawned in part by] Jerry Coyne’s bribery charges. Not, alas, to chide Coyne for his absurd double standard, but to pile on Chris. The question she poses is whether “Chris Mooney is a man more sinned against than sinning.”
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s wrong to equate getting a grant with taking a bribe. Maybe it’s wrong to demonize your critics just because they demonized you.
There’s no question that lots of anti-accommodationists (nÃ©e anti-framers, nÃ©e New Atheists, nÃ©e anti-NOMAists, nÃ©e Huxleyans, etc.) got upset with Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s treatment of them in Unscientific America. There were some genuine misstatements, some places where the book’s excessive hunt for brevity led to the loss of needed nuance, and some places where Chris and Sheril have a different interpretation of events than the anti-accommodationists. The anger may have been justified (though I tend to think not). And they got their revenge. They panned the book in prominent settings (in reviews that misrepresented the book, FWIW), and mounted a deeply personal campaign against the authors. “The Colgate Twins” and “Mooneytits and Cockenbaum” are among the nicer nicknames they were given â names which add nothing to the discourse but vitriol. Ophelia is right that there were criticisms offered of their ideas as well, but the notion that their critics were focused only on the intellectual merits of the claims advanced in the book and at Chris’s blog is laughable in its revisionism. Whoever started it, it’s fair to say that Chris and Sheril have gotten their just desserts. Endlessly picking on them because they wrote a book, or criticized a book review before that, is unspeakably petty.
Ophelia argues (as PZ does implicitly as quoted above) that “Chris picked a fight.” But the idea that he originated the fight is, again, patent revisionism. It’s a fight that’s raged for a long time. In my experience with the blogosphere, it got raunchy first with the publication of Dawkins’ The God Delusion, in which NCSE and other groups willing to work across religious lines in defense of evolution are called “Neville Chamberlain evolutionists.” It turns out, that phrase was itself a reference to an analogy offered 20 years earlier by Michael Ruse, in response to an earlier iteration of this war. I’m sure we can trace it back to the ancient Greeks without breaking a sweat.
But who cares? Who cares, first, who started it? What matters here, and in any similar escalating conflict, is who ends it. It won’t stop overnight, but every time someone stands up to their compatriots and demands honorable behavior, it’s a step toward a better day. It’s good to see that commenters at PZ’s blog are pointing out the obvious flaws in the logic and tactics of his declaration of war on Ken Miller (to whit, if a journalist chose not to present PZ’s own kind words about Miller, might she also have omitted Miller’s kind words about his atheist colleagues?). Thus far, PZ seems uninterested in replying to his internal critics, but it’s a start. And likewise, I’ll call out anyone on my side of the fence who I see stepping out of bounds.
And maybe, if we all do that, we can get back to a slightly more productive dialog about how best to encourage science literacy.
To start, we might talk about the merits of Daniel Loxton’s new children’s book about evolution. Loxton is a great guy, the editor of Junior Skeptic. In the course of his book, he suggests that kids with questions about the religious implications of evolution talk to their parents or a community leader. In other words, he acknowledges a common question about evolution, and declines to proselytize or in any way advocate for or against religion. In exchange, he’s gotten a lot of grief.
The thing is, he’s not wrong in saying that science can’t answer kids questions about religion. And he’s dead on in saying this:
Are the only two choices confrontation or dishonesty? Does being âa little bit nicer to religious peopleâ necessarily entail a âcompromiseâ¦for the sake of some kind of political expediencyâ?
I respectfully submit that the answer is âno.â It has long struck me as strange that atheists and religious fundamentalists share an assumption that atheism and acceptance of evolution are the same thing. This assumption is, at least in demographic terms, incorrect. Discussions about public attitudes toward evolution typically neglect a remarkable fact:
In North America, most of the people who accept evolution are religious.
And, I donât mean by a small margin, either. Weâre talking about an overwhelming majority. For decades, Americans who think âHuman beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this processâ have consistently outnumbered those who think God had no part in evolution by margin of three to one (or more). Some of these theistic evolutionists subscribe to an Intelligent Design-type belief that is clearly not supported by the evidence, but many mean something altogether more metaphysical (such as the common Catholic idea that god infused immaterial souls into hominids at some point in human evolution, or the notion that all natural processes are divinely ordained).
Given that, I think we can confidently conclude that most people who say evolution is compatible with god say so, not for political expediency, but because this is what they believe.
Now it may be that those people are all wrong, that Francis Collins is wrong, and that Daniel’s philosophical position (which I and many other nontheists share) is also wrong. But the solution is not to demand that Collins be fired, to attack Loxton for writing a book that states what he believes to be true, and to mock people who have a view of the world that is different in unfalsifiable ways from that of Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers. Having a discussion is fine, but the kneejerk accusations of dishonesty are not. It’s not OK to do as PZ did, instantly asserting that it was written that way because:
speaking the truth on this matter â that science says your religion is false â is likely to get the book excluded from school libraries everywhere.
Daniel clearly doesn’t think that science says every religion is false. It certainly falsifies particular claims of particular religions, but Daniel clearly does not think that this justifies the inference that science disproves all religion. And neither do I. And it is arrogant, dishonest, and irrational to impute base commercial or political motives whenever people write things you disagree with. Maybe they just disagree.
And if you aren’t capable of having a civil conversation with people you disagree with, you have no warrant to present yourself as arbiter of “science in its purest form” (sorry Ophelia). If you want to be treated as defenders of rationality, then engage in rational discourse. Not namecalling (note here that David Heddle is dead-on in writing: “ ‘accommodationists’ is kind of like the ‘colored people’ or ‘negro’ version of the word faitheists”), not imputation of secret motives, not armchair psychology. Engage the argument, and denounce and marginalize people who can’t engage in reasoned discourse. Is that so hard?
Updated to note (3/7, 2:00 am): Ophelia Benson correctly notes that her reply was not to Coyne’s post about bribery, but to Sheril Kirshenbaum’s post commenting on the response to Chris’s grant, a response largely driven by Coyne’s criticism and other comment spawned by it. In search of brevity I collapsed that causal chain, and regret having introduced imprecision at minimum or error and confusion at worst. My apologies to my readers and Ms. Benson; I’ve made some small changes in square brackets which I hope will clarify matters. I hope that this and any other errors or ambiguities present in this post will not be allowed to distract from its central message.