Sean Carroll reads Jerry Coyne so you don’t have to. His summary of Jerry Coyne’s post about his talk at the First United Methodist Church of Chicago is decidedly kinder than John Pieret’s, or my own last post, and so it serves as a good starting point for the promised kinder, gentler reaction to Coyne’s piece.
As you recall, Coyne went to the church to talk with a book group there about his book Why Evolution Is True. Sean summarizes:
You can guess what happened â or maybe not. There was a productive two-hour conversation in which both sides learned something.
There was indeed a lot of learning, and Coyne seems to see the question of dialog with the religious from a slightly different angle, and may be rethinking some of his other positions.
Sean picks up on the most salient result Coyne derived from his captivity among the theists:
Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents. This is a true but subtle point, as of course there are those who love to accuse scientists and/or atheists of unwarranted certitude. I think the difference is that we feel relatively sure about some things, while weâre quite ready to admit that we donât know the answer to other questions, and we have a clear notion of where the distinction lies. But I would think that, wouldnât I?
This is an important observation with important implications, so it’s worth examining how Coyne came at this issue:
Finally, one thing that impressed me very strongly about the group was its sense of doubt. Just as we scientists canât be absolutely confident that what we discover are timeless and unalterable truths, so several of these Methodists said they werenât so sure about the âtruthsâ of the Bible, or, importantly, about the nature of God. (The difference between scientific and religious doubt is, of course, that scientists have good ways to resolve doubt. [Josh: I’d say we have a way “to quantify and to reduce doubt,” rather than “to resolve.” But that’s a quibble.]) While this doubt was not ubiquitous, Iâm sure I wouldnât have sensed it in, say, a confab with Southern Baptists.
In the end, it struck me that the harmful and destructive nature of faiths may be correlated with how much doubt resides in their adherents. These Methodists, unsure about the natureâor perhaps even the existenceâof God, are certainly not wreaking much harm on the world. Indeed, with their outreach programs, help for the poor, and so on, their net effect on the world may be positive. (Also, they seemed like nice peopleâpeople trying to live their lives according to the morality they derive from faith). This is not the kind of faith that I spend a lot of time attacking, even though I consider their religious beliefsâinsofar as they even have religious beliefsâlargely irrational. And Iâm not sure how much their own belief enables beliefs of more harmful faiths, like Islam or fundamentalist Christianity. My impression is that most of these people are not enablers in that sense.
The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know Godâs will and Godâs mind. Itâs that certainty that leads to suicide bombing, repression of women and gays, religious wars, the Holocaust, burning of witches, banning of birth control, repression of sex, and so on. The more doubt in a faith, the less likely its adherents are to do harm to others. These Methodists seem riddled with doubt, and that defuses potential harm. But though they may doubt the nature of God and the truth of scripture, they do not doubt the value of helping others, and that prompts their many charitable acts.
I think this is right. I think it’s so right that I’ve written the same thing on this blog. For instance, a discussion of the importance of fear and a search for certainty, originally posted in 2005. And a defense of doubt from 2006. And a post from 2007, arguing that the certainty of fundamentalists is linked to an authoritarian tendency, and wondering about what this might imply about the certainty I saw from the “New Atheists” (as they were known then). And a followup on the same point. Various of those posts generated a lot of criticism and comments, and I don’t bring them up to revive fights from 5 years ago, or necessarily to endorse everything I said then. I might write those posts differently today. Check out the disclaimer in the sidebar for this blog’s standing policy on old posts.
I bring this up just to emphasize that the issue of certainty as something I’ve seen as central to discussions of the dangers some religions pose, and to endorse Coyne’s diagnosis of the harmful forms of religion. I’m hopeful this might produce a useful meeting of the minds.
The section of Coyne’s that I quoted above looks like it was written by someone wrestling with an important question, a question I answered a few years ago partly through wrestling with this same issue of certainty. The question Coyne seems to be asking himself is: are the members of First United Methodist of Chicago in need of deconversion? Asked another way: if every religious person were religious in the manner of the Methodists he met, would he still be justified in seeking to eradicate religion?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but he seems to be wrestling with the possibility that the accommodationist position may not be entirely wrong, that some churches may be legitimate allies against fundamentalism and superstition and various harmful forms of woo. Not that he’d go whole hog accommodationist (whatever that means!), but he may have seen a glimpse of where we’re coming from.
And his question about whether these Methodists somehow enable Islamic fundamentalists seems to be the most relevant to that internal struggle.
To me, it’s a silly question to ask in the first place, but this idea that moderate religious folks enable fundamentalists is a central creed of gnu atheism, and especially of Sam Harris’s End of Faith. This argument’s obvious (to me) absurdity is why I could never finish that book. It’s necessary to make some form of this argument in order to justify the sweeping opposition to all theistic belief that defines gnu atheism. It’s never hard to justify opposition to the religion of Fred Phelps and Osama bin Laden. It’s a lot harder to come out against the religion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr or Gandhi. I still think it’s absurd to say that King’s faith or Gandhi’s justifies bin Laden’s, but you have to get there somehow if you want to say that religion is inherently toxic.
Conveniently, the reading group answered this question about enabling early in Coyne’s visit. He explains:
Because the church members were liberal, urban Methodists, apparently well off, they were obviously not raving fundamentalists. Their approach to faith was far more ânuancedâ (I hate that word!) and circumspect. Several of them struck me as being a hairsbreadth from atheism, seeing God as some kind of distant entity who neither concerns himself with the world nor was even involved in creating it. In fact, they spent a fair amount of time denigrating fundamentalists like Southern Baptists, reassuring me that they disliked those folks more than I did!
I don’t think the exclamation mark is meant to express Coyne’s surprise, at least I hope not. Fundamentalism â the American Christian enterprise that originated the term about a century ago â emerged in cities like Chicago as a reaction largely against liberal, nuanced, thoughtful congregations that wanted to take the Higher Criticism seriously, and treat the Bible as a human document, a book with authors and a history of edits. Fundamentalism didn’t become a southern, rural, socially conservative movement until later, nor did it take atheism as a major enemy until later. There has always been a deep tension between fundamentalists and moderate and liberal congregations.
Even today, groups like the Discovery Institute and Southern Baptists and Answers in Genesis and your usual band of advocates for fundamentalism reserve their harshest attacks not for atheists, not for scientists, not even for gays and lesbians, but for moderate and liberal co-religionists. Compare their rhetoric around NCSE or People for the American Way or the ACLU with the bile they unleash at Biologos or at Ken Miller or Francis Collins! (Nor has it ever been clear to me how Rev. Barry Lynn’s work at Americans United for Separation of Church and State could conceivably be said to enable fundamentalism, given that he’s devoted much of his life to opposing fundamentalism.)
Sam Harris’s argument, to the extent I can summarize and restate a bad argument, is that fundamentalism relies on and is motivated by a belief in the existence of a deity, and that moderate theists validate fundamentalism by also believing in a deity. All theism is therefore bad because some theists use their theism for bad ends, and the theists who don’t do bad things don’t undermine the belief in a deity which causes some but not all theists to do bad things. He gussies it up to cover the cracks, but that’s the gist.
What Coyne seems to be grappling with in his post is the observation that the faith of moderate and liberal theists is pretty different from the faith of fundamentalists. Again, this isn’t news to fundamentalists, nor to moderate theists, but it seems to have taken Coyne off guard. The sort of theism he found in this church is not the same theism as that of a fundamentalist, and that means it doesn’t validate the theism of fundamentalists.
You see Coyne dealing with this complexity as he describes a discussion about how he’d handle a fundamentalist who rejects evolution based only on the Bible. He said that he couldn’t do anything about such a person (I agree) and added:
My own strategy for promoting evolution, I said, had evolved into trying to âget rid of religion,â which is the source of creationism, and far worse things besides. I believe that statement shocked some folks, but I hastened to add that the types of religion I was most concerned with eliminating were those that promoted Biblical literalism or had invidious effects on society, like promoting suicide bombing, repression of women, and prohibition of birth control. I doubt that these Methodists fit into those categories!
Two things are interesting here. First, that he felt any need to soften the blow. It’s not necessarily surprising, of course, but given the gnu atheists’ denunciations of “framing” and other suggestions that people might do well to adjust their messages for different audiences, it’s at least noteworthy. Second, that he softened the blow by creating two categories: religions that do bad things, and religions that don’t do bad things. He’s really concerned about the former, and while he ultimately might like to make both groups otiose, he’ll start with the first. He doesn’t note that churches like FUMC are also not “the source of creationism,” but they aren’t.
Aside from the (presumably quite long term) issue of how to deal with these harmless moderate theists, Coyne’s reply is the accommodationist stance (to the extent “accommodationism” is a real thing that has a real stance). Nontheist accommodationists do not argue that religion ought to exist, (we do tend to resist the claim that all religion ought not to exist, but we’d be fine if they didn’t). We can all work hard against the religions that harm people, that force themselves on others, that interfere with the rights of people who don’t share their particular moral stances, etc. But the religions that don’t do those things, we can’t get agitated against, especially when those religions are often good allies against the harmful religions. Gnus get agitated about the idea of forming alliances with theistic groups (though they do it when necessary), and of saying the sorts of nice things that one says about allies. Even so, Coyne’s description of his comment at the church strikes me as different in degree, but not in kind, from the way I’ve talked about the issue in talking in various settings, including churches. I don’t go so far as to say eliminating religion is my goal (because it’s not, and it’d be dishonest of me to say that!), but I look past diehard Bible-thumping fundamentalists, and discuss the dangers of toxic forms of religion, and look for ways to move people toward beliefs that aren’t toxic and toward acceptance of evolution (which is my main concern).
This is the point in a discussion where gnus often start talking about the Overton Window and whatnot, and where I start asking for something a little more theoretically and empirically grounded, and the discussion gets boring and stale, so let’s skirt that for now.
Because for all the acrimony, there’s some important common ground here, and maybe that’s a place to build something. We agree that various authoritarian religious movements are the really bad sorts of religion, and that those are â at minimum âÂ the best place to start activist efforts. We agree that at least some moderate and liberal theists are not enablers of those worst sorts of religion, and might even be helpful allies against those bad guys. And importantly, we seem to agree that the most compelling way to divide these two groups may well be the certainty with which they adhere to their beliefs.
To press the point â hopefully not too far â I’ll even suggest that, adopting a widely-used two-axis model of atheism and agnosticism, we should worry more about the axis of “what you think we can know” and less about “what you believe.” Agnostic (at least somewhat agnostic) theists like the ones Coyne describes at FUMC, and of the sort I’ve met in churches and citizens for science groups across the country, are the enemy of the authoritarians, precisely because they ask the questions scientists always have to ask: How do you know? Are you sure? How can you know? The more we strengthen their hands, and the more we weaken the True Believers, the better off we are. The result of that shift may well produce some atheists, but the important thing is that it will produce people who question themselves and the claims of those around them.
I’ll also suggest that this discussion of the dangers of excess certainty may inspire some of the gnus to examine their own rhetoric. Because (not singling anyone out, so as not to argue about details), gnus have a tendency to talk about their own views as Truth, and others’ views as lies, and that sure seems like certainty to me, and it’s a habit that has triggered by aversion to excess certainty more than a few times over the years. When pressed, gnus will acknowledge that it’s impossible to show certainly that god doesn’t exist, but that qualification tends to get lost in their sallies against theism. I’m happy to chalk it up to exuberance, but I’ll note that it’s hard to ask other people to question their beliefs if we don’t act like we question our own, or if we come down like a ton of bricks when we get challenged on our claims.