The path we’ve taken in the past, the cautious avoidance of the scarlet letter of atheism, has not worked. Dawkins represents a different, bolder, more forthright approach � we are staking out a place in the public discourse and openly discussing our concerns, rather than hiding in fear of that old Puritan scowl. We will not go back in the closet.
I haven’t read PZ’s response yet, but wanted to add that I find Nisbet’s argument singularly unconvincing and unhelpful.
It’s nothing but the “don’t be radical” response to those who are brave enough, like Dawkins, to fly in the face of tradition.
Nisbet should take a basic Sociology course. There he would learn that his take has always arisen in response to the avant guard: in civil rights issues, in minorities such as gay or black communities, etc.
“Don’t be militant!”
“Don’t rock the boat!”
“Don’t piss off the dominant culture!”
Nesbit would also learn that such reactions have always been wrong: it’s always the “radicals” of one era that become the respected leaders of change in a future era.
I was cringing about the assessment of Dawkins but at the same time I’m aware that if you are playing a political game you have to use political tools, and have to try to reach larger numbers.
That said, of course there is an inherent conflict between science/reason and religion. In some important way it boils down to the fact that you have a situation where one party is right, and the others are all wrong. I’d hate to belong to the second group, and be told so. Of course, that doesn’t change the facts.
My approach would be the one that has worked so well for the evil tobacco and oil industry (see )
To sow doubt, raise suspicion, and first attack some easy targets, in this case religions other than Christianity where the nonsense is transparant, in hopes that they’ll notice at some point that both have the same standing - none.
But overall I agree with Nisbett that we somehow have to infiltrate the ranks of opinion leaders who have authority (or at least the ear) inside various segments of society and can propagate our message with conviction. For example, I filmed a famous climatologist on Global Warming at a Colorado Unitarian Church (co-sponsored by Solar energy society, Sierra club etc). Now I’m looking for individuals who will mail the DVD to people the know in other congregations with the request to screen it. There’s a decent chance that this kind of interpersonal relation will get this message about Climate Change out.
IMO the two sides in this debate are talking past one another. Dawkins himself has said that his argument that evolution is atheistic would have been of great help to the creationists in court. That is entirely the point that Nisbet and Mooney make in their Op Ed: that Dawkins is not good at convincing religious believers. His approach is too strident and arrogant.
On the podcast, Nisbet also made clear that he believes (as I do) that Dawkins’s great role and benefit is to speak to the atheist community and to rally the atheists behind a strong message. But that is a different task from the task of opening up the general religious public to science ...
So there are two tasks here, and Dawkins (and pharyngula) are extremely effective at one, and ineffective at the other. Nisbet and Mooney are interested in the latter task.
The former task (Dawkins, pharyngula, etc.): speaking to a small, science-literate and atheistic public, rallying the troops, providing strong—perhaps irrefutable—arguments for their positions, getting the controversy in the news. Changing the minds of a few key decision makers, which may make long term political differences.
The latter task (Nisbet, Mooney): speaking to a majority of the american public who are science-illiterate, not interested in science, and largely religious believers, on a small number of key science issues. Framing those issues in a way to achieve short term political goals on very important topics like teaching creationism in schools and halting global warming. This does not use “strong arguments” but instead careful framing of issues in ways that convince the disinterested. (The disinterested will not listen to “strong arguments”).
IMO we must have room for both tactics; it’s a big tent and we can afford to run in parallel on these issues. I don’t, however, see the point of beating one another up on them. In that regard, I think it would have been better (if less newsworthy!) if Nisbet and Mooney had simply pointed out that Dawkins himself would agree that his technique was not the most politically astute in the short run.
I was surprised at how hostile DJ seemed to his guest’s message. Sure, he always plays Devil’s Advocate (brilliantly) as a tool to elicit the best of his guests’ arguments, but here he seemed genuinely hostile to the idea that scientist should be politically saavy in trying to convince the general public of the truth and practical superiority of their view over that of religion. I for one am not so convinced that Dawkins is such a great spokesperson for science. While he does rally the troops, he’s clearly not trying to limit himself to that but to speak to a wider audience, and he does so with an arrogance and hostility that both garners him much more media attention than less strident voices and that serves to fuel the stereotype that scientists are a “cultural elite” who see those not convinced of their message as not as smart as they are. DJ seemed, as do some in this forum, to feel we should win against our “cultural competitors” because we’re right and they’re wrong and that’s that. But in the real world the good guys don’t just win because they’re the good guys, but because they compete effectively.
I’ve heard other guests on POI point out that science has the natural edge in people’s daily lives, because no one in the U.S. can go a day, heck 5 minutes, without exposing their utter dependance on scientific thinking and it’s practical products and tools, whereas even devout believers seem to struggle often with doubt that God is really out there or doing anything for them. Pointing this out to people isn’t betraying science, it’s just showing them reasons to give up God other than that God is a delusion for the stupid and mentally ill. Sure, a comprehensive and deep understanding of science makes believing in God pretty hard, but do we think disproving the existence of God is the best starting point for weaning America off their addiction to supernaturalism and irrational thinking? Or shouldn’t it be the natural endpoint of a process that begins much more subtely, by showing people that they already think in scientific terms much more than they realize, and that what religion failed to do for their lives over millenia in terms of length and quality science has already done in a few hundred years? Ah, if I believed in God I’d curse him for taking Sagan away. I know it’s tempting to idealize the dead and see every wart on the living, but I’m convinced Sagan would be a much more effective spokesman for science with the general public than Dawkins is. He didn’t feed our egos and righteous anger the way Dawkins does, but that’s not really what we need if we want to win the “culture wars.” What we need is intelligence, pateince, compassion, and sorry but yes, political skill.
I don’t think taking what Doug calls a ‘big tent” approach is a fundamental compromise in our values. It is self-righteous and short-sighted to refuse alliances with those who agree with us on certain points while disagreeing on others simply because we do disagree. If evangelical Christians decide they God wants them to work for environmental conservation and social justice, I’m happy to work with them on that even if we’re on opposite sides of the picket lines on stem-cell research and teaching evolution. All I think Nisbet was saying on POI is that the practical consequences of insisting on total ideological purity and victory are severe, especially since in the current cultural and media climate we’re likely to lose. Approaching the issue of how the public perceives science in a pragmatic way, and not going out of your way to portray science as the inevitable enemy of any and all religious beliefs is not, I think, “hiding in fear of that old PUritan scowl,” but being more concerned about the impact of science on the real world than on juts being right.
I agree with Nisbet regarding effectively packaging information into digestable bites. It has proven to be the most effective way to disseminate what ever ideas or information you want the masses to think about and rehearse in their daily lives. Little jingles work, imagry with emotive appeal works, appeal to fear works, sex works, appeal to power works etc etc. This is what makes for successful advertising of anything from Coke to Disney to Scientology. Make the information cleverly packaged for the short attention span, intellectually sterile or starved or whatever, by “framing” that information with an iconic celebrity talking head. Candy coat it, put a little dress on it and spritz it with a little cheap perfume to stiffin the attention of the impotent American Idol, God bless America, fast food crowd, and naturally more minds will host and spread those memes around. Fare enough.
But we need Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and the like, no holds barred, to rail it to these sick mother fuckers who refuse to wipe the sleep from their eyes. The time of unquestioning respect for… whatever it is that is believed, is… is over. Its time to peek behind the velvet green curtain. Science will be the method to either support the hypothesis that religious belief systems are truely as great for the world as people claim OR it may reveal that religion has gotten a free pass for far too long.
Whatever the case I think we need both the bite sized, multi-colored, high fructose corn syrup, snackable information nibblets for the bovine masses AND hard-core-wakey-wakey-slap-in-the-face-no-more-apologist,-cherry-picker-moderation, snap-out-of-it-and-stop-fucking-up the-planet-with-your-deluded-fairy-tale-non-sense position. Each has a role and each is important in the greater cause of spreading rational naturalist memes over irrational supernaturalist ones.
Case in point: last week I filmed a keynote by the director of NCAR (National Center for Athmospheric Research), Tim Killeen. In the Q&A he was asked which three sentenceshe would give in reply to a Global Warming Skeptic - and failed miserably.
I talked to him afterwards about the importance of being able to “speak bumpersticker” and told him that it may be wise to solicit seasoned wordsmiths (like PR copy writers) who are able to pin down with precision how to word and frame complex issues in just the right way. Yes, the results are perhaps formulaic, but they will reliably convey the core of an argument.
In my training in educational psychology I long ago realized that it pays to stick with certain exactly phrased explanations or instructions because they are most easily understood by almost all participants, and leave no ambiguity. I would write them down, fine-tune them, and then retranslate them into ‘spoken word’ adding stuff to make them sound spontaneous and fresh. (As the saying goes: What counts in folk music is authenticity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!)
A connection to the atheism debate is that there are some core arguments against all religions that should give any believer pause while not being nasty sledgehammers that paint believers as credulous morons.
My favorite is the common sense observation that my interlocutor would surely be an animist or a Muslim, had he been born in Central Africa or Islamabad, respectively (I admire anthropologist David Eller’s book Natural Atheism which makes this an other cases,; it’s a pity he hasn’t had a show yet on POI.
We should all have such non-technical, least offensive arguments up our sleeves.
BTW, have you heard about the Rockridge Institute? Framing is their central theme, they want to re-inject progressive values into the public mind. They’re currently issuing a series of briefings distilled from an activist guide by linguist George Lakoff, called Thinking Points.
At the end of the interview with Nisbet, DJ asked how framing could be used to get the atheist message out. He expressed the hope that religionists would read Dawkins and be convinced.
I think a more modest intermediate goal will better serve this hope in the long run. We should “frame” the discussion in terms that atheists deserve the same consideration as religionists; that atheists can be morally good as well as religionists; their world view (determinism, no afterlife) is no stranger than religious doctrines (virgin birth, heavenly rewards for suicides, etc.).
We need to first legitimize ourselves in the majority mind. After that, natural questioning will do the rest for us. I believe the majority who claim to be religious is actually confused on the issue, and basically avoids the hard questions and conflicts posed by their beliefs. If atheism were at least an option for the majority, I think we would find our ranks swell to 30%, 50% maybe more. No one would be able to dismiss us and vilify us. It will become possible for openly atheist people to hold public office and express ourselves publically other ways.
If you set the objective of converting nearly 100% of religionists, you can only be dissappointed. When arguing with religionists, don’t expect immediate conversion. Get your points out. The other side will be weakened. There’s a lot of suppressed doubt out there that we can tap into. If you don’t believe me on that, just look at how miserable our religious friends are at funerals. If they really, truly believed in a heavenly reward, they would be joyful of the passing on, and even looking forward to their own turn. There are some ardent faithful who do so, but these are the ones that even our middle-of-the-road religious friends would call “religious nuts.” Let’s focus on the others.
I agree that tapping into people’s doubts about their religion can be a starting point. However, in my observation the dogma is not (at least in my experience in the US and Germany) what keeps the flock together, it’s the social cohesion and the offering of community. Unless there’s something to offer on this front don’t expect a mass exodus from churches.
There are, however, growing enclaves that offer both: scepticism towards dogma, community, and lived humanitarian values are the mainstays of many Unitarian Universalist churches. Peter Morales, minister of our fast growing UU church in Golden, CO (west of Denver) frequently has sermons on how the various dogmas are childish, false, misused and counterproductive. This Sunday he talked about the God beyond God, discarding the notion of a personal god as the naive concept of a child and basically concluded that the only concept that is both harmless and yet still nurturing is Einsteinian wonder, and humanitarian morals. Again, this is a very rapidly growing church, it taps into a deeply felt need for all that church has to offer (inspiration, companionship, childcare, events, social action, coffee hour, youth groups…) while discarding the rubbish. I’m impressed.
(The sermons come online at some point, check here:
I have to agree with Doug about both sides being useful and I think I briefly mentioned this in another thread, but we can not insist on education if people choose to be anti-intellectual. We can’t make them listen and they won’t listen if we talk over their heads either. Until the general public becomes more knowledgable about science we have to do the K.I.S.S. thing (and I don’t mean the rock group).
At the same time, Nisbet is right about education in more than just science. We need all the various areas of education, including the fine arts, not just science. I truly believe that a well round education is the key to enlightenment and if people got a real education and not something that is watered down, there would be less belief in the supernatural. It won’t go away, not over night at least, but there would be less of it.
BTW, I think the most worthless college course I’ve taken so far is this C.S. Lewis course. Granted people thought and still think he is one of the greatest writers, but to tell the truth, I have not learn much from the class except there is a belief that he is the poster man for Christian conversion. I wouldn’t recommend it for any reason, not even for a writing or English course or what have you. Blow off course, maybe, if you want to waste your money.
Although I understand the importance of framing the issues and so on, I also think there has been entirely too much hand-wringing over the criticisms of religion voiced by Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and, now, Hitchins.
The notion that those religionists who might otherwise form alliances with nonbelievers in promoting church-state separation or resisting the efforts of the ID crowd to replace genuine scientific inquiry with their bogus alternative, to name two issues, are going to join them because some atheists criticize their beliefs is insulting to everyone involved.
There are issues on which some believers and non believers can make common cause. Our disagreements on gods and religions shouldn’t get in the way of that, not even when they are expressed forcefully. Oh I suppose there may be some who will take their ball and go home because they don’t like the way the game is played, but I hardly think they’ll be the majority, or even a sizeable minority.