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Matthew C. Nisbet - Communicating about Science and Religion
Posted: 11 March 2008 06:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 31 ]
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I’d like to add a couple of thoughts, though I’m too cross-eyed from work/lack of sleep to study all of the above thoroughly.

1) I think Hume’s Razor makes an important point that is almost always lost in the science vs. religion debates.  Specifically, the real, bottom line conflict is not between religion and science.  The true conflict is between faith and reason.  In that regard, the Dawkins quote provided above is apt.
As science is, taken as a whole, a reason-based activity it necessarily comes into conflict with the tenets of faith - “scriptures” - because those are by definition not reason-based.

2) I don’t think Nisbet and others who make similar arguments should be scorned. That is, to continue the conflict metaphor, let us not form our firing squad in circle facing inward.  At minimum, Mr. Nisbet and those who argue similar ideas have a point that big-picture strategy and long-term thinking will serve us all better than mere reaction.  However, in listening to the Nisbet POI interview, I was struck by how much Nisbet seems to think that the advance of reason must be an either/or approach - diplomacy or attack.
I think our cause will succeed, like many others, by use of both carrots and sticks - diplomats and generals - and to the degree that we can muster both.
It doesn’t have to be E.O. Wilson or Sam Harris, and of course such will never be anyway.

For a variety of reasons, not least the sensationalist dispositions of mass media, our “generals” (e.g., Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens) get more public attention than our diplomats (e.g., Wilson, Julia Sweeney).  But that’s insufficient cause to suggest that these powerful public advocates for reason should pipe down, isn’t it?

On a more prosaic level, our understandable anger over the daily religious atrocities and insanities around the world dispose most of us rank-and-file types to behave more like infantrymen or reason-police than like teachers or therapists.  Maybe we should work more on improving the effectiveness of our individual approaches.  I know I should do that, anyway…

[ Edited: 11 March 2008 06:42 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 18 March 2008 02:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 32 ]
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I once got some advice on marriage from an old fellow who had been married for 50 years. He said, that when having an argument with your spouse, if you’re hitting a wall and feelings are running high, ask yourself, “Do you want to be happy, or do you want to be right?” I think this is a cute little parable that is applicable to the New Atheist question.

Raising awarness is not a bad thing, though how one raises it and how skillfully one plays the media influences what the larger public actually becomes aware of, which may not be what you think you’re promoting. But just being right and speaking truth loudly no matter the consequences, is a bit of naive idealism or excessive zealotry, and I think Nibet is right to ask fundamentally what are we trying to accomplish and what’s the most effective method to get there. Now I think we probably do want to accomplish the diminishing of the role and power of religion in public life, not just the practical things he discusses, so some degree of conflict is probably justified. But on the whole, I agree with Nisbet that much more good will get done if we agree and work to gether where we can and present differences in a respectful and dispassionate way when possible. Deliberate antagonism is a spice that should be used very sparingly for fear of spoiling the dish.

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Posted: 18 March 2008 05:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 33 ]
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I absolutely agree that your long married friend made an excellent point both for marriage and for more public settings of communication/persuasion!  And I agree also that deliberate antagonism is dangerous, indeed.  I’d even say it might always spoil the dish!

Today I watched the speech Barack Obama made today primarily about another hot-button topic, race.
He was able to speak a great deal of truth about race relations and history while recognizing the valid concerns and circumstances of the various “sides.”  It was an absolutely masterful and effective speech (although admittedly I’m biased in his favor).

In contrast were the extremely unhelpful and inflammatory statements made by Obama’s old pastor, the not-too-right Reverend Wright, who produced results that were, to put it mildly, wrong.

Pardon the cheap ironic pun, but some of us, myself included, are occasionally guilty of inadvertently becoming the “Reverend Wrights” of secularism!

As for our currently best known public advocates, it seems to me like maybe Christopher Hitchens gets carried away sometimes with combativeness, but I’ve never seen or heard Dawkins, Harris, and certainly not Dennett, being really any more than simply blunt, although Dawkins’ remarks in particular can too easily be spun out of context.

So though tact and diplomacy are vital, as per Mr. Nisbet’s emphasis, isn’t it also true that we’re often dealing with child-like persons having both paper thin skins and cast-iron thick skulls?  Perhaps some alternation of approaches will be most effective in the long term?

[ Edited: 18 March 2008 05:12 PM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 19 March 2008 02:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 34 ]
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And along similar lines, I really enjoyed the Lynne Kelly interview on POI, not least because she makes a point of emphasizing the positive and fun aspects of science and critical thinking and the natural world in her teaching and other persuasion efforts.

May there be more and more tactful and effective advocates for sanity and reason!

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Posted: 21 March 2008 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 35 ]
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Much I agree with in recent posts on this hread.
Like most “Movements”, we seem to have split into two camps.  In the Purist camp are the “Truth-tellers”, the macho chest thumping in-your-face “fed-up with your nonsense” rationalists who have traded the sardonic smile of Voltaire for the annoyed and self-righteous lecturing of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris.  Every word these men speak is the truth of course.  This is the feel-good camp.  D.J. clearly admires this group.  When I’m fed-up too, this is this is the one I go to.
The other camp, call it “Apologist” or “Realist” tries to make a different point.  The planet is facing grave dangers which, if not dealt with, could make all this “hot air” very academic indeed.  Unless you believe that religiosity and the need for magical thinking, after a hold of many millenia on human culture,  is going to become a minority view point in the next 50 years, it’s time to make common cause with some the non-rationalists in order to save the planet.  They need us and we need them.
The arguments of the second camp-Nisbet’s camp- lack the purity, simplicity, and ecstatic “rightness” of the first. But at the end of the day, what camp leads us where we need to go?

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Posted: 22 March 2008 05:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 36 ]
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mclark,
I thought of your post and the discussion above it upon reading Sam H’s missive about Obama’s race speech.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/what-barack-obama-could-n_b_92771.html

I’m generally a big fan of Sam - he’s done as much or more for our cause as anyone.

But impatient we are!  And patience is surely a virtue when it comes to social progress.

[ Edited: 22 March 2008 05:15 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 22 March 2008 11:33 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 37 ]
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Trail Rider - 22 March 2008 05:13 AM

mclark,
I thought of your post and the discussion above it upon reading Sam H’s missive about Obama’s race speech.
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-harris/what-barack-obama-could-n_b_92771.html

I’m generally a big fan of Sam - he’s done as much or more for our cause as anyone.

But impatient we are!  And patience is surely a virtue when it comes to social progress.

I like the catchy phrase “the audacity of reason”  in Sam Harris’ post above.

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Posted: 22 March 2008 05:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 38 ]
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Obama is the son of a white anthropologist and an absentee Kenyan father and his step father was from Indonesia, where Barack lived as a child.  I can think of few candidates in US history whose backround and formative experiences would have better prepared them to rise above the parochial and ethnocentric demands of identity politics.  Yet Barack decided he needed to be from a “community”  and in Chicago all communities are ethnically defined.  He became an African American (with capital A’s) maybe not with the purpose of succeeding in politics, but it was likely a necessary condition.  And to be publicly African American in Mittel-America entails embracing everything that Allen describes in the most recent POI interview.
I agree with Sam Harris and the rest that this is very sad.  If B.O. is a hypocrite and this was protective coloration for entering the American forest of identity politics then in a way he deserves what he gets (and FWIW he’s been my candidate all along).  More likely he stupidly thought that his association with Wright would be seen as no more than that- an association.
Barack is highly intelligent, no racist, and too sophisticated to believe even for one second Wrights many idiocies.  He has shown poor judjement in some of his associations though, but, in a sense, his (adopted) culture made him do it.

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Posted: 22 March 2008 08:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 39 ]
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...too sophisticated to believe even for one second Wrights many idiocies.

People (including Obama) never seem to identify exactly which statements by Rev. Wright they find so ‘idiotic’... Most of his sermon seemed to consist of simple statements of fact.

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Posted: 23 March 2008 09:15 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 40 ]
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Wright has preached that the US Government “lied about inventing HIV as chemical warfare against people of color”.  An old conspiracy theory that’s made the rounds and I think rises (or falls ) to the level of an “idiocy.”  Do we as proponents of science in public policy want a president who has anything less than complete disdain for ideas like this?

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Posted: 25 March 2008 07:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 41 ]
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mclark01 - 22 March 2008 05:49 PM

…  Yet Barack decided he needed to be from a “community”  and in Chicago all communities are ethnically defined.  He became an African American (with capital A’s) maybe not with the purpose of succeeding in politics, but it was likely a necessary condition.  …
Barack is highly intelligent, no racist, and too sophisticated to believe even for one second Wrights many idiocies.  He has shown poor judjement in some of his associations though, but, in a sense, his (adopted) culture made him do it.


Those are excellent observations! 

There are probably a few places in the U.S., like maybe New York, California, and Portland or Seattle, where a mixed-race person could rise politically solely on intellectual and pragmatic strengths.  Illinois is probably not one of those locations.  This is ironic, historically, because that state was the home of that other tall, skinny, eloquent, racial justice-seeking leader from the nineteenth century, Mr. Lincoln.

I’d guess that political aspirations weren’t the primary motivation for Obama to mold himself into a “capital A” African-American.
Instead, I’d “vote” for a couple of other factors.
1) He fell in love with and married a very bright, strong, and socially motivated black woman from the very African-American south side of Chicago.  Her family and their friends became Obama’s day-to-day family and friends.  Consequently, his identity ran in that direction.
2) Perhaps even more important was his early life experience and the fact that he is very much his mother’s son. 
(See this to see what I’m getting at here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/14/us/politics/14obama.html?scp=2&sq=obama's+mother&st=nyt)  Owing to that, he’s surely predisposed to empathize with those whom we might call “the salt of the earth.”  Of course, in Chicago, very often the “salt” tends toward the color of pepper.

I’d like to throw in a personal anecdote:
I lived in Chicago, on the Gold Coast and in Wrigleyville, from 1987 to 1995.
On one occasion, I volunteered to speak at a “career day” at a south-side public middle school.  Arriving at the school, I was shocked to discover that it was nothing more than the second floor of an old Catholic Church.  As I recall, there wasn’t even a sign identifying it as a school (I was late because I drove past it a few times).  The entrance to the school was a side entrance to the building.  The school HAD NO LIBRARY, nor gym, nor workshops.  There was one bathroom for each gender – in the basement.  The school was surrounded by long-shackled, rusting factories with all their windows broken.
To make a long story short, it wasn’t too surprising to find that few of the twelve and thirteen year-old, mostly black, students were excited about their “career” prospects, or even about their life prospects.

In his speech, Obama said, “At this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, ‘Not this time.’ This time, we want to talk about the crumbling schools that are stealing the future of black children and white children and Asian children and Hispanic children and Native-American children. ...”
I’d imagine that lots of white people like, say, those from the Chicago suburbs where many public schools have not just libraries but librarians, Olympic size pools, and football fields, wondered what the hell Obama was talking about.  Not me.

Regarding the wrongness of “Reverend” Wright, these statements, among others, were in Obama’s speech:

“On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.
I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy.
…But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America;…”

Given the entire context of Obama’s life, the facts of American history, and political realities, those statements are enough for me, especially given that the Republican candidate in November will be at least equally beholden to white right-wing religious elements who are at least as insane, and far more powerful, than the wrong-headed gasbag Wright.

[ Edited: 25 March 2008 09:48 AM by Trail Rider ]
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Posted: 25 March 2008 07:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 42 ]
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By the way, maybe this conversation would be better placed over on the Norm Allen thread! LOL

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Posted: 26 March 2008 01:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 43 ]
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Wonderful reply- I agree completely with both your assessment of Obama’s likely motivation and your admiration of his recent speech.  He’s still my candidate.  I just think this aspect of his history is terribly interesting (and “ironic”), given that, with his childhood backround, one might have predicted he’d be posting here with us on CFI rather than listening to Wright spin biblical prophecy each Sunday!
I also agree- this would be good on the Norm Allen Thread- I just posted there.

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Posted: 07 April 2008 03:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 44 ]
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MANO - 01 March 2008 08:01 AM

Good show. I’m already familiar with Nisbet’s advocated approach and he came across extremely well.
At the same time, I think those such as Nisbet will continue to be seen as “not getting it” (or being apologetic, or engaging in “political correctness”) with regards to religion and are becoming “part of the problem”. Those that I mentioned, and others, will continue to be pushed to the fringes as long as the perception is that their opinions about approach are seen as telling others to “shut up”.

Further Discussion of Nisbet’s approach and “framing” in various blogs. See for example this discussion of telling people to “shut up”

http://metamagician3000.blogspot.com/2008/04/science-religion-and-framing.html

Another example with more links
http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/03/a_dialogue_on_framing_the_fwor.php

[ Edited: 07 April 2008 04:35 AM by Jackson ]
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