I’ve never encountered a single bit of writing by Robert Wright that hasn’t annoyed me. A self-described agnostic, he is nevertheless the most ardent faitheist I’ve ever seen, constantly chiding atheists for not being nicer to the faithful.
And it doesn’t help that he seems to totally lack a sense of humor. Once Wright sat next to me at a meeting in Mexico, determined to get me to admit that I had unfairly maligned him in my review of his book, The Evolution of God. I was so shaken by his relentlessness that I approached Dan Dennett afterwards and asked him for a hug. (There are few things more soothing to a distraught atheist than a hug from the amiable and bearded Dennett.)
At any rate, Wright, a senior editor at The Atlantic, goes after Richard Dawkins in a piece in Monday’s issue, “Richard Dawkins, unreasonable atheist?” (The answer is “yes,” of course.) I’ll reproduce Wright’s plaint and the relevant video below. This is his take on the Reason Rally, and all he says about it:
Some of my best friends are reasonable, and I try to be that way myself most of the time, but there is one thing about this rally that bothered me: the intermittent lack of reasonableness evinced by its most famous participant, Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins shares with me, and presumably with everyone at that rally, the goal of keeping America’s science curriculum uncorrupted by fundamentalists. For example, we both oppose a bill recently passed by the Tennessee legislature that allows teachers to challenge the theory of evolution–that is, to “teach the controversy.” (Teaching the controversy would be fine if there was an actual controversy within evolutionary biology about the truth of evolution.)
But is Dawkins really pursuing our common goal in a reasonable way? At the Reason Rally he encouraged people not just to take issue with religious teachings, but to “ridicule” religious belief and show “contempt” for it. Now, suppose you’re a conservative Christian in Tennessee, and a fellow conservative Christian is trying to convince you of the merits of that anti-evolution bill. You’re on the fence–you’d never really given much thought to whether your child’s religious beliefs would be threatened by the teaching of Darwin. Then you hear Richard Dawkins, probably the most prominent Darwinian in the world, advocating displays of contempt and ridicule for your religion.
Mightn’t you sense a threat from Darwinism that you hadn’t sensed before? Mightn’t you become, become, if anything, more fundamentalist (since fundamentalism is, among other things, a reaction against perceived threat)? And is it really reasonable for Dawkins to expect otherwise–to expect that contempt and ridicule will be productive?
I don’t think so. Yesterday, during an appearance on the MSNBC show Up With Chris Hayes, I got a chance to run my argument by Dawkins (whom I’m a great admirer of, and whose writing has had a great influence on me). The encounter is at the 6:05 mark in the clip below. As you can see, he was unswayed.
Wright’s first mistake is assuming that there are many conservative Christians in Tennessee who aren’t currently down with evolution but are nevertheless open to reason based on evidence, so long as you “respect” their faith. And further, you could turn that Christian into a Darwinian by reasoned argument.
That’s simply hogwash. Such people are (and yes, there are exceptions) impervious to rational argument, regardless of what you say about their faith. They’ve been brainwashed as children, and their ears are stopped to anything Darwinian. If they could be swayed by scientific argument alone, they would have been swayed already: do remember that Dawkins wrote plenty of stuff about the evidence for evolution and against creationism before he became a vociferous atheist. Obviously that “conservative Christian” paid no attention to Richard then, nor to Steve Gould, nor to Carl Sagan, nor to all the nonconfrontational debates about the evidence. (It’s not possible, however, to show that evolution trumps creationism without showing that creationist views are scientifically insupportable. If that constitutes disrepect for religion, then by all means let’s have it.)
Further, there’s simply no evidence that coddling the anti-evolution faithful will turn them into Darwinians. That is what BioLogos has been trying to do for years, and without a smidgen of success. The evangelicals they’re courting remain unconvinced, all hung up on burning issues like “Who were Adam and Eve?” I have never heard of a case, though I’m sure they exist, in which an antievolution Christian became converted after hearing that her faith was not, after all, at odds with Darwinism.
In contrast, there’s plenty of evidence that the “strident,” “show-no-respect-for-faith” approach works. Richard Dawkins has been far more effective in turning the faithful to evolution (and atheism) than BioLogos; just see the “Converts Corner” at the Dawkins website. BioLogos has no comparable collection of conversion tales. And yes, you can see “Converts Corner” as a pile of anecdotes, but in this case the plural of “anecdote” is data: data showing that the in-your-face approach does work. Where’s the comparable evidence for accommodationism? Wright is just wrong.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from teaching evolution, is that resistance to evolution in America comes not from ignorance of the facts supporting the theory, but from entrenched religious belief that makes people closed to the facts. Coddling their religion won’t make them open to facts, but erasing their religion will.
Now only rarely will someone give up their faith as an adult (though I met several of these at my book-signing in Georgia yesterday), but what Wright doesn’t realize is that proselytizers like Dawkins and me aren’t mainly trying to convert the hyper-religious to Darwinism. We are aiming at the people on the fence—those who aren’t deeply committed to faith but are standing by observantly. Or those who are already beginning to doubt whether their religious beliefs make sense. Do remember that more people doubt evolution because of their religious belief than because of the evidence.
As for Richard’s contention that we should question political candidates on whether they believe in Joseph Smith’s golden plates, transubstantiation, the Resurrection, and the like, I am beginning to agree more and more. If people do make a public show of their faith, then of course their beliefs are fair game. But even if they don’t, their beliefs speak to their rationality. Wouldn’t we want to know if a political candidate was convinced that abduction by aliens in UFOs was common, whether a candidate was a Holocaust denier (after all, that’s a “private belief”), or whether, in the privacy of his home, he put on an aluminum-foil hat and received messages from the beyond? It all speaks to a person’s rationality. Yes, people are entitled to their personal beliefs, but we’re entitled to judge them on what their personal beliefs are. And of course candidates don’t have to answer questions about their faith—unless (and this is a big “unless”) they parade their faith in public.
Oh, and Chris Hayes is almost as annoying as Wright. He flouts the prime rule for interviewers: let your subjects do the talking.