No doubt about it, Richard Dawkins was “stridency” in his Reason Rally talk in D.C. You can find the transcript of his speech here, which include the following controversial call to arms:
So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public! Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits.
Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.
There’s a time for stridency, and I have no objection to these remarks, which will undoubtedly be seen by faitheists and believers as a call to mock people, not their ideas. (Another example of an unclear antecedent!). And, indeed, at a piece at 3 Quarks Daily, “Should we address the controversy?“, Quinn O’Neill interprets this as an obvious call to make fun not of peoples’ beliefs, but of people themselves:
Ridicule can take many different forms, including well-crafted satire and cartoons like South Park, but Dawkins is suggesting that we make fun of people face-to-face. “Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!” he instructs.
And she goes on to make the obvious point—a point so obvious that no evidence is ever adduced in its favor—that one must coddle the faithful to bring them to Darwin:
Being a well-known advocate for evolution, Dawkins’ advocacy of hostile anti-theism may have an undesired effect. For some people, he may be reinforcing an association between evolution and a threat to something that they value. From a marketing perspective, this would be an obvious blunder. It’s like reminding people that Coke promotes tooth decay when you actually want them to buy Coke.
That reminds me of what the geneticists J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobiska’s theorem,” which is “It’s a fact the whole world knows!” (Ergo, no need for evidence: it’s what Alvin Plantinga calls a “basic belief.” When accommodationists come up with some evidence that telling the faithful that Jesus and Darwin are compatible will turn more of them to evolution than straight-out critique of religious belief, then I’ll sit up and take notice.
But there’s no doubt, at any rate, that “strident” critiques of faith do make converts to both atheism and evolution. I keep pointing people to Dawkins’s “Converts corner,” in which people testify to a Dawkins-induced conversion, and accommodationists keep ignoring it, saying that it’s only anecdotal evidence. But there are 44 pages of conversion tales. In contrast, I haven’t seen a single anecdote in which an evolution-denier finally accepted evolution after an accommodationist convinced them that Jesus and Darwin were friends. Where is Kenneth Miller’s “Converts corner”? Whence Francis Collins’s “Converts corner.” All these people produce is arguments rather than evidence, and then dismiss 44 pages of evidence as “anecodotes.” Pardon me if that’s not a good enough reason to abandon my critique of faith!
But I digress. O’Neill’s point in her piece, beyond dissing Dawkins, is to propose a new way to convince people of evolution. Her inspiration, apparently, was a class I taught at the University of Maryland, in which I lectures to students on Monday as an evolutionist (discussing, for instance, the fossil evidence for evolution), and then as a creationist on Wednesday, knocking down all the evidence I’d adduced two days before. On Friday I monitored a discussion among the students, trying to sort out the conflicting views and come to a conclusion. As Quinn notes, the class was pretty successful in bringing creationist students around to evolution. (The turning point was their realization of how ridiculous “flood geology” was: that a simply hydrodynamic sorting of organisms caught up in the Great Flood could never have produced the fossil record we see.)
From this Quinn suggests a series of debates:
So here’s an idea, partly inspired by Coyne’s classroom success. It may be ridiculous and completely unfeasible. I’m offering it here in the hope that it might generate some ideas beyond either ridiculing or coddling religious people.
I propose an evolution vs. creationism debate with representation for each side that would be deemed worthy by proponents of each view – perhaps representatives from a national science organization like the NSF or the NCSE, and from a creationist institution, like the Discovery Institute. The debate wouldn’t be public or in person and the time frame would allow for careful formulation and revision of arguments and rebuttals. Respective parties would be free to formulate their response in groups or appoint people they deem up to the task. The number of back-and-forths permitted should allow the entire process to be completed in a reasonable time frame, maybe a few months. The end result would be a formal debate which presents each side’s views and let’s students decide what to think, just as proponents of “teaching the controversy” claim to want.
I envision this debate being part of a booklet that might also contain brief deconstructions of common evolutionary misconceptions and maybe a section on the nature of science. I would have copies in science classrooms and school libraries. Teachers could mention the resource to students and encourage them to read it but still refrain from discussing religion in the classroom. It would be a supplemental curriculum resource not intended to replace coverage of evolution in the curriculum.
In addition to schools (science classrooms and school libraries), perhaps this booklet could be distributed to public libraries and museums and available online for order and/or download. It might be nice to have copies available for handout at various events, like Darwin Day celebrations. . .
I think this could be helpful for a number of reasons. I personally found a transcript of an evolution vs creationism debate to have a sizable impact on my own thinking about the issue. The debate was between Isaac Asimov and Duane Gish. It was only a few pages in length, but it sealed the deal for me in high school.
I think she’s envisioning the kind of written back-and-forth that occurred on the internet between, say, Sam Harris and Andrew Sullivan. Her suggestion is well motivated, but I don’t think it’s feasible for several reasons.
- The debate already exists in several places that could simply be combined as a teacher’s resource; these include Dembski’s edited volume, Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing, versus Genie Scott’s and Glenn Branch’s Not In Our Classrooms: Why Intelligent Design is Wrong for our Schools (or her Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction).
- Do we really want to waste time in biology classes with a long segment on intelligent design?
- Intelligent design is only one aspect of creationism; indeed, there are probably just as many, or more, young-earth ex nihilo creationists as ID creationists. And even ID creationists differ among themselves: Michael Behe, for example, accepts a limited form of common descent, while others like Paul Nelson (and probably Dembski) don’t. Who will represent creationism?
- A debate that devolves into details like malaria resistance and the flagellum will quickly exhaust the patience, interest, and mental resources of students.
- You can’t “refrain from discussing religion in science classrooms” so long as you talk about ID, since an integral concept of that brand of disredited thought is a supernatural designer.
- It wouldn’t work without a monitor to guide discussion. In my own class, described by Quinn, I was able to guide discussion (but not force evolution down kids’ throats) by making them stick to reasons for their beliefs. But that was an entire course, and not a biology course (it was a “general ed” course). Perhaps this idea could be part of a general course on critical thinking rather than a huge segment interpolated into a biology curriculum.
- Such a procedure would be of limited effectiveness given that most people’s rejection of evolution comes from their religious beliefs rather than their comprehension of or rejection of biological evidence.
To truly rid the world of creationism, weakening religion is, in my view, the more effective tactic—and has all the other benefits that come with the disappearance of faith. Here are some poll results
that I cite often:
When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.
Quinn doesn’t realize that the goal of people like Dawkins, P. Z. Myers, and myself is not simply to get students to accept evolution. It’s to weaken those forms of uncritical thought, born of superstitition, dogma, and revelation, that create many worse harms than teaching creationism in the public schools. So, while Quinn’s conclusion sounds good—
Additionally, I think it’s generally more important for people to think for themselves than to think like I do. For this reason I think focusing efforts on promoting debate, providing facts and arguments, and appealing to reason is a superior course of action than face-to-face mockery. While the former approach enhances the critical thinking process, the latter punishes the conclusion. It’s possible that mockery may induce some people to examine their views more critically, but we don’t have any idea what percentage of the time this happens.
There’s much better evidence for the effectiveness of debate and appeals to reason than there is for the effectiveness of face-to-face ridicule. There also seems to be greater potential for harm with ridicule. Ridicule is like the homeopathy of available approaches and fundamentalism like a cancer.
—remember that she adduces no evidence for what she says. We do have some idea that mockery does work (and what Richard does is far more than mockery: it’s a critique of irrational and unevidenced ideas). We have no idea “what percentage of the time” accommodationism unites Jesus with Darwin in peoples’ minds. If Quinn wouldn’t mind, I’d love her to give evidence for her statement that criticizing religious views is much less effective than coddling the faithful in bringing acceptance of evolution. All we have are a few studies showing that people are more mentally receptive to views that are consonant with theirs than opposing critical views. But do remember that we’re aiming not at the faithful themselves, but mostly at those people on the fence, especially young people.
I would like accommodationists like Quinn to give some evidence that, in the long run, it’s easier to bring people to Darwin by fostering public debate than by criticizing religion. And remember, I said “in the long run.” In the long run, we’ll always have the brushfires of creationism since they’re ignited by the match of faith.