Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest love the faithful more than me

June 2, 2009 • 12:14 pm

Over on his Discover blog The Intersection, Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Barbara Forrest (philosopher of science and witness at the Dover trial) take me to task for not being sufficiently nice to the faithful, and assert that my criticism of science/faith accommodationism will alienate those liberal Christians who support evolution.  Mooney and Forrest have both done good work; his book is a trenchant analysis of the right’s attempt to dismantle good science in the U.S., and in the Dover trial Forrest did an absolutely terrific job of ripping apart the arguments of IDers that they weren’t creationists.  And both Forrest and Mooney are atheists.

But I think they are profoundly misguided in these criticisms of my views.  Indeed, they seem to have completely failed to grasp what I was saying.

When I first read this piece, and Mooney’s earlier criticism of my views, I did a double take. Was this the same Chris Mooney who in 2001 excoriated the PBS Evolution Series because it was too accommodating to faith (see his dissection in Slate, Darwin’s Sanitized Idea)?:

But PBS’s mainstreaming of Darwinism also trims back some of the theory’s more controversial implications. Evolution flatly denies equal time to Darwin’s religiously based rivals, Creationism and intelligent design theory, yet the program repeatedly argues that evolution and religion are compatible. If you eat Darwin’s theory for your main course, Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and others seem to say, you can have religion for dessert. . .

. . . Evolution‘s attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive. Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and emphasizes a cruel and violent process of natural selection that is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God. Because of this, many students who study evolution will find themselves questioning the religions they have grown up with. What’s insidious is that Evolution allows fundamentalists to say this, but not evolutionists. The miniseries interviews several experts who could be expected to oppose the reconciliation outlook, notably Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who has written, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But neither Dennett nor Dawkins gets much of a say on the topic of religion.

Well, I suppose Mooney has changed his mind, and has decided, along with Barbara Forrest, to cozy up to the faithful.  Let’s see what Forrest says about my views (Mooney agrees completely with her):

Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who [sic] I’ve criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?

Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, “be nice.” Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.

2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?

3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

It’s almost not worth my while responding to this, because the posters on Mooney’s site have already done such an effective job of it (read their comments!).  One of the first things I learned when I set up a website is that you can learn a lot from the posters, who are often thoughtful, intelligent, and take the time to both correct one’s misapprehensions and write careful, reasoned analysis of an initial post.  In this case, thoughtful analysis has worked against Mooney and Forrest.

Let’s first dispose of one argument: Mooney and Forrest’s implicit requirement that atheists should “make nice” with their religious, evolution-accepting opponents and never, ever criticize them.  Where in tarnation did this idea come from?  Why are newspaper columnists, politicians, and even grant reviewers allowed to criticize the ideas of their peers, but we scientist/atheists are not?  Why are we supposed to shut up and other analysts aren’t?  Let’s be clear here:

1.   I have never criticized an evolutionist, writer, or scholar in an ad hominem manner.  My New Republic review, which Forrest and Mooney find so odious, was temperate and respectful. In fact, of all the comments I’ve gotten on this piece, none of them until now have thought it intemperate.   I took care to point out the positive contributions of both Miller and Giberson, and characterized them as “thoughtful men of good will.”  Let me point out to Mooney and Forrest that my behavior and tone have been infinitely more polite than that of “liberal Christians” such as John Haught when confronted by godless evolutionists.  But of course Forrest and Mooney don’t worry about the epiphets heaped on people like Dawkins and myself by the faithful.  At any rate, I believe in civil discourse, but I don’t believe in acting respectful towards ideas that I find weak or odious.

2.  Apropos, my critique of accommodationism has always centered on one proposition:  the reconciliation of science and faith almost always dilutes science, especially evolution.  This was the main topic of my New Republic piece.  In it, I go to great lengths to show that popular forms of accommodationism, such as those expounded by Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, require statements that are not supported by science. For example, many accommodationists argue that the evolution of humans was inevitable: that if we reran the tape of life, some God-fearing creature like H. sapiens, or some “humanoid” equally capable of apprehending its creator, would inevitably arise.  I don’t think science tells us this and, as far as I can see, my analysis was the first critique of this popular view.  It was the intellectual discussion of an idea.  Likewise, I criticized the “fine-tuning” argument for the existence of design, and pointed out (as many have before me) the disparity between the materialistic claims of religion (e.g., the Resurrection) and what we know about science.  These are intellectual dissections of intellectual arguments.  In claiming that I should refrain from such work, Forrest and Mooney are, I’m afraid, being anti-intellectual.  Regardless of whether they accept my analysis (and it seems that they do!), they have to admit that it was not an exercise in religion-bashing.  Even Mooney’s posters recognize this (see below).

As for whether I am engaged in “bad tactics” by criticizing our liberal religious friends who support evolution, let me point out, as I have many times before, the following facts.  Accommodationists like Forrest and the National Center for Science Education have been using the “let’s-make-nice-to-the-faithful” strategy for several decades.  What is the result? First, American acceptance of evolution has stayed exactly where it is for 25 years.  The strategy is not changing minds.  Second, the progress that has been made is not in changing minds, but winning court cases, as in Dover. However, winning those court cases does not require that we show that science and religion are compatible.  Rather, it requires showing that creationism and ID are forms of disguised religion.

There is also a strong negative correlation among countries between acceptance of Darwin and belief in God.  Countries with high belief in God, like Turkey and the US, have low acceptance of Darwinism. Countries like France, Sweden, and Denmark, which have high acceptance of Darwin, are not very religious.  Too, there is an obvious relationship between learning evolution and losing one’s faith.  All of this leads me to believe that the real problem with evolution in this country is not creationists, but religion.  You can have religion without creationism, but you never see creationism without religion.  I think, then, that we will only win this war by either vanquishing religion or waiting for it to disappear in the US, as it has in Europe.  There is real room for a discussion on tactics here, but Mooney and Forrest refuse to engage.  They’re just too fond of religion, apparently having what Daniel Dennett calls a “belief in belief.”

The implicit argument of Forrest and Mooney is that I should be spending my time attacking creationism and ID rather than criticizing our “friends.” Well, I’ve been doing the former for 25 years, and I’ll put my record up against that of either Mooney or Forrest in the fight against creationism. (See an earlier article I wrote on ID for The New Republic.) I’ve been writing and speaking against creationism since I got my first job.

Finally, as the posters at Mooney’s site have noticed, often religion is not a private matter.  Religious people are often trying to force their faith-driven agendas down our throats, and so it is perfectly acceptable to “question their personal way of making meaning of the world.”  And, as Richard Dawkins has pointed out (and I believe him), religious “moderates” often act as enablers of religious extremists.  The failure to criticize the excesses of Islam, for example, can largely be laid at the door of our friends the liberal Christians.

So much for “etiquette.” What about “diversity”?  Well, I have repeatedly criticized fundamentalists of all stripes, including Orthodox Jews and Muslims (a year ago I was in Turkey lecturing on Harun Yahya and Islamic fundamentalism).  I am an equal-oppportunity critic.  Forrest and Mooney are just wrong that I single out liberal Christians for criticism. And they’re wrong in saying that liberal Christians “have not sacrificed scientific accuracy” in their support of evolution.  People like Miller and Giberson have indeed sacrificed such accuracy, giving the public the false impression that science actually supports the idea of a God.  Every time they make the fine-tuning argument, every time they claim that science shows that human evolution is inevitable, they are “sacrificing scientific accuracy.”

And as for humility, well, I don’t see much humility coming from the liberal Christians, who assert without reasons that there is a God.   And although we cannot prove a negative, I doubt whether Mooney or Forrest would give much credibility to those who worship tree spirits, Zeus, or John Frum.  Certainly we can show that the world does not comport with the kind of world we’d expect to see if it were run by an omnipotent, omniscient, and loving god.  Humility?  Yes, I don’t know if there is a God, but the evidence is against it.  In the meantime, I don’t assert that there is no God; I simply find no reasons to believe in one.

It’s a pity that Mooney and Forrest take such an anti-intellectual stance when they could be engaging in real discussion about whether science and faith are compatible. (In his earlier Slate piece, Mooney found them dead incompatible, and was not shy about saying so!)  In their desire to cozy up to Christians, they are trying to impose a form of intellectual censorship on the rest of us.  That is what you do when you’ve lost the argument about the compatibility of faith and science.  I’d take Forrest and Mooney more seriously if they’d deal with the arguments of scientists and theologians who, in their frenzy to accommodate faith and science, give a distorted view of science.

I’ll give the last word to a poster on Mooney’s site, one “Madcap”.  Whoever he/she is, this person has a far more accurate view of matters than do either Mooney or Forrest:

June 1st, 2009 at 3:43 am

Once again, it sounds like Mooney is taking Coyne (and others) to task for choosing reason and science over compromise and political sentiment.

Forrest even admits that Coyne (and presumably, the other “New Atheists” who are inevitably lumped together into one ideological unit) may be right in his assertions; but then rather than discuss or debate those assertions, castigates him for being ‘uncivil’ for daring to suggest that even most liberal theology has incompatibilities with science.

In fact, Coyne’s critique of the recent works by Giberson and Miller was anything *but* uncivil. On the contrary, I found it in-depth and insightful. Coyne went to lengths to explain what he did and did not like about their books in particular and their positions in general. Agree or disagree with Coyne’s point, I fail to see how he is being uncivil. I challenge Forrest and Mooney to find an example of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett being ‘uncivil’ when discussing religion. (Hitchens, the most common bogeyman of the Christian apologists, is not a scientist.) In fact, the only incivilities I am witnessing here are coming from the likes of Mooney, who is more or less telling Coyne to shut up, for the second time.

Apparently, taking a scientifically-minded theist to task, no matter what the tone or strength of one’s argument, is ‘uncivil’ and impolitic. We must maintain, I suppose, a bunker mentality: the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Anyone paying lip-service to Darwinism must be welcomed as an ally in the great war against Intelligent Design. In the interest of ‘civility’, we must accommodate one version of creationism over another one.

Nevermind that ID has already been legally forbidden from our nation’s public schools; in this post-Dover world, you’re either with us or again’ us. Any creationist willing to ally with us against ID must be our friend, and anyone like Coyne who disagrees is a traitor to the cause. I wonder if, in the interests of science, Francis Galton would be equally welcomed into the fold.

This is the second article I know of in which, for purely political reasons, Mooney has decided to favor the theological side of the argument. If I’m reading Mooney correctly, the pro-evolution forces cannot afford any divisiveness, and that’s why vocal atheists like Coyne must either be quiet, or be called out. The irony appears to escape him.

Coyne previously called individuals with this mentality “accomodationists”. Given these unfair attacks against evolution’s most ardent defenders, I’m beginning to think a more appropriate term is “collaborationists”.