Framing Science and Atheism for the Public

A bit of a bomb has gone off in the blogosphere. I refrained from posting earlier on the precursor -- the "framing" debate sparked by a Science article and discussed at length here -- but I think there are sufficient disparate issues at play here to tie together into one coherent argument. My argument is simple: people are talking past each other because of a lack of focus. Now, the same issue hit the WaPo, and the blogosphere is buzzin' again.

The larger issue is fundamentalist religion, plain and simple. In Chris Mooney's own words,
In the Post, we focus on one of the most obvious examples of badly framing the defense of evolution--tying it to criticism of religion. Richard Dawkins is the most prominent example in this regard, and we single him out accordingly. I want to emphasize that I grew up on Dawkins' books; they really helped me figure out who I am. But nevertheless, over the past several years I've grown increasingly convinced that his is emphatically not the way to make many Americans (people very different from me) more accepting of science.
It isn't only defenders of science who feel the way Mooney and Nisbet do -- humanists and freethinkers have recently decried "angry atheists who hold down our movement".
While some progressive Christians maintain that Christ was divine, they nevertheless manage to agree with us on principles of human rights, reason and science. If we refuse to build alliances with people who do not agree with us on every single issue, we will never be strong enough to stand up to the Religious Right.
The media, by its nature, interviews figures whose views are diametrically opposed. News has morphed into entertainment, and the masses cry for gladiators of words and ideas to step into the ring and let mental blood. Sophisticated viewpoints don't conform to soundbytes. Therefore, why waste a perfectly good 30-second interview on an atheist who refuses to call names and instead wants to discuss transcendental arguments for a god's existence?

When Elaine Pagels was interviewed by Salon, we see this common theme resurface:
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don't there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn't this become a question for science?

Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He's such a rationalist that the God that he's debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.

Are you saying that part of the problem here is the notion of a personal God? Has that become an old-fashioned view of religion?

I'm not so sure of that. I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it's a question of what kind of God one has in mind.

So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?

Well, I've learned from the texts I work on that there really aren't words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it's certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.

Certainly many people talk about God as an ineffable presence. But if you try to explain what transcendence is, can you put that into words and explain what it means?

People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word "God" is a metaphor, or "the son of God," or "Father." They're all simply images for some other order of reality.
I own two of Pagels' books. I respect her scholarship greatly, but she seems to have missed a very large point: Dawkins (and Harris) are aiming for exactly the sort of god that is most dangerous to believe in, and the one that the overwhelming majority of anti-scientific anti-gay bigots cling to. Dawkins doesn't put the intelligentsia in his sights because they are not the ones whose stance against science has led to the current stem cell veto, and the battles over teaching sound biology. These Christian academics instead resort to, *gasp*, reasonable and long discourses.

She mentioned Dawkins as "village atheist," and this same term was reserved for him by Novak in his recent "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village." Novak is no dummy, and I commented a month ago that I was looking forward to reading this. In fact, I enjoyed reading this article, and then a couple more, especially his response to Heather McDonald's article in TAS in November. The exchange was typical of the sort of dialectic that doesn't make newspaper headlines and can't seem to find its way into a split-screen on FauxNews. It was complex and engaging to someone who honestly wants to learn.

Some Christians have already commented on Novak's new article, but without in-depth analysis. I agree with both he and Pagels on some of their criticisms regarding the shallow treatments given god(s) by Dawkins and Harris, as I've said previously, but Novak, especially, seems to dismiss Dennett very lightly, which I find telling. Those who try to lump Dennett in with Dawkins and Harris are those who haven't read the books. His critiques are philosophical and scientific in nature, not polemical, and not directed at any one particular religion.

There is a tension between the god of the philosophers and the god of the layman, and I think it has always been there. When I say that I'm an atheist, for example, I don't mean towards an abstract concept of "the grounding of existence" or "the nexus of causality" or "the first cause". While the "tri-omni" god is beyond my capacity to believe or findreasonable, these rather abstruse theological ideas I constantly engage my faculties in contemplation of -- I am a freethinker, after all. While I'm an atheist towards Yahweh, and Zeus, and Thor...etc., and while I think there are adequate responses to many philosophical arguments for theism, I find some of them lacking, especially with respect to cosmology and those along moral lines (not that I find the religious alternatives on the latter subject any more coherent). There are a lot of atheists who completely disregard philosophical arguments for a god's existence, and think that the Todd Friels of the world represent the best of intellectual Christianity. That's unfortunate.

I agree completely with PZ and Larry Moran that atheists and scientists must continue to criticize superstition and fantastical thinking in order to preserve scientific knowledge in our culture. If we muzzled our "angry" and "militant" voices, then the angry, militant fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims would gladly step into the void. They would love nothing more. And I agree with them that appeasement has not worked. These people believe any ground-giving to science is "compromise," punishable by brimstone. But the question I want to ask is whether we should consider religious liberals and moderates our friends, and refrain from insulting them, as PZ thoughtlessly does to Ken Miller in that latest response.

The sorts of people that we need Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for are the Falwells of our culture: the unthinking lynch-mobs whose readiness to rapture lauds them (they're showing 'great faith!') in ignoring the perils facing our grandchildren. The sorts of people who use deceit and fraud and millions of dollars to erode our civil liberties into their vision of theocracy and oppose sound science education because their small brains can't encompass the theologians' alternatives, or Gould's NOMA.

I also agree with Elaine Pagels and Michael Novak -- we cannot paint religion with such a broad brush as to attack all forms of religiosity and call names and hold to the old, insulting phraseologies ("reality-based community" and "I live by reason" are tacit insults). We must remind ourselves that there are voices of reason in the religious community, no matter how silly we feel some of their views are. And the Pagels of the world are those we atheists and we scientists need to sit down and have more discussion with. If that happened, there would be a great deal more respect on each side of the fence.

While Pagels (and intellectuals like her) are focused on getting the fundies to grow their brains a little to encompass the more sophisticated aspects of theology, and PZ et al on getting the fundies to stop their anti-scientific crusades, perhaps they could realize that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Perhaps more honest discussion between the "evangelical", "uppity", "angry" and "militant" atheists and liberal/moderate Christians would yield a rich reward in finding the assistance we can afford each other in reaching mutual goals.

I want to "frame" science and atheism together, because that's my perspective. But I want to hear every possible (logical) framing as well -- I also want to hear and have heard Elaine Pagels' view of evolution from a theologian's perspective. Am I saying I want her teaching biology courses? Of course not. I want her views heard in the same media mine are, and PZ's, and Dawkins --in the 'sphere, or the MSM. The creationist hordes need to have their stupid false dichotomy (my version of Christianity or atheism) irreparably damaged by the critical words of god-believing theologians. The demagogues like Falwell and Pat "Midas Touch" Robertson hold sway over the sheep precisely because of the false picture they present --that their own views of God are the only/most valid. When more Christians see that the huge majority of scholarly Christians are moderate or liberal in their theological views, and especially towards Genesis (sometimes they find this out with much chagrin), perhaps more credence will be given to evolutionary biology, and this would be a win for "both sides". Or perhaps no change will be affected.

Let's face it: we're both minorities and we're both intellectually-centered. Our common enemy is the anti-intellectual, theocratically-wet-dreaming, rampantly superstitious Christian/Muslim/Jewish right that work tirelessly to render America into Jesus' Iran -- replete with a new "creation-based science" and the conversion of our secular institutions into "godly" ones. They're a huge voter bloc, well-organized and well-funded.

We need all the friends we can make in our "coalition of the unwilling" -- those quite unwilling to participate in theocracy or pseudoscience at our species' own peril.


Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

There isa so much to agree with her, and so much to disagree with that I find it difficult to know where to start. But one thing I have to insist on is that -- as the politics of my lifetime has shown -- it is very dangerous to use the idea that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. (We rightly opposed the Shah, but his enemy turned out to be Khomeini. We opposed Khomeini and strengthened Saddam. We saw the Russians as our enemy and supported their enemy in Afghanistan -- the Muslim resistance that produced Al Qaeda. Sometimes it is necessary to support a Stalin against a Hitler, but those are very rare cases, and even then we paid a price for doing it.)

Not that I am comparing people like PZ, Dawkins and the like to villains like these, just warning against a very dangerous principle.

I do have my reservations about people like PZ because of his actions in the brief but acrimonious 'blog war' between him and Ed Brayton, where he made statements about Ed that I knew were false, and when he came close to arguing that any 'theistic evolutionist' was no better than the Falwells and Dembskis. (As for Larry Moran, well, I'll just say that PZ's obnoxiousness is counterbalanced by his brains, writing skill, and humor. None of this can be said for Moran -- at least outside his field.)

I so much agree with your own attitude on this -- it's why I spent so much time here before I was made a member. But I know that 'deconversion' is rarely an instantaneous process, and it's never accomplished by demanding -- as strongly as any fundamentalist would in the opposite direction -- that you 'come away from Jesus, now, and cast off your beliefs AT ONCE.'

I want to see dialogue, yes, and each side strongly presenting its case -- only partially because I know we HAVE the stronger case and we'll win in the long run. (It's also more enjoyable to have this sort of discussion.)

But you say "Perhaps more honest discussion between the "evangelical", "uppity", "angry" and "militant" atheists and liberal/moderate Christians would yield a rich reward in finding the assistance we can afford each other in reaching mutual goals."
Sadly, though, it is not the 'liberal Christians' who keep this from happening, but the many 'angry atheists' who, when a liberal Christian approaches, respond, in effect "Get away, you're nothing more than 'Falwell lite' and as long as you keep your delusions, you're only helping THEM."

One reason for this, I would guess -- without knowing the truth in any specific case -- is that many atheists come from a fundamentalist/evangelical/literalist background. They may have shaken off the belief in the religion, but they still, in their hearts, still believe that what they grew up with is 'true Christianity,' and see all Christians, and even all believers in any religion, as being like the ministers that they suffered under growing up. They, as assuredly as any fundamentalist equate "believer" with "Creationist," with "literalist," with "closed mindedness" -- forgetting that they are frequently the refutation of this -- and often with "hypocrite."
(I've also seen more than a few atheists not so much interested in reaching believers as demonstrating, in true adolescent fashion, 'my brain's bigger than yours.' They, I think, are very happy to be in the minority, because it increases their own self-opinion, and would actually be bothered if these 'small-brained believers' actually came over to their side.
(I may come across in that way some times, but I hope I don't, I've always been the sort to throw in obscure references, but my intention, at least, is to have people go look where I am pointing, and if they can, refute me, or at least think about what they discover. My slogan is the line of Darrow's in the Scopes trial "Yes, but my question is, do you think about what you DO think about." Getting people to do that is enough, sooner or later if they do, a proportion of them will come over to my side, and even the ones who don't will at least come out with more open minds.)

This might have set a new record for rambling, but I hope it's useful.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

And, as usual with my earliest comments in the day, there are horrendous typos. Sowwy.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I haven't read through this post of Daniel's yet, but it's his not mine, and he's usually very good about his research.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Oops, don't know why I misread the author -- it takes me a long time to wake up. Sorry to you and to him.

nsfl said...


The stratagem I was advocating is embracing the Pagels and liberal Christians (Sandalwalk comes to mind) of the world in a concerted effort to see the soon extinction of those dangerous and intellectually-bankrupt versions of fundamentalism. People like PZ and Dawkins seem to lump these characters into the "Falwell lite" category, as you said, when most of them probably find him and his ilk just as disgusting as we do.

I never intimated that the liberal Christians and theologians are to blame, and instead I agree with you that it is most likely the opposite is true.

Believe it or not, I don't really care to "deconvert" anyone -- I just want to see the power and influence of fundamentalist thinking decline under the slow and steady realization of our "better nature"; and I think we'll need all the help we can get in seeing this happen. I just want believers to be thoughtful and lose their dangerous theocratic ambitions, after that, I care very little about how they square the illogical aspects of their beliefs.

I also want the unbelievers to stop the crusade against all things "spiritual" or "religious" -- I've seen some of the more rabid atheists go after Sam Harris for practicing Zen Buddhism, for pete's sake. There is a lot to learn from both Eastern and Western tradition concerning human nature and morality.

elwedriddsche said...

The enemy of my enemy is not my friend...

nsfl said...

Both Jim and elwedriddsche objected to the phrase, "The enemy of my enemy is not my friend," which I think applies well to the freethought community's situation. The Religious RIght is opposed by liberal and progressive theists, and we should enlist their support when and where we can find it, and enjoy some mutual benefit that will arise from giving each other more ear-time and credence.

Jim's objection is in comparison to failed foreign policy strategies in which the US armed people who opposed our enemies. I am hardly advocating giving progressive Christians a gun. What could happen if they "turned on us" the way that some of our foreign relations' messes did? (See: Iraq, Afghanistan...)

It would hardly be a war, or anything of the sort. These people we're discussing are rational and/or academics. These aren't dictators and soldiers of Islam.

erratum: I said, "The stratagem I was advocating is embracing the Pagels and liberal Christians (Sandalwalk comes to mind) "-- I meant Sandalstraps, our progressive friend! Sandalwalk is Moran's blogspot.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Daniel. Sandalstraps is my friend, as well as another Christian guy named Touchstone.

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

Maybe my position was misinterpreted, this is not one of my better comments. What I tried to say is that "The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend." Certainly he may be. (I would agree with John that Sandalstraps is a valuable addition here. In fact, I have been trying to get a friend named Chris Tilling, who is an evangelical who is studying for his Doctorate in Theology at the University of Tubingen, to post here to raise the quality of the debate. -- He also posesses what many of the posters on the 'believer' side do not, a delightful sense of humor. I would cheerfully recommend his blog, CHRISENDOM
to participants on both sides.)
I just objected to the statement being considered a general rule. There are any number of atheists whose postings, because of their own ignorance and over-generalizations, are far more useful to the 'other side' than to ours. (And those who argue from an 'objectivist' standpoint do a very good job at providing theists with ammunition against the idea that atheists can have a consistent and valuable moral code.)
If you reread my position, it was against the obnoxious atheist, and very much in favor of working WITH the progressive Christian.

elwedriddsche said...

I object to the phrase as a matter of principle. What Prup said:

"The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend."

In general, the enemy of my enemy is a possible temporary or permanent ally and that's all that follows. On top of that, in the culture I grew up in friendship has connotations that go far beyond the common understanding of Americans. As far as the persons I call my friends are concerned, their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) are irrelevant. I've known some for decades and I couldn't tell you if they're atheists, Christians, or whatnot -- the topic simply never came up.

With regards to the Religious Right, I would have to make a case-by-case analysis what form such an alliance could take and if it's worth the cost.