On Alienating Moderate Believers

At Evolution Blog (a site you should visit) author Jason Rosenhouse discusses a review of his recent book Among the Creationists (a book you really should read) by Panda’s Thumb contributor Matt Young. In the review, Young claims that Rosenhouse “has the same narrow view of religion as the creationists – that it is all or nothing – and he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side.” As it turns out, this claim isn’t really accurate (as is often the case with such claims) – as you’ll learn when you read Rosenhouse’s entire response.

I felt compelled to leave a comment (slightly edited here for syntax), as I find the notion of alienating moderates during honest discussions of science to be a non-issue – and if it is an issue, well, anyone who’d feel “alienated” by an honest discussion of scientific facts probably isn’t a moderate anyway!

My comment:

If a “moderate” is so easily offended by a frank discussion of the current state of evidence for X that they would prefer to side with fundamentalist X-deniers than participate in that discussion, it is neither the fault of X nor the fault of those doing the discussing.

We do no favours to moderates by coddling them; in fact, we infantilise and condescend to them when we do so. Were I a moderate and someone patronised me by soft-peddling the truth about something that happened to sail near the waters of my faith, I’d be a lot more offended than if they just presented the facts and the evidence without qualification. You simply don’t read about this aversion to “offence” when discussions of particle physics arise; it’s inevitably biological subjects that get this special treatment because a large proportion of the population still objects to being apes. Again, that’s not the apes’ fault, nor is that the fault of the scientists whose lines of inquiry cross over this topic.

I’m aware that the religious culture in the US is different to that here in Australia, and that accommodationist positions regarding the discussion of [theologically] uncomfortable scientific facts seems prudent given the vehement fundamentalist opposition to them. Having said that, I think that anyone calling themselves moderate should be treated as though they have the requisite intellectual honesty & courage to be able to see a fact as it is and not require an abridged, sanitised version of it designed to assuage any fears [of theological conflict] or doubts they may have. If a religious believer is unable to comprehend and appreciate a scientific fact (and its metaphysical implications, if any), without storming off to join the fundamentalists in “shooting the messenger”, then I must question any person who would describe that believer as “moderate”. As an aside, I would also question the harm done by alienating a person who behaves in such a childish manner.

Given the well-known extremist elements of religious culture in the US – and that country’s overtly religious nature when compared with other first-world nations – I’m of the opinion that the only way to combat the influence of religious extremism [in science] and the only way to encourage more input from moderates is to be honest about scientific facts, theories and processes, give said moderates some credit for maturity and intelligence and not to allow the discussion of said facts to be plagued by frets about who will be offended.

To continue that line of thought, placing such overwrought concern over who may be offended by an unequivocal discussion of the current state of scientific knowledge merely validates the frequent claim of fundamentalists that there are some scientific facts that are indeed devastating enough to a person’s faith to render it mute, dilute it to meaninglessness or destroy it. But if someone does abandon or modify their faith because it, or crucial aspects of it, have been falsified by verifiable knowledge, I must again question whether any real harm is being done. A person led away from fundamentalism (which, being inherently dishonest, intentionally ignorant and therefore unavoidably harmful) to a more moderate faith – or away from faith entirely – by facts and evidence should be celebrated. In fact, isn’t leading people from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge the primary goal of science and science education? Should really we spend much concern on people who will turn their backs and sulk when presented with knowledge?

I do not advocate getting in the faces of religious people and barking at them that Scientific Theory X proves their god is a bunch of hooey and nonsense and that they should abandon it; but I will advocate frankness when discussing any & all aspects of scientific inquiry. If there happen to be metaphysical or theological implications that make some believers feel uncomfortable or ask questions or experience religious doubts, that’s for them to grapple with. Scientific familiarity among laypeople does not advance when facts are cushioned; moderates gain nothing when they’re pandered to by well-meaning science advocates acting as if they know what’s good for others.

The bottom line: we should show people enough respect for their intelligence and maturity that we present the unvarnished truth as it is currently known.

To close, a note for Matt Young: when reviewing a book, we should show its author enough respect to present their arguments and views as they are written; to do our best not to project whatever existing opinions we may have onto the words of others.var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-5094406-1”); pageTracker._initData(); pageTracker._trackPageview();

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Collected comments: feminism a focus-sapper?

In this Pharyngula thread over here, a commenter opined/wondered/(JAQ’d?) whether what he sees as the current atheist/skeptic focus on feminism/sexism is worth pursuing, and whether a shift toward “promoting women’s issues” would undermine or dilute the movement as he sees it. As I didn’t think so (and as the commenter responded once or twice – though not to me, as I wasn’t the only one to object to his questions and reasoning), I decided to write him an essay. Well, more than one. What appears below are my collected comments from that thread (assembled by commenter ixchel and stored in the Pharyngula wiki Sandbox for future reference). First, though, is the bit of the comment that jumped out at me:

From my limited observer position there is a growing disagreement among us about the direction of our movement. Some feel a major goal of the rationalist community should be the promotion of feminism. Others feel that such a focus is more of a distraction from other things we should be promoting. I fall on the side of the latter. Not because I think that women’s rights are unimportant but rather because we already have clearly stated goals and we have not yet achieved them. We are still silenced politically. The general population still lacks critical thinking skills. Atheism is still very much misunderstood. The list of problems we as a movement are directly addressing grows while we slowly force this society to open their eyes to these problems. Feminism, along with race equality, sexual orientation, access to healthcare, etc are struggles we all must fight but placing feminism into this movement’s umbrella as a focus is a distraction. One can (and many do) be a part of the atheist movement while also being a part of the feminist movement. That does not mean however that the feminist movement would place as a major plank in their strategy the promotion of atheism. Likewise I see no reason to make feminism a major plank in the atheist movement.

To which I replied (the below is from multiple comments [edits are formatted thusly]):

Others have already pointed out their objections to your voiced objection to atheist-inspired feminism as a focus-sapper, so I’d just like to ask: exactly where do you get this point of view? How is one part of the movement’s focus going to sap energy or focus from the movement in general? During the civil rights struggle, there were many facets of the movement including voting rights, property rights, worker’s rights, education rights, the right to marry someone of another race and myriad others. Atheist/skeptical activism focuses not just on creationism/promoting scientific education, or fundamentalist oppression of reproductive rights/bodily autonomy or effective sex education, or church/state separation, or equal civil rights for nonbelievers, or removal of tax breaks for religious organisations, it has many avenues of attack to its existence – many heads for its opponents to cut off – and those avenues often, but not always, intersect. Feminism/sexism is an integral part of many facets of atheist activism, relating as it does to reproductive rights, birth control, bodily autonomy, Biblically-based sexual bigtory and so forth. How can it not be a focus and what would be achieved by eschewing it? What major advantage could be secured by leaving it to one side and what would you elevate in its place? Could you think of another facet to atheist activism we could leave aside to purify or better focus our attention?

Why, in your view, does the fact that atheist activism is multi-faceted and focused on multiple targets make it weaker?

Why can’t such issues as concern various atheists/skeptics and their organisations be left to them to decide upon? Considering some groups and people are much, much better qualified or equipped to deal with certain specific issues, does it not make sense to leave tackling those issues to those with experience, expertise and, very importantly, the passion to actually make an impact? If you wouldn’t tell a science-focused activist to bail on their passion for science because you think church-state separation is more important, how do you justify asking anyone concerned with feminism or sexism to bail on that and get back to whatever topic you feel is more important?

Focus by _some_ atheists on feminism and gender equality at the expense of other things they could be focusing on is a strength: as I said, people whose passion and area of expertise is Subject A serve the movement best when they focus more on Subject A than on Subject B (which they may suck at [and many activists, to their credit, admit that there are things they just suck at!]) or the more general goal of the movement – whatever that might be and however that goal is agreed upon.

Atheism/humanism/skepticism is a very broad movement and requires warriors on many fronts. During battle, a general will deploy their best warriors to the places their skills will achieve the best outcomes; as atheism et al has no one single general, warriors and their organisations are able to choose their own field of battle according to their skills, experience and passion. In this we behave more like disparate, opportunistic guerilla cells than cohesive military units connected through a central command: we pick our battles and our tactics as the situation demands.

You seem to understand that a movement with diverse goals and numerous fronts requires different approaches and areas of focus – you said that gender equality is a by-product of critical thinking. But you contradict that understanding when you say:

That does not mean however we should shift our overall focus from promoting critical thinking (advances feminism), understanding of atheism, and acquiring political power to the women’s rights movement.

Because noone is advocating such a radical shift of focus. Feminism and gender equality are integral to the worldviews of a great number of atheist/skeptic activists, are non-negotiable and are part and parcel of their activism. For some people, humanism itself is meaningless without gender equality. It’s not about a shift in focus; it’s about refusing to avoid a topic when it comes up just because that topic might be difficult or uncomfortable. That’s what’s happening right now: a topic has arisen which is difficult and uncomfortable and lots of atheists are talking about it because (a) it’s there and (b) it needs addressing. Others are saying “No, it doesn’t need addressing” [still others are saying “No, it’s not even a problem”]. We are disagreeing with those people. It’s here, it needs to be addressed. Full stop.

You also betray your understanding of the movement when you say we need a defined goal and a mission statement (you’re certainly not the first to call for that, either). Working out what “our” mission statement would be would take more arguing and debate and time and energy than we have to spare – you yourself said we had limited exposure (and we certainly have limited resources); no sooner would some nominated atheist spokesperson pop up with a “Our Mission is X” than someone else would pop up with “Our Mission is X with conditions and caveats and also some Y!”. The time and energy that would be required to hammer out what “our” mission should be (and subsequently following up the dissent over the Mission) and who should present it could be better spent exactly where it is currently being spent: on the front lines, in schools, courthouses, on the streets, on billboards, on TV, in the press, online in innumerable forums and focused on every subject any of us hold dear. In other words, what we need to do is do more of what we’re doing.

Our movement is about social justice – for non-believers and for those believers abused by their own religions. That encompasses so many different things that it’d be exhausting and thread-hogging to list them all.

Noone’s asking for some radical shift in focus that would detract in any way from the broad goals of atheist/skeptic/humanist activism. To claim they are is to draw a conclusion that simply isn’t warranted.

In conclusion, talk of diluting the movement, of causing rifts, of

And I also find it interesting that noone seems as concerned over other potential rift-causing focus shifts: why aren’t more people, for example, attacking insidious creationism in public schools instead of focusing on Catholic coverups of child-rape? Why aren’t more people focusing on the repeal of the tax-free status of any church found to be explicitly endoring particular politicians/parties? Why aren’t more people focusing on the religious opposition to non-hetero marriage instead of petitioning the Boy Scouts to drop their discrimination against LGBT people?

I’ll tell you why: because there’s no one mission here; no central command dictating priorities. To repeat my military analogy, the atheist/humanist/skeptic/secularist movement isn’t an army fighting another army; it’s a disparate collection of groups and individuals, all sharing very broad areas of agreement but with different areas of expertise and different passions and different drives. We respond as individuals and as groups to those skirmishes or all-out firefights as demand our attention. Currently, there are many, many fronts and many of them intersect: this demands a flexible and multi-faceted approach if our efforts are to be effective. In fact, it is my firm belief that any attempt to limit the scope of any one of our “cells” – limit the range of our artillery – will have the opposite effect of what the commenter seems to think: eschewing feminism (or any one front) in favour of some allegedly unifying Mission Statement will just open a crack in our defences. Abandoning or even just minimising our activity in one area will create an opportunity for those who seek to further marginalise us.

A grandiose Mission Statement will not only fail to serve the movement, its implicit and necessary narrowing of focus will create the potential for targets to slip beneath our defences.
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