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();


4 thoughts on “On Alienating Moderate Believers

  1. "as I find the notion of alienating moderates during honest discussions of science to be a non-issue"Perhaps the issue some moderate believers find alienating is the narrow insistence by some dogmatists of using science and science only when arguing against matters of belief. This is a somewhat “narrow” and limiting way of looking at the world when attempting to argue a position.Additionally a lot of atheists seem to see science as "owned" by atheists – garbage. There are many many scientists (some famous) both now and throughout history that have been believers.If you want to be really intellectually honest and assign some of the famed critical thinking skills atheists pride themselves on then the below statement is clearly inaccurate."there really is no logical choice but to be a cynical heathen bastard"

  2. “Should really we spend much concern on people who will turn their backs and sulk when presented with knowledge?” On the contrary, I have faced similar behaviour from supposed educated Atheists who when presented with other approaches to knowledge are either unwilling or unable to see outside of their view of the prism of positivism or more broadly empiricism. Further to this such Atheists are blissfully unaware of the assumptions and limitations that underpin their chosen approach to knowledge (scientific method). I cannot help but make the observation (excuse the pun) that the above article makes a somewhat erroneous inference that knowledge is a subset of science. The opposite is in fact the case. When presented with such “truths” I find many atheists are the ones who are “devastated” and more often than not it is the militant atheists who react in such a manner. The overused word and censorship term of “troll” is often applied by those ignorant of other approaches to the gaining of knowledge. What I find quite funny is atheism’s attempt at high jacking rationalism by created the Rationalist Society which clearly is a play on words. The debate between rationalism and empiricism and everything in between has been going on long before Mr Dawk first eyed a way to make a buck by selling popular science books and talking like a trash bag – and the unwashed masses fell hook line a sinker for it.Any theologian worth their salt is well aware of the benefits and rigour of the scientific method. They are also very well aware that it is only one approach to knowledge and it has its limitations.Mandrellian a Science advocate you may be, an epistemologist you are not.

  3. First, the one-liner under my blog heading is a joke. It might not be clear on a first reading (or on a strictly literal reading), so I'll forgive the insult of my honesty and intelligence.The charge that "a lot of atheists" thinking science is "owned" by atheists? is itself garbage. Would you care to name anyone who's said or implied that? Certainly, many atheist scientists think religion and science are generally incompatible. But atheists "owning" science? Frankly, the only person I've ever heard say that is you.Also, the fact that many scientists, living and deceased, have or had religious beliefs is proof of precisely nothing. It's certainly evidence that people are quite capable of holding two positions that may not gel with each other (or even flatly contradict each other). It in no way gives any credibility to religious belief itself.

  4. Perhaps as a skilled epistemologist yourself, you can outline some approaches to knowledge which are superior, more reliable or more informative than your obviously warped view of the scientific method.Your reading of the "inference" that "knowledge is a subset of science" in my post is itself erroneous; I made no such inference. It's more accurate to say that the scientific method is both a subset of knowledge and a means of gaining new knowledge. You might want to stop presuming that you can read my mind.The rest of your complaint about "militant atheists" being "devastated" by certain truths (truths that you didn't bother to elaborate on) is bordering on incoherence. Further, that paragraph including your complaint about people being labelled "trolls" when criticising science is irrelevant to my post. What other people in response to their critics isn't my concern, nor was it the topic of my post.Your use of capitalised "Atheists" and "militant atheists" is also telling; usually the only people who use those are defensive religious types, creationists or the types of accommodationists I wrote about.Another irrelevancy: your rant about atheism's attempt at highjacking rationalism by creating the Rationalist Society. Did I mention anything in that sentence? Did I mention Richard Dawkins (not "Dawk" – why the insult?) either? Why are you? He has nothing to do with what I wrote.People who stray off-topic as much as you are frequently labelled trolls; if you don't want to be thought a troll I suggest you not act like one.Theologians being aware of the benefits of the scientific method is one thing; whether they know how or care to apply it is another matter entirely (and it is entirely unclear that they do, in fact, know how or care to apply it to their own beliefs or presuppositions).And again, you claim there are multiple approaches to knowledge but you don't list a single one, much less how to go about using it. As for the limitations of the scientific method, it's a pathetic joke to label theologians – those writers of fan-fiction and reverse-engineers of ancient dogma – as having keen insight into limitations of various approaches to knowledge. I challenge anyone to list a contribution to the knowledge of the world made by a theologian, using only a theologian's "way of knowing".Finally, I never claimed to be an epistemologist, nor did I even imply that I was. I'm merely of the opinion that alienating "moderate" believers by being frank and honest about scientific facts is an insignificant risk. Most people aren't so fragile as to run from a scientific fact that hasn't been sugar-coated.In general, I award your comment(s) a D: poorly written, poorly argued and mostly irrelevant, they added nothing to thise discussion except the same accommodationist/theological talking points I've seen countless times. If you'd like to try again and actually *** respond to the topic of the post ***, feel free to come back and voice your objections to what I actually said. You know, instead of just rolling up and regurgitating a bunch of irrelevant horse shit.

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