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();