Jerry Coyne v. Robert Wright (Again)

The argument over “framing science” continues today on Jerry Coyne’s blog, where he responds to Robert Wright’s latest piece in Foreign Policy. Wright criticizes the “new atheists” for being uncivil and intolerant, and says they’re liabilities in the fight against creationism:

Though the New Atheists claim to be a progressive force, they often abet fundamentalists and reactionaries, from the heartland of America to the Middle East.
If you’re a Midwestern American, fighting to keep Darwin in the public schools and intelligent design out, the case you make to conservative Christians is that teaching evolution won’t turn their children into atheists. So the last thing you need is for the world’s most famous teacher of evolution, Richard Dawkins, to be among the world’s most zealously proselytizing atheists. These atmospherics only empower your enemies.

Coyne dismisses the accusation, of course:

I still haven’t encountered a believer who says, “You know, if Dawkins would just stop dissing God, I’d embrace evolution!” And does Wright really want us to lie here? After all, teaching evolution, like teaching other forms science—indeed, like teaching any sort of critical thinking and rationality—will help turn some children into atheists. Are we supposed to say, “No—not a chance in hell of that happening”?

The debate continues …


Ophelia Benson v. Michael Shermer (v. Jerry Coyne)

Jerry Coyne is disappointed with Michael Shermer for saying:

If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe—10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.
Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God’s works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

According to Coyne, Shermer has become an accommodationist and “faitheist,” to which Shermer responds:

What is the right way to respond to theists and/or theism? That is the question asked at every atheism/humanism conference I’ve attended the past several years. The answer is simple: there is no one “right way.” There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context. Sometimes a head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault á la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Jerry Coyne is the way to go. Sometimes a more conciliatory approach á la Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or your humble servant is best. It all depends on the context and what you are trying to accomplish.

If you insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, then you have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from your project. To what end? So you can stand up tall and proud and proclaim “… but I never gave an inch to those faith heads!”? Well good for you! Just keep on playing “Nearer my Atheism to Thee” while the ship of humanity slips further into the depths of disaster.

This sends Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels into a tizzy:

Accommodationists always talk about what works, what wins more allies, what is least likely to offend the moderates, and similar calculating issues. Critics of accommodationism on the other hand tend to dislike manipulative rhetoric and tactical evasion, and want to try to tell the truth instead of trying to shape a message for fragile listeners.

What we insist is that we shouldn’t be expected to say things that we do not think are true on the flimsy grounds that some observers think that not doing so will ‘alienate the vast majority of the world’s population from your project’ (and what if we don’t have a project apart from telling the truth as we see it?). There is a difference between insisting ‘that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs,’ and refusing to tailor everything we say to suit some vague idea of what will not threaten other people. There is a big, serious, important difference between those two things. It is irritating that accommodationists so often insist on framing the matter the first way. It is irritating and it does not increase our respect for their probity.

And Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education has jumped into the argument, siding with Shermer and calling Benson’s response silly:

What I object to is the claim that one must choose between telling the truth and shaping the message so as to maximize acceptance of one’s viewpoint. Truth, like love, is a many-splendored thing. There are a range of ways to express true statements (including true statements about untestable personal beliefs), and it seems fair to inquire which of those modes of expression is most likely to sway one’s audience. I’ve watched this debate for 5 years or so, and in all that time, I’ve not seen anyone make a convincing argument against that basic principle.

If the goal is not to change minds, then what is the goal? To piss people off? To leave fat steaming piles of truth and force people to walk through them? …. If the goal of New Atheism is more than pissing off anyone who isn’t a New Atheist, it’s time to talk about framing, message discipline, and dropping this attitude that “what works” doesn’t matter.

But as Benson sees it, he’s got it backward:

The “accommodationists” or the framers or whatever you want to call them tell the “new” atheists to choose. They tell us to stop calling things as we see them and “frame” them instead …

Furthermore, to the extent that the goal is to change minds, it really is to change minds by telling the truth as we see it—not by manipulating or shading or shaping or evading or prettying up.

The debate continues …


Should We Think of Science as a Religion?

As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson sees it:

The truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.
Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.

Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature, finds this characterization of science highly misleading, arguing:

It is not the business of science to discover “truth,” because “truth” cannot be judged to be such, in any absolute way. To put it another way, were we to stumble upon the “truth” we could never know that we had done so.
What science is all about, in contrast, is the quantification of doubt.

And PZ Myers takes issue with the thesis entirely:

Science isn’t a religion, period. It doesn’t worship anything. Science is a toolbox, and if you must stretch the metaphor even further, doubt is the crowbar we use to get at useful answers … but again, we don’t worship the crowbar. We admire it, can ooh and aaah over a particularly well-tricked-out crowbar, and we can relish opportunities to swing it, but it never, ever assumes the role of religion in our our lives.


Letter to a Christian Grandmother

When John Sullivan’s grandmother heard he’d left the Christian faith, she sent him a 33-page letter “with a dismissal of evolution on theological grounds.” He’s now posted his response online—a long letter of his own, filled with figures and data and ending with this:

I expect you to agree with a few points and to firmly disagree with others (I do expect that you will respond), but above all I expect that nothing I have said changes our relationship or the interest we both take in approaching these usually sensitive subjects. I love you! Thanks for reaching out to me and thank you for spending time to understand where I am and how I got here.

“Bravo!” says PZ Myers. “This is how loving families should deal with faith, by simply caring enough to wrestle with the ideas between them.”

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