Saturday, July 28, 2012

Relating with the Religious

by Don Wharton

We have a vigorous discussion from several recent posts about the virtue or lack of it in relating with those who are religious. In this post I would like to respond to Hos's post on Reaching Out to the Faithful: Does ItWork?

It is vastly unfair to condemn EO Wilsons' or Eugenie Scott's efforts based on national statistics. EO Wilsons' influence should be evaluated where his books have been purchased and in the churches where he has spoken. I think there is ample evidence that he has been profoundly positive where that is the case. There are now religious environmental magazines supporting a very significant subset of the evangelical community where there was no such movement before.

We should not forget that the fossil fuel industry is putting hundreds of billions of dollars into their misinformation campaigns. The fact that our side can make such a significant difference in what is otherwise a very right wing community is a huge success for our side.  Wilson's book TheCreation: an appeal to save life on Earth was published is 2006.  In it he says, “Dear Pastor: We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. Although I no longer belong to that faith, I am confident that if we met and spoke privately of our deepest beliefs, it would be in a spirit of mutual respect and goodwill.”   Later in that year the NY Times highlighted “86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming.” see: Evangelical Leaders Join GlobalWarming Initiative.
How many of us have managed to get 86 evangelical leaders to come out for a positive humanist position?

A similar argument is true for Eugenie Scott and her National Center for Science Education. Her efforts in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial was nothing less than one of the most stunning secular courtroom victories of our nation. A Republican judge wrote a finding that was literally dripping with contempt for the ludicrous arguments of the creationists. NCSE does a wonderful job in monitoring the antics of creationist nonsense wherever it raises its ugly head. Typically after a religious school board gets through being trounced in a legal confrontation with NCSE they are voted out of office in the next election. The voters might still be very religious but they don't like to see their state, county or district be embarrassed by their leaders. Obviously the funding on the other side is more than an order of magnitude greater than the budget for NCSE. The value they give to our society is massively greater than the miniscule budget with which they do their work.

Let me also respond to Mathew's charge, in a comment on Hos' post, that “E.O. Wilson hides his atheism to the point of punting questions about his religious beliefs.” Frankly his atheism is discussed in so many internet articles that it is impossible to deny.  As noted above he declares his non-belief explicitly in his book. I don't care if he does not choose to engage on religion in a context where he wants to communicate on some other issue. The presumption that Mathew asserts is his private view. My guess is the Wilson just wants to stay on message and the fact that he is more effective when he does that is to our advantage. If we make all possible fights over science into a fight over religion we will lose. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye are both unbelievers who have received the Humanist of the Year Award. They are out there to educate and they do a wonderful job of that. Each of them avoids confronting religion directly in most of their public work. There is no reason why EO Wilson should be precluded from adopting a similar role.

I certainly do not want to (quoting Mathew), declare “that challenging intolerance/prejudice against atheism is incompatible with achieving all other goals and therefore must not be attempted.” I think it is reasonable to allow intelligent secular thinkers to decide on their goals and priorities as they wish. Reason used in any domain of social consequence is better than unreason.

I was a bit distracted in researching EO Wilson because I got entangled in the group selection issue. Edward O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson both support group selection as an evolutionarily relevant mechanism. Both of them wish to highlight the role of groups in our culture. Richard Dawkins argues that belief in group selection is not confirmed by the evidence. Dawkins correctly says that the measure of an evolutionary relevent mechanism must be confirmed by differences in gene frequencies. It is an excessively complex area of science and to date I have come down on the side of Dawkins.


Explicit Atheist said...

"Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world's estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences."

Susan B. Anthony

Don Wharton said...

Neither EO Wilson nor Eugenie Scott can be said to be cautious, careful people. Each has been a powerful advocate for important positions.

I also want to make it clear that I deeply admire all of the people regarded as the most ferocious advocates of anti-theism, specifically Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and PZ Myers. Each of these have articulated specific positions which I do not support. However, the balance of their efforts are of massively positive effect. We need to powerfully confront preposterous religious claims. We do not need to require all people of reason to place that effort above all others.

Explicit Atheist said...

I didn't see any condemnation of E.O Wilson. I think Hos questioned the claims that seeking to accommodate the biases of the audience (a.k.a. framing) is an effective means of convincing them to accept an argument that they are uncomfortable accepting because of those biases. I think he was suggesting that maybe a willingness to challenge those biases could actually prove to be more effective.

Don Wharton said...

Hos Said, "And how about the efforts of people like E. O. Wilson, have they been able to change many minds among the fundamentalists concerning climate change? The short answer is no." Obviously I am contesting Hos on this point.

Moreover, I have not seen any evidence to back up your notion that "E.O. Wilson hides his atheism to the point of punting questions about his religious beliefs." While this is not a condemnation it is intended to be critical and I have yet to see evidence that this is a fair representation of how he typically communicates his views. I am not saying that you do not have such evidence. It is just that I have not seen it and I question the extent to which our audience would weigh your evidence in the same way.

Hos said...

Santorum wins support of evangelical leaders at Texas meeting.

Rick Santorum: Climate change denialist.

When I see evangelicals holding politicians accountable on climate change I will believe efforts by
E O Wilson (or anyone)to bring on them on board concerning this issue have not been a waste of time. Seeing is believing...

Explicit Atheist said...

I was trying to understand why you, Don, introduced E.O. Wilson into the discussion. Like I said, I have never heard any anti-accommodationists criticize E.O. Wilson for seeking out religious audiences. The notion that anti-accommodationism entails not talking to religious audience is ridiculous. Dawkins talks with and to religious people, S. Harris talks with and to religious audiences, Hitchens talked with and to religious audiences, Coyne talks with and to religious audiences, etc. The only thing I could think of to tie E.O. Wilson to the rest of discussion was that I thought I read somewhere that he avoided discussing his religious beliefs when questioned about them, which, even if it is true, is a triviality. I still don't understand Don why you introduced him as a counter-example to something anything anyone else was asserting when there is nothing he does that anyone objects to (other than the off-topic group versus individual selection dispute).

Nor do I understand why Hos thinks E.O. Wilson not being more clearly effective has anything to do with anything else either. E.O. Wilson doesn't claim in his book or his interviews or talks that science is compatible with divine creationism of any sort. E.O. Wilson doesn't claim that there are non-empirical methods of determining what is true and false such as divine revelation that merits respect.

Don Wharton said...

@Explicit I am happy that you support efforts such as E.O. Wilson. However, you will note that in the prior comment you have an anti-accomodationist discounting the passionate evironmental evangelicals who do confront the denier crowd. They are in the minority and obviously they do not win when votes are taken in large scale evangelical events.

I think we have a definitional problem here. Obviously the deeply respectful manner and style of relating (with no confrontation of the religious beliefs) is much different than Dawkins or Harris would typically do. In fact, Wilson's efforts fit what most people would call accomodationist.

I am happy that there seems to be a lot of daylight between your position and Hos'. However, I don't understand how and why you don't understand the relevance. There is a vast difference between just wanting moderate religious communities to go away and wanting to have a productive relationship to achieve a shared positive end.

Explicit Atheist said...

Because your definition of what is productive overlaps with my definition of that which is counter- productive. Telling people that it is OK to adopt a belief first approach or to be selective in evaluating the evidence when justifying our beliefs, like people such as Ruse do, is absolutely wrong and counter- productive. It is not productive to view adults as children and declare that the first priority is to make them happy with fairy tales. That isn't going to result in more popular support for teaching undiluted science in public schools or for dealing with environmental threats.

Don Wharton said...

We need to be clear about what we are doing. I see no evidence that E.O. Wilson is "Telling people that it is OK to adopt a belief first approach or to be selective in evaluating the evidence when justifying our beliefs." I don't want to confound our discussion with Ruse because he explicitly attacks "The God Delusion." We should not pretend to be mind readers and then condemn Wilson because of what we imagine in his mind. That is obviously as crazy as the unfounded beliefs based on faith that we criticize in others.

The fact is that working toward positive ends with the religious works and does not necessarily include any explicit support for false beliefs. We need to fairly evaluate people such as Wilso based on the evidence.

Explicit Atheist said...

OK, but you are the one who incorrectly introduced E.O. Wilson into the discussion, so I find it hypocritical for you to falsely accuse me of "condemning" E.O. Wilson, even when I target Ruse. I also consider Chris Mooney, Kirshenbaum, and Eugenie Scott to be part-time accommodationists. The National Center for Science Education is accommodationist, as is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academies, In particular, they all publicly make gratutious statements declaring religion and science to be in comfortable harmony with each other that contradict this anti-accommodationist stance:

Science uses logic, reason and evidence to find things out.  Religion uses dogma and revelation.  These are fundamentally different ways of arriving at “truth.” Indeed, religions can’t arrive at truths at all, because the truth claims of different religions are in irresolvable conflict with one another, and there is no way of knowing which of these are wrong and which (if any) are right.  In contrast, science has built-in ways of determining if it is wrong.  When making a truth claim, scientists can answer the question, “How would I know if I were wrong?”  The faithful have no such way to test their “truth” claims.

Don Wharton said...

Mathew, I explicitly said that your comment re Wilson was NOT a condemnation. I did say that it was critical. From what I can tell E.O. Wilson is relatively militant about his very secular, naturalist world view. I very much agree that Ruse is a vastly more despicable example.

I am quite fond of Eugenie Scott. From what I can tell she has a very solid scientific worldview. If you are defining "accommodationist" as using a "belief first" approach I have my doubts about you finding examples of that with Scott.

I like your new post of this subject but I think we have a number of nuance to tease out for particular cases.