Why the Silent Majority Is Silent

Chris Mooney has found new digs, and, revitalized by the more congenial atmosphere, has been taking up the science vs. religion fight again. Yesterday, he had a post asking what can be done to get moderate scientists more involved in the argument over whether science and religion can coexist:

At the same time, though, let’s face it-in the science blogosphere, we don’t hear a lot from the “silent majority.” Rather, and admittedly with some important exceptions, we hear from the New Atheists.

Yet I am arguing on behalf of the silent majority, and that is what keeps me going. So my question is this: How can we wake them up, make them realize that this is their issue too, and help them reclaim the debate for the middle ground?

As someone who is in the middle (I am not personally religious, but don’t have any problem with other scientists being religious), and largely silent on these questions, I suppose I should say something. Actually, if anything, I shade toward Chris’s end of things– I find the “New Atheist” crowd really annoying, and suspect that they’re actually counterproductive in many ways. So, given that, why don’t I speak up more?

I don’t participate actively in these arguments for more or less the same reason that I have not participated actively in any of the other giant shitstorms that have ripped through the parts of the Internet I frequent: I see no upside to being a part of this conversation as it is currently conducted.

There are a bunch of other factors, as well. It’s part filtering (I removed most of the ranty-atheist blogs from my RSS feeds a year or so ago, and replaced them with blogs that talk about interesting science), part outrage fatigue (I just can’t get worked up about the same stupid arguments over and over again), and part general busy-ness (I’ve got classes to teach, research to do, a book to write and promote…). But mostly it’s just that there’s no upside.

Writing about these issues takes a great deal of effort, with very little payoff. If I write something hastily, I inevitably end up pissing a bunch of people off through some unlucky turn of phrase. If I spend a great deal of time composing and revising a post, it gets basically ignored in favor of people who are yelling stupid things. If I’m going to spend hours on a blog post and have it ignored, I’ll write about new physics research– at least that way, I learn about something cool.

And there’s no real internal payoff for these posts, either. It’s easy to bang out several thousand words a day about something that you find genuinely outrageous, but the fact is that most of the things that get the “New Atheist” crowd cranked up just don’t bother me. I suppose I could post about them on general principle, but it’d be like the world’s most boring Twitter feed (“Day 483: Still not outraged.”). I could write responses to the responses to the things that don’t outrage me (which generally bug me more than the original events), but that would require me to read those blogs, and I have a ten-month-old daughter. If I want to deal with infantile behavior, I don’t need a computer.

I realize that this means I’ve effectively ceded the field to the rantiest of the ranty and that I ought to say more for the good of Science as a whole. But really, I figure I can do good for Science as a whole by writing about good science, rather than bad theology (theist or a-), and I’m generally happier that way.

I’ll try to do more quietly– I realized that I haven’t even tagged most of Chris’s recent posts for the daily Links Dumps, and I can at least do that– but honestly, I just don’t see any upside to being an active combatant.