Two Responses to Hate

I’ve said before that I think Fred Clark of Slacktivist is the very best blogger writing about religion and politics in America today. It’s not even close. His recent series on things the government ought to be doing to help the economy is also outstanding– that link goes to the most recent, and you can check my Links dump posts for most of the rest of the series.

I end up tagging a lot of his posts for the Links Dumps, but he’s good enough that every now and then I feel I need to give him a little more prominence. His Wednesday post is one that deserves more. He describes two occasions where communities were asked to respond to hateful acts, the first a nasty resolution against homosexuality when he was an intern at a Baptist convention:

The debate had the air of a witch hunt. I wanted to be elsewhere. I wanted to say something, but it wasn’t my place or my role there to speak and I wouldn’t have known what to say anyway.

So the day of the big vote I made an armband with a pink triangle on it and tied it to my sleeve. No one asked me what it meant, and I’m not sure how I would have answered if they had. I went about my intern business, making copies and distributing folders as the final debate on the resolution proceeded and no one said anything to me about it all day.

Well, almost no one. Coming back from lunch, I held open the door to the Charleston, W.Va., convention center for a group of delegates walking behind me. One woman smiled and started to say thank you, then suddenly puckered up into a scowl and just sort of grunted before pointedly walking to the other set of doors. By that point I’d forgotten I was even wearing the armband and it took me a moment to figure out what I’d done to offend her.

That one ends badly, as you can probably guess. But he follows it up with a story about a recent outbreak of anti-semitism in Montana, and the way that community responded. Which is the kind of thing that reminds you that as mean and petty and short-sighted as we can be, humans are capable of a lot more. As lunatic as our political culture often seems, there are still events like this that make it worth saving.

Science v. Religion: Time to Try (Social) Science

There are lots of reasons why Josh Rosenau is one of the few writers blogging about science-and-religion issues that I still read. This morning’s post on what you ought to do to determine effective approaches is an outstanding example:

Rather than looking at national polls, which are crude instruments and can miss shifts within small subpopulations, I’d think that it would be more useful to do lab work, and to look at the broader literature on communications. Daniel Loxton did a nice roundup of a few useful studies in this realm, and Mike McRae looked at a wider sampling in the context of the “don’t be a dick” discussion.

Someone grounded in that body of research could develop some testable hypotheses about how folks might respond to NAs. Then you could do lab work, bringing in a large and representative sample of folks with views across the c/e spectrum. Do a pretest, then have some of them read a selection from Dawkins’ The God Delusion, others read from Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, and a control reading something unrelated to creationism and evolution and theism. Then do a post-test. Follow up a month later, and see how their views on science generally, evolution specifically, and on the relationship between science and religion have changed. Follow up a year later. What sticks, and what doesn’t? What do people remember? What do they convey to their friends? Then follow up the study with treatments that vary the extent of contact with New Atheist writings, to see whether people who read all of TGD, or watch a 2 hour talk by Dawkins, react differently than those with more fleeting contact with NA ideas.

That’s science, and I’d be interested in the results.

Really, this seems obvious enough that I’d be a little surprised if somebody out there wasn’t working on this sort of study (the books in question are recent enough that I doubt anybody would have had time to finish such a study yet). On the off chance, though, that this isn’t in progress, let me add my voice to Josh’s: Please, somebody, do this study.

Insults Are Easy, Community Is Hard

Josh Rosenau makes an excellent and important point regarding prayer meetings and the Gulf oil spill: that the point is not so much that God will stop the oil gushing into the Gulf, but that religious groups are a key community organization point for getting people together to work on the problem. He puts this into a larger context toward the end of the post, saying things I’ve said myself numerous times:

Most people attend church for a lot of reasons, and many of those reasons are self-reinforcing. Someone who goes to church with no particular views on theism (pro, con, or agnostic) could well keep attending church because they enjoy the community, want to take part in the volunteer activities organized by the church, want to take advantage of the church’s daycare and other social services, etc. They may adopt some sort of theism in order to fit in. Over time, they associate theism broadly and the church’s brand of theism in particular with the good works, generous friends, and deep community ties that they’ve found in the church.

If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway. There need to be communities of non-theists who are as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be. Churches play a huge role in the community lives of smaller towns, and of many neighborhoods within big cities. People might join for reasons with nothing to do with theology, and unless there’s a nontheist structure that can parallel that role, nontheism will have a hard time replacing or even making headway against, theism.

If the best that national nontheist groups can muster in response to the Gulf Gusher is “don’t pray about it,” I fear for the message that sends. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are all happily sending aid and volunteers to help the Gulf cleanup, to support out-of-work fishing families, etc. That outreach doesn’t speak for or against theism philosophically, but it’s a great way to bring people into the fold of religion, or at least to keep them there. Local nontheists are certainly doing their part, and I’d be surprised if their members weren’t participating in community prayer gatherings. They know that the gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer. If only nationally prominent atheists could get on that same page.

As I said, I’ve said similar things in the past, and it goes nowhere. In keeping with the mirror-universe character of modern discussion of atheism and politics, if you read down in the comments a bit, you’ll find someone deriding the whole concept of good works. Sweet.

The fundamental problem, of course, is that insulting people on the Internet and providing smug proofs of your philosophical superiority is easy and fun, while building real-world communities that can actually make a difference is hard work. There are some people making an effort, which is great to see, but not nearly enough. If we’re ever going to see religion displaced from its too-central role in American public life, we need a lot more community organizing, and a lot less childish name-calling.

Let me also provide what signal boost I can to the donation link that Josh provided for the Audubon Society, which is collecting money to help contain the oil damage. If you’ve got disposable cash, consider sending them some.

Extremists Aren’t Interesting

Sean Carroll is miffed about a science-and-religion panel at the World Science Festival:

The panelists include two scientists who are Templeton Prize winners — Francisco Ayala and Paul Davies — as well as two scholars of religion — Elaine Pagels and Thupten Jinpa. Nothing in principle wrong with any of those people, but there is a somewhat obvious omission of a certain viewpoint: those of us who think that science and religion are not compatible. And there are a lot of us! Also, we’re right. A panel like this does a true disservice to people who are curious about these questions and could benefit from a rigorous airing of the issues, rather than a whitewash where everyone mumbles pleasantly about how we should all just get along.

I’ve been wondering when the inevitable tempest would blow up in that particular teapot– the schedule has been up for a good while now, including that panel and the full line-up. I have to say, I’m not wild about the idea either, though not for exactly the same reasons as Sean.

Unlike Sean, though, I think there’s a reasonable devil’s-advocate argument to be made for having the line-up the way it is, provided the moderator handles things properly. The simple fact is that people with fixed and absolute views do not make for an interesting conversation.

Continue reading “Extremists Aren’t Interesting”

Correlation, Causation, and Belief in Creation

Thinking from Kansas, Josh Rosenau notices a correlation in data from a Daily Kos poll question on the origin of the universe:

Saints be praised, 62% of the public accepts the Big Bang and a 13.7 billion year old universe. Democrats are the most positive, with 71% accepting that, while only 44% of Republicans agree (38 think it’s more recent, the rest are undecided). I’ve said it before and I stand by it: conservative Republicanism is incompatible with science.

But looking at the finer details tells us a lot. The only group – gender, race, or region – with anything like the Republicans’ rejection of basic science, is the South:

The Southern split is 48-34, compared to the Republican 44-38.

Of course, there are some other interesting things to correlate with this figure, such as per-pupil spending on education (only two Southern states in the top half), or average school teacher salaries (3 in the top 25), or percentage of the population with a Bachelors degree (2 in the top 25).

So, along with creationism, Southern-ness seems to be correlated with substandard education generally, and arguably a lack of respect for education (depending on how you want to spin the spending figures).

Continue reading “Correlation, Causation, and Belief in Creation”

There’s More to Science Than Evolution

The National Science Board made a deeply regrettable decision to omit questions on evolution and the Big Bang from the Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2010. As you might expect, this has stirred up some controversy.

I wasn’t surprised to learn this, as I had already noticed the omission a couple of months ago, when I updated the slides for my talk on public communication of science– the figure showing survey data in the current talk doesn’t include those questions, while the original version has them in there. I noticed it, and thought it was a little odd, but it had no effect on the point I was making with that slide. In fact, the graph works better, for my purposes, without the evolution question in there.

While I absolutely agree that this is a stupid decision, and hope that future reports restore discussion of what is one of the most important issues for science education in the United States, at the same time, this is indicative of one of the most frustrating problems in talking about public communication of science. While evolution is undeniably a critical issue in science education, there is a whole lot more to science than evolution, and it dominates the discussion to a really unhealthy degree.

Continue reading “There’s More to Science Than Evolution”

A Statement of Fact Cannot Be Unconscionable

Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean’s been taking a beating over his negative comments on an atheist anti-Christmas sign. There’s no small irony in this, given that Sean is a vocal atheist. His sentiments, which basically boil down to “it’s good to promote atheism, but there’s no need to be a dick about it” strike me as perfectly unobjectionable, but as he’s learning first-hand, that’s not enough for a lot of people on the Internet.

The difference between an unjustly accused “accommodationist” like Sean and a real one like myself is here:

The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.

I agree with basically everything else that Sean says in his defense, but we part company here, for a very simple reason: what Sean says is factually untrue.

Continue reading “A Statement of Fact Cannot Be Unconscionable”

Gold, Frankincense, and Mars

I’m kind of fried from all the recent driving, and I’ve got some stuff to catch up on. So we’ll ease back into regular blogging, by posting a clip from last week’s Colbert Report with everybody’s favorite Jesuit, Brother Guy Consolmagno, talking about how alien life would affect Christianity:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Gold, Frankincense and Mars – Guy Consolmagno
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor U.S. Speedskating

There’s your “science and religion are compatible” item for this month, as well.

Thank You, Switzerland

It’s always nice to be reminded that the US is not the only country in the world prone to acts of petty and childish xenophobia. The last eight years have been especially rough, but between the Obama administration acting like adults and now this silly minaret ban, we no longer look like the most infantile Western nation.

So, thanks, Switzerland. I’ll be sure to pick you up some chocolate later.


You sometimes hear people say that it’s good to make a splash when embarking on a new media project. David Sloan Wilson has apparently taken this to heart, and tucks himself into a tight ball as he leaps off the high board into the ScienceBlogs pool:

Thinking of science as a religion that worships truth as it god enables me to praise its virtues and criticize its shortcomings at the same time. In my previous blogs, I have played the role of scientific reformer for two major issues. The first is the “new atheism” movement spearheaded by the so-called four horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Samuel Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. Isn’t it wonderful how scientists and rationalists reflexively adopt religious imagery? I am an atheist in the sense that I regard religion as 100% a human construction, but I’m here to testify that the “new atheists” depart from factual reality in their own way. So did Ayn Rand, the “new atheist” of her day, as we are learning to our sorrow from the collapse of the free market belief system that she helped to create. If we worry about religions for their departures from factual reality, then we should really worry about “stealth religions” that do the same thing without invoking the gods, because they do a better job of masquerading as reality. As someone who is seriously committed to studying religion from a scientific and evolutionary perspective, I’m here to say that the new atheists can’t bring themselves to accept the facts about religion as a human construction. Read my six-part series on “Atheism as a Stealth Religion”, now archived on my ScienceBlog site, for more. Even better, start acquainting yourself with the emerging field of evolutionary religious studies, whose members are more serious about holding each other accountable for what they say about religion.

I’m sure this will work out well, and I look forward to reading his blog when it moves to Discover a year from now.