More Mooney and Myers

I finally got around to viewing the debate that took place prior to the Point of Inquiry podcast mentioned in my previous post.

I think I understand the positions of Mooney and Myers more clearly now, so the following is an attempt to formulate my understanding, and to raise questions about where the two positions may overlap.

The Mooney Approach

Mooney’s central hypothesis appears to be as follows:

In order to promote the acceptance of science among the religious public, we need to join forces with religious leaders who support science.

I think there is something to be said for this hypothesis (more on this later), but I object to the ways in which Mooney suggests we put it into practice, namely:

1. We should make religious people aware that support for, say, evolution, is compatible with belief in God. We know it is compatible because we see people like Francis Collins who hold both evolution and the existence of God to be true.

2. We should focus on concepts and language that are common to science and religion, such as “spirituality”.

Frankly, neither of these approaches is honest.

First, it may be true that religion and evolution are observed to coexist in some people’s brains, but this does not mean that the two concepts are, in principle, compatible. In fact, they are incompatible on many levels. If we are to be honest, then, we must acknowledge these incompatibilities, and be clear about the specific religious beliefs that ought to be rejected as a result.

Second, Mooney’s idea about spirituality is an attempt at reconciliation through common word use, not through common belief. The awe that scientists feel when observing the cosmos, or the complexity of life, is a completely natural phenomenon arising from activity in the brain. To the believer however, spirituality is, at its core, a supernatural concept. It is about the existence of a soul, and its interaction with its creator. It is therefore disingenuous to suggest that such widely differing concepts have something in common simply because they can be described with the same word.

Third, Mooney appears to be operating under the assumption that science is under serious threat, and that to save it we have to swallow our pride and make compromises with the enemy. I’m not convinced. Science is not so weak that it must get into bed with religion in order to survive. It easily has the upper hand when it comes to rational justification and evidence. With this foundation, it has no need to kowtow to religion. Furthermore, where conflict between science and religion arises, tactics other than cooperation are available, and Mooney has not sufficiently demonstrated that cooperation is the most desirable choice. As Myers points out in the discussion, many key court battles have been won in favor of science: we can trust justice to fall on the side of truth.

The Myers Approach

I have mixed feelings about Dr. Myers. His Pharyngula blog is sometimes a little too caustic for my taste, which is why I have decided not to list it on my blogroll. However, it is the substance of his arguments that is of primary importance, not his tone. Myer’s central hypothesis appears to be the following:

Truth is paramount. We must therefore speak out for truth, and we must challenge those who would spread falsehoods.

Myers firmly believes, as I do, that religion is fraught with falsehoods, and that these are perpetuated partly because religion has acquired a privileged position of immunity in public debate. Like Richard Dawkins, then, Myers wishes to corrode this special status, and raise awareness of the falsehoods religion propagates.

Myers wonders what atheists and scientists really have to gain by cooperating with religion.  Cooperation may have the odd short term benefit but, like Myers, I think that long term cooperation would simply provide religious superstition with a means of perpetuating itself unchallenged. Myers concludes, therefore, that religious falsehoods should be prominently challenged whenever possible. We should also be unashamed about our anger at seeing such falsehoods being propagated.

A False Dichotomy

I admire Myers for sticking to his basic principle that truth is paramount. As I said above, this is of primary importance. But almost important is the manner in which this principle is conveyed. And I have some doubts about whether Myers’ confrontational approach is always fruitful. Myers might argue that being fruitful isn’t the point: falsehood must be fought on principle.

But I am interested in defending atheism and science in a fruitful manner. If I am to spend time arguing against religious ideas, I want my arguments to steer believers in the right direction rather than further entrench their beliefs. So what kind of approach would be both fruitful yet uncompromising? Certainly, we do not have to limit ourselves to the dichotomy between confrontational Myerism and accommodationist Mooneyism.

Practically, I lie closer to the Myers end of what might be considered a continuum of approaches to the science-religion debate. I firmly believe that religion and science are incompatible. Indeed, wherever believers use religion to interfere with the progress of science, they are making it quite clear that they, too, understand there is conflict. We cannot address these issues by pretending that they can be reconciled – by pretending that there is no real right or wrong side to the argument. We need to have the courage to stand firmly on whatever side of the argument the truth lies.

But I also believe that throwing insults at believers, as Myers occasionally does on his blog, does not help the cause of atheism and science (and, once again, I understand that this may not be Myers’s intention in the first place). Instead, I believe that we should stand firmly but calmly on the side of truth, if we wish it to gain acceptance more quickly.

It also seems to me that we could feasibly work with religious supporters of science without conceding that science and religion are compatible, and without reaching for any common ground other than the specific task at hand, such as defending evolution in the classroom. In other words, we can address very specific problems with the public acceptance of science without having to pretend that science and religion are generally compatible.

As suggested in my previous post, the entire discussion depends on what, exactly, we want. It seems that Myers is primarily concerned with making the truth known, and that the method of promoting this truth, and of battling falsehoods, is much less important. Mooney, on the other hand, almost seems to assign peaceful cooperation between science and religion a greater priority than the truth itself. Although I am much closer to Myers’ stance, I am not completely on board with either.  I want religious belief to fade away, and be replaced by the truth. In order for this to happen, religion needs to be challenged, but in a practically effective way. And this may require us to be calm and polite, albeit uncompromising.

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