Foot soldiers who lack vision

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The NCSE is an excellent organization, and I've frequently urged people at my talks to join it. However, it's also a limited organization, and this post by Richard Hoppe at the Panda's Thumb exposes their flaws. It's blind. It's locked in to one strategy. It's response to people who try to branch out in new directions is to discourage them, often in a rather patronizing way. This is not a good approach to take when we've been deadlocked for years and they offer no prospects for future victory.

I've been making the argument for some time that the NCSE is our defensive line, and they are great at that...we don't want to lose them. In fact, they are so good that we haven't lost a creationist court case since Scopes, in recent years thanks to the invaluable assistance of the staff at NCSE, and we've built up such a body of legal precedent that we can feel fairly secure that they creationists are going to consistently get their butts kicked in the courts (it also helps that the creationists are incompetent at both science and the law). With that success, however, comes complacency and overconfidence and a belief that their approach is is the One True Way…and now, a gradual drift into identifying more with the opposition than with a significant percentage of their own team and their own fans. They also seem determined to ignore reality — we live in a country that is split in the middle on the topic of evolution, and the creationists are not in decline. Victories in the courtroom are not the same as victories in the minds of the population.

Here's our big problem: we have had no offense at all, and we're never going to make any progress without one. Keeping the other team from scoring is important but doesn't win us any games if we can never carry our arguments forward — we're always being told to stop at the point where we are drawing the logical implications of science and evolution and told to back off…it might alienate the other team. Worse, our defense is then rushing to help the apologetics of the opposition. This is all done in the name of what they call political pragmatism. Always, they say, they have to mollify the religious people on school boards, in government, and the electorate if they want to get anything accomplished; they can't possibly state outright that evolution refutes most religious views of creation, that science reveals a universe dominated by chance and necessity and natural processes, because, well, they'll throw science out then.

How patronizing. How condescending. If true, this means that our so-called allies in this fight are actually not — they don't ultimately want to support science as it actually is, but are instead fishing for scientists willing to use their authority to support the continued dominance of religious thought. And our defenders are happy to give it to them. Is it any wonder that we are making no progress in changing American culture? The ruling ideology would like nothing better than to perpetuate the stalemate, and the leadership of the opposing minority willingly cedes them all kinds of ground in order to maintain what little we've got, and never takes a step forward.

How are we succeeding if the only way we can promote our ideas is by hiding the implications of those ideas, and pretending that the antithesis of scientific thought is fully compatible with science? Collaborating with our opponents is not the same as making allies.

And when real allies in the cause of science do show up and try to make a difference, we are misrepresented in order to discredit us. This doesn't help, either.

I did a 3-Sunday series of talks on religion, evolution, and morality in a local Protestant church recently. Had I walked in there and opened with "OK, folks, in order to understand and accept evolution as I'll present it today, you have to deconvert" I'd have lost my (overflow) audience in the first five minutes. That would have robbed me of the opportunity to introduce religious people to the power and breadth of the theory and to describe the misconceptions that the fundamentalist Christians have been feeding children and adults in my community.

I'll have to remember that line. I've never started a talk that way myself, even though I have also spoken in churches. Funny thing is, in those situations (as well as in the classroom) I just focus on telling the story of the evidence. That is our strength, right? I don't have to announce that the Book of Genesis is wrong and silly, but I also don't have to go out of my way to tell them some pretty excuse to allow them to continue to believe in talking snakes. And if I'm asked, I tell them straightforwardly that literal religious accounts are falsified by the evidence.

I've also told them that one factor in my loss of faith was the promulgation of bad interpretations of the Bible that contradicted the evidence of science, and that they were going to drive more intelligent people out of their congregations if they insisted on adherence to falsified ideas. That often seems a more effective and pragmatic approach than pretending they can believe whatever they want and still remain true to science.

I am also amused by the asymmetry of these situations. Francis Collins and Ken Miller can build reputations as public speakers on pronouncements of their faith, yet somehow the atheists in their audiences don't go running for the doors when they mention god. Are we to assume that Richard Hoppe's audiences are all weak and stupid, and incapable of coping with anything less than an affirmation of their faith?

I have a little more confidence in them. I wouldn't start with the ridiculous line he suggested (it's false, for one thing), but I wouldn't be at all reluctant to say that science contradicts many interpretations of the audience's religion, and that if anyone needs to do any accommodation to reality, it's not us, it's them. I don't think anyone would flee; I might get more argument in the Q&A, though, which would be a fine and enlightening thing. I also don't think that honesty about our differences necessarily makes enemies. I also think that ultimately, it is far more — and here's a word you'll rarely hear from me in regards to the foes of science — respectful.

Speaking of respectful, there's another tactic that the allies of the NCSE have often used against the outspoken atheists in their midst, and it is one guaranteed to piss me off. It is the condescending attitude that they alone are actually doing any work; that the real people are the True Americans of the heartland who don't have the fancy-schmancy educations and get their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty of the day-to-day work.

I'm one of the foot soldiers in this battle, a sergeant operating in a conservative rural county far from the ethereal heights of the University of Chicago. I've been at it (off and on, mostly on for the last 6 years) for more than 20 years. I published my first article on the political nature of the evolution/religion conflict in 1987. I am engaged at the local and state levels, the former on a weekly basis (search this blog on "Freshwater" for local stuff and see here for just one example of State BOE stuff). My political experience goes back to 1968, when I was a big city Democratic party ward officer. I have a hell of a lot better view of what's pragmatically necessary and what is effective at the level of the local school board and the local church than Coyne can even imagine. Coyne (and Myers and Moran and Dawkins) are not engaged at that level on anything approaching a regular basis. They lead their congregations from high pulpits. They sit above the choir preaching a message that is disconnected from — indeed, sometimes antithetical to — the reality on the ground. They're the generals who argued against air power, courtmartialed Billy Mitchell, and then watched ships sink at Pearl Harbor. Coyne wants to argue philosophy in a political war. That's not a tactic, it's a politically lethal red herring.

Whew. I'm lucky that he didn't rail against the ethereal heights of Morris, Minnesota, and chose instead to sneer at a great university in a mere working class midwestern city. I might have felt picked upon. I'm also glad he chose not to hurl his contempt using that frequently vilified term, the "elites", or I might have mistaken the Panda's Thumb for World Net Daily for a moment. Isn't it such an American thing, to treat all but the lowest, most local level of action as a liability? To scowl at intellectual expertise as if it were a scarlet letter marking the bearer as worthy of ostracism?

This is another failure of the NCSE. Rather than taking advantage of those voices like Dawkins and Coyne, they neglect them as dangerous and corrupting to their One True Message of the compatibility of science and religion. It's a shame, too. I have nothing against Richard Hoppe and would agree that his work on the ground is invaluable, but he will not get the audiences and the media attention or spark the discussion and thinking of those "high pulpit" luminaries — and I doubt that he even gets the crowds of the lesser glimmering of a PZ Myers.

A while back, I got the same attitude from Ken Miller in a podcast we did together. At one point he accused me of doing nothing to help science education, and bragged that he was busy criss-crossing Kansas doing talks while I was sitting at my little blog (and also teaching college biology courses, although he didn't mention that). It was remarkably condescending, and it also ignored the facts: people like Hoppe and Miller and the staff at NCSE have also been busily promoting the idea that atheists like me or Dawkins or Coyne are anathema in the public discourse, since we don't preach the message of compatibility. I was not giving lectures in Kansas because I was not asked. It was not because I somehow think I am above the fray, or do not value public education as much as Ken Miller; I would enthusiastically take on the foot-soldier role if voices of my kind were not squeezed out of the forum by our own allies. This is why some of us are beginning to express our resentment of the approach taken by the NCSE and its friends: they have chosen as their preferred face of science spokespeople who are not representative of the majority of scientists, and who are definitely not at all representative of the significant fraction of even more militant atheists among us.

Another part of our message is also being ignored and misrepresented, all, apparently, as part of a campaign to make sure atheist voices are kept out of the much-valued "foot soldier" role. As Jerry Coyne has repeatedly said, our grievance is not that the NCSE is an insufficiently atheistic organization. We are most definitely not arguing that pro-evolution, pro-science promoters must be atheists — we are not urging a reversal of the current situation with a boycott of religious speakers, and we do not want NCSE's help promoting atheism (we are doing a phenomenal job of that already, I can say smugly). We are asking that this pretense that religion and science are compatible, and that the only way to get political support is for the majority of scientists to sit back and shut up about their rational views while the scientists who endorse superstition are propped up as our façade, has got to end. If the national science organizations want to be pragmatic, then stop speaking only favorably of religion. Stop bringing religion up altogether, and stick to the science. Or let godless voices join the chorus.

Richard Hoppe's complaint did make me laugh aloud at one point, with his analogy to the atheists being the generals who tried to stop air power. He got it backwards. He's representing a view that wants to keep doing the same thing over and over again, fighting the last court case endlessly, disdaining those radicals who want to shake things up with innovative approaches. I'm sorry, Richard, but the atheists are your air force. We're going forward with a bold new offense against the regressive forces that have kept this country locked in a stalemate — we are going to change the culture with an aggressive promotion of rational ideas and our ongoing opposition to religious superstition. We like your slow old boats and your foot soldiers, and think they have an effective, even essential, role to play, too — but we're going to fly with your support or without it.

Get used to it. Of course, we'd be even more effective if we coordinated, rather than that you constantly refused to take advantage of our potential.

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We’re going forward with a bold new offense against the regressive forces that have kept this country locked in a stalemate — we are going to change the culture with an aggressive promotion of rational ideas and our ongoing opposition to religious superstition.

Somehow, listening to this I could not help but remember the People’s Republic of Eugene. Except maybe for Radio KLCC, I’d rather I hadn’t.

MrG http://www.vectorsite.net

Advocacy by PZ and others for atheism is fine; that minority certainly deserves a voice. Can one distinguish this from just trying to stop others from teaching dumb things about biology?

===

The post does not define “compatible” and argues from a tacit definition. Arguing from definitions excuses one from noticing the reality of compatibility for many people. Definitions of “compatible” that require people to hold views they do not, or that would require the other side to capitulate, are not the usual meaning of that word.

PZ Myers Wrote:

I’m sorry, Richard, but the atheists are your air force. We’re going forward with a bold new offense against the regressive forces that have kept this country locked in a stalemate — we are going to change the culture with an aggressive promotion of rational ideas and our ongoing opposition to religious superstition. We like your slow old boats and your foot soldiers, and think they have an effective, even essential, role to play, too — but we’re going to fly with your support or without it.

Hey, don’t forget us submariners who prefer surveillance and stealth. A well-placed torpedo can do a lot of good also.

One of the most overlooked aspects of this war is the load of misconceptions carried around by those who have tried to accommodate science to their religious dogma. Gaining a clear understanding of those misconceptions, why they were developed, and why they continue to resist change is extremely important to prying open the prejudices against the scientific community.

On the other side are the traditional misconceptions about religion. The historical relationships between science and religion are far more nuanced than our cultural war rhetoric can handle.

I think we also need to allow for the fact that humans live a finite, contingent lifetime under social and psychological pressures. Their cognitive dissonances over a socially ground-in religious dogma running up against the evidences of objective reality are not going to be worked out overnight, or even within some individual lifetimes.

If some scientists believe they have worked out some kind of accommodation with a religious perspective, I suspect that, as long as they demonstrate that they can handle the realities of science competently, we can trust them to work competently on their own puzzles about religion and help others to do the same. We don’t need to climb all over their backs.

Those pseudo-scientists who use propaganda and the powers of government to push their agenda are worth a well-placed torpedo.

As for those of us who are not religious or who are atheists, patience and stealth pays off as long as we are honestly attempting to educate people not only about science, but about the historical relationship between science and religion also. We can’t change the legacy history has given us, but we can choose our targets patiently and carefully.

“I was not giving lectures in Kansas because I was not asked.”

I’m sorry, PZ, but in this staunchly-Catholic part of Kansas the cracker stunt is your claim to fame. If you and Ken Miller were to give exactly the same presentation to the same group of people out here, do you honestly think those people (voters, who determine the composition of our state school board) would be more likely to accept the facts of science from you than from Ken Miller?

Us lowly foot soldiers likely have a better grasp of the local demographic terrain than the Airedales flying over at 600 mph.

Because, in other words, Miller would give them the latitude to ignore the uncomfortable facts. That’s fine; but someday, they have to face reality, and encouraging them to avoid it does us no favors in the long run.

Hey! I didn’t get asked either and I haven’t pulled any cracker stunts …

There is not an attempt to silence atheists going on. Atheist organizations are welcome to do what they do, similar to theist organizations being allowed to do what they do. The annoying part is when atheists claim that atheism is a necessary component of science, and that atheism is the only rational choice, when you can be rational, scientific, and theistic. For proof, I point to the likes of Descartes, Leibniz, Bacon, Kant, Newton, and Einstein. Darwin, when formulating the theory of evolution, was himself religious, though he became less so near the end of his life. Really, he’s a shining example of why science and religion have very little, philosophically speaking, to do with one another: His opinions on God didn’t change his theory, and the theory held up despite him having changing ideas on the nature of God.

I agree that it is important to criticize social institutions when they overstep their bounds: That is why I criticize atheist organizations as I also criticize theistic ones. This isn’t a political necessity. It’s a call for honesty and self critique. And, honestly, Atheists can not claim science all to themselves. Something that I did not think you were claiming until the end of this essay, where you claim “…we are going to change the culture with an aggressive promotion of rational ideas and our ongoing opposition to religious superstition”. The only reason religion is being commented upon by scientific organizations is because religious organizations have made silly claims with regards to evolution, and claimed that one has a binary choice. So, if we’re interested in science education, due to social norms, we’re forced to take a stand on the issue – to ignore large social criticisms such as this only enhances the “Ivory Tower” myth of educational institutions, and steeps a large percentage of the populace in ignorance. Here, you claim that atheists are the sole proprietors of reason, intellect, and truth, and that in order to win this war, one must approach it from both the scientific angle, and the atheist angle. That is simply not true. Rational theism exists. And, if we’re really interested in science education, and the promotion of scientific ideas only, then we should promote ideas that help people accept science, rather than fight both a metaphysical war as well as an epistemic one.

I don’t have to announce that the Book of Genesis is wrong and silly, but I also don’t have to go out of my way to tell them some pretty excuse to allow them to continue to believe in talking snakes. And if I’m asked, I tell them straightforwardly that literal religious accounts are falsified by the evidence.

This comes very close to my view on what the best ‘outreach strategy’ is. First, seperate the two overarching issues; the truth of evolution and the compatibility of evolution with religion x. On the first count, our response should be a firm and unequivocal ‘creationism is false. Period.’ No pandering here.

On the second count however, you surely want to blaze a trail between the outright dishonesty of ignoring compatability issues and the potentially alienating finality of ‘no, they are not compatible’. I would suggest that the best response here is ‘I do not believe that they are compatible, some people however do, and on this count debate is welcome’.

Or rather, I do not see why we must be as firm on the compatibility issue as we must be on the issue of creationism. The falsity of creationism is such that it warrants no debate; the compatibility or incompatability of religion and evolution is such that surely the best thing to encourage (and indeed, the best way to sawy minds either way) is healthy debate.

PZ Myers said:

Because, in other words, Miller would give them the latitude to ignore the uncomfortable facts. That’s fine; but someday, they have to face reality, and encouraging them to avoid it does us no favors in the long run.

I must confess that I find it hard to understand how barking contests and grandstanding stunts about on the intellectual level of strewing toilet paper over somebody’s front yard is going to encourage anyone to face facts. Whether the strategic goals are worthy or not is one question, but worthy or not they seemed to be coupled to tactical incompetence.

Y’know, the pity of it is that when you talk science you’re downright brilliant. The rest of it is just barking loud. I have not the slightest objection to barking if that’s what you wanna do, be my guest – but all I’m gonna hear is barking.

MrG http://www.vectorsite.net

PZ Myers said:

Because, in other words, Miller would give them the latitude to ignore the uncomfortable facts. That’s fine; but someday, they have to face reality, and encouraging them to avoid it does us no favors in the long run.

While I am very sympathetic to your concern, I don’t believe people can be pressed that “urgently”. They have to be willing to understand and accept science first. The rest takes time.

There will eventually be a stage in which they will have to think about these things and start working out the details individually. That’s where a lot of good learning can take place if people in the science community don’t alienate them or do things that reinforce the fears these folks were indoctrinated with as children.

In light of this post, I’ll revise my initial position and say that Richard’s final three paragraphs go too far in devaluing the contributions of PZ, Jerry, et al. to the cause. However, my objection to the initial straw man that the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE are promoting general compatibility between science and religion, as opposed to stating that acceptance of evolution need not conflict with religious belief, stands.

What should the NCSE’s position look like? “Stop bringing religion up altogether, and stick to the science” would mean no discussion of creationism, no defense against the anti-science faction’s claims. “Let godless voices join the chorus” would mean…I’m not sure, so I’ll ask, would it be sufficient to have a section reflecting the views of atheist scientists? More practically, perhaps, what would be the way that the NCSE could improve upon stating the facts about acceptance of evolution without appearing to dismiss the godless voices?

Jerry Coyne said:

Hey! I didn’t get asked either and I haven’t pulled any cracker stunts …

True … if it’s any consolation, I don’t have funding to bring *anyone* in so it’s rather a moot point.

Mark Parnell’s idea of separating into two strategies seems like what most science teachers I know put into practice in their classrooms. Teach evolution unequivocally, but refer the kids to their parents or priest or ministers or rabbis for the faith/science compatibility issues while noting that some sects do accept evolution in varying degrees.

I’ll respond to just a couple of points now – it’s a beautiful day outside and there’s a lot of Multiflora rosa to be hacked down. PZ wrote

Funny thing is, in those situations (as well as in the classroom) I just focus on telling the story of the evidence. That is our strength, right? I don’t have to announce that the Book of Genesis is wrong and silly, but I also don’t have to go out of my way to tell them some pretty excuse to allow them to continue to believe in talking snakes. And if I’m asked, I tell them straightforwardly that literal religious accounts are falsified by the evidence.

And I tell them precisely the same thing in precisely the same way. But that’s not what Coyne argued for. PZ wrote

Here’s our big problem: we have had no offense at all, and we’re never going to make any progress without one. Keeping the other team from scoring is important but doesn’t win us any games if we can never carry our arguments forward — we’re always being told to stop at the point where we are drawing the logical implications of science and evolution and told to back off…it might alienate the other team.

When the offensive players diss their teammates on the defensive side of the ball, as Coyne systematically did, it’s a sign of a dysfunctional team.

(Cross-posted on Pharyngula)

The unfortunate reality is that most non-fundamentalist religious people don’t care much about evolution. If you tell people like that they have to make a choice between believing in God and accepting evolution, they’ll choose what they care about. Many non-fundamentalists think they are required to make this choice. Maybe they hear anti-evolution statements from fellow church members. They certainly hear anti-God comments from people such as Dawkins. I grew up in a religious community. I went to college in a religious community. I taught high school biology in a religious community. If you teach people that religion and evolution can be compatible, they may start to accept evolution (as I did). If you tell people in these communities that they must choose between evolution and religion, they will choose religion every time. If your main goal is to preach atheism, this approach may be a good one. If your main goal is to get people to accept evolution, this approach sucks.

Jerry Coyne said:

Hey! I didn’t get asked either and I haven’t pulled any cracker stunts …

It’s easier to be polite in our disagreements with you, Professor Coyne. Incidentally, I must add that WHY EVOLUTION IS TRUE is first class.

MrG http://www.vectorsite.net

One more thing. :) PZ wrote

Whew. I’m lucky that he didn’t rail against the ethereal heights of Morris, Minnesota, and chose instead to sneer at a great university in a mere working class midwestern city. I might have felt picked upon. I’m also glad he chose not to hurl his contempt using that frequently vilified term, the “elites”, or I might have mistaken the Panda’s Thumb for World Net Daily for a moment. Isn’t it such an American thing, to treat all but the lowest, most local level of action as a liability? To scowl at intellectual expertise as if it were a scarlet letter marking the bearer as worthy of ostracism?

I didn’t scowl at “intellectual expertise.” Indeed, I explicitly said I use Coyne’s intellectual expertise when appropriate. What I scowled at is his political expertise. He presumed to advise an organization engaged in a political war, an organization headed by people with long experience in that war. There his credentials seem to me to be a whole lot weaker. To all appearances (i.e., his writing) he’s a layman in that domain and a relatively uninformed on at that, judging by the quality of his advice, and he deserves the scowls he gets.

Some atheists are like an air force–one that has this tendency to bomb allies and call it an offensive.

And I strongly think that our side must be much more aggressive about stating the evidence for evolution. Nor do I have any problem with any atheist publicly and forcefully advocating atheism. But I do have a problem with any implication that if one accepts evolutionary biology that one must become an atheist because 1) it is not true and 2) it accommodates the enemy: given that choice the vast majority of people will not choose atheism. Being the single most effective tool of the enemy’s recruitment and retention drives is hardly an offensive.

Furthermore it is not the job of the public schools to make atheists, fundamentalists, or anything of a religious or anti-religious nature. The First Amendment stops that cold. Evolution is not some strategy to make people atheists. Indeed if it was, it would become illegal to teach it in public schools just as much as creationism.

P.Z. should really consider that if it is okay to use the public schools to advocate atheism, then it is also okay for them to advocate theism and indeed fundamentalism. Which one is more likely? And lets not forget why we have a First Amendment if the first place: the realization that is neither right nor practical to use government power for the sake of attacking other people’s beliefs and it can be outright destructive. If one really believes something is true, then one should believe that it can survive in a First Amendment environment. To me a fundamentalist attacking secularism is inadvertently admitting a lack of faith in his own belief. Fundamentalism is going to be doomed not because some are going to become atheists, but because it is not compatible with an educated populace in a free society. The reason is not because the government is attacking fundamentalism, but because fundamentalism is false.

Likewise if one thinks that one can’t reconciling evolution and Christianity is unworkable, then they have nothing to lose from a First Amendment approach.

Finally, if your goal is to attack Christianity there are far more vulnerable spots than evolution. One can always shift one’s idea of God to accommodate anything. But nothing can make it “good news” that the vast majority of humans are destined to Hell (well unless one dismisses Hell which admits that Bible is wrong details of the afterlife). Nothing can justify that God somehow forgot to include “Though shalt not own slaves” if He was really interested in teaching us morality or even merely giving us good guideline in how to live. And so on and so forth.

We had a sidebar about this in the comment thread on RBH’s last Freshwater post. I think that the best way to get science out there is to stick to the science when presenting the science and find other outlets for atheism. I tend to agree with the view that we, the NCSE, the NAS, etc. ALL need to take a more aggressive approach to combatting fundamentalist misrepresentations of science. I don’t feel that NCSE, et al. have necessarily been “too” accomodating to religion, but a clear statement needs to be made that we have an extremely detailed knowledge of biology supported by a giant mountain of evidence and that it negates myths invoking the supernatural.

However, as a graduate of Jerry Coyne’s department, an atheist, and now located in a heavily fundamentalist region, I agree with RBH that there is a big difference in the way you approach educating people. At U. of Chicago, as one of Jerry’s TAs, I had students with the intellectual ability to understand what the science said and compartmentalize it even if they were brought up with religious views. In my current location, I step out of my research ivory tower one or two quarters a year to teach at the community college and it’s very different having to undo all the misinformation the kids have been raised with. Not to mention regular letters to the editor in the local paper, which I’ve shared here recently.

Keep in mind that people get religion once/week for all their lives. They get biology one semester or maybe one year out of that lifetime. It is awfully hard work to get through that wall of religion, especially if they’ve spent their whole lives listening to the American Taliban spewing all the usual creationist pseudo-science to them.

Lurker, note that PZ does not suggest using public schools to advocate theism or atheism. In public space he supports atheism as is his perfect right.

a lurker said:

P.Z. should really consider that if it is okay to use the public schools to advocate atheism, then it is also okay for them to advocate theism and indeed fundamentalism.

Uhh, where did PZ talk about public schools “advocating atheism” in public schools? Rather, he’s argued that wherever evolution has been presented in the public forum, the presentation should start by being totally delinked from religion. I’ll infer that he would have it totally delinked from atheism too.

If people then bring up the compatibility issue, you explain that as it comes. Admittedly, given the state of American public schools, teachers will probably have to do “trimming” more than others. But, shouldn’t we be pushing for a public school environment where teachers have to do less of that “trimming”?

PZ Myers said:

Because, in other words, Miller would give them the latitude to ignore the uncomfortable facts. That’s fine; but someday, they have to face reality, and encouraging them to avoid it does us no favors in the long run.

That is not what he said.

Yes the reality of evolution can be uncomfortable for many peoples’ ideas of God. But in the end the NCSE deals with public education policy which is bound by a Constitution. While schools can factually say what option various people have proposed for their discomfort, they are not in the business of resolving it one way or the other (or for that matter even deciding if they should feel discomfort).

Some people seem to be incapable of grasping something both Coyne and I have said.

We are not lobbying for the NCSE to be a militantly atheist organization. I’d even agree that maintaining a careful neutrality is the best and most politically pragmatic approach for them to take.

The problem is that they aren’t neutral. They promote a moderate religion. We’re saying they SHOULD be neutral, and stop that.

I would just point out that what the creationist fanatics want more than anything is a raw, bleeding, raging full-scale culture war.

They want you to stop playing defense.

An atheistic Shock and Awe campaign will be like manna from heaven for religious fundamentalists. It will be like a sign from God. End times!

These people feed on the ideology of victimization. They want to be attacked by atheists. They want to be the victims of “scientific materialism” and “methodological naturalism”. If they are the victims of a full-scale offensive assault at the level of deep culture and heritage, it justifies the entire dopey narrative of their “way of life” being under attack. You will only feed the beast.

Let the enemy come to you. Why? BECAUSE IT’S WORKING. The OP made this very point by acknowledging the NCSE’s overwhelming success with legal precedent in critical court cases. If “unreligion” is what you’re after, then you must take pause for a moment and consider whether it’s really true that “creationists are not in decline”. I recall very recent news stories discussing how the trend in America is AWAY from religion, with more people than ever before describing themselves as atheists or agnostics.

This requires patience. You can’t flush out all the old fundamentalist blood in one or two generations, but the culture IS changing. Certainly not fast enough for the most stridently anti-religious, sure, but definitely changing. Remember, the WWII baby-boomers are now retiring, and will soon be dying off left and right. It may sound crass, but I believe it’s true that this generation of baby-boomers formed the backbone of the muddled religious ultra-nationalist mindset that has been so problematic with the constant attempts to rewrite the founding of America as a Christian enterprise, thereby generating all these ridiculous attempts at subverting church-state separation. Well, these people are gonna start passing on, but that old religious money is still going to float around for a while. Be patient. The culture is evolving.

If you fight this battle on the foundation of political, historical, and legal precedent…you win. You HAVE been winning! The reason why it makes sense to fight “defensively”, from the standpoint of science, is because you happen to be defending things that are true, defensible, falsifiable, reasonable. The more the enemy oversteps and attacks in the political and legal arena, the more ridiculous, unreasonable, and fanatical your enemy appears in the historical and legal record. Witness Don McLeroy down in Texas. No one had to attack McLeroy on his own cultural or religious terms to create a public embarrassment. He did that all by himself, by swimming out of his depth, all on his own. And a permanent public record enshrines his buffoonery for all time.

Defend science, by doing science, and teaching it. Don’t try to “transform the culture”! Don’t be a Culture Warrior. Leave that to Bill O’Reilly.

The OP wrote this:

“We’re going forward with a bold new offense against the regressive forces that have kept this country locked in a stalemate — we are going to change the culture with an aggressive promotion of rational ideas and our ongoing opposition to religious superstition.”

You know what that reminds me of? The Discovery Institute. That quote sounds like it could have been pulled from an atheist revision of the Wedge Document. Sorry. But the polemic of “cultural transformation” is unhelpful.

PZ Meyers -

By the way, I am an apatheist with no interest in any religion whatsoever.

Essentially, as far as I can tell, you implicitly claim to read the minds of those who accept science, yet also have a religious belief, and declare that their beliefs are “incompatible”.

It’s not convincing. Why should I listen to you about whether Ken Miller’s religion is “compatible” with science? I can just ask him.

All I can see is that he subscribes to some religious views that I don’t follow but certainly can’t disprove, and accepts the same science I do.

Furthermore, it isn’t my business, nor yours, either, whether his private religion is or is not compatible with science.

You are protected from creationism in schools because the constitution protects your freedom of conscience - the government can’t favor one sect.

You are protected from superstitious bullshit being presented as serious science, not by law, but because science is a defined and cooperative human activity, and all those who do it or support it agree that it is based on testable claims and reproducible testing. You, me, Ken Miller, Francis Collins, and Richard Dawkins all agree on this.

You have NO protection whatsoever against somebody else having a different religious idea than you do, and you don’t deserve any.

If you really want to go to a place where people are forced to say that they are atheists, which of course you don’t, you can go to North Korea.

In free countries, people can hold any religious belief they want, and say for themselves whether or not said belief “conflicts with science”.

You do have the right to promote your own views, and to argue against, or even scorn, ridicule, denigrate, and indeed, even, to a large degree, lie about, the religious beliefs of others. That is your right and I strongly support that right. But you only have it because Ken Miller has the exact same right.

That’s how it works. If you want to CHOOSE to be an atheist, rather than be one because Kim Jong Il says that you have to, then you have to respect the rights of others to CHOOSE their own path.

Pete Dunkelberg said:

Lurker, note that PZ does not suggest using public schools to advocate theism or atheism. In public space he supports atheism as is his perfect right.

Yes it perfect right advocate atheism public space. And I would not ask (or that matter want) him to stop.

But if one does not want to use education policy for atheism then why attack the NCSE, etc. in the context public education policy for pointing out that people can and do accept evolution and religion? The NCSE is 100% right to do do. And yet P.Z. and Dawkins attack on that very point. And indeed more than imply dishonesty on the part of the NCSE for that stance.

Whether or not one should accept the option of reconciling religion and evolution is beyond the scope of public education policy. Indeed the NCSE as a whole (as opposed to any particular member) does not to my knowledge actually advocate that accepting both God and evolution is the correct option. (Indeed it would be dishonest to do so as there are atheists in the NCSE including Dr. Scott.)

It is not “accommodation” in the context of public education policy to state that people can reconcile God and evolution, it is factual. Now whether that reconciliation is successful is an argument for the public space (and not for biology teachers while teaching biology).

And even outside the context of public education policy and merely from the point of view of being a cultural warrior, not only is factually incorrect to state that people can’t be both religious and accept modern evolutionary biology, but it is very bad strategy. Any sort of “either/or” strategy will effectively keep the vast majority of people in the anti-evolution camp. The creationists know this and exploit it. It also makes it much harder for teachers from teaching evolution. Again the creationists will exploit this. In the end this strategy will simply mean more anti-evolution among the public. That is not what we want.

And frankly, I would prefer someone to be on my side about evolutionary biology even if they disagree with me about what happens after we die.

PZ Myers said: The problem is that they [NCSE] aren’t neutral. They promote a moderate religion. We’re saying they SHOULD be neutral, and stop that.

I don’t see the job of the NCSE as promoting religion moderate or otherwise. Nor do I think they are doing so.

It is factual to state that people do reconcile God and evolution. And it makes it easier for some people to accept evolution.

To teach the facts about evolution is not an attack on God. That some people will reject God because of it is not the concern of education policy in a free and secular nation. Likewise to mention that people don’t have to reject God to accept evolution is not an attack on atheism. That some people will fail to become atheists because this option exists is not the concern of educational policy in a free and secular nation. It is the concern of educational policy to teach biology. (It is also the concern of educational policy to teach the various subjected traditionally included in “social studies” and that so many people can be so utterly unaware that most Christian branches are willing accept evolution is a failure on that subject regardless to one thinks one should attempt to reconcile God and evolution.)

And from the context of culture wars (as opposed to secular education policy) it is far more important that people accept common descent than they agree with me that our awareness ends with death. If pointing out fact that they can accept one without the other moves them on that point, so much the better and we will agree to disagree on Sunday morning.

The NCSE is not advocating religion. It is giving people their options. What they do with their options is their own concern. But if truthfully giving people their options helps take down an obstacle for teaching evolution then I am all for it. I am not advocating anyone pretend not to be an atheist or fail to advocate atheism in the public space if they are so inclined, nor do I think that the NCSE (led by a forthright atheist) has advocated any such pretending.

PZ Myers Wrote:

Get used to it. Of course, we’d be even more effective if we coordinated, rather than that you constantly refused to take advantage of our potential.

While I agree more with Richard than you on this topic, I absolutely agree that we all need to both coordinate efforts and go on offense. But every time we tangent onto religion and/or “ultimate causes” we let the scam artists control the terms of the debate. That’s neither offense nor defense, but handing the enemy the weapon. My recommendation - inspired by several Eugenie Scott articles - is that we concentrate on the “what happened when” and get YECs, OECs and IDers to either debate their differences or (more likely these days) show how they evade questions and have nothing to offer science but misrepresentation.

I’m not saying to stop the religious/philosophical/political debates, or the debates about scientific details, but we have been rather lax at informing the public that those debates are healthy, and in no way suggest a “weakness” of evolution. In fact they are a strength, whereas the anti-evolution activists increasing cover-up of their own fatal internal differences (not to mention that none of their positions match the evidence) is the real weakness.

PZ Myers said: We are not lobbying for the NCSE to be a militantly atheist organization. I’d even agree that maintaining a careful neutrality is the best and most politically pragmatic approach for them to take.

The problem is that they aren’t neutral. They promote a moderate religion. We’re saying they SHOULD be neutral, and stop that.

http://ncseweb.org/about/faq

What is NCSE’s religious position?

None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

——————————-

So, let’s be blunt.

Is NCSE lying?

Because, call me crazy, what I just read on their site seems to be an extremely careful, thoughtful, neutral, “politically pragmatic” position statement.

PZ Myers keeps thinking that if he only pushes his narrow and limited view of religious people harder, it will make the world as simple and black-and-white as he wants it to be. There are plenty of religious people out here, and I am one of them, who have applauded and supported his efforts to get scientific truth heard above the lies of the creationists. But Myers would rather kick us in the teeth and call us enemies so that he doesn’t have to acknowledge that religious believers can be more than shallow cartoons.

I’m sure that Myers has encountered religious bigots in the past. I’m sure he’s encountered Christians, for instance, who said “well, hey, you’re feeding the hungry, and you’re clothing the poor, and you’re tending to the sick, and you’re doing exactly what Christ said was the commandment above all others, which is loving your neighbor as yourself – but because you don’t identify yourself as a Christian, you are an enemy.”

Myers seems determined to make sure that atheists do no better. “You may think that those religious who understand evolution, who study it and advance its frontiers, who support its teaching in our schools and oppose the attempts of creationists to interfere with that teaching of the best science, you may think they’re allies – but because they don’t identify as atheists, they are enemies.”

Thank God (and take that phrase in any sense you like) that there are those like Richard Hoppe, who can hold their own beliefs without becoming bigoted against those whose beliefs are different. Give me a “foot soldier” who lacks “vision” any day, if that “vision” is the disgusting old anthem of “If they’re different from us, we must destroy them!”

Yes, the NCSE is lying.

They [i]say[/i] they are religiously neutral, but as Jerry Coyne has shown, the only view on religion that is promoted is one of compatibility. I go by what they do more than by what they say they do.

As for “This whole thing is sickening and disgusting”, you couldn’t be more wrong, and clearly you haven’t read what I’ve written. I have specifically said that the theistic compatibilitist view can be represented, as long as it isn’t the only view represented, but that I’d prefer that organizations like the NCSE took NO position on any variant of religion or atheism. Right now, it is effectively endorsing one particular version of religion.

Nowhere have I called non-atheists “enemies”. I will call you a moron, however.

I think that Larry Moran, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett are more representative of what evolutionary biology is all about. I support PZ and Jerry Coyne’s call for greater representation of their views.

Personally, I’m delighted to refer people interested in learning what evolutionary biology is about to the Pharyngula website and Richard Dawkins.net.

PZ Myers absolutely rocks as an ambassador for evolutionary biology (even though he’s a develomental biologist).

The NCSE should have more of Richard Dawkins and Abbie Smith and less of Ken Miller.

By the way, no word from Nick Matzke?

PZ wrote:

Yes, the NCSE is lying

What? Say it ain’t so…

Russ, I have no objection whatsoever to changing what the NCSE says about religion. You may be right, although I do think you are being a little hard on them. Consider - they’re up to their arse in alligators, (crocodiles to us) while being told that they have to drain the swamp. Nevertheless, I agree, they should not make the argument from NOMA, and P Z Myers’ objection that they only mention (non-literalist, mainstream) religion in a positive way is sound enough.

But I think his first position, that they say nothing about religion at all, is mistaken. The matter has to be addressed. Religion is the elephant in the room. There is simply no way to ignore it, not when NCSE’s main work is countering creationism, which is invariably religious in nature. So where does that leave us?

I can’t blame them for saying that the mainstream Christian denominations, at least, plus most Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Pagans, don’t have any problem with evolution. But leave it at that - simple, short and punchy, no essays, and no theology. Link to the Clergy letter, but off-site, and the Talk Origins archive, especially the Index of Creationist claims. Add to that, (to accommodate P Z Myers’ demand that godless voices join the chorus) a statement that science does not and cannot endorse any religious belief, and the reader must make up their own mind. Now here is the evidence.

I don’t know. I want the truth told, and I know that telling only part of it is another way of lying. So I’d say that much, let the science speak for itself for the rest, and let the chips fall as they may.

But I sympathise with the NCSE, and the other organisations slogging it out with the whackaloons, and I have no confidence in P Z Myers’ metaphor of the atheists being the airforce. Or maybe I have, at that. Firepower they got, but sometimes they hit the wrong target.

Hello again, Sal. Now that you’re back here trying to put the Wedge Document into practice, are you going to apologize for trying to equate my arguments with the (alleged) surgical mutilation of innocent children? And while you’re at it, why don’t you tell us why we should consider your word credible, after you’ve been so flatly and repeatedly proven to be a liar, both here and on Ed Brayton’s forum?

BTW, just to give credit where credit is due, I’d like to thank Sal “Wormtongue” Cordova for proving a longstanding point of mine, which is that in any polarized political debate, the most extreme factions, who pretend to be each other’s most deadly enemies, almost always end up making common cause against the sensible and responsible moderate majority. The German Communists and Nazis ganged up on the Social Democrats, the Taliban and Christian Right are ganging up on freedom-loving people everywhere, and now Sal Cordova and PZ Meyers are following in that hallowed tradition of cynical shortsighted destructiveness.

tomh said:

Dale Husband said:

Look at how many people, including John Kwok, have been banned from that blog merely for disagreeing with Myers about certain issues not even relating to evolution or science:

How adorable, a Kwok defender. And, just like Kwok, a blatant liar.

No, I am NOT a “Kwok defender” (he and I have clashed on politics and perhaps will again), just pointing out the obvious, that there is a world of difference between John Kwok and some of the anti-evolutionist looneys that should be (or have been) banned from both PZ’s blog and the Panda’s Thumb.

What did I lie about? Did you even follow the link I posted?

What you lied about was your claim that Kwok was banned for disagreeing with me. Considering the number of disagreeable people who remain on the site, that is patently false. He was banned for being flaming insane.

Dale Husband wrote: What did I lie about?

This: “John Kwok, … banned from that blog merely for disagreeing with Myers about certain issues not even relating to evolution or science:”

That is not why Kwok was banned. People are not banned for disagreeing with Myers about anything, people disagree with him every day about all sorts of things.

there is a world of difference between John Kwok and some of the anti-evolutionist looneys that should be (or have been) banned from both PZ’s blog and the Panda’s Thumb.

Why should anti-evolutionists be banned? Even if you call them loonies? If that were the criteria it would make for a very boring blog.

Dave, this has actually had a fairly happy ending, even though some people are still getting upset. You and I are not too far apart, I think. If you’re going to be in Adelaide in early June, as I’ll be, we can reminisce about this episode over a glass of beer.

PZ Myers said:

What you lied about was your claim that Kwok was banned for disagreeing with me. Considering the number of disagreeable people who remain on the site, that is patently false. He was banned for being flaming insane.

I’ve dealt with people that I thought were flaming insane and Kwok never came across that way. I guess one person’s insanity is another’s oddity. Perhaps some think I’m insane too, who can tell?

Are you going to start dunning me with demands for a new camera, too?

PZ Myers said:

Are you going to start dunning me with demands for a new camera, too?

No. What an odd question. Or were you addressing me?

PZ Myers said:

Are you going to start dunning me with demands for a new camera, too?

No. What an odd question. Or were you addressing me?

You said Kwok never came across as insane. You do realize what Kwok was doing before he was banned, don’t you? He was sending me all kinds of lunatic demands, including threats of legal action if I didn’t buy him an expensive camera.

Maybe you shouldn’t be making assertions about why he was banned if you don’t know anything about the situation.

Oh, I see. Kwok never mentioned the camera issue to me, P Z. He did slam you quite a bit in Facebook, and I had the impression it was all about politics. And getting a new camera has nothing do with being banned from a blog. My apologies for getting the wrong impression.

Dale Husband said:

Oh, I see. Kwok never mentioned the camera issue to me, P Z. He did slam you quite a bit in Facebook, and I had the impression it was all about politics. And getting a new camera has nothing do with being banned from a blog. My apologies for getting the wrong impression.

Kwok says the camera issue was meant as a joke to annoy PZ and didn’t expect it to be taken so seriously.

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This page contains a single entry by PZ Myers published on April 26, 2009 1:48 PM.

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