Foot soldiers who lack vision

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.