Chris Mooney Asks a Hard Question

Chris Mooney was at the AAAS meeting in Washington and he attended the session on Re-Envisioning the Science and Religion Dialogue. Most of you are familiar with what went on at that session—a bunch of religious people declared that science and religion are perfectly compatible.1

Chris wrote up something on his blog ... [Science and Religion Dialogue at the AAAS].
At the close of the session, I rose and posed a question. One can never remember exact words, but in essence, it was this: “I’m glad you’re trying to foster dialogue between scientists and the religious community, and I’m sure you’ll succeed. But here is a harder question–how will you foster dialogue with the New Atheists?”
I can understand why Chris wants to know the answer to this question. After several years of trying to have an intelligent discussion with New Atheists he is no closer to succeeding than when he first started. It's a tough problem for him.

Allow me to suggest an answer. The first thing you have to realize is that atheists do not accept the premise that supernatural beings actually exist. You aren't going to get anywhere in a discussion with an atheist if you base your arguments on that premise.

Let's say you're a religious person—like those on the panel—and you want to have a productive dialogue with an atheist about whether science and religion are compatible. The first thing you do is admit up front that most religions have beliefs that are in direct conflict with science. The second thing you do is either admit that you hold those beliefs, and therefore your religion is in conflict with science, or that you disavow all those beliefs, in which case your version of non-conflicting religion that's left needs to be explained.

At that point you can have a dialogue by describing your remaining religious beliefs and explaining why they don't conflict with science.

William Phillips, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, answered the question.
Phillips, the Methodist Nobel Laureate, had a very interesting answer. He essentially replied that if the New Atheists would get to know serious religious people–people who do not in any way represent the parody version of religion that is so frequently attacked–they could no longer maintain their point of view.
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Nonsense. That's extremely insulting and it's no way to have a dialogue with people who disagree with you. I know lots of serious religious people and I've read lots of books and articles by "serious" religious people like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Keith Ward, and Alister McGrath. I've also read a great deal of literature by accommodationsts (atheists) like Michael Ruse and Eugenie Scott. My point of view remains the same: aside from strict deism, all other religious viewpoints conflict with science.

My question to William Phillips would be based on his description of himself as a Methodist. What are the basic tenets of Methodism that you subscribe to and how are they compatible with science as a way of knowing? We could then have a productive dialogue.

Mooney continues ...
I’m not so sure, though. I think the New Atheists have a ready and built-in answer to this appeal to the significance of so-called “religious moderates.” They claim–in an argument that I for one find weak–that the moderates enable extremists, and so are part of the problem. (Even, I suppose, if they are perfectly lovely human beings.)
I can see why Chris Mooney is having so much difficulty engaging in productive dialogue with atheists. It's because he doesn't listen.

I'm perfectly happy to discuss the compatibility of science and religion with any religious moderate. All I ask is that they stop pointing the finger at Christian fundamentalists and start describing what they, themselves, actually believe. They may have fooled Chris Mooney by employing this diversionary tactic but they don't fool most other atheists.
Still, surely the New Atheists must on some level recognize the critical importance religion plays in many people’s lives–which implies that we can hardly expect believers to discard their faith based on philosophical considerations, no matter how persuasive these may seem to many secularists or scientists.
What nonsense! People believe all kinds of things that play an important role in their lives. If those beliefs provide them with a great deal of comfort then, of course, they are going to be reluctant to abandon them. What does that prove?

It proves that we have a lot of work to do if we want people to abandon superstition and base their lives on evidence, rationality, and skepticism. That applies to homeopathy, astrology, the belief that climate change isn't happening, and the belief that universal health care is a communist plot. Would Chris prefer that we simply abandon those efforts because it's going to be difficult?2

I, for one, do expect societies to abandon religion in spite of the fact that many individuals will find this extremely difficult. It's working in Europe and in other nations throughout the world. Chris' point, I think, is that we should avoid talking about the possible conflict between science and religion because it makes religious people very nervous. Since religion plays such an important role in their lives, we should tip-toe around the topic and pretend that science and religion aren't in conflict, especially with "religious moderates." This is no way to have a productive dialogue. It's the exact opposite of a productive dialogue.

1. Imagine that!

2. The conservative mindset is extremely important in the lives of many Americans. Would Chris avoid criticizing Republicans because it might hurt their feelings? Or is it because he isn't likely to change their minds?
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