Chris Mooney: New Atheists’ attack on religion is counter-productive

November 16, 2009 | By | 20 Replies More

Chris Mooney is the author of The Republican War on Science, Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum). He is also an atheist who, for years, has engaged with believers on the validity of religious claims. He strongly believes that those who respect the scientific method should question religious claims.

In this interview with D.J. Grothe at Point of Inquiry, however, Mooney takes on the New Atheists (starting here at about the 10:30 minute mark).  Instead of attacking religions, Mooney advocates that we should promote scientific literacy.   Yes, we should refute the baseless claims of fundamentalists, but it is equally critical to “mobilize the religious moderates,” and not alienate them by attacking all religions.

Mooney argues that the New Atheists have painted with much too broad a brush, and that they have used an aggressive tone that achieves “nothing at all.”   He points to P.Z. Myers as being one of the most prominent culprits.


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Category: Religion, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (20)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Down here in the South, We have this saying:

    "You will always catch more flies with with molasses than you will with vinegar."

  2. Ben says:

    From a blog called "Why Evolution is True":

    The dominant strategy of scientific organizations engaged in fighting creationism over the past twenty-five years has been accommodationism: coddling or refusing to criticize religious people for fear of alienating those of the faithful who support evolution. This has been combined with incessant claims that science and religion are perfectly compatible. *This strategy has not worked.*

    So I will say this to Mooney and Kirshenbaum one last time, without hope that they’ll absorb it or even respond to it: the strategy you suggest has not worked. We’ve been making nice with religion for decades, and America remains as “unscientific” as ever. We don’t just perceive religion as the root of the problem, it IS the root of the problem. Even you, Mooney and Kirshenbaum, must admit that. And many of us feel that Americans won’t begin to accept evolution — or indeed, become more rational about many scientific issues, including stem-cell research and global warming — until they abandon the anti-rational habits of religion. The “new atheists” are against religion because it is inimical to rational thought.

  3. Ben says:

    Jason Rosenhouse: "You can not consistently argue that one side hurts the cause every time they open their mouths, but then object that you are not telling them to keep quiet."

  4. Ben says:

    Jason Rosenhouse responds:

    The problem is that while religious outreach is important, it is doomed to failure as a comprehensive strategy. It is completely unremarkable that so many people think evolution renders Christian belief unreasonable. There is a reason so many highly educated people must write at book length just to show that major Christian claims about the world (that humans hold a privileged place in creation; that the world is superintended by a God who is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful; that the Bible is inerrant and sacred) are not quite impossible in the light of evolution.

    By all means tell people about how four billion years of savage, cruel and wasteful evolution by bloodsport was a logical necessity for God to achieve his goals, or that the prevalence of evolutionary convergence somehow makes it likely that human-like intelligence was inevitable, thereby preserving a privileged role for humans in God's plan. Tell them they don't need the argument from design to maintain a rational belief in God and that they need a team of scientists and literary theorists to tell them what the Bible means.

    Yes, go sell that message. Just don't be surprised when you find few buyers, and don't blame Richard Dawkins for your lack of success.

  5. Ben says:

    Pharyngula responds:

    If you want to improve American science and the perception of science by the public, teach science first and foremost, because what you'll find is that your discipline is then populated with people who are there because they love the ideas. And, by the way, let them know every step of the way that science is also a performing art, and that they have an obligation as a public intellectual to take their hard-earned learning and share it with the world.

    The essence of what Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend in their book is that science must cut off its own balls, science must wear her corset cinched tight, science must not dissent from the masses, science must be obliging and polite, because that is the only way the public will accept it.

    I rudely disagree.

    There is nothing condescending about appreciating that almost every human being, even the most god-soaked, has a functional mind and that maybe they can actually learn about science and a scientific way of thinking that makes their myths untenable. There is nothing condescending about being uncompromising in our expectations and trusting that others can hear and think and express their own ideas. There is something deeply condescending about setting aside a big chunk of people's experience and telling people that they should not question it.

  6. Ben says:

    The majority of Mooney and Kirshenbaum's assertions are not at all convincing when held up to the light of history.

    For example, lets substitute "atheists" with "gays" (or "blacks" or "women").

    Are outspoken gays (or blacks, ie. Rosa Parks, or women such as Susan B. Anthony) hindering the cause of equal rights when they condemn religious dogma? History says NO!

  7. The issue if over how the fight will proceed. All appeasement is aimed at allowing both sides to play with their own toys while leaving each other alone. Not until it becomes clear that one side will not accept that the other has a right to play with their toys does the necessity of aggressive engagement become even clearer. But fighting ultimately becomes only about itself and not about the toys. It's a fearful thing, because in pitched battle, ideological purity tends to overwhelm truth, and those of us who embrace and defend science know we could lose all the virtues of that worldview once we become militant about it. As individuals, we can go forth and do battle and maybe do no harm, but if it becomes a group issue, we risk becoming Just Like Them.

    Proceed with caution.

  8. Ebonmuse says:

    The crucial question that Mooney, to my knowledge, has always dodged is this: What do I do if I'm an atheist who genuinely does believe that religion and science are incompatible? Should I lie? Or should I just keep quiet for the sake of political expediency?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse. I admit that I embrace this assumption: Anything that one believes can be said and should be said. In my experience, though, discussing controversial topics rudely, crassly, arrogantly, or condescendingly polarizes people and they become fossilized cartoons of themselves throughout those conversations. Therefore, I believe that we would be much better off as a society to the extent that we speak with respect for the people we disagree with, even if we think that their beliefs are ridiculous. How might that work in principle? It has to do with tone. I admire your writings at Daylight Atheism because you take the time to communicate without unnecessary jabs and swipes. You don't call believers "stupid," for instance (well, except in places like this, where you were chastising the religious belief that doctors shouldn't wash up before surgery). On the other hand, you never hold back what you want to say (or, at least, that's what it seems like).

      Tone is everything. With the right tone exhibited by both sides, I can communicate ideas with the most rabid fundamentalist (though I often run out of patience and I don't stick around forever). But I'm working hard to not lash out, because, frankly, when there's more heat than light nothing gets done. In fact, it's worse than nothing. As I suggested above, it polarizes people who disagree. And here's another of my assumptions — even people who have big disagreements mostly disagree with each other about most things. That situation means that we are loaded with potential for connection. I also believe that, in the end, truth tends to win out. If I can only keep from looking like the Devil to fundamentalists, I can plant a couple seeds for thought (I'm sure that they are doing the same). Maybe at night, a question I raised, or a gentle challenge that they need to re-examine some of their beliefs (e.g., the alleged words of the Bible and that it would be worthwhile to consider what we really know about how it was written and assembled) will modify their outlook, even if just a LITTLE bit. I've had such conversations with people with whom I disagree. I know that it's happened many dozens of times, that gentle suggestions DO make people think a bit. Conversations where I do exhibit the necessary patience (I don't always) do result in planted seeds–during subsequent conversations I often do hear someone sound a little less sure of themselves. Not that this always happen . . . On the other hand, lashing out rarely leads to anyone being willing to entertain the their opponents' views. When someone gets in MY face, I tend to write them off as bullies and ignoramuses. But sometimes, even bullies and ignoramuses say things that are true. And sometimes, people I highly respect will say things that I no longer buy.

      Over the years, I've gently yet firmly told hundreds of believers (dozens who have come to my door) that I don't believe that Jesus walked on water and I don't believe dead people spring alive again and I don't believe that there is any sentient existence for anyone after death. I try carefully to look people in the eye when I say these things, and I start by saying "This is what I believe." I tell them that I base my conclusions on my own observations. I try hard not to get condescending. I try hard to restate their positions so that they understand that I have actually been listening to them. I sense (maybe this is wishful thinking) that many of these people over the years come away from these conversations a little bit different; I hope that their a little bit more open, such that they will sometimes here a skeptical voice in their heads when their preacher fills their heads with unsubstantiated "facts."

      So, no, I don't believe that one must lie or keep quiet (though there are delicate social situations where one might want to deflect issues, delay them for a later time). The idea is to avoid volatile situations, so that I can deal with people one on one, away from the group dynamics (and the craziness) exhibited by crowds.

      I don't believe in a sentient God. Everyone I know who is a believer knows that, because I've never hid it, and I often inject the issue gently into conversations. I seek incremental change. I seek tiny cracks in the fortress wall into which the water of skeptical inquiry can seep. I don't seek agon; I don't relish "winning" any argument; whenever I score points (touche!) I sense resentment and the closing of a mind. That means that I won the battle but lost the war.

      As far as the techniques that seem to don't work, I highly recommend that all of us look to the communication techniques employed by those who save the most intimate, intertwined working relationships on the planet: marriages. Here's a related post I wrote regarding the "four horsemen" about which counselor John Gottman warns us.

      You can probably see why I found Mooney's interview interesting. I want long-term change, not just strife. And I'm not suggesting that there isn't SOMETIMES an understandable moment for pointed debate. I think of the New Atheists as our early Malcolm X moment. But now it's time to move to the next stage, where we make our case as atheists that it is bigotry to exclude us from society and accuse us of being immoral when the accusers don't know the first thing about us. I applauded Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins for establishing the beachhead. I think modified tactics are now in order, however, and that we need to recognize that many religious moderate are almost entirely our allies in most of the things that we are trying to accomplish in society. I agree with Mooney that we should take care to not push away our potential allies just when we are making so much progress.

      Again, no need to lie or keep quiet. We can state our positions factually and even with emotion. If we really want to see social change, though, we need to take extra time and care to present ourselves as approachable and decent people with whom we have, yes, some disagreements, but also much in common.

  9. Erich,

    All that you say is true and useful.


    Rude for rude, what is the difference between someone saying to you "If you don't accept this, you'll go to hell" and my making an observation about, say, transubstantiation to the effect "That's bullshit."?

    We attack their bad ideas on the merits of the badness of their ideas. They attack us not on our ideas but on our innate lack of so-called faith, that it is not our ideas so much as our willful rejection of god that is the problem. In short, we are flawed people who need fixing. To us, there is nothing wrong with them, only their ideas.

    That's why the debate becomes so difficult, because while we're politely and respectfully listening to what they're saying in order to understand and analyze the errors in the notions, they aren't listening to what we're saying at all, only that we aren't saying what they think we should be saying. They aren't trying to take apart our ideas (which is why they mischaracterize them so much), they're trying to take US apart. So they can "heal" us and "save" us.

    Rude? In one of my earlier posts I pointed out the fundamental insult proselytes of religions bring to your door when they do this. It's basic.

    I recognize that we rationalists may hold the same opinion of them, but then we don't knock on their door to drag them out and confront their own stupidity. We wait till they shove it in our face.

    By which time, it's quite clear that detente is not on the table.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: I'm not proposing detente. Far from it. I'm proposing sneaky one-on-one insurgency, in the wake of the beachheads of public discourse established by the New Atheists. I believe in quietly working to dismantle defenses to skeptical inquiry and free thought. This would be impossible with heated debate. Detente suggests that we live and let live, without any further plan for movement. I believe in a political movement to address the bigotry aimed at those who don't believe in sentient gods. And thankfully, that is the trend. Further, "no religion" is the fastest growing religious group. I suppose I believe in "detente" in one sense: If someone wants to believe in supernatural beings privately or in their own social circle, have at it. But keep it entirely out of my government.

      BTW – I'm not trying to be completely Machiavellian. I do try to remain open to the ideas of people with whom I disagree. That's part of the deal. But I believe that my ideas will win out over ideas such the belief that a virgin had a baby. So far, so good.

  10. Ben says:

    Erich, I'm having a hard time distinguishing your views from those of the dreaded New Atheists…

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ben – My focus is on tone, rather than content. I'm advocating that we convey our information and arguments unapologetically but without the condescension you can see on many atheist websites.

      It boils down to this for me. Theists are making an alternate use of language. Yes, we CAN use language to make claims that we believe to be literally true. But we can also use language to send and receive affirmations of group loyalty. The things believers claim can be important without being literally true. They are often using their claims in public in order to accomplish social navigation (finding people they can trust), even when they claim that they are stating literal truths. The biggest elephant in the room is that most cognition is subconscious and driven by emotions, so we need to look beyond the surface claims to see what's going on. This is my assumption, based on many things that I have written about (but that I am still considering). I can respect their need to socially navigate–it's critically important to all of us. I also suspect that most believers have massive doubts about the supernatural claims they often assert–in fact, that's exactly why they make these claims, because they are (see Zahavi) expensive and therefore reliable signals of group loyalty.

      I'm suggesting that we do what we can (though there are limits) to not stomp on the deep-seated social needs of believers, while nonetheless letting them know that we don't buy their supernatural claims.

      I have much in common with the New Atheists, including their respect for the scientific method and their distrust of supernatural claims. I do think have some differences too, most of those having to do with how we should proceed as non-believers. What should our goal be? My goal is not to stamp out religion. I don't believe that it can be done. Trying to rid society of religion ramps up animosity and brings society to a bitter impasse. Rather, I'd like to see organized religion fade in political and social importance, as it has in Scandinavia. I believe that this can be accomplished through gentle prodding along the lines I have suggested. I also differ with the New Atheists in that I suspect that religion could be an adaptation (along the lines suggested by David Sloan Wilson). Much more research is necessary before drawing firm conclusions, however. Yet it seems as though most of the New Atheists (Daniel Dennett not included) have written off religion as an abject social dysfunction.

      See also Tinbergen's analysis of the various forms of "why" questions. I agree entirely with Daniel Dennett that we need to put religion under the scientific microscope. If we're going to really understand religion, we need to do a thorough job that we haven't yet done. In fact, as Dennett suggests, we're just getting started.

      In the meantime, I'm advocating that we bring down the "temperature" of the religion-science debate, because we can't afford to ostracize the many religious moderates with whom we have most things in common, who are mostly good and decent people, and who we need to work with on political matters in order to get important things done.

  11. Ben says:

    As I suspected, your idea of what New Atheism differs from mine.

    "My goal is not to stamp out religion. I don’t believe that it can be done. Trying to rid society of religion ramps up animosity and brings society to a bitter impasse. Rather, I’d like to see organized religion fade in political and social importance, as it has in Scandinavia."

    As far as I know, these are some of the foundations of New Atheism — which you have listed under "differences".

    "because we can’t afford to ostracize the many religious moderates with whom we have most things in common"

    On the contrary, these people need to know that in their quiet acceptance they are (in all likelihood) enabling the fundamentalists.

  12. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The prime directive of interpersonal communications should be: "Don't piss off your audience".

    There are some religious folk that I categorize as "true believers". These are the ones who honestly believe their religion and feel sympathy for those that do not. To insult or mock their beliefs is a waste of time, because they are totally convinced that they are right, and to belittle their beliefs will only strengthen their resolve to convert me.

    There is a larger group religious fanatics who profess their beliefs as a way to gain the ego boost from having followers. These are the televangelists, the conservative pundits, the cult leaders. The John Hagees, Rush Limbaughs, and Charles Mansons of the world. They are dangerous, but their power comes certainly not from on high, and not from within, but from their cult of followers. However the followers comprise a mobile vulgaris, a common mob who can be weakened by reasonable discourse, if we can get them to listen and to think for themselves.

    I suspect as well, that the greater majority of religious people are not true believers, nor are they cult followers. They are religiously aloof. They attend religious services, not because they believe, but for social reasons such as friendship, or to appease familial and social expectations.

    This last group will be generally much more open to rational arguments for secularism, but only if you engage their intellect, which requires that we treat them as intellectual equals, something that won't happen when we are as rude as the religious pundits.

    The televangelists/cult leader/pundits and their followers are the most likely to be rude and insulting, and the least likely to engage in rational discourse, so why bother? By calmly stating reasonable and rational arguments against their positions we strengthen our image among the majority while they weaken their own and marginalize themselves.

    Consider the well known interview of Richard Dawkins by Bill O'Reilly. Dawkins remains calm and composed through the interview and in doing so, stands as an example against the stereotype of atheists that is promoted by the neocons, which portrays atheists as hating all religious people.

  13. Ebonmuse says:

    Hey Erich,

    I don't disagree with most of what you said here – I do believe that tone is important, and that we should present our disagreements civilly wherever possible and not go out of our way to offend. The thing is, I'm not convinced that that's what Chris Mooney thinks. Take a look at this comment I wrote back when the whole business started:

    Back then, Mooney said this:

    Leave aside for a moment the validity of Dawkins's arguments against religion. The fact remains: The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.

    …there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.

    I don't know how to read this other than as an assertion that any atheist who speaks out as an atheist is doing harm to the cause of science, regardless of how valid their points are. And although Mooney has claimed that he's not telling anyone to sit down and shut up, he's been conspicuously silent when it comes to the question I posed above: Then what should we do, according to him?

    I appreciate your answering this question in a straightforward and honest manner. I haven't seen any similar candor from Mooney, from Matt Nisbet, or from anyone else who runs with that crowd. If they have addressed this question and I've missed it, I'd be glad if someone could post a citation or a link.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ebonmuse: I don't know anything about Mooney's position other than what I heard on this interview with D.J.Grothe. I thought that what he said there sounded reasonable and that's why I posted on it. It now seems, however, that my position is actually somewhat different than that of Mooney. I'd be the last person to tell anyone that they shouldn't state their opinion. As I mentioned above, though, strategy regarding manner of phrasing, tone and timing can make the difference between the message taking root or being rejected out of hand.

      I can see it to be a good strategy to sometimes bite one's tongue at at the present in order to make a better impact later on. But I don't offer any hard and fast rules. We're dealing with pragmatics in the end. We're in the middle of a huge PR war where I think that it's smart strategy to keep putting a friendly and responsible face on atheism even though we have good reason to be angry–I think we should take the lesson taught by those who have proceeded us in prior civil rights movements. I should also mention that I think that an onslaught like that delivered by the "New Atheists" was entirely foreseeable and understandable given the terrible way that non-believers have been treated in the United States. In my view, though, I think that much more progress can be made by pressing our case steadily stripped of outward appearance of anger (even though we are often justified in feeling the frustration, hurt and anger well up inside when all too many ignoramuses call us immoral without knowing anything at all about us).

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    These words by Karen Armstrong bear on this discussion. When we insist that there has to be a "winner" to a "debate" instead of a discussion, we might all be losers:

    We are very agonistic society. . . . In our discourse, it is not enough for us in the western democratic tradition simply to seek the truth. We also have to defeat and humiliate our opponents. And that happens in politics. It happens in the law courts. It happens in religious discourse. It happens in the media. It happens in academia. Very different from Socrates, the founder of the rationalist tradition, who when you had dialogues with Socrates, you came thinking that you knew what you were talking about.

    Half an hour later, with Socrates, you realized you didn't know anything at all. And at that moment, says Socrates, your– quest can begin. You can become a philosopher, a lover of wisdom because you know you don't have wisdom. You love it. You seek it. And you had to go into a dialogue prepared to change, not to bludgeon your conversation partner into accepting your point of view. And every single point in a Socratic dialogue, you offer your opinion kindly to the other, and the other accepts it with kindness.….

  15. Tim Hogan says:

    Aw, bugger!

    I'm in a "fight?" Who do I punch in the nose?

    My faith there is a God means I cannot accept that others don't believe as I do? Or that some might believe that I'm delusional and believe in mythical beings?

    There's some unforseen armageddon between theism and science which will result in the inevitable destruction of theism?

    Dammit, I guess I'll dump God for science because I guess they're completely incompatable at all levels and at all times, without exception, because something called "New Atheism" says so, eh?

    Geez, and I thought the Vatican was arrogant!

    Piss off!

    Believe or not what you will and leave me out of stupid fights with pigs, you only get dirty and the pig loves it!

    I love you all but, sometimes its more difficult than others.

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