Chris Mooney is a prominent atheist and author who came out on the wrong side of the great accommodationist debate, and has been digging a deeper hole for himself ever since. Basically, Mooney’s position has been that atheists, scientists, liberals — in general, the reality-based community — need to graciously accommodate and respect their religious brethren, and make a sincere effort to kowtow to their dangerous and stupid ideas so as not to offend them, because that would be the Worst Thing Ever™. Then, the theory goes, a mutually respectful and rational dialogue will ensue, common ground will be found between the religious and the non-religious, and reason, facts and evidence would win the day.
Mooney’s view is based on several false assumptions, not the least of which is that the religious are acting and arguing in good faith (if you will pardon the expression). The fantasy that the religious truly want to get along peacefully with nonbelievers and secularists — that there is common ground to be found on important issues where everyone can agree and work together for the betterment of society — is just plain ludicrous in light of the relentless assaults we have been witnessing on reproductive rights, global warming denial, sex education, and a whole host of other issues where religious conservatives are simply wrong, factually and morally.
Mooney’s view is also grounded in the premise that science and religion are inherently compatible, and, well, I and many others not only disagree with him strongly on that point, but on what can and should be done about the irrational thinking that blinds people to the falsehoods of religious claims. And then there is the question of what’s to be done about the stubborn belief (like Mooney’s) that treating religious claims with deference and respect instead of the ridicule and contempt they deserve, will somehow lead to tolerance, understanding, and a peaceful coexistence between those with diametrically opposing views about supernatural claims and the nature of reality. As I have pointed out many times (e.g. here), the idea that accommodating irrationality and nonsense leads to better outcomes than confrontation and mockery is a falsified hypothesis.
The rise of the so-called New Atheism is a relatively new phenomenon on the American scene, and their confrontational style and fiery rhetoric does not sit well with our friend Mr. Mooney at all. To Mooney, the bestselling books of Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennett and Harris, as well as popular blogs like Pharyngula, are a rude affront to the precious prerogatives of the religious (yep!), and this is all just terrible — terrible! Yes, for some reason it’s terrible, even though “no religion” is now the fastest growing category of religious identity in the United States (pdf). Is this a coincidence?
I like PZ’s take:
Once again, the problem revolves around a central argument for the Mooneyites: that harsh criticism of cherished beliefs, like religion, leads to an immediate, emotion-based shutdown of critical faculties by the target, and makes them refractory to rational evaluation of their ideas. To which I say, yeah, so? I agree with that. I know that happens. It’s what I expect to happen.
But that’s all short-term thinking, and I don’t care what happens in the mind of a believer five minutes or a day after I make an argument…What I’m interested in seeing happen is the development of a strong cadre of vocal atheists who will make a sustained argument, over the course of years or generations, who will keep pressing on the foolishness of faith. I also don’t mind seeing believers get angry and stomping off determined to prove I’m a colossal jackhole — that means they’re thinking, even if they’re disagreeing with me.
I’ll take this further than PZ does here, and make a point that he has also made before. We are talking about public discourse, and not private communications here. That is, the audience for our message includes not only a particular religious person to whom our words are specifically directed, but also any other people who witness the conversation. Given the nature of bestselling books and popular Internet sites, a single exchange between the godly and the godless can be read by untold millions, and then mulled over and considered in the privacy of their own minds. It’s the long game we want to win — not friends.
I have expounded at length on the virtues of mockery and the folly of religious accommodationism so many times in this space that I cannot be arsed to look it all up and link to it here. But what really galled me while reading Mooney’s piece is the sheer incredulity he exudes at finally discovering what we merciless mockers of religious conservatism have been saying for years: facts, reason, and respectful dialogue have done absolutely nothing to bridge the gap between us. That is why there is no risk of alienating religious conservatives — they’re already alienated from the real world the rest of us live in.
I can still remember when I first realized how naïve I was in thinking—hoping—that laying out the “facts” would suffice to change politicized minds, and especially Republican ones. It was a typically wonkish, liberal revelation: One based on statistics and data. Only this time, the data were showing, rather awkwardly, that people ignore data and evidence—and often, knowledge and education only make the problem worse.
Mooney references a 2008 Pew study on partisan beliefs about global warming, and he notes that the belief that global warming is happening and humans are the cause of it is true. There is simply no serious scientific disagreement on this issue, and damning evidence for its truth continues to pile up every year. But this does not convince conservatives, of course. Nothing — and by “nothing,” I mean absolutely nothing — will ever convince them that they are wrong about global warming, even though they are in fact 100% wrong about global warming. And the more knowledgeable, educated and intelligent conservatives are, the worse the disconnect from reality they exhibit:
Buried in the Pew report was a little chart showing the relationship between one’s political party affiliation, one’s acceptance that humans are causing global warming, and one’s level of education. And here’s the mind-blowing surprise: For Republicans, having a college degree didn’t appear to make one any more open to what scientists have to say. On the contrary, better-educated Republicans were more skeptical of modern climate science than their less educated brethren. Only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed that the planet is warming due to human actions, versus 31 percent of non-college-educated Republicans.
Whether it’s 19% or 31%, that still leaves a whole lot of Republicans that are completely, utterly, catastrophically, dangerously wrong about an urgent issue that affects the entire nation and indeed the entire world. Mooney says:
This was my first encounter with what I now like to call the “smart idiots” effect: The fact that politically sophisticated or knowledgeable people are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant.
Pardon me while I get up off the floor and dust myself off, having fallen from my chair at this astounding discovery of Chris Mooney’s that conservatives are completely irrational, if not certifiably insane.
And not only are we [liberals] enraged by lies and misinformation; we want to refute them—to argue, argue, argue about why we’re right and Republicans are wrong. Indeed, we often act as though right-wing misinformation’s defeat is nigh, if we could only make people wiser and more educated (just like us) and get them the medicine that is correct information.
Whoa. Who is this “we,” Kimosabe? Of course “we” have a responsibility to refute right-wing lies and misinformation with facts, but “we” are not the ones who have been buying into the pipe dream that if we would only take the time to patiently explain reality and educate these poor benighted folks, they’d see the light and jump on board the clean energy bandwagon. And “we” are certainly not the ones who have been kidding ourselves that right-wing lies and misinformation are going anywhere anytime soon. This is all pure projection on Mooney’s part: he may well have believed all of this, but that sure doesn’t mean that other liberals who have actually been paying attention do. “We” have known for a very long time that countervailing facts and evidence do not matter one whit to those afflicted with Conservative Personality Disorder: facts only spawn ever more fantastic rationalizations, along with ever greater certainty that those rationalizations are true. This is why conservatives who are more clever are frequently more wrong, as Mooney has just discovered:
Again and again, Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue.
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did. For instance, considerably more Tea Party members than Republicans incorrectly thought there was a lot of scientific disagreement about global warming (69 percent to 56 percent). Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.
The same effect has also been captured in relation to the myth that the healthcare reform bill empowered government “death panels.” According to research by Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, Republicans who thought they knew more about the Obama healthcare plan were “paradoxically more likely to endorse the misperception than those who did not.” Well-informed Democrats were the opposite—quite certain there were no “death panels” in the bill.
The Democrats also happened to be right, by the way.
Wow! I had no idea!
Oh, wait. Yeah, I did.
As I said, I don’t know what Mooney’s prescription might be in light of his recent epiphany about the intractably unreasonable conservative mind. He’s obviously so far behind the curve with this stuff that I doubt he’s given the problem much serious consideration, even after having written an entire book on the topic. And I certainly won’t be reading it in order to find out: if the Salon excerpt is any indication, his insights will not exactly be dazzling. But even if there is some truly revolutionary and enlightening information to be found in Mooney’s new book I am quite certain someone will bring it to our attention, given our world-renowned reputation for performing cutting-edge research and analysis on the scourge that is CPD.
In the meantime, the Palace shall do what it always does: mock the fuck on. And Chris Mooney’s ideas deserve no more immunity from ridicule than the Catholic church’s ideas do — or anyone else’s for that matter, including my own. Contrary to the Mooney doctrine, I will continue to call out pernicious bullshit for what it is whenever and wherever I see it, as I see fit, regardless of who might be offended. There are far more important problems that need our urgent attention than irrational people clutching their pearls and swooning because we refuse to give their nonsense any respect.