Conversations with SJ.

We have had many, many interesting conversations offline.  I daresay being held to his high standards of rationalism, thoroughness and thoughtfulness has improved the Palace’s game significantly.

And this, people, is why I invited SJ to post at the Palace in the first place (whatever he wants, whenever he wants).

* * * * *

So, we were discussing a piece by Jerry Coyne, the gist of which is this:

[Accommodationists’] first mistake is assuming that there are many conservative Christians… who aren’t currently down with evolution but are nevertheless open to reason based on evidence, so long as you “respect” their faith. And further, you could turn that Christian into a Darwinian by reasoned argument.

That’s simply hogwash.  Such people are (and yes, there are exceptions) impervious to rational argument, regardless of what you say about their faith…If they could be swayed by scientific argument alone, they would have been swayed already: do remember that Dawkins wrote plenty of stuff about the evidence for evolution and against creationism before he became a vociferous atheist.
[Emphasis in original.]

Are ya with me so far?  Okay, good.  Continuing with Coyne:

Obviously that “conservative Christian” paid no attention to Richard then, nor to Steve Gould, nor to Carl Sagan, nor to all the nonconfrontational debates about the evidence.

Unfortunately, there are indeed certain minds that can never, ever be reached.  Think jihadis, or Teabaggers:  reason and evidence have no impact whatsoever on their beliefs.  (Actually, that’s not technically true. As it turns out, confronting such “thinkers” with reason and evidence has the opposite effect that a rational person would expect: they cling to their false beliefs even more strongly.  But that’s for another post).

More from Coyne:

Further, there’s simply no evidence that coddling the anti-evolution faithful will turn them into Darwinians.  That is what BioLogos has been trying to do for years, and without a smidgen of success. The evangelicals they’re courting remain unconvinced, all hung up on burning issues like “Who were Adam and Eve?”  I have never heard of a case, though I’m sure they exist, in which an antievolution Christian became converted after hearing that her faith was not, after all, at odds with Darwinism.

In contrast, there’s plenty of evidence that the “strident,” “show-no-respect-for-faith” approach works.

Which is where we pick up this episode of “Conversations with SJ,” midstream.  [With minor edits for clarity.]

* * * * *

My dearest SJ-

As I said in my previous email regarding Coyne’s piece:

As an effective communication tactic, “respecting the religious” is a failed hypothesis.

As Coyne says: “Richard Dawkins has been far more effective in turning the faithful to evolution (and atheism) than BioLogos.”  It is not a coincidence that faith has been on the decline during this period of confrontational atheist ascension.  Respect for faith is entirely unwarranted — although respect for human beings in their humanity is another matter, and it is the very reason it is so important to disentangle theism from our political process and diminish its influence in our culture in the first place.

You, SJ, ask good questions, ones that I think all of us wrestle with:

SJ:  Can we work with agnostics, deists, and liberal and moderate theists to defeat the theocratic fascists?

In theory, yes.  In practice, well… it seems that in many (perhaps most?) cases it is not as practical a feat as one would think.  For one thing, liberal or moderate theists are not always what they appear to be.  Liberal believers will tend to say — when pressed by a skeptic — “Of course I don’t believe in talking snakes and virgin births!  I’m just into the social message of Jesus, and whether he was divine or not doesn’t really matter.  And my church group does a lot of good in the community!  (etc…)”  But in private, alone with their own thoughts, believers actually believe some seriously fucked up shit.  (I was just searching for a great piece by Greta Christina I had seen on this very point, but my notoriously pathetic google-fu has failed me—as usual.  If any of my many tens of loyal readers know it and can find it, please email me and I will update this post.)

Anyway!  What this means, in practice, is that when the chips are down, it turns out that liberal Christians are more likely to side with the fundamentalists than with atheists.

SJ:  If so, under what conditions are we liberal, atheist feminists willing to work with them?

Under conditions where faith gets no credit whatsoever for either our goodness or our good works. None.  (PZ recently wrote something relevant to this question here.)

SJ:  What do you think of the National Center for Science Education (Eugenie Scott’s group)?  They are trying to defend and advance science without alienating religious allies.

I have mixed thoughts on Eugenie Scott and NCSE.  On the one hand, her target audience is often teachers — Christian teachers.  Given her position and mission, her accommodating stance makes tactical sense:  she assumes that most teachers want to teach “good science” regardless of their own faith (or lack thereof).*  To hear that faith and science are compatible is a soothing balm for the religious to be sure, but the truth is that the only sense in which faith and science are actually compatible is the extent to which one can compartmentalize — and for better or for worse, the human mind is very good at this.  So again, I would say that given her position and NCSE’s mission, I understand her accommodating stance.  That being said, I have not seen the data on whether such a stance has been shown to be (a) actually effective at improving science education, or (b) more effective than openly declaring faith and science incompatible would be in the alternative.

On the other hand, I think it is vitally necessary to point out loudly and clearly that Eugenie Scott is wrong about the compatibility of science and faith — except in that narrow, compartmentalized sense:

“But Newton was religious!”

Yes. And so was damn near everyone else.  Newton can be right about gravity, and wrong about gods…dumbass.

Okay, so the “dumbass” is optional.  Gratuitous, even.  “Dumbass” is only well-deserved when the person’s “point” has been addressed previously.  (And repeatedly, as is usually the case.)

What are our priorities?

Well, we can have different priorities in the same constellation (priorities that overlap like a Venn diagram). And we should be willing to give an assist when needed to others who prioritize different points, well, differently.  For example, as I mused here, “war and misogyny are memes that travel together in virtual lockstep, organically reinforcing each other.  (There are almost certainly others as well, such as black-&-white thinking, anti-intellectualism, etc.)”  I argued that “if we can diminish one of them, the other(s) will necessarily diminish as well.”  However, the writer I was discussing in my post thinks that “militarism and war” should be our ultimate priority:

I actually think that in terms of leverage, of focusing on one thing that can then have a cascade of other positive effects, focusing on militarism and war should be the priority. Because if we can really reduce the militarism of this country, really cut back on our military budget, get rid of nuclear weapons and create a more rational international policy, then I think that a lot of these other things will be much easier to address. Environmental issues, economic injustice issues, female inequality, all those sorts of things.

As I said, I am not sure that it matters which pillar(s) we weaken first or most, because they are all interdependent.  But I am very open to hearing his case (and I plan to read his book).

SJ:  What are the best strategies and tactics – i.e., most likely to succeed?

We need all of them — except for Chris Mooney’s, at least the one wherein he bashes atheists for being too strident, too confrontational and too disrespectful of religion (and claiming without a shred of evidence that it is counterproductive), while he coddles and accommodates believers who are also confrontational and disrespectful in the extreme (and there is plenty of evidence, i.e., all of Western history, that accommodation of the religious is counterproductive). [Sorry for that ungodly (ha!) long sentence. I just don’t have it in me to improve it at this particular moment.]

There are undoubtedly some who are swayed from their faith (irrationalism) by kind and patient arguments with lots of respectful hand-holding.  If the Mooneys of the world would just STFU about the tactics of others and live-and-let-live, they could accommodate the faithheads all they want, in whatever way they see fit.  I happen to believe Mooney’s net results would be closer to Biologos than Dawkins, but it’s his dime.  And importantly, this is not why the anti-accommodationists so dislike him.  Nor is it that we object to legitimate criticism: it’s that, at least so far, his railings are neither helpful nor supported by evidence.  One does not necessarily undermine someone else simply by taking a different approach toward what is ostensibly a common goal.  However, if confrontational tactics are shown to yield better results, that fact should undermine the accommodationist strategy — or at the very least be deemed an effective complement to it.

We need all hands on deck.

SJ:  Do we all just volunteer to work with the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future?

In our two-party system, any third party candidate is very easily marginalized and probably doomed — except, and I hate to say this, where this hypothetical third party is even more right-wing and theofascist than today’s Republican Party.  The straight answer to this question is that we need to work within the parameters of the Democratic Party, for the foreseeable future.

As loyal readers well know, I have written much about the Dems and the problems with blindly supporting “Democrats” or the “Democratic Party”.  My goal is not “electing Democrats” for the sake of keeping them in power.  It’s electing better, i.e., liberal Democrats — and pressuring those already in office to move left.  I guess I’ve never put these thoughts together in one place before, but I advocate multiple approaches:

  • Do not give money to national Democratic party organizations; only fund individual candidates who have a proven track record of supporting liberal issues and values.
  • Strongly support liberal candidates who run in primaries against the conservative Democrats who have the party’s support.  If you cannot fund them ($3! $5!), then volunteer to make calls, hand out flyers, blog, write letters to the editor, whatever you can do to make noise.  Even if your candidate loses, the fact that the winner had to fight an attack from the left flank tends to push the incumbent (and thus the party) to the left.
  • Vote in primaries, and strongly encourage other liberals to do so.  Your vote in a primary actually counts a lot more than one in a general election, because there is usually a much lower turnout in a primary.  Further, this is one of the only ways to get better Democrats into office — and to make the ones who are already there more accountable to liberals.  Remember:  wingnuts do it, and the rise of the Tea Party (and the Republican leadership subsequently moving further right) shows it works.
  • Call out the “Shhhh! At least they’re better than the scary Republicans!” bullshit whenever and wherever you see it.  Until that thinking changes we will see more — and more extreme — conservatives in both parties.  Any candidate or party that can take your vote for granted has no incentive whatsoever to advocate for your issues.

Yes, I will probably hold my nose and vote for Obama in November.  But the point is that he should not be able to count on that.  And if he wants my enthusiasm, well, he really should not have been governing like a conservative for three years.

* Implicit in the assumption that “most teachers want to teach ‘good science’ regardless of their own faith (or lack thereof)” is the assumption that there are also some teachers who do not want to (or will not) teach good science if it contradicts their faith.  In my opinion, these teachers cannot not be called “science teachers.”

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