Framing Science and Atheism for the Public

A bit of a bomb has gone off in the blogosphere. I refrained from posting earlier on the precursor -- the "framing" debate sparked by a Science article and discussed at length here -- but I think there are sufficient disparate issues at play here to tie together into one coherent argument. My argument is simple: people are talking past each other because of a lack of focus. Now, the same issue hit the WaPo, and the blogosphere is buzzin' again.

The larger issue is fundamentalist religion, plain and simple. In Chris Mooney's own words,
In the Post, we focus on one of the most obvious examples of badly framing the defense of evolution--tying it to criticism of religion. Richard Dawkins is the most prominent example in this regard, and we single him out accordingly. I want to emphasize that I grew up on Dawkins' books; they really helped me figure out who I am. But nevertheless, over the past several years I've grown increasingly convinced that his is emphatically not the way to make many Americans (people very different from me) more accepting of science.
It isn't only defenders of science who feel the way Mooney and Nisbet do -- humanists and freethinkers have recently decried "angry atheists who hold down our movement".
While some progressive Christians maintain that Christ was divine, they nevertheless manage to agree with us on principles of human rights, reason and science. If we refuse to build alliances with people who do not agree with us on every single issue, we will never be strong enough to stand up to the Religious Right.
The media, by its nature, interviews figures whose views are diametrically opposed. News has morphed into entertainment, and the masses cry for gladiators of words and ideas to step into the ring and let mental blood. Sophisticated viewpoints don't conform to soundbytes. Therefore, why waste a perfectly good 30-second interview on an atheist who refuses to call names and instead wants to discuss transcendental arguments for a god's existence?

When Elaine Pagels was interviewed by Salon, we see this common theme resurface:
What do you make of the recent claim by the atheist Richard Dawkins that the existence of God is itself a scientific question? If you accept the idea that God intervenes in the physical world, don't there have to be physical mechanisms for that to happen? Therefore, doesn't this become a question for science?

Well, Dawkins loves to play village atheist. He's such a rationalist that the God that he's debunking is not one that most of the people I study would recognize. I mean, is there some great big person up there who made the universe out of dirt? Probably not.

Are you saying that part of the problem here is the notion of a personal God? Has that become an old-fashioned view of religion?

I'm not so sure of that. I think the sense of actual contact with God is one that many people have experienced. But I guess it's a question of what kind of God one has in mind.

So when you think about the God that you believe in, how would you describe that God?

Well, I've learned from the texts I work on that there really aren't words to describe God. You spoke earlier about a transcendent reality. I think it's certainly true that these are not just fictions that we arbitrarily invent.

Certainly many people talk about God as an ineffable presence. But if you try to explain what transcendence is, can you put that into words and explain what it means?

People have put it into words, but the words are usually metaphors or poems or hymns. Even the word "God" is a metaphor, or "the son of God," or "Father." They're all simply images for some other order of reality.
I own two of Pagels' books. I respect her scholarship greatly, but she seems to have missed a very large point: Dawkins (and Harris) are aiming for exactly the sort of god that is most dangerous to believe in, and the one that the overwhelming majority of anti-scientific anti-gay bigots cling to. Dawkins doesn't put the intelligentsia in his sights because they are not the ones whose stance against science has led to the current stem cell veto, and the battles over teaching sound biology. These Christian academics instead resort to, *gasp*, reasonable and long discourses.

She mentioned Dawkins as "village atheist," and this same term was reserved for him by Novak in his recent "Lonely Atheists of the Global Village." Novak is no dummy, and I commented a month ago that I was looking forward to reading this. In fact, I enjoyed reading this article, and then a couple more, especially his response to Heather McDonald's article in TAS in November. The exchange was typical of the sort of dialectic that doesn't make newspaper headlines and can't seem to find its way into a split-screen on FauxNews. It was complex and engaging to someone who honestly wants to learn.

Some Christians have already commented on Novak's new article, but without in-depth analysis. I agree with both he and Pagels on some of their criticisms regarding the shallow treatments given god(s) by Dawkins and Harris, as I've said previously, but Novak, especially, seems to dismiss Dennett very lightly, which I find telling. Those who try to lump Dennett in with Dawkins and Harris are those who haven't read the books. His critiques are philosophical and scientific in nature, not polemical, and not directed at any one particular religion.

There is a tension between the god of the philosophers and the god of the layman, and I think it has always been there. When I say that I'm an atheist, for example, I don't mean towards an abstract concept of "the grounding of existence" or "the nexus of causality" or "the first cause". While the "tri-omni" god is beyond my capacity to believe or findreasonable, these rather abstruse theological ideas I constantly engage my faculties in contemplation of -- I am a freethinker, after all. While I'm an atheist towards Yahweh, and Zeus, and Thor...etc., and while I think there are adequate responses to many philosophical arguments for theism, I find some of them lacking, especially with respect to cosmology and those along moral lines (not that I find the religious alternatives on the latter subject any more coherent). There are a lot of atheists who completely disregard philosophical arguments for a god's existence, and think that the Todd Friels of the world represent the best of intellectual Christianity. That's unfortunate.

I agree completely with PZ and Larry Moran that atheists and scientists must continue to criticize superstition and fantastical thinking in order to preserve scientific knowledge in our culture. If we muzzled our "angry" and "militant" voices, then the angry, militant fundamentalist Christians and Jews and Muslims would gladly step into the void. They would love nothing more. And I agree with them that appeasement has not worked. These people believe any ground-giving to science is "compromise," punishable by brimstone. But the question I want to ask is whether we should consider religious liberals and moderates our friends, and refrain from insulting them, as PZ thoughtlessly does to Ken Miller in that latest response.

The sorts of people that we need Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for are the Falwells of our culture: the unthinking lynch-mobs whose readiness to rapture lauds them (they're showing 'great faith!') in ignoring the perils facing our grandchildren. The sorts of people who use deceit and fraud and millions of dollars to erode our civil liberties into their vision of theocracy and oppose sound science education because their small brains can't encompass the theologians' alternatives, or Gould's NOMA.

I also agree with Elaine Pagels and Michael Novak -- we cannot paint religion with such a broad brush as to attack all forms of religiosity and call names and hold to the old, insulting phraseologies ("reality-based community" and "I live by reason" are tacit insults). We must remind ourselves that there are voices of reason in the religious community, no matter how silly we feel some of their views are. And the Pagels of the world are those we atheists and we scientists need to sit down and have more discussion with. If that happened, there would be a great deal more respect on each side of the fence.

While Pagels (and intellectuals like her) are focused on getting the fundies to grow their brains a little to encompass the more sophisticated aspects of theology, and PZ et al on getting the fundies to stop their anti-scientific crusades, perhaps they could realize that 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Perhaps more honest discussion between the "evangelical", "uppity", "angry" and "militant" atheists and liberal/moderate Christians would yield a rich reward in finding the assistance we can afford each other in reaching mutual goals.

I want to "frame" science and atheism together, because that's my perspective. But I want to hear every possible (logical) framing as well -- I also want to hear and have heard Elaine Pagels' view of evolution from a theologian's perspective. Am I saying I want her teaching biology courses? Of course not. I want her views heard in the same media mine are, and PZ's, and Dawkins --in the 'sphere, or the MSM. The creationist hordes need to have their stupid false dichotomy (my version of Christianity or atheism) irreparably damaged by the critical words of god-believing theologians. The demagogues like Falwell and Pat "Midas Touch" Robertson hold sway over the sheep precisely because of the false picture they present --that their own views of God are the only/most valid. When more Christians see that the huge majority of scholarly Christians are moderate or liberal in their theological views, and especially towards Genesis (sometimes they find this out with much chagrin), perhaps more credence will be given to evolutionary biology, and this would be a win for "both sides". Or perhaps no change will be affected.

Let's face it: we're both minorities and we're both intellectually-centered. Our common enemy is the anti-intellectual, theocratically-wet-dreaming, rampantly superstitious Christian/Muslim/Jewish right that work tirelessly to render America into Jesus' Iran -- replete with a new "creation-based science" and the conversion of our secular institutions into "godly" ones. They're a huge voter bloc, well-organized and well-funded.

We need all the friends we can make in our "coalition of the unwilling" -- those quite unwilling to participate in theocracy or pseudoscience at our species' own peril.