Field of Science

On how to affect the anti-science nation

Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheryl Kirshenbaum has been a hot topic in this realm of the blogosphere, but I haven't commented on it yet (since I have not and will not read it), leaving that to PZ and Coyne, whom I largely agree with on the issue (of whether to be a faitheist or a confrontationalist on the subject of compatibility between religion and science).

In an op-ed article today in the LA Times, Must science declare a holy war on religion?, they ask who is going to read Richard Dawkin's new book The Greatest Show on Earth (to be released this September) in which he makes the case for evolution. Their answer:
Surely not those who need it most: America's anti-evolutionists. These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they'll heed.
But but but. While I would also guess that those who are firmly set in their religious beliefs and tenaciously anti-science aren't going to touch the book, those aren't the only audience that would benefit from reading it (in the eyes of pro-science folks). The people I hope will read it - as I know some have read The God Delusion - are younger people (teenagers, people in their twenties) who are perhaps fence-sitters, or even already totally pro-science, and these people will talk about it. Most won't know much about evolution at first, but with a book like this they will understand evolution better, be better able to have a conversation on the subject, and will talk about it with their friends, some of whom might be children of those very religious parents who would never read it. Perhaps they will start question the creation myth they hear in church, and stop accepting it on faith, as a result of reading a conflicting account.

The point is that these things take time. We won't persuade everyone in one fell swoop that evolution is true, but the more books out there, and articles on the internet, and public debates, and TV-shows, the higher the chance that the next generations will grow up being a little more skeptical than their parents, feeling some discomfort in having to read the Bible literally, and becoming more and more pro-science as a result.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum then invoke Darwin as an example of how they think the "New Atheists" should behave:
It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, "Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follows from the advance of science."
Except that Darwin lived in a different time, where it might have been true that "direct arguments" had next to no effect (I am not sure of that either - just because Darwin said it doesn't make it so), but this is a different era, with mass communication and massive communication: while TV and radio aren't the media seething most with this controversy, the internet is constantly buzzing with it, and it is easy for anyone with internet access to find. Perhaps Darwin would have changed his statement had he known?


  1. Several times my students have wanted to talk about religion (I try to keep this kind of discussion out of the classroom). Ultimately I boil it down to a simple choice: "Do you value logic and reason, or do you value faith and tradition." Either is fine with me. I've made my choice. But there is no way I can use logic (science) to convince someone that their religion is 'wrong' if they don't value logic.

    You can't argue with crazy.

  2. If they're nearing the age of retirement, then I would agree with you, but I think only very few who goes to college are so set in their beliefs that they won't listen to reason.


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