Deferential Inquiry

Matthew Nisbet answered my question about Paul Kurtz by transcribing some of a Point of Inquiry interview of Kurtz. Kurtz does indeed say things along the same lines as what Nisbet says. There are differences, but there are also large similarities. I was skeptical about that yesterday, and Nisbet did indeed provide the requested link as well as doing some transcribing.

GROTHE: …I take it that you wonder how effective evangelical atheists are if all they are talking about is atheism?

KURTZ: I think they have had a positive impact, and I know most of the leaders, and they publish in Free Inquiry…so they have had positive impact, of course they are criticizing religion. However, that is not enough. One has to go beyond that! You can’t talk about abstract atheism, or merely a negative attitude. It is what you are for that counts, not what you are against! So I think on that point, one must affirm a positive humanist morality.

The emphasis is different from Nisbet’s, and the hostility to ‘New Atheists’ is (not surprisingly) not there, but he is talking about (broadly) the same subject. (It’s one that JS and I don’t agree with – we found ourselves saying ‘we’re atheists, we’re not humanists’ quite often at C f I – and that JS amused himself by roundly attacking in his last lecture, thus forfeiting his chance at a standing ovation like the one Julian got; but that’s not the issue here.)

Now we’ve got that straight, what about what Nisbet is saying? It doesn’t grow on me. It makes me bristle, and the more I contemplate it, the more bristly I get. This is no doubt one of those fundamental moral intuitions, one of those emotional reactions that I then attempt to consider rationally. What is it that I dislike so much?

The dishonesty, basically. The secrecy, the manipulativeness, the ‘shhh.’ The whole idea that scientists should be quiet about something they take to be true because if they’re not quiet they are likely to alienate an unknown number of potential political allies.

Even if Nisbet is right about the empirical question of the potential alienation, it doesn’t follow that he’s right about what to do about it. I think his goal of ‘bringing diverse publics together around common problems’ by urging scientists to refrain from challenging the truth claims of religion is antithetical to free and open inquiry. Of course it’s true that free inquiry always risks angering or alienating some or many people who don’t like what free inquiry turns up – but that’s why it’s called ‘free inquiry.’ If we decide in advance to shackle it in deference to pre-existing beliefs, then it’s not free inquiry anymore. The Center for Inquiry, if it heeded Nisbet’s advice, would have to change its name to The Center for Cautious Limited Deferential Inquiry. I think that would be a bad thing.

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