I’m independent, you’re on the fringe

Peter Hess, a Catholic theologian who is director of something called ‘the Faith Project’ at the National Center for Science Education (the what? at the where? yes, you read that correctly) recently said in a Washington Post ‘On Faith’ article (have we got enough name checks of faith yet?):

Too often, debates over the public perception of evolution are dominated by the fringes, by fundamentalist Christians and others who reject basic science due to their literal reading of the Bible and by ardent atheists who reject religion because they’ve embraced metaphysical naturalism ― that nature is all that exists. But the silent majority ― that spans the spectrum from theism to atheism ― have no problem reconciling their religious beliefs with established sciences such as evolution.

Spoken like a true journalist, theolgical credentials notwithstanding. Yes right: atheists who decline to believe in supernaturalism are waaaaaaaay out there on the freaky fringe of extreme maniacal militant crazy as a bag of rats fringe, while all the nice, normal, sensible, mainstream, average, just like you and me people are here in the middle smiling and agreeing that everyone can have an activist god who answers prayers and sciency stuff like evolution. It’s only lunatics who say anything else. That’s the way to frame things! Just declare your own view Normal and then describe two views that differ from yours as fringey-extreme.

Chris Mooney is full of approbation of this tawdry gambit.

I heartily agree–my sense, too, is that the silent majority doesn’t side with either of the extremes.

See? There you have it again. Those other views are Extreme, while good decent family-oriented views are silent majority middle and Good.

[I]n the science blogosphere, we don’t hear a lot from the “silent majority.” Rather, and admittedly with some important exceptions, we hear from the New Atheists.

Whom it is important always to refer to by an epithet of some sort and treat as a bloc. At any rate – it doesn’t seem to occur to Mooney that the reason for the silence of the ‘silent majority’ in the science blogosphere is that the putative extreme has a better case than does the putative silent majority. It ought to occur to him.

Jerry Coyne is not as impressed by Peter Hess as Mooney is.

As I’ve maintained repeatedly, religion is neither set up for finding truth nor very good at finding truth. Let me correct that — faith is incapable of finding truth, or at least no more capable than is astrology. The methods of ascertaining “truth” via faith are either revelation or acceptance of dogma. These methods have produced “truths” like a 6,000-year-old Earth and the Great Flood. Not a very good track record. In fact, I have yet to find a single truth about humans, Earth, or the universe that has come uniquely from faith.

Same here. I’ve tried – I really have – as I mentioned the other day, I asked the Templeton shill exactly that question:

What exactly do you ‘believe’ that the world’s religious traditions have to contribute to understanding human experience and our place in the universe? Can you specify one theory or explanation or bit of evidence that a religion has contributed to understanding human experience and our place in the universe?

But the Templeton shill didn’t answer.

Jerry Coyne says this matters.

In all these debates about the compatibility of science and faith, I have yet to see an intellectually respectable answer to this ultimate dichotomy between “ways of knowing.” Instead, people like Mooney go after us for our tone, for polarizing people, and so on…Instead of beefing about our “militancy,” why don’t accommodationists start addressing the question of whether faith can tell us anything that’s true? Let’s hear about whether you can coherently accept a Resurrection on Sunday and then go to the lab the next day and doggedly refuse to accept any claim that lacks evidence. Now that would raise the tone of this debate.

Mooney does, at last, give a straightforward answer.

I don’t believe that faith can tell us anything true, or at least, anything that we can reliably know to be true. I don’t think we can know anything except based on evidence. In this I’m in full agreement with Coyne, Dennett, Dawkins, and all the rest.

Well done. But then he veers off into a false choice.

I don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview…I know that many very intelligent people are struggling all the time to make their peace with this incongruity in their own way–a peace that works for them. And so long as they’re not messing with what our kids learn–or, again, trying to ram their views down our throats–then good on ‘em.

But that’s a false choice, because anti-accommodationists also don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with epistemology; that’s not the issue; as has been pointed out a thousand times, the issue is what it is reasonable and fair and useful to talk about in public. It’s not a question of grabbing every American over the age of ten for an inquisition on beliefs, it’s a question of writing and discussing and debating in public fora. As has been pointed out a thousand times, Jerry Coyne didn’t break Ken Miller’s door down to challenge him, he reviewed a book for a magazine – a book that Miller himself wrote. This isn’t private, this isn’t prying into people’s heads, it’s public discourse. It’s not fringe public discourse, it’s just public discourse. We’re allowed to do that.

Update: see Russell Blackford’s comments @ 128, 129, 138. Beware of the oceans of Anthony McCarthy you have to wade through to get there.

Update 2: see Russell’s post on the subject.

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