The center of what, exactly?

Chris Mooney is at it again, this time with an article at the Huffington Post explaining that Dawkins really has changed his tune even though he explicitly and emphatically said he hasn’t when Jerry Coyne asked him while they were both at the Atheist Boys’ Alliance (emailing from room to room, apparently, as opposed to just talking, but then that means the money quote was in writing, which is always useful). Mooney acknowledges this clarification (though not the implied rebuke to the spin he and Rosenau rushed to put on it) but he turns it into a Point For His Side anyway.

But what’s truly noteworthy is where Dawkins hints as to how this all happened-e.g., he’s got an evolution book to sell now, and he’s sick of people thinking it’s an atheism book, so he’s trying to steer interviewers away from that, and seems frankly annoyed that they don’t get the difference…In other words, Dawkins appears to be grappling with a communication problem. Linking together atheist advocacy and the defense of evolution, as he has done so prominently, poses a pretty big problem when you hit the US media with a new book on the latter. After writing a million-selling atheist “consciousness-raiser” and “come-out-of-the-closet” book, is it at all surprising that Dawkins now finds his evolution book being prominently linked to atheism in the media mind?

Says the guy who has done perhaps more than any other single individual to make that true – the guy who, with his co-author, wrote an article in the LA Times announcing that Dawkins’s new book wouldn’t educate people because they would be too turned off by his evil atheist reputation. Mooney first worked hard to discredit Dawkins’s new book on the grounds that Dawkins is a vocal atheist, and now expresses pious concern about this ‘pretty big problem’ with getting people to talk about the new book when they interview him ostensibly about the new book. In other words it could be that one reason Dawkins is ‘frankly annoyed’ that reporters insist on talking about the old book instead of the new one is because of the role played by mischief-makers and scapegoaters like Mooney and Kirshenbaum.

That’s certainly a huge part of my annoyance. That’s because I think the whole thing is illegitimate, and underhanded, and somewhat dangerous, and irresponsible, and fundamentally unfair and unreasonable. It’s dressed up as a tactical thing, to do with reaching the Silent Majority, the excluded middle, the good normal everyday common sense Folks who just wanna blurghurghurgh, but behind that it seems to tap into a much deeper well of anger and hatred. I have absolutely no idea why Mooney apparently hates overt atheists so much, but I do think that’s what’s going on. Why? Because if it were just pragmatic, there wouldn’t have been all the stonewalling of critics and the serial misrepresentation of same. At least I don’t think there would. Disagreement over tactics doesn’t seem worth it, and doesn’t seem likely to motivate it either.

If Dawkins wants to change minds about evolution, and break down barriers, it makes a heck of a lot of sense to move to the center on religion, and not alienate religious believers or the U.S. media any more than he has to. Dawkins’ followers may complain that the master is being misrepresented, but the truth is that Richard Dawkins may be something else: a savvy, adaptable communicator.

There speaks the true scapegoater and marginalizer and shunner and minority-punisher – ‘it makes a heck of a lot of sense to move to the center on religion’ – and on everything else, of course, because ‘the center’ is where all decent people are, because anything outside the center is by definition evil and weird. Gotcher stones ready?

What does ‘the center on religion’ even mean? The land of split the difference? But different people have different differences to split. In any case…what’s at stake with this disagreement – atheism v vague woolly whateverism – is basically epistemological, and that’s not about what is or isn’t in the center. It’s not about majorities, it’s not about polite conformity, it’s not about not alienating people. That’s what Mooney always refuses to get, or else to accept, or else to care about – that there are principled reasons not to compromise or split the difference or ‘move to the center’ on epistemic issues, and we bristle at being told to treat truth claims the same way we treat campaign promises or votes on highway bills.

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