How to change the zeitgeist

Jason Rosenhouse has done the perfect, brilliant reply to Josh Rosenau’s latest on Hau too Hellp and on howtohelping in general. I would love to have written it myself, but I’m not clever enough.

Turns out people tend to mistrust information that comes from people they don’t like. Who knew?

Heh. Yes, we knew, and we also knew that’s not quite all there is to it. We know for instance that there are not just two participants in every conversation. We know that liking or not liking are not the only two possibilities. We know that information is not the only product of discussion.

Atheist spirituality, such as it is, has almost nothing in common with traditional religion. So far as I can tell, it refers simply to the notion that atheists, no less than theists, can look at nature and be impressed. To suggest that this represents a point of contact between the religious and the nonreligious, which was, after all, the point of Mooney’s original USA Today article and was the issue raised by Jerry in his post, trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous. People with religious concerns about science are not worried that if they accept evolution they will no longer be able to feel things deeply.

Well some of them are, or pretend to be. Josh is one of them, in fact – he did a post awhile back saying that if religion were kept out of science then baseball and ice skating would disappear – or something like that. It was that random. Cathy Grossman pretended to think that Jerry Coyne, being an atheist, is incapable of appreciating a sunset – Jerry Coyne, who gave us a picture of a rabbit at dawn on the U of Chicago campus recently. But the larger point is right: no, religion is not just a matter of landscape-plus-emotion (Wordsworth notwithstanding).

Josh acts as though it is a problem of poor marketing that people think evolution and religion conflict. That, I believe, is a misapprehension of the issue. They see a conflict because they are thinking clearly. You can tell them they are not, and you can point out the folks who manage to reconcile the two, but in the end all of the slick marketing in the world cannot change the basic facts.

Exactly. What I would have said if only I had thought of it.

I am far more interested in changing the religious values themselves.
The big problem that needs fixing is not so much that people reject evolution. It is that people’s religious values are teaching them to be mistrustful of atheists…if you want to mainstream atheism you have to make it visible. You have to make it ubiquitous, so that gradually it loses all of its mystique and scariness and becomes entirely ho hum and commonplace. It is not so much about making an argument that will cause conservative religious folks to slap their foreheads and abandon their faith, as though that were possible. It is about working around them, by making atheism part of the zeitgeist. It is a long-term strategy, one starting deep within its own endzone thanks to years of more effete strategies. Will it work? I don’t know. But I am confident that nothing else will.


In defense of the New Atheist strategy of creating tension and making atheism visible we have a body of research on advertising that shows that repetition and ubiquity are essential for mainstreaming an idea. We have the historical examples of social movements that changed the zeitgeist by ignoring the people urging caution, and by working around the people whose value systems put them in opposition to their goals…

Against this Josh has a few papers breathlessly reporting that people don’t like it when you offend them. It is on this basis that he gives smug lectures about communications strategies.

I am underwhelmed.

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