Atheism and utility

Benjamin Nelson has a very interesting post on science communication and atheism and passion at Talking Philosophy. Much of it transcribes a conversation he had with Chris Mooney in 2009, in which both of them agreed on some common ground.

…the most important point that I’m going to emphasize here is that [Mooney’s] stance is self-consciously political. At least to some extent, there is a “difference in goals” between Mooney and the activist atheists — by which, I think, he means a difference in priorities. Mooney does not think that speaking out against religion is a priority, and that it is on the whole detrimental to science education; while others think it is a priority, and that it supports science education in some respect.

I think that’s right, and it is the self-consciously political aspect that I have always found somewhat alien. I say “somewhat” because I can’t possibly reject all politics. I realize one has to weigh consequences (as we were just discussing with reference to the Vatican and a life-saving abortion) and consider priorities. But I think when serious discussion becomes too entangled with politics, then it simply stops being serious discussion and turns into some form of campaigning.

I would have liked to discuss Ben’s post in situ, but I’m banned from commenting there so I can’t, so I’ll do it here.

The post was barely posted, though, before the subject was changed to “why the new atheist crowd can’t just disagree with Mooney instead of despising him.” That wasn’t what Ben was talking about, but that became part of the discussion. I’d have thought the reasons would be well known, since they were certainly discussed a lot.

Here’s one reason. The fans of Mooney argue that he is passionately concerned about climate change and other, similar issues, and that’s why his priority is better science communication right now so that voters will make better, more informed decisions. But if that is true, I don’t understand why he has refused to engage with critics and answer genuine questions. The thing is: I couldn’t do what Mooney thinks I should do even if I wanted to, because I don’t know what it is. I really don’t. That’s why I asked him, from the outset – I really didn’t know. He said Jerry Coyne’s “Seeing is Believing” was bad strategy. I thought and still think Coyne’s review is an exemplary bit of reasoned discussion. These two facts together mean that I cannot figure out what is wanted. I’m not bullshitting when I say that; I really cannot figure it out.

And that’s a puzzle. If Mooney’s thinking really were political and strategic…then he would have engaged with questions. He didn’t. That’s a puzzle.

I know this is old old news, but it’s being discussed again, and a book I co-wrote is being cited, and Ben’s post is interesting and enlightening, so here it is anyway.

67 Responses to “Atheism and utility”