Or do I mean irreligion in the public square? Same thing really.
I refer to the open discussion of religious ideas in the “public square.” That means ideas can be put up for consideration and subjected to open support or criticism. The same as our ideas on politics and sport. I am using the dictionary, not literal, definition of “public square” as “relating to or concerning the people at large or all members of a community.”
Don’t we already do that? Yes, I agree. But some people are unhappy about it. There is an idea around that religion doesn’t get a fair go. That it should be able to promote its claims and ideas without being subjected to criticism. The United Nations has passed a resolution against the “defamation of religion”. Ireland has reintroduced a blasphemy law. You get the picture.
On the other hand I believe that irreligion doesn’t get a fair go either. It’s the other side of the coin. Any criticism of religious propositions gets labeled as boorish. As militant. As fundamentalist. (You know what they say about labels. “They enable us to hate people without getting to know them”).
The non-religious are often seen as having no rights in any such discussion. An example in New Zealand was the discussion around the National Statement on Religious Diversity (see Another chance to ignore our true religious diversity). Or our views are seen as somehow being unworthy of inclusion.
A personal Story
This happened to me recently when I inquired about a meeting organised by a local Anglican minister. I had heard that the meeting was aimed at getting feedback from non-churchgoers. “What are we doing wrong?” sort of thing.
My email inquiry received a brusque: “Not sure that it’s really what you think it is. The article can be reached by googling Waikato Times.” OK, not very friendly but let’s have a look. The Waikato Times article described the meeting as an attempt to re-connect with people who used to be church-goers, but for some reason stopped. “Maybe they felt religion was pushed too much at school. We want to hear from them, and also to apologise where necessary.” (see Come and preach to us, say churches).
So I was till undecided. Did they really want feedback or were they just trying to capture “lost souls?”
The whole thing became a lot clearer because the Anglican minister made the mistake of pressing “reply” instead of “forward” when he sent out a warning to his fellow organisers. (Yes it had “Warning” in the subject line!). It said:
“Looking at this guy’s website I hope he doesn’t turn up. Have directed him to the Times article and told him I don’t think it’s what he thinks it is!
I think it’s a good warning though that there is a possibility of someone coming with their own agenda and trying to sabotage. Guess you’ll be able to handle that, but suggest you need to be forearmed.”
OK – no they didn’t want feedback, just “lost souls.” But what a cheek? Any non-religious person attending the meeting was to be seen as pushing “their own agenda” and “trying to sabotage” the meeting!
So this is the thing about the “public square.” It should be open to both the religious and the irreligious. But this means ideas must be open to scrutiny, praise and criticism. Labels and stereotyping need to be avoided – we should “play the ball, not the man (or woman).”
Belief in belief
But it’s not only the religious protagonist who indulges in the demonisation, labeling and stereotyping of the non-religious. Some of the non-religious also do it. In his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Daniel Dennett calls this problem “belief in belief”. The idea that religious beliefs have a special place and special protection. That they should be protected from criticism – not open to discussion and debate.
And some of these people buy into the demonisation, labeling and stereotyping. We saw this recently with Michael Ruse‘s article Why I Think the New Atheists are a Bloody Disaster. He really doesn’t like Richard Dawkins, does he? I think there’s some professional jealousy there. This sort of response has often come from colleagues of those who do an effective job in science popularisation and dissemination.
I was struck by how glibly Ruse slips into violent terminology when talking about the “new atheists.” He accuses them of being “aggressively pro-science” and “pro-Darwinism”. They are “violently anti-religion.” Believing scientist like Francis Collins incur “their wrath” and “their hatred.” They think “every kind of religious belief is wrong, pernicious, and socially and personally dangerous.” They are “excoriating” people.
Notice the demonisation. Perhaps these “new atheists” are wrong in what they are saying. If so they should be engaged with and their mistakes pointed out. Demonisation with labels and stereotypes (and false accusations) is not engagement. It is an attempt to deny the irreligious a place in the public square. To deny them the right to make their points. And to deny them the ordinary respect of honest discussion. The same respect we accord to people discussing politics and sport. It is buying in to the Organisation of Islamic Countries propaganda that criticism of religion is “defamation” (see Attacks on freedom of expression go international).
Turning people off science?
I think some critics of the “new atheists” see it as a matter of tactics. Ruse himself comments on the need to cuddle up to the religious. “We evolutionists have got to speak to these people. We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy. We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the classroom.” Richard Dawkins partially concedes this point when he admits that he is not the best person to convince fundamentalist Christians they are wrong about evolution. He acknowledges that he would not have been the best witness for the plaintiffs ion the Dover Kitzmiller case (see Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda).
Then there is the charge that atheist scientists should shut up because their comments turn people away from science. Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum (authors of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future) go as far as condemning Dawkins’ new book TThe Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution – because it won’t be read by “Americas anti-evolutionists!” (see Science and religion need a truce). We don’t want atheists scientists participating in “public square’ discussion because it might turn people away from science! How ridiculous. (It’s interesting how soem people condemn a book without reading it. In this case before it’s even published!)
I don’t remember being turned away from science because the Head of the Chemistry Department at University was a Christian (I can still remember the biblical quotes he used to help explain organic chemistry. The Markovnikov rule for substitution - “From he that hath so shall it be given and he that hath not so shall it be taken away”). Nor did the fact that several of my bosses during my research career were Christian – and spoke publicly about their beliefs – turn me away. My interest would have been very false indeed if it had. No – Mooney and Kirshenbaum are using the “new atheists” as a scapegoat here. They should be looking at the more basic causes of opposition to science in America.
A question of tactics?
But there is a place for different tactical approaches, and for people with different skills. The point is that they are not exclusive – as Ruse and others suggest. Dawkins will easily acknowledge the valuable role that believing scientists like Ken Miller and Francis Collins can and do play in the struggle against creationism. Ruse, himself, can perform well in this role. Maybe even Moody and Kirshenbaum have been able to raise awareness of the more extreme anti-science politicians in the USA. But does this mean that Dawkins and other great science popularisers should pull their heads in? Refuse to defend their own science and beliefs? Not critique the religious and political ideas of their colleagues whilst still respecting their scientific achievements and work in defending science?
A little bit of thought will reveal that people like Richard Dawkins are extremely effective in their chosen role. With their chosen tactics. Go into any bookshop with a science section and see who is writing these books. Have a look at RichardDawkin.net and peruse the interesting content. Search for the videos of his lectures and appreciate the huge crowds he and similar people draw. Sure, this might upset some religious people and their fellow-travelers who “believe in belief.” But that is only because they interpret honest criticism and discussion as “defamation.” They prefer to stand back, demonise, label and stereotype, rather than honestly engaging with the criticism and discussion.
And haven’t religious spokespersons been offending the irreligious for years with their anti-atheist ravings?
For many non-believers people like Dawkins have been an inspiration. We are grateful that some people, at last, are prepared to stand up for their beliefs. Now that may not be winning over many believers and creationists. But it is valuable, nevertheless. Unless you think that non-believers have no rights!
Perhaps we need a bit more respect amongst the non-believers, as well as between the religious and non-religious. If people like Ruse, Mooney and Kirshenbaum are being effective in winning over believers and creationists to a pro-science stance we should applaud them. But just ask that in the process they don’t scapegoat their scientific colleagues, who are at least as effective even though their audience may be slightly different.
And perhaps we should applaud those who are effective in writing and lecturing about science and atheism. Who are drawing more and more people in to a fascination with science. And helping more and more of the irreligious to respect their own beliefs and ask that others do too.