Framing Atheism

I don’t know if you’ve been following the discussion on Scienceblogs right now, but there’s a very interesting exchange going on between Josh Rosenau and Jason Rosenhouse on the subject of New Atheists versus accommodationists. Josh writes:

Jason’s account makes it sound as if King was an uncompromising and iconoclastic leader. But that misreads King and the history of civil rights. Remember that it was Malcolm X, not Dr. King, who insisted on change “by any means necessary.” Indeed, Malcolm X criticized King using logic analogous to that Jason deploys against accommodationism.

Sounds like strong talk, though Josh immediately tempers it with one of the many disclaimers and caveats in his post:

(I repeat that this is an analogy. New Atheists aren’t Malcolm X, there aren’t atheist nationalists that would parallel Malcolm X’s black nationalism, neither I nor any other accommodationist would claim to be Martin Luther King reborn, etc. It’s an analogy, please don’t overinterpret it.)

He’s got a point to make and he’s going to make it, but he bends over backwards to be, well, accommodating to those who might disagree with him. He wants us to hear what he has to say, and I think we need to hear it. I wouldn’t call myself an accommodationist (and I don’t think many regular readers would accuse me of being overly accommodating to religion, at least in this blog), but right now, at this time and place in the history of church and state, I think we need to listen to both sides, and do some serious, open-minded thinking. And I think the MLK vs Malcolm X analogy gives us something really meaty to think about.

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Conversion vs. conquest

I’d like to follow up a bit on an earlier thread about respecting the opposition. I’ve been thinking about what makes people decide to convert—or not. Ideally, I think we’d like to have our disputes end with the other person changing their mind, and agreeing that we’re right.

The problem is that if we win the argument, the other person has to be the loser before they can agree we’re right, and that’s an ego thing. It comes back to our goal: are we working to convince, or working to conquer? Are we trying to make the other person a loser, or a winner?

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Framed!

A while back there was a bit of a brouhaha over how best to present science and/or atheism to the world. Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens were said to be too “harsh” and “shrill” in their bold and confident assertions that religion was wrong. Advocates for atheism and/or science, it was said, needed to “frame” their arguments, to make them more appealing and less offensive for the average, religiously-minded layperson.

Well, some atheists took that advice to heart, and Dinesh D’Souza would like to give them the “thanks” they deserve.

The central argument of these scientific atheists is that modern science has refuted traditional religious conceptions of a divine creator.

But of late atheism seems to be losing its scientific confidence. One sign of this is the public advertisements that are appearing in billboards from London to Washington DC. Dawkins helped pay for a London campaign to put signs on city buses saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Humanist groups in America have launched a similar campaign in the nation’s capital. “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” And in Colorado atheists are sporting billboards apparently inspired by John Lennon: “Imagine…no religion…”

There is no claim here that God fails to satisfy some criterion of scientific validation. We hear nothing about how evolution has undermined the traditional “argument from design.” There’s not even a whisper about how science is based on reason while Christianity is based on faith…

[A]theists seem to have given up the scientific card.

Congratulations, framers. You’ve made Christians much happier, now that they can claim you’ve conceded defeat in the scientific realm.

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The nice guys are over there, in last place.

“And now we go to Tony, calling from Orlando. Tony, are you there?”

“Hey, dittos, Rush. Longtime listener, first time caller. I just wanted to call and ask you what’s up with all this global warming stuff. I mean, is the planet really getting warmer, and are people to blame?”

“Well Tony, I’ll tell you. I have an opinion on that, but some people find my style brash and offensive, so I’m just going to sit back and shut up and let someone nicer try and defend the conservative point of view.”

Does that sound a bit strange? It might, if you’ve ever listened to Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly, or James Dobson, or D. James Kennedy, or any of the other conservative masters of “framing.” And yet, some people are seriously suggesting that the above approach is the one PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins ought to be taking, in the interests of “framing” science. Don’t the “framing” advocates ever listen to how real framing is actually done, by those whose apparent success is the reason we even want to frame science in the first place?

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Who’s smarter, God or Darwin?

Over at ScienceBlogs, the topic of “framing” has come up again (and again). I generally agree with Rosenhouse: for science to make peace with irrational superstition so that the two can live side by side in the same society is like the sheep making peace with the wolves so the pack and the flock can mingle. It may cut down on the running around in the short term, but it’s unlikely to be beneficial in the long run (i.e. in however long it takes the wolves to get hungry again). The task of understanding how the world really is, and denial that the world can differ in any way from the dogmatic pronouncements of the Bronze Age, are two fundamentally incompatible things.

However, in the spirit of a good challenge, I’d like to propose a new “frame” for presenting evolution to the creationism-minded. It goes like this: Who is smarter, God or Darwin? If Charles Darwin is smart enough to think up a biological system that would allow life to adapt to changing environments, and to recover from extinctions and other catastrophes, and to flourish in many creative and diverse ways most wonderful, then do you think a divine Creator would be clever enough to come up with a system that was as well-thought-out as Darwin’s?

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PZ in trouble again

There goes PZ Myers, getting himself in trouble with religious folks again.

And of course some people took umbrage at my rude dismissal of religion. Then it started getting more fun. People actually told me I should be gentler with people’s illusions as a way to win them towards my “side” … which I have to disagree with on principle. I don’t think I gain anything by lying to people about what I think, my “side” isn’t the one that is mired in delusions, and it’s not as if there’s a shortage of scientists who will happily and without qualification encourage people who try to use religious fol-de-rol to justify evolution, and vice versa.

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Framing Science?

Via the Framing Science blog, a success story about getting things done by properly “framing” the science behind the policy:

The unprecedented success at translating expert recommendations into a policy victory is in no small part due to the strategic framing of the initiative. The complexities of this bill were put in terms that policymakers and the public could understand, value, and support. As one backer described: “We quit talking about the virtues of science in the abstract and started talking about its impact on jobs. Everybody understands jobs.”

While this is good news, it illustrates a problem I have with the whole “framing” debate. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Pharyngula: Another round in the Kleiman/Myers skirmish

PZ Myers has another go at those who claim that it’s wrong to criticize someone else’s belief in God. In so doing, he voices a frequently-expressed opinion that, in my view, does a bad job of (should I say it?) “framing” the debate.

I am saying precisely that belief in god is wrong because there is no empirical or theoretical support for it; there is a concatenation of myths leavened with post-hoc justifications for them, which is not the same thing.

There’s something unsatisfactory about saying that there is no evidence for God. After all, we learn new things all the time. Just because we say “there is no evidence for God” doesn’t mean that evidence might not exist somewhere. It just means we haven’t seen any (yet).

To me, that argument comes up short. Read the rest of this entry »

 
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