Last week, while I was giving thanks for an abundance of family, friends, and food, a brouhaha was brewing over an invited opinion editorial I wrote for CNN celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (on Tuesday, November 24).
The title, “Religion, Evolution can Live Side by Side,” was written by the CNN editors, but it does capture the thrust of the piece which I concluded by noting that if you are a believer in an eternal god, what difference does six zeros make on when the creation happened — 10,000 or 10,000,000,000 years ago — or by what method of creation was used: spoken word or big bang?
Well, this set off a mild firestorm among some observers of the science-and-religion debate, most prominently the estimable Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best books ever written on the subject, Why Evolution is True, in his website of the same title called me an “accommodationist” and even a “faitheist” (“faith atheist”?)
I responded to Jerry on my TRUE/SLANT blog, and had a good horselaugh (which according to Martin Gardner trumps 10,000 syllogisms) at the comment by Lewis Grossberger (who also blogs at True/Slant): “As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing worse than a faitheist — and that’s a fundagnostical. I hope you’re not one of those.”
Continuing in the neologistic theme, “Furcas” says that my writing is “faitheistic accommodationism in its purest and most disgusting form.”
Another good horselaugh was provided by a physicist at his own blog: “Michael Freakin’ Shermer’s heart is not pure enough for Jerry Coyne. If Jerry Falwell’s circle of orthodoxy was, say, 1 meter in radius, then His Worshipfulness The Right Reverend Jerry Coyne’s circle of orthodoxy has a radius of, roughly, a Planck Length.”
This comment well captured my position and needs no further comment:
What Shermer is trying to make peace with are sensible moderate theists, not fundamentalists. It is the people in the middle, not those on the fringes, who will, ultimately, determine the virulence of religion and irreligion. Shermer is trying to reduce religion’s virulence, not embracing fundamentalist ownership of the Bible, and it’s ridiculous interpretations of it. Shermer is right to reclaim the Bible as part of the Western cultural patrimony, and not leave it to fundamentalists to tell us what it means, and the implications to be drawn from it.
How one responds to theists all depends on the context and goals of the response. I think we nonbelievers have fallen into black-and-white thinking on the question of “what is the ‘right way’ to respond?” The answer is that there is more than one way. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context. Sometimes a head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault á la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Jerry Coyne is the way to go. Sometimes a more conciliatory approach á la Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or your humble servant is best. It all depends on the context and what you are trying to accomplish.
By the way, agreeing with my alleged critics for a moment, I do not actually think that Dawkins and Hitchens are rude or disrespectful. If you read their works or listen to them in public lectures and debates, they are forceful, clear, and unwaivering, but they are not disrespectful. Watch, for example, the recent body slam Hitchens and Stephen Fry gave the Catholic Church for its stance on women’s rights, birth control, and 3rd-world poverty. It was focused and direct, but not disrespectful.
It is my goal, and the goal of the Skeptics Society, to educate as many people as possible about the power and wonders of science and to employ science to solve social, political, economic, medical and environmental problems. As such, we need as many people as we can get on board with a common goal, whatever it may be (starvation in Africa, disease in India, poverty in South America, global warming everywhere … pick your battle). My concern is that if we insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, we have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from our project.
Sometimes religion is the problem — and when it is let’s not hesitate to call it out. I did so myself on the day before Thanksgiving on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show in a debate with Dinesh D’Souza when Hewitt insisted that we thank God for our abundance and that believing in God leads to a prosperous nation like America. I pointed out — without accommodationism, faitheism, or fundagnosticalism — that 99% of everyone in Peru is Christian and yet they are dirt poor. Why? Because of warring political factions, governmental corruption, lack of education, resource depletion, currency debasement, inflation, and especially the lack of property rights and the rule of law.
So let’s not accommodate or pander in those areas where religion is clearly a problem or unmistakably mistaken. But not all (or even very many) social problems are caused by religion, so let’s pick our battles carefully and choose our strategies wisely.