Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist - it's difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world's phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical.
At least, the above is what I think he thinks. It's hard to be sure, because he avoids spelling out this position in a coherent way in one place. He has certainly not produced a consolidated defence of such a position, although he does say some of it in this latest post on the subject. I've pieced his position together largely from a hint here, a partial statement there, often in comments on blog posts by himself or others, so it is difficult even to track them down and provide links. Still, I'm reasonably confident that I've described his position accurately. If I've misinterpreted, and inadvertently misrepresented, his position, perhaps he'll turn up and set me straight. That would be useful.
Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking - as far as I can work out - the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it's bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up.
Now, in his defence, Mooney is not the government. He is not literally attempting to censor people by the exercise of state power, or some other kind of power if it comes to that. Nor is he advocating that other atheists be forced to shut up by an exercise of the power of the state. So, I give him credit for that much. In this very basic sense, his position can be considered a liberal one - he is prepared to tolerate atheist discourse in the narrow sense of not seeking that force be employed to stamp it out. One cheer for Mooney!
Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas - so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument.
But Mooney is not just calling for civil, rational argument, with such things as satire and ridicule off limits. He wants us to censor ourselves, to stop engaging even in civil, reasoned criticism of religion.
That is not a moderate position. That is quite a radical position to adopt. Perhaps it seems moderate to Mooney, having grown up fairly recently in the highly religious culture of the United States. But to those of us who are a bit older than Mooney - and so have seen the widespread public scepticism about religion expressed when we were younger, before this seemed to become politically unacceptable even on the Left during the 1980s - it looks very radical indeed, especially if we live in cultures that are not so pervasively religious as the US.
I've given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney's judgment.
That judgment strikes me as bizarre, but I am all too aware that this is not an argument. Perhaps my expression of personal incredulity will impress some individuals who trust my judgment, but it's not an argument in itself. Then again, the actual arguments have had no impact on Mooney, who holds to his position dogmatically. There's nothing much more that I can say.
I'll simply restate my position that religious ideas are important. It is important to know whether they are true or false, since they (typically) purport to tell us how to live and to offer the key to our spiritual salvation or destruction. Certainly, this is true of traditional forms of Christianity, which come complete with codes of morality and a means to eternal salvation via the sacrificial atonement of Jesus Christ. It becomes all the more urgent to know whether these ideas are true or false when priests, pontiffs, and the rest attempt - as they so often do - to influence governments to enshrine the religionists' favourite moral claims in law. When they do so, we are quite within our rights not only to protest that the state should not lend its power to the teachings of the church (any church) but also that the church has no moral authority in the first place - in the absence of rational arguments, we should not defer to its distinctive moral teachings.
Mooney does not "get" any of this, but it seems like a reasonable enough position to me. I'll go on arguing for this position and will not be engaging in self-censorship. I'll also feel free to criticise people who want (unlike Mooney) to engage in substantive defence of religion, though I will not call on them to engage in self-censorship. They can say what they like, but must expect to be criticised when they do; you don't get to put controversial views without opposition merely because they are religious views.