The Center for Inquiry (CFI) has just announced three new hosts for its popular Point of Inquiry podcast. They are to replace D.J. Grothe, who has left the CFI to take up a top executive position with the James Randi Educational Foundation.
The new hosts of Point of Inquiry will be Chris Mooney, Karen Stollznow, and Robert Price. Mooney will be doing about half of the interviews, while the other half will be divided evenly between Stollznow and Price. Before I go any further, allow me to make it clear that I have nothing against either Stollznow or Price. I know relatively little about Price and very little about Stollznow, but I've heard nothing to make me doubt their competence or fairness, and I wish them every success. Still, even if I could say the same about Mooney, D.J. Grothe's act would be a hard one to follow.
I was interviewed by Grothe last year, and I totally enjoyed the experience. He was friendly, skilled, and gave me every opportunity to explain my views about the imperative to scrutinise and criticise religion. The interview was not done live or uncut - it was quite heavily edited. However, I was always assured that the editing would not present me in a bad light ... and, of course, it didn't. Since I had confidence in Grothe, I was able to talk very frankly to him knowing that hesitations, false starts, and so on would be okay. There was no need to be on my guard, so the final product, if somewhat artificial, is a truer presentation of my views than comes across in most interviews, where the opportunities to open up are fewer and it is necessary to maintain a degree of suspicion and caution.
Thus, when Grothe asked me to re-answer a question because I'd brought up a point he wanted me to come to later, I was fine with it. I didn't say anything I didn't want to say, but I could trust him to do some shaping of the podcast, knowing I'd still be allowed to get across what I had in mind. With two people cooperating on producing the best possible product to get the interviewee's ideas across clearly, there is a feeling of mutual confidence and trust. The interviewee can open up because he or she is confident of being treated more than fairly in the end product.
I have every confidence that D.J. Grothe would likewise have treated someone with very different views from mine: i.e., help them to present their best case. He would not set out to undermine anyone with editorial tricks. I've listened to his interviews with a wide range of people holding an equally wide range of views, always being more than fair.
My concern is that I simply do not trust Chris Mooney to take the same attitude. Doing a heavily-edited interview with him could be dangerous. Even if he did not edit the recorded material unfairly, to put the interviewee in a bad light, he could make the interview a hostile experience. Sometimes, of course, we must all do hostile interviews, but that is not what Point of Inquiry is for. It's supposed to provide outreach into the community with messages that are broadly congruent with CFI's positions (even if not totally consistent with each other). That should specifically include messages that criticise religious doctrines, leaders, and organisations. Even prior to Grothe's departure, there were few non-print outlets for someone with views like mine - few places where we could explain our views in an atmosphere of friendly cooperation with skilled media professionals. Contrast the immense funding available to religious apologists, and the many sympathetic outlets they have for their views across the full range of electronic media.
Now the situation is worse.
Why is that so? Why is Mooney so dangerous? Because he opposes robust public criticism of religion, or at least of supposedly moderate religious viewpoints that are not fundamentalist in character. He opposes that kind of criticism even if it is civil and thoughtful. He is well known for his unfair and vitriolic attack on P.Z. Myers, in his book Unscientific America. More worrying, however, and perhaps more easily forgotten is that he has used this New Republic review by Jerry Coyne of books by Kenneth R. Miller and Karl W. Giberson as an example of the sort of thing that should not be said in public. If you have not already done so, I suggest you read Coyne's review for yourself. Consider it in its entirety before reading on. ...
Coyne's review is highly critical of Miller and Giberson, particularly their attempts at Christian apologetics, but it discusses the perceived strengths as well as weaknesses of their books. It certainly does not travel beyond the area of robust, yet thoughtful and civil, public discourse about ideas. Authors should expect this sort of criticism when they venture into print, much as they might hope for unqualified praise. Indeed, an author who received no review worse than this would be very fortunate. In short, whether you agree with its conclusions or not, there is nothing wrong with Coyne's review, i.e. nothing discourteous, irresponsible, unprofessional, or uncivil.
Yet, Mooney has claimed that this sort of thing should not be said. If you find that difficult to believe, check for yourself. Here is Mooney:
In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?
Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, "be nice." Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else.
2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy?
3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?
Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are "epistemological and civic humility" – providing the groundwork for "civic friendship." To which I can only say: Amen.
Note, of course, that Mooney hides behind a series of statements allegedly made by Barbara Forrest. However, it's clear that he agrees with her analysis. He is offering Forrest's thoughts for our edification. He cites them as something that we should accept, does so without any qualifications, and ends up saying "Amen", to indicate his echoing agreement. Thus, all arguments attributed by Mooney to Forrest can quite properly be taken as Mooney's own views, not just the views of "Forrest". Out of "epistemological and civic humility" we are not supposed to publish the kinds of criticisms that Coyne makes of Miller and Giberson.
The three supporting points allegedly made by Forrest are so naive that I must call them foolish. If Forrest, as opposed to Mooney, really did say these things, I have to inquire what planet she has been living on in recent decades. I can only deal with these points briefly, or an analysis of them will end up taking over the whole discussion. First, however, even supposedly moderate religion must be subjected to criticism for all the reasons that I have stated so often, including in my article in The Philosopher's Magazine, and it is nonsense to say that supposedly moderate churches do not try to force their views on everyone else. The quintessential "moderate" religion that Forrest/Mooney refer to is Roman Catholicism, which continually attempts to impose its barbaric ethical views on the rest of us through its influence on secular law-makers.
Second, just because we criticise fundamentalists, we do not have to give a free pass to non-fundamentalist religion, which can be just as socially dangerous, or even more so. Once again, the political power and influence of the Catholic Church, in particular, is immense. Year by year, it draws upon this in every country, wherever it can, usually to promote a morally despicable social agenda - attacking gay rights, abortion rights, the use of condoms for safe sex, the conduct of stem cell research, and anything else that does not fit into its miserable and medieval worldview. When it seeks to do this, it is natural and proper to ask what authority it really has. Where does it get the authority that it claims? From a god? Well, does this god exist? From a sacred tradition? Well, what sanctity does it really have? From holy books? Well, what is their provenance? Are they divinely inspired or are they all-too-human constructions?
Third, of course there are many different religions, but many of the so-called "moderate" ones are just as determined as the fundamentalist ones to translate their ideas into public policy. Often, as I've stated, the proposed policies are morally reprehensible. Once again, it is natural and proper to ask where the claimed authority to do this comes from. Do the gods of these religions even exist, let alone say what is attributed to them?
But, leaving aside the three reasons put forward by Mooney, the bottom line is that he does not think that we should write material that is critical of non-fundamentalist religion. Thus, Jerry Coyne's moderate and civil book review is held up as an example of the sort of thing that should not have been written. Worse, Mooney has since defended his views acrimoniously and often unfairly.
I have no idea what the CFI managers had in mind when they decided to employ someone with views like this - which are contrary to the CFI's entire mission - and such a one-eyed approach to defending them. But in any event, I cannot imagine working on CFI-related business with somebody who has such views and such an approach. They're free to employ him, of course, as he is to accept the job, but I'd not be happy to be interviewed by Mooney. If I did do an interview with him, I'd be in a situation of having to treat CFI's interviewer as hostile. I'm sure that many other secular public intellectuals would feel the same way.
It's an inappropriate, divisive, damaging choice. The controversy may help Chris Mooney sell more copies of his book, but it will not help the cause of reason. What on earth were the CFI people thinking?