About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, March 24, 2008

More science and religion kerfuffle - Nisbet tells Dawkins and Myers to shut up

Matthew Nisbet, who is supposed to be some kind of guru on communicating science to the public, has more or less told Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers to shut up and let others do the job. Apparently, Dawkins and Myers are so compromised that their efforts at communicating and defending science are now counterproductive. Accordingly, per the esteemed Professor Nisbet, they ought to "lay [sic] low".

How, you ask, did Dawkins and Myers become so compromised? Why ... because of their known anti-religious views of, course. If science is communicated by people known to have such views then the good, plain folk of the USA's Bible-rich heartland will pass by the other way, like rats following a piper or horny priests on the trail of a juicy altar boy. Better to leave the defence of science to official organisations ... or to nice Catholic scientists like Francisco J. Ayala.

For some time now, I've been following Nisbet's running program of blatant self-promotion over at ScienceBlogs, and I've finally decided that he's not just a nuisance who doesn't "get" it. I've made up my mind that he's a genuine opponent of the party of reason. Sure, he may wish to popularise his concept of science. But his view is something like: "Religion is here to stay, so to popularise science we have to sanitise er adjust er frame it to make it palatable to the religionists."

This might have some short-term benefits, I suppose, though I can see many problems with it. In any event, it is not the way to popularise a rational view of the world.

Look, I accept that religion in some form may turn out to be here to stay. Not necessarily, though: that has certainly not been the experience in a lot of Western and Asian countries (Norway, Japan, etc., and even the UK, Australia, and New Zealand to an extent). And even if we're always going to be stuck with religion of some kind, deep into the indefinite future, religious claims can be put under pressure, and perhaps they will mutate into something more benign (like Unitarian Universalism or the nicer strains of Anglicanism). What's more, as religion gets put under pressure it will lose something of its lustre of authority in the minds of all those busy people whose belief is half-hearted, not to mention all those who are not really religious but still believe in belief.

Here's how I see it. Not all religion is simply evil. I'll mention yet again that I am fond of the Anglican Church, at least its more enlightened and less evangelical strains, and am mildly touched that unbelievers like me are still welcome in its halls. (Note to self: I must go to a nice High Church cathedral service, with incense and all, some time soon. I haven't done that for ages.) Certain kinds of Hinduism and Buddhism don't bug me. In fact, I get along with genuine moderates from any religious tradition. Some of them even read this blog, and they're very welcome. Some of them are people whom I count as friends.

Nonetheless, for all of that, the various religions are - more often than not I'm afraid to say - cults of misery that need to be opposed. They merit our opposition not just because they are false, but because their moral teachings and political influence are pernicious. At the same time, there is, to put it very mildly, a tension between any full-blooded, supernaturalist religious belief and the austere-yet-beautiful worldview arising from science. In particular, it is very difficult to reconcile the scientific image of the world with the image of a loving, providential (and all-powerful, all-knowing) God presiding over it. Anyone prepared to try the needed intellectual gymnastics and contortions is welcome to it, but I gave up many years ago.

I submit that those of us who form the party of reason should be saying this loudly, clearly, and persistently. If someone keeps telling us to shut up, I am no longer going to consider him a friend of the party of reason who just doesn't "get" a few things. I'm going to see him as an opponent, as an enemy of reason itself.


Anonymous said...

Well said Russell.

Incidentally, there is one issue that Nisbet does not seem to consider.

Don’t people who have been misrepresented and lied to have the right to express irritation and call others out for dishonesty?

That would still be the case even if the film were about debate in the fields of campanology, origami or competitive carrot growing.

There is a principle at stake here that is in danger of getting buried under the debate about ‘framing’.

Blake Stacey said...

This might have some short-term benefits, I suppose, though I can see many problems with it.

Short-term solutions lead, at best, to short-term improvements.

Roko said...

"Nonetheless, for all of that, the various religions are - more often than not I'm afraid to say - cults of misery that need to be opposed."

well said. Good article overall, too. I'm afraid that Dawkins and Myers' approach to tackling religion is somewhat unlikely to succeed, but I admire their courage.

I also think that Nisbet is mistaken when he says that something is "really bad for science". Science is of instrumental value in such an extreme way that no level of religious retardery will be able to get rid of it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm afraid that Nisbet has really disgraced himself over this.

I'm all for framing issues in the interests of communication. With this in mind Dawkins himself acknowledges that he is not the best spokesperson for science in some situations. He acknowledges he would not have been as effective as Ken Miller as an expert witness in the Dover trial, for example.

Given that, he is still extremely effective in other arenas. Especially in consciousness raising about science and about atheism.

We need people with different approaches, and specialties, to cover the spectrum of situations. We need people like Dawkins and Myers - just as we need people like Miller and Scott.

Instead of recognising this Nisbet is telling Myers and Dawkins, both very effective popularisers and educators, to shut up!

If he were assessing the situation properly he should be telling the people he considers to be more appropriate to the creationist or creationist-tending audience to speak up!

By reacting in such an inappropriate manner Nisbet is giving up on what may have been an appropriate message about framing.

Perhaps we need someone who can frame the issues more appropriately than Nisbet to talk about communication of science.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that religion in itself is evil, and I have a vague enough idea from reading how it may have developed. It is turning into an opportunity cost at this point, and we can see through this how attitudes towards religion divide rather than unite people. I think people who should know better grant too much allowance towards religion, acceding to its claims.

Given all that, you are right that it will probably never go away and we do need to live with it. We just don't need to accommodate to its worst offenses, and that means weakening the speaking of science to avoid offending certain sensibilities.