In a new post on his esteemed blog Framing Science, the acclaimed communications expert and general polymath, Matt Nisbet turns his nimble wits to a fiercely burning question. I'm sure we've all been holding our breaths, waiting for an answer.
Has Richard Dawkins breached an ethical boundary in his various attempts to criticise and undermine religion? More specifically, could Dawkins have acted unethically when he's argued that the well-corroborated findings of evolutionary biology undermine religious faith and (as Nisbet puts it with characteristic understatement) undermine "respect for all religious faith"?
It will, of course, be obvious to my readers that religious faith itself is something that must receive "respect"; it's not sufficient that we respect the right of individuals to believe religious doctrines, and to engage in religious rituals and other practices, if they wish.
Nisbet elaborates how the National Academy of Science (NAS) and related bodies in the US used market research to decide what messages to present to the American public. Having researched the issue, with focus groups and a survey of course, the NAS decided to announce that religion and science are compatible.
Clearly, this is how you do it. For example, it would be wrong to check whether any particular religions or sects make claims that are inconsistent with robust, well-corroborated scientific findings. That's obviously irrelevant. Furthermore, it would be quite wrong to consider any more (shall we say?) philosophical issues. For example, might there be an argument that even some of the more moderate versions of Abrahamic monotheism include doctrines that are in tension with the emerging image of the world offered by science? How well does the idea of a loving and providential deity square with the millions of years of suffering produced by the slow processes of biological evolution?
You and I might not expect the NAS to take a stand on questions like that. We might think that the compatibility of science with religion would be a matter of some legitimate controversy. If we thought like that - silly us - we might then think it inappropriate for bodies such as the NAS to adopt a position one way or the other. After all, we'd say, philosophers of religion disagree among themselves on this, as do individual scientists, so why is it appropriate for a professional body to take a stand? But we'd be wrong. Obviously the issue can be settled by sufficiently well-planned market research involving focus groups, surveys, etc. In this case, the research told the NAS that they should present material to the public that included "a prominent three page special color section that features testimonials from religious scientists, religious leaders and official church position statements, all endorsing the view that religion and evolution are compatible." Yay!
This is how to settle a philosophical debate!
By similar reasoning, someone like Dawkins is wrong - morally wrong, that is - when he presents arguments to the public, largely based on science, in an effort to cast doubt on religion.
Again, you and I might think that he has every moral and legal right to do so, while other scientists and philosophers have a right to criticise his arguments, all of which are, of course, controversial. I, for example, find Dawkins' favourite argument, the so-called Ultimate 747 Gambit, somewhat puzzling and inconclusive. It has been criticised by many people, including some prominent philosophers. But it may also have some merit, or at least some interest, depending on how it is interpreted and what assumptions we are prepared to make. In that case, we might have thought - silly us - that the thing to do would be to let people argue about it. You know? Perhaps a worthwhile body of philosophical literature might then grow up, scrutinising the merit of the argument from all angles. Isn't that how it usually works?
But, yet again, we'd be wrong. Nisbet is made of sterner stuff than we are. Rather than studying and debating the cogency of Dawkins' actual arguments, he explains, we can cut through all that like a two-edged sword chopping up a brace of sinners. We can then conclude that Dawkins acted unethically in, for example, writing The God Delusion. In doing so - and of course going somewhat further in his criticism of the rationality of religious belief and the social value of religion - Dawkins does not merely "denigrate various social groups", but, worse (it seems) he "gives resonance to the false narrative of social conservatives that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda".
So there we have it. When the NAS takes a stance on a highly controversial issue in philosophy of religion, based on market research suggesting that this will help make science appear more acceptable to the American public, that is ethical behaviour. It is certainly not, as you and I might have thought, a meretricious exercise in intellectual dishonesty. But when Dawkins presents his sincerely-held views, relying partly (though by no means entirely) on arguments from his own area of scientific expertise, that is an unethical exercise in denigrating social groups and, yes, in Giving Resonance (don't worry too much what that expression might actually mean) to the paranoid fantasy, er narrative, "that the scientific establishment has an anti-religion agenda". Never mind that Dawkins has never made such a claim; one must always be very careful not to go around Giving Resonance.
Now that that's cleared up, I expect that Nisbet will soon turn his skills to whether mathematicians should argue for mathematical platonism or some other philosophical account of the ontological status of mathematical abstracta. A bit of market research should clear it up quick smart. You and I - silly us - probably thought that this little difficulty in the philosophy of mathematics was intractable, but it's certainly not beyond Nisbet's powers.
Next, he could turn his Ozymandian insight to resolving the long-running grudge between the utilitarian and Kantian teams of normative theorists; no doubt, a market survey would establish which view would be better received by the American electorate.
Before we're through and have shuffled off our mortal coils, Nisbet could clear up all the central questions of philosophy, while establishing once and for all that any views contrary to his market research must not be argued for in public. Certainly they must not be presented with any passion. This denigrates groups of right-thinking American people who disagree, and it Gives Resonance to a False Narrative.
Matt Nisbet is now an expert on ethics and everything else. With a little bit of market research, he'll solve all our problems in no time. Why were we so worried about them in the first place? Just silly us, I suppose.
Hallelujah, and praise the Lord for Matt Nisbet!