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).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chris Mooney is an atheist, but ...

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.


J. J. Ramsey said...

Is there a link to something from Mooney somewhere in that text?

Russell Blackford said...

JJ, I've added a link to Mooney's latest post on the subject. Had to go earlier before I could complete the post with links - but maybe it only needs the one to give the flavour of Mooney's latest position. I've also modified the post slightly to be fairer to Mooney in this sense: he does spell out som of his position a bit more in his latest post.

Russell Blackford said...

er, "some" ... not "som". :)

Russell Blackford said...

And for those who don't know, I added a link to the post by Mooney that started all this. But I can't possibly track down all the to'ing and fro'ing since.

Richard Wein said...

Mooney appears to have changed his position. Earlier he attempted to defend theistic scientists against accusations of inconsistency. Now he seems to accept that they are being inconsistent, but says he doesn't care about a little inconsistency. That's quite a change.

Personally, I would agree with Mooney that there are much more important issues than a little intellectual inconsistency, but not that we should keep quiet about fallacious compatibilist claims when we see them. Perhaps it's the compatibilists who should keep quiet if they don't want so much attention drawn to this subject. Coyne didn't start this debate. He was responding to the compatibilist claims of the NAS, NCSE, Miller and Giberson.

Also, Russell, I think your criticism of Mooney mistakes his meaning. He's not asking you to refrain from all criticism of religion, but only from accusing religious moderates like Miller of inconsistency with science. And while I wouldn't go so far, I do think some of the rhetoric could be toned down. Your own criticism of the NAS statement was a model of cool reason, but Coyne has been rather more combative in his tone, and some others still more so.

Magpie said...

I don't think a lot of his arguments are based, necessarily, on any philosophical position. Rather, I think he's looking at objectives and outcomes. He's saying: be nice to them, because alienating them will make them stop listening. When he's talking about being "moderate", he's not using the word in a ideological or philosophical context, but rather from a rhetorical point of view. He's been to one of those classes where you need to push against the hand of the person sitting next to you, so the instructor can make a point about how humans instinctively push back...

Which is, in any case, bollocks, in my humble opinion. Atheists spent a bloody long time being quiet (apart from the ones being tortured, I think we can reasonably assume). Didn't really get us anywhere good, did it? When my neighbor thinks that atheists are "people who haven't been baptised", and my hairdresser, when she heard I was an atheist (it was a discussion about whether my kids would go to the Catholic school next door), asked me if I was "practicing", well forgive me if I think it'd be nice for people to hear from us once in a while. And sure, I'd like if people were respectful of each other where possible, that goes without saying. But atheists are often humans, and humans are often arseholes. And in between the arseholes and Mooney are lots of perfectly rational people with their own idiosyncratic methods of communications.

I just don't understand what he's expecting to achieve. He only wants people to be like him? To argue like him, act like him, think like him? Who is he going to convince with such pathetic arguments as included in the post you linked to? You can't prove a negative! Wow, really??? Show's over, guys. We're sunk. The Brain has landed.

Not that arguing like Mooney would seem to be very effective - everything he writes is either ignored by his audience, or it enrages them. I find this a constant source of slightly guilty amusement. Which is a shame, because he seems a decent fellow.

Chris Mooney said...

Your first two paragraphs capture what I think quite well.

The rest is absolutely, entirely baffling.

Chris Mooney said...

Not used to this but comment # 7 is from me, Chris Mooney.

Magpie said...

Also, the Future of Communication (all rights reserved) apparently consists of ignoring all the strong arguments against you, and focusing on trivialities - then mangling your response to even these.

This in regards to the "response" here, and the Mooney posts in comments.


Chris Schoen said...

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.

And is there a long tradition of success in following this method? People have been mocking each other's ideas since long before Voltaire. We should have plenty of data by now as to whether this is an effective means of overcoming "immunity to argument."

I don't think Mooney makes his point very well. Or maybe he doesn't have much of a point to make. Like you I'm never quite sure. But I think it is well worth noting that when there is as much animus between worldviews as currently exists between hard naturalism and hard theism, ridicule often tends just to exacerbate the anger and disrespect all around. Do you allow any connection at all between the nasty tone in Bunting's piece about Benson and Stangroom's book, and the announcement from Dawkins, Myers & c. that "the gloves are off" and that we much sharpen our sticks so they "really hurt?"

If you feel the need to express your anger and frustration over religion in the form of ridicule I will not tell you to "shut up." Howl and rage! But I take claims that this represents a moral and tactical position with great skepticism. I'm concerned that there is a significant amount of self-flattery in these appeals to truth and free speech. For whose benefit, in the end, have the gloves come off?

Magpie said...

(My post above written without seeing the two posts above that - this one here in response to the new ones):

And GOD (sorry to multi-post), but now Chris Mooney is baffled, but doesn't say why. What did you not understand? Did you think it was wrong? Were there parts you grasped but not others? Did you see the words, but fail to see a point? Do you just want Russell to retype the whole thing in different (smaller?) words in the hope that it'll penetrate? What don't you understand, and why?


Look, here's para 3, in the "baffling" section:

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.

Which part is hard to understand?

1. You're an atheist.
2. You take the position described in the first 2 paras (which you've agreed with).
3. You think it's "bad form" (idiom meaning "rude") for atheists to explain their beliefs or criticise religion in public.
4. You don't explain your position in a substantive way (now would be a good opportunity, and a link would do if Russell's wrong).
5. You write posts telling atheists to "shut up" (idiom meaning "be quiet").

Please point out which parts you don't understand - though "entirely" baffling would suggest it's the whole post you don't get - you are a communicator, right? Who chooses his words carefully, right? Is it just criticism in general that baffles you?

If I sound cranky, it may be related to the insultingly vapid way you dismiss your critics. I'm tempted to think the posts above are parody. Do you go to debates and stick your fingers in your ears and chant "lalala can't hear you"?

J. J. Ramsey said...

underverse: "And is there a long tradition of success in following this method?"

I think it depends. Greta Christina had this to say in her post "Is It Okay To Mock Religion?" (mild warning: some bits of her blog are NSFW):

"There's mockery that has a point. There's mockery that shines a spotlight on inconsistency, hypocrisy, stupidity, greed, arrogance, close-mindedness, sloppy thinking, and flat-out evil. (The kind of mockery than Jon Stewart is king of.)

"And then there's mockery of the 'Janie is a doo-doo-head' variety. The kind of mockery that calls names and makes fun without any real content or point. The kind of mockery that essentially substitutes invective for analysis. (The kind of mockery that, alas, Keith Olberman is all too prone to.)"

Of course, both kinds of mockery can be successful at persuading people. However, only the former kind is really good at training people in how to think, to spot absurdities. The latter kind is especially dangerous for a movement that is supposed to be based on reason. It may be good for rallying the troops, or for "owning" people, but it is potentially corrupting.

(Side note: When I say that some parts of Greta Christina's blog are NSFW, I mean that very literally. However, if you are at home, or if you are on your lunch break and have a boss who doesn't care if you look at a blog with frank talk about sex in your free time, go and read it. It's really good, IMHO.)

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, thank you for turning up here. You say that I capture your position well in the first two paras but that you're baffled by the rest.

If I capture your position well in the first two paras, I am presumably not a complete idiot, totally unable to interpret you, or someone who is congenitally unable to be fair to you. So perhaps if the rest that you find "baffling" results from some misinterpretation of your position, then you could assume that you coming across in an unfortunate way to someone who isn't entirely uncharitable.

If that's the case, why not explain where you think I'm going wrong.

That's assuming that what you find "baffling" is my understanding of your position, rather than why anyone would take my position.

I'm open to making this constructive. Although I've felt frustrated at times during this debate, and it's doubtless shown, I want to make progress, not simply to indulge in mutual kicking of heads.

Ophelia Benson said...

Snap, Russell - I've just been posting on the same subject, before seeing this. (I started from Jerry Coyne's 'Quote of the week' then proceeded to Chris Mooney's post on Peter Hess then his reply to Jerry.) I just updated it to point to your comments on Mooney's post - now I suppose I'll update it again to point to this post. It's so hard to keep up!

Chris - why are you baffled? Here's the bit I quoted in my post where I think you offer a false choice:

I don’t see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview...I know that many very intelligent people are struggling all the time to make their peace with this incongruity in their own way–a peace that works for them. And so long as they’re not messing with what our kids learn–or, again, trying to ram their views down our throats–then good on ‘em.

Here's my comment on that:

But that's a false choice, because anti-accommodationists also don't see a need to pry into how each individual is dealing with epistemology; that's not the issue; as has been pointed out a thousand times, the issue is what it is reasonable and fair and useful to talk about in public. It's not a question of grabbing every American over the age of ten for an inquisition on beliefs, it's a question of writing and discussing and debating in public fora. As has been pointed out a thousand times, Jerry Coyne didn't break Ken Miller's door down to challenge him, he reviewed a book for a magazine - a book that Miller himself wrote. This isn't private, this isn't prying into people's heads, it's public discourse. It's not fringe public discourse, it's just public discourse. We're allowed to do that.

What are you baffled about? You seem to be claiming that anti-accommodationists are advocating prying into how each individual is dealing with these complicated and personal matters of constructing a coherent worldview. I think that's where you go wrong. Is that any help?

Do you think that Jerry Coyne should have declined to review Miller's and Giberson's books in TNR? If not, do you think he should have done it in a different way? If not...what are you arguing for? If so, why are you baffled?

Ophelia Benson said...

Snap again, Russell - I just crossed with you.

I feel that we may be closing in on understanding here! Except Chris is probably out for dinner now.

Here's my post by the way -


Russell Blackford said...

And snap! again. I was just doing my daily (first) look at Butterflies and Wheels ...

Ophelia Benson said...

Dude, we're, like, cosmically attuned.

Chris Mooney said...

I'm gonna have to do a whole post about this. I simply can't believe that anyone takes me in the way that I am being taken.

Let me just say this to start:

I think religious belief should be criticized publicly and often, and I don't think anything I've said in any way contradicts that. The rest I guess I'll explain in a full post.

bad Jim said...

One of the strands in this tangled debate concerns the status of the supernatural. Jerry Coyne and others point out that supernatural phenomena reliably avoid detection and for all practical purposes appear not to exist.

Others, including perhaps Chris Mooney, assert that the supernatural is in principle undetectable, thus shielding much religious belief from scrutiny. Exactly how such a conclusion is reached remains obscure to intellects as obtuse as mine.

As to the question of whether forthright atheism is winning: it's not doing too badly in Europe, and in the U.S. it's too soon to tell.

Chris Mooney said...

We are still wasting time on a canard--censorship--but I have tried once again to articulate why it is a canard:


Ophelia Benson said...


I think religious belief should be criticized publicly and often, and I don't think anything I've said in any way contradicts that. The rest I guess I'll explain in a full post.

Well I think some things you've said do contradict that.

At Michigan State, the “two cultures” issue that Forrest tackled was science vs religion, and I really enjoyed her take, as it dovetails so closely with my own view. So let me attempt to summarize her argument and why it resonated for me...[Forrest] challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus–Jerry Coyne, who I’ve criticized before. 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...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...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?

I think those passages are at least in tension with (even if they don't flatly contradict) saying that you think religious belief should be criticized publicly and often. Those passages are not saying that religious belief should be criticized publicly and often, they are saying pretty much the opposite.

If I'm wrong about that, please explain how.

Ophelia Benson said...

Sorry, forgot the link.


Anonymous said...

Russell (and Ophelia, if you're reading) - you've both drilled down to the core problem: that Mooney doesn't acknowledge that positions he took previously are different from what he claims (today) that he meant. This is really important, and he really needs to acknowledge it or no one can have a discussion at all.

You've written lucid, cogent commentary on this. But despite how well and clearly you write, expending that many words gives Mooney a chance to slip, slide, and shift goal posts. It gives him an out, so that he doesn't have to answer the basic question that started this whole affair (apologies for paraphrasing you):

"Do you withdraw your prior claim that Coyne was uncivil or out of bounds in his New Republic review?"

That was what started all of this. If he hadn't made that original claim (or if many of us didn't perceive that to be the claim) millions of pixels would still be alive. Everything after that has been a frustrating exercise in trying to pin Jello to a wall.

I suggest just asking (repeatedly if necessary) the question to Mooney until he answers it. In one or two sentences. Don't give him an entire blog post filled with other ideas that he can distract himself with. Don't respond in detail if he skirts the question, just repeat it. Just ask him to answer one direct, reasonable question. That seems like the minimum obligation any participant in a discussion has to other participants.

- Josh Slocum

Ophelia Benson said...

Hey most of my comment was just quotation of Mooney! I did a thorough job of that because there's a lot of 'please stop talking' in it and I wanted Mooney to see all of it. I myself was quite brief.

Anonymous said...

True, true, Ophelia. My suggestion was meant to be aimed a little more generally; I didn't mean to imply anything about your most recent (and succinct) comment.

- Josh Slocum

Larry Fafarman said...

IMO some important points have been ignored in the controversy over the compatibility of evolution and religion.

Many Darwinists seem to have the false belief that religion is the sole cause of rejection and skepticism of evolution theory. Geocentrism, like creationism, is supported by the bible, but the fundies accept heliocentrism but not evolution because they find the scientific evidence to be persuasive for heliocentrism but not for evolution. There is a lot of evidence for an old earth and some evidence for common descent, but the net evidence is actually against an evolutionary process that was driven solely by natural genetic variation and natural selection.

Darwinists believe that the fundies reject evolution in order to maintain a belief in the inerrancy of the bible. But that belief in biblical inerrancy has already been undermined by the bible’s erroneous teaching of geocentrism.

Another Darwinist myth is that all they have to do is persuade the clergy that evolution is compatible with religion and then the faithful will follow the clergy like sheep following a Judas goat. The infamous Clergy Letter Project is an example of this kind of thinking. But, for example, a lot of Catholics don’t follow the church’s very strict teachings about abortion, so if the Catholic church had teachings on evolution, why would or should Catholics follow them?

Someone who interprets the gospel literally but does not interpret the bible’s creation story literally is a kind of “cafeteria Christian.” To be interpreted literally, both the creation story and the gospel require belief in the supernatural. However, whereas the creation story is straightforward, the gospel is full of illogic, inconsistencies, ambiguities, and unintelligibility. Also, the creation story is consistent with a belief in an all-powerful god but the god of the gospel is a weak, limited god who must struggle against Satan for control of the world. Hence, on the basis of Scripture alone, a literal interpretation of the creation story makes much more sense than a literal interpretation of the gospel !

Larry Fafarman said...

IMO Forrest and Mooney are really being silly about this. Do they really think that avoiding criticism of theistic evolutionism by atheists would prevent the courts, legislatures, and school boards from siding with the fundies in the future?