In my previous post I complained about calls for individual atheists to engage in self-censorship and thus shut up about their views. This is the kind of thing that Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have been advocating for months now to their great discredit.
Predictably, perhaps, one of the responses was a tu quoque
- the claim that I'm just as bad for asking bodies such as the NCSE to engage in similar self-censorship. But there is no analogy here. Even if tu quoque
arguments are all too predictable, the idea that there is an analogy is a disturbing one.
It is important that there be public debate about the truth or falsity of religions. That debate best comes from individuals or from groups that are explicitly pro-religion (e.g. the Catholic Church) or anti-religion (e.g. Atheist Nexus). If an individual presents an argument about such matters, we should deal with the substance, not call for self-censorship, even though we should be legally permitted to do so. If the Catholic Church presents its bizarre and often miserable doctrines, we should deal with any arguments, perhaps mock the doctrines, but not call for it to be silent.
However, there are very good reasons why an organisation such as NCSE should present itself as not
being such a partisan body, with its own theological opinions, but simply as being concerned to defend the teaching of established science, including the substantive truth of evoutionary theory. No one I know of (not me, not Jerry Coyne) is saying it should lose its legal right to say "religion X is true" or "religion Y is false" or "philosophy of religion idea Z is true". We are saying that when it makes such claims it becomes a different sort of body, one that now has a dog in the substantive fight about the truth of such ideas ... and it thus begins to advocate views that are contrary to those of many actual/potential members and supporters.
Of course it is (and should be) legally entitled to do so, but people like me and Jerry Coyne believe it is not a good idea. It would be wise for the likes of Eugenie Scott to listen to us carefully, even if they are ultimately not convinced.
There are many reasons why various organisations with defined missions and diverse memberships should stick closely to their briefs and decline to take stances on various controversial issues where no such stance is required. Thus, there are reasons for them to engage in what you might want to call "self-censorship" if you are trying to make a smartarse tu quoque
point - reasons that do not apply to individuals.
If someone suggests that there are good reasons for the University of Chicago not to take an official view on the existence of God, that is a perfectly sensible suggestion. It is not an improper call for self-censorship. But the situation is very different if someone says that an individual faculty member should shut up about religion. Again, if someone suggests that a broadly based political party refrain from taking a position on such an issue, that is usually a sensible suggestion; there are good reasons for such parties to avoid sectarianism. The same applies with the NCSE - it is legally entitled to say what it likes, but if it does so it will turn into a different sort of organisation, and current members or supporters will be entitled to say it no longer represents them and to leave it (or cease giving it whatever financial or other assistance they have given it in the past).
Generally speaking, arguments about what stances should be taken by organisations in which a diverse range of people have some kind of stake are not
analogous to aguments about what individual people should say when they are merely expressing their individual views.
All of this is well known, so it is either ignorant or disingenuous to suggest that there is some kind of analogy between calls for individuals to censor themselves and calls for the NCSE to avoid taking certain unnecessary stances.
Sure, the NCSE can take a substantive stance on religion, philosophy of religion, etc., if it wants (e.g. to try to win over certain kinds of Christians). It can legally go beyond taking the fairly narrow stances it has in the past, which everyone on my side of the argument agrees with (e.g. that evolutionary theory is actually true, that attempts to teach creationism or ID in public schools breach the First Amendment, etc.). I fully defend its legal right
to do so.
But if it goes beyond its fairly narrow brief, and starts to say more about the correctness of various controversial ideas in religion or philosophy of religion, it will no longer speak for so many people. People who disagree with it will then get to argue with it publicly, form their own separate organisations, etc. The NCSE will need to balance that prospect against what is actually gained by supporting a theological doctrine such as NOMA. In this case, I suspect that very little is gained, because Christian fundamentalists are no more attracted to NOMA than they are to evolution; Christian fundamentalism is an integrated set of doctrines that involves substantial claims about an historical fall, a confined human history, a partly analogical relationship between Adam and Christ, etc. Conversely, the tiny minority of Christians who believe in NOMA already have no problem with evolution.
There is very little to be gained by telling Christian fundamentalists that there are certain very liberal Christian positions that are arguably compatible with evolution.
These are all considerations that apply to the policy stances chosen by a body such as the NCSE - and even more to more official bodies such as the AAAS - in a way that is massively disanalogous
to the sincere views of individuals.
Once again, this is the kind of thing that is well known and should go without saying. Such obvious points should be part of the tacit background to the discussion, but it seems that they must now be spelled out explicitly, as if to slow children.
These meta-level debates are, unfortunately, a time-wasting distraction.