Native Skeptic

Native Skeptic
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

If We Champion Science, Must We Oppose Faith?

"Recently at the 30th anniversary conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in Los Angeles, leading science blogger PZ Myers and Point of Inquiry host Chris Mooney appeared together on a panel to discuss the questions, How should secular humanists respond to science and religion? If we champion science, must we oppose faith? How best to approach flashpoints like evolution education?"

The next day, the three reprised their public debate for a special episode of Point of Inquiry. <--This is the unedited cut of that three way conversation.

Chris Mooney is a 2009-2010 Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and the author of three books, The Republican War on Science, Storm World, and Unscientific America.

PZ Myers is a biologist at the University of Minnesota-Morris who, in addition to his duties as a teacher of biology and especially of development and evolution. Also, the author of Pharyngula, the most heavily-trafficked science blog online.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of award-winning books of philosophy, history, and poetry, including: Doubt: A History (HarperCollins, 2003); The End of the Soul: Scientific Modernity, Atheism and Anthropology (Columbia University Press, 2003); and The Happiness Myth, (HarperCollins in 2007). Her work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. Hecht earned her Ph.D. in History from Columbia University in 1995 and now teaches in the graduate writing program of The New School University.

This is my response to that discussion

There may not be one specific set of comprehensive standards that are deemed as being acceptable “excuses" for every kind of erroneous belief, but there are some reasons that are more plausible than others, which can help give us better explanation and insight. For instance, neurological studies that focus on the effects of religion on the brain can help others understand or inquire into other possibilities regarding the origin of these types of beliefs by providing that insight into the reality of whats going on biologically. In other words, there's a better way to approach this rather than labeling people's experience as "stupid, crazy, or dumb". After all, you can't forcibly MAKE somebody believe something. Ultimately, people have to make those connections inside their brains' themselves in order to accept them. Skeptics are open to such criticism as well when certain claims stray from being a sound arguments, like when using ad hominem attacks in an attempt to prove a point.

Many people who begin to take on this quest of extinguishing the flame of religion often find themselves outside of science and lead strait into a more metaphysical than scientific discussion. Ridicule and boasting about being "right" isn’t part of science, but if we present it in that light of being absolute truth, it can be correlated with "arrogance", becoming even more effectively dissonant to a persons' prior core beliefs. Personally, I think that this attitude, tone, or word selection may be effective for a certain demographic of people, but for the most part the general public has very strong personal beliefs that are heavily influenced by the emotional experiences of being human. To me, it seems like this brand of tactics encompasses the kind of emotional response that simply turns a large number of people off. In some cases, even when the methodology behind the argument is sound, this will just effectively work against those efforts and push a lot of non-skeptics further into rationalizing their prior beliefs with any kind of reasoning, even if it means using bad logic.

Personally, I don’t think the majority of the emphasis should be on respect, in regards to priority, but more rather on empathy. We empathize, identify commonalities, and THEN show respect. People earn respect by being respectable first, so much like credibility, it is attained over time, through proven and consistent efforts. The overarching point to defend science might be correct, but if the social methods to show that point are offensive to another, it won’t make a difference how much that you think your "right" to them. We shouldn't always just use the Malcom X tactic of "By any means necessary", in order to justify another person having to be offensive, use labels, just to prove a point to satisfy their own ego. This doesn’t appear to be the most effective strategy, especially when we know so much about confirmation bias and the notions of cognitive dissonance theory.

After listening to this discussion, I can define my own personal strategy as associating myself with anything that seeks to promote scientific inquiry through teaching critical thinking and encouraging others, not only to be more analytical thinkers, but to also be excited about science in general. Basically, the definition of what the skeptical movement and science is all about.

There isn't a specific cookie cutter strategy that is universally applicable to combating all types of fallacious beliefs. So, I would have to say that PZ and Chris are BOTH right, but the specific variables in the situation dictate what course of action needs to be taken. Not every person is as far along as others, everyone learns at their own pace, some people need a little push and motivation, while some immediately fold and crack under any kind of pressure. I’m glad this discussion was held, it was very interesting to say the least and it helped me formulate my own position regarding these issues as well. Thanks to all of those involved at Point of Inquiry and those who participated in this discussion!


  1. Isn't religion a cultural ideology based on social construction persuasively employing humanistic sentiment as a basis for cohesion?

  2. The idea is that we are trying to answer the question of how to most effectively and efficiently teach critical thinking to those who already identify themselves as religious, or anyone who has bought into any set of common misconceptions about evolution or what science is in general. Personally, I don't think we should necessarily be focusing our aim towards strictly debating against religion, but more in the direction of specifically seeking to provide more access to science and promoting a better understanding of what science is, how it works, and basic tools of reason and critical thinking skills.

  3. "Personally, I don't think we should necessarily be focusing our aim towards strictly debating against religion, but more in the direction of specifically seeking to provide more access to science and promoting a better understanding of what science is, how it works, and basic tools of reason and critical thinking skills."

    Well said. Personally, I think the first step towards persuading someone that a belief they hold is mistaken (whether it is a religious belief or not), is to get them to examine why they believe it in the first place, which in my opinion is the essence of critical thinking.