Chris Mooney and essential properties.

Over the weekend, I noticed a few things to bash Chris Mooney over, things that tie together in an important way. First:

For instance, I wished I’d set aside purely scientific matters and remarked upon how intolerant it is for some Christians to contend that their particular scripture–to which not all of us subscribe–is a science manual. Basically, this means that if they’re right, those of us who aren’t Xians aren’t capable of scientific knowledge about the origins of the world and so on. That’s not just wrong, it’s offensive.

This strikes me as just another variant on the “if you disagree, you’re being offensive” (which is dumb because it takes two to disagree, so on that principle both parties in a disagreement will be equally at fault). Granted it’s not equivalent to or as dumb as “creationists disagree with us on the main issue, therefore they’re failing to tolerate us,” because it’s the method–relying on the Bible for scientific questions–which is being singled out. But I’m not sure focusing on the method creates an asymmetry, that is, changes the fact that it takes two to tango. Creationists can be found guilty of having a method that includes the Bible, but Mooney is equally guilty of using a method that excludes the Bible–why isn’t that offensive?

Also, it ignores the issue that, on the creationist view, people who aren’t Christians are capable of scientific knowledge–all they have to do is become Christians. I’ll get back to this after I talk about a second bit:

A few years back, long before we had The Greatest Show on Earth, I wrote (with Matt Nisbet) of Dawkins that “The public cannot be expected to differentiate between his advocacy of evolution and his atheism.” Just swap “media” for “public” and the sentence is equally accurate.

Now, should the public and the media know the difference? Hell yeah. But is that the world we live in? Hell no.

And thus arises the really tough question: Should Dawkins and his followers recognize this reality and adapt accordingly, or should they blame the media and public (for being the media and public)?

In point of fact, I’m not sure there are really that many people who conflate evolution and atheism. No doubt they exist in the more insular, small town religious communities, but anyone with a reasonable amount of contact with the wider world has an opportunity to realize that there are many people who believe in God and also believe in evolution. Jason Rosenhouse was probably right when he recently said that defenders of evolution should be pointing out the existence of theistic evolutionists, but this isn’t a desperately urgent matter. I just don’t encounter that many people who conflate evolution and atheism.

But there’s a broader principle here that’s basically correct: people do tend to conflate logically independent things that Richard Dawkins has said. “Dawkins says there’s no evidence for cosmic forces of good and evil, therefore atheism entails that there is no right or wrong.” People do this with atheists in general, this is half the basis of the “atheism is…” game. William Lane Craig does it in almost every debate he does on the existence of God, knowing that if he’s not called on it most members of his audience will buy it.

So, I would certainly agree that the public can be expected to fail to differentiate between Dawkins’ atheism and a lot of the other things that Dawkins does. Thing is, just because someone (or a group of people) can be expected not to do something doesn’t mean they can’t also be expected to do it. Maybe some won’t, but maybe some also will. And even if no one would do the thing on their own, that doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be gotten to do it through education and cajoling and exhortation and whatever else is likely to get the job done.

The common flaw in both examples of Mooney’s reasoning is that he treats things like people’s religion and the propensity to reason badly as essential properties, as things that constitute the core essence of a person and are therefore unchangeable. He talks as if the public would stop being the public if it managed to understand the things intellectuals say. Of course that is nonsense. Changing what people think and how they think is the whole point of discussion and education, if Mooney were right, we may as well give up on those efforts.


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