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Nov. 27 2009 - 1:33 pm | 1,239 views | 4 recommendations | 12 comments

Nearer My Atheism to Thee: How to Respond to Theists

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Tuesday, November 24) I wrote an invited opinion editorial for CNN, here.

The title, “Religion, Evolution can Live Side by Side,” was written by the CNN editors, but it does capture the thrust of the piece, as it seems to me that believers who accept Newton’s theory of gravity as the means by which God creates stars, planets, solar systems, galaxies, and universes, can just as readily accept Darwin’s theory of evolution as the means by which God creates life.

Perhaps predictably, there have been critics responding on both sides, most notably the estimable Jerry Coyne, the author of one of the best books ever written on the subject, Why Evolution is True, in his web page of the same title called me an “accommodationist” and even a “faitheist” (not sure what that is—“faith atheist”? but it’s clever!) Anyway, Jerry is “disappointed” in me and wonders if I’ve gone soft in the brain because of a Templeton Foundation sponsorship. Read it here.

The responses to Jerry’s blog have been interesting, and sometimes amusing:

What Shermer is trying to make peace with are sensible moderate theists, not fundamentalists. It is the people in the middle, not those on the fringes, who will, ultimately, determine the virulence of religion and irreligion. Shermer is trying to reduce religion’s virulence, not embracing fundamentalist ownership of the Bible, and it’s ridiculous interpretations of it. Shermer is right to reclaim the Bible as part of the Western cultural patrimony, and not leave it to fundamentalists to tell us what it means, and the implications to be drawn from it.

Or:

Michael Freakin’ Shermer’s heart is not pure enough for Jerry Coyne. If Jerry Falwell’s circle of orthodoxy was, say, 1 meter in radius, then His Worshipfulness The Right Reverend Jerry Coyne’s circle of orthodoxy has a radius of, roughly, a Planck Length.

For the record, I am not sponsored by Templeton, and I’ve never received a grant or fellowship of any kind from them. They did pay me to write and edit some articles for them (work-for-pay is okay!), but insisted that I could say anything I wanted and could invite anyone I like to contribute to an essay collection, including Christopher Hitchens and Steve Pinker (to answer the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”).

What is the right way to respond to theists and/or theism? That is the question asked at every atheism/humanism conference I’ve attended the past several years. The answer is simple: there is no one “right way”. There are multiple ways, all of which work, depending on the context. Sometimes a head-on, take-no-prisoners, full-frontal assault á la Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or Jerry Coyne is the way to go. Sometimes a more conciliatory approach á la Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, or your humble servant is best. It all depends on the context and what you are trying to accomplish. When I debate creationists—whether of the Young Earth, Old Earth, or the Intelligent Design species—I try to take a Dawkinsonian/Coyneian approach and slam-dunk their flawed arguments and duplicitous claims without an ounce of accommodationism (although I am, by nature and upbringing, polite and respectful). Christopher Hitchens’s recent body slam he and Stephen Fry gave the Catholic Church for its stance on women’s rights, birth control, and 3rd-world poverty would have brought tears to my eyes had I not been cheering so fervently:

On the other hand, if it is your goal to educate everyone on earth to the power and wonders of science (as it is the Skeptics Society and www.skeptic.com) and to employ science to solve social, political, economic, medical and environmental problems (as it is my personal goal), then we need as many people as we can get on board toward a common goal, whatever it may be (starvation in Africa, disease in India, poverty in South America, global warming everywhere…pick your battle). If you insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, then you have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from your project.

To what end? So you can stand up tall and proud and proclaim “…but I never gave an inch to those faith heads!”? Well good for you! Just keep on playing “Nearer my Atheism to Thee” while the ship of humanity slips further into the depths of disaster.

Sometimes religion is the problem, but usually it is something else—local political battles, governmental corruption, lack of education, resource depletion, currency debasement, inflation, poverty, etc. Don’t forget the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish through science and reason: a better life for all humanity. Pick your battles carefully and choose your strategy wisely.


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  1. collapse expand

    A great rational response to a never ending issue with this complex society we live in. From your own words, I get the feeling this will never be solved because religions will accept only one position…..”but I never gave an inch to those science heads and their facts!”?

    Keep up your great work for science and reason!

  2. collapse expand

    Michael, the point is that in your obsession to get religious believers to accept one scientific theory in particular, you are working against the greater goal of getting them to accept science. All of science; not just a few of its conclusions, or even all of its conclusions, but the scientific way of thinking itself.

    Take a statement like this:

    “Believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors.”

    Or much worse, this:

    “The belief that there is a war between science and religion where one is right and the other wrong, and that one must choose one over the other (…) [is] baseless.”

    The first quote is just disturbing in its assumption of the truth of ‘divinity’. The second quote is faitheistic accommodationism in its purest and most disgusting form.

    None of the ‘New’ atheists has any problem with teaming up with religious believers to fight for certain causes and solve certain problems, but why should teaming up with someone mean having to do everything to pander to their sensibilities?

  3. collapse expand

    As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing worse than a faitheist–and that’s a fundagnostical. I hope you’re not one of those.

  4. collapse expand

    “If you insist that people of faith renounce every last ounce of their beliefs before they are allowed to join the common fight against these scourges of humanity, then you have just alienated the vast majority of the world’s population from your project.” Bravo!

  5. collapse expand

    Religion plays into my T/S blog something like this: Many of those wrongly convicted but exonerated many years later committed actual crimes that placed them in prison before the wrongful convictions. Put another way, they were not modeling the lives of “good Christians” or “good Muslims,” etc.

    So, as they serve prison time for the wrong crime, they tend to find God/god behind prison walls. Then, after a hard-won exoneration against tremendous odds, they thank God/god for never allowing the abandonment of hope. I want to ask–to scream out when I’m most frustrated–where was God/god during the process that led to your wrongful conviction, that allowed the actual perpetrators to remain free so they could rape or murder again?

    The evangelical expressions of faith by exonerees sure puzzle me because of the immense illogic involved. But I stay silent, out of respect for the ordeal the exonerated had to undergo before justice finally kicked in.

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    About Me

    Dr. Shermer is the Founding Publisher of Skeptic magazine and editor of Skeptic.com, a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and an Adjunct Professor at Claremont Graduate University. His latest book is The Mind of the Market, on evolutionary economics. His last book was Why Darwin Matters: Evolution and the Case Against Intelligent Design, and he is also the author of The Science of Good and Evil and of Why People Believe Weird Things. He received his B.A. in psychology from Pepperdine University, M.A. in experimental psychology from California State University, Fullerton, and his Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University (1991). He was a college professor for 20 years, and since his creation of Skeptic magazine he has appeared on such shows as The Colbert Report, 20/20, Dateline, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live (but, proudly, never Jerry Springer!).

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