August 18, 2009
Dealing with religious believers
Last Friday I was invited to speak to a group of Cleveland Freethinkers. I chose to speak about the new phase of the science-religion war. The old phase dealt with opposition to the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools and ended (more or less) with the drubbing that the intelligent design creationism forces received in the Dover trial in 2005. (Shameless plug coming up! My new book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom deals with this war and will appear in September.)
The new war is between two groups who were on the same pro-evolution side in the old war, the so-called 'accommodationists' (those who either believe that science and moderate forms of religion are compatible or that even if incompatible, the incompatibility should not be pointed out for fear of offending the sensibilities of moderate religionists) and the so-called 'new atheists' (those who think that science and religion are incompatible and have no hesitation in saying so).
The accommodationist position is nicely satirized by the cartoon below from the website Jesus and Mo, a terrific comic strip that features Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses as buddies and roommates conniving to foist their religions on their respective believers, and sometimes engaging with an unseen atheist barmaid. You really should visit the site regularly because it wittily captures much of the absurdity of religious apologetics.
After speaking for about 20 minutes or so explaining what this science-religion war entailed and advocating for the new atheist approach, I opened up the floor for discussion and a lively one ensued, debating the merits of the two approaches with arguments given in favor of both sides.
Then, in the middle of the discussion, a woman who had hitherto been quiet spoke up and said that she had listened to everyone and that it was clear that most (if not all) those present were skeptics of some sort but that she herself was a devout Christian who had been through much personal trouble (she implied that some of that involved recovery from a serious illness) and that she believed in Jesus and the Bible and had been blessed by him, and that all of us too should realize that we too had been blessed by him. She was clearly emotionally invested in what she said because she started to cry and had to wipe away tears several times.
The group was taken aback by this unexpected turn of the conversation and gave her the floor to let her fully have her say. They did not challenge or contradict or even interrupt her. When she was done with her extended comments, several people gently said that they could understand where she was coming from but that she should realize that the kinds of personal experiences that were meaningful to her may not be equally so to others who sought more empirical evidence for their beliefs.
After some time, the conversation returned to its original focus of which approach one should take, the accommodationist or the new atheist, and in the process we discussed what light, if any, might be shed on this topic by scientific theories such as quantum mechanics and the indeterminancy principle.
Although I claim to be a new atheist, I too did not directly challenge the devout Christian's beliefs, which might seem to make me an accommodationist in practice. But there is really no contradiction. As I have explained before, there is a difference in the way that one deals with people's religious beliefs in the private sphere and in the public sphere. I have no hesitation in the public sphere, which includes public talks like my initial remarks to the Cleveland Freethinkers group, of saying that I think that there is no rational basis for believing in god. I can be, and often am, quite uncompromising in my critiques of religion, not indulging in the polite fiction that some religious beliefs are credible or that the beliefs of religious people have some sort of immunity from criticism. But in the private sphere, which is what the discussion became when the Christian spoke to me and the rest of the group about her deeply held personal beliefs, one has to handle things differently.
In this particular case, the public/private line was not easy to draw because the group was about 30 people seated in a room in an informal setting. But I think the group as a whole was able to navigate that line, which speaks well for their sensibilities. I think the devout Christian was made to feel at ease and even welcome, even as it was clear that most of the people did not share her beliefs. But there is a disturbing undercurrent to such emotional outbursts by religious people that I will address in a fresh post later this week.
The Cleveland Freethinkers is a lively and friendly group that, as you can see, welcomes and accepts people with all kinds of beliefs. You can learn more about their meetings here.
POST SCRIPT: Why are there four conflicting gospels?
God tries to explain to Jesus how there came to be four different scripts for the part Jesus is to play on Earth.