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Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

I’ve been sat on this post for a couple of weeks. One reason for not putting it up is I’ve been busy and this post might annoy a few people. Kicking off a discussion and then ignoring it is impolite, so it has had to wait. Another reason is that it’s another post on whether (and how) academics should accommodate religious beliefs. There’s been a lot of posts on this elsewhere because of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s invective-sodden publicity howl for their book Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that people should show respect for religious beliefs, and any atheist who disagrees is engaged in acts of violence. There’s a rich vein of irony to be found in the headline of their recent LA Times piece. You may wonder if they’re on a crusade for respect for a specific religious tradition rather than all of them. There’s many people who’ve written many posts about flaws in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s reasoning. Many of them are good, but I’m not interested in simply adding a ‘me too’. At best it’s boring. At worst its cowardly mob-following – and boring.

Still it’s possible there could be something to debate. By nature I prefer to work with people than against them. I’d like to say it’s because I’m such a nice person but I’m probably confusing laziness with niceness. Life is easier if you don’t have to work against people. If accommodation of religious beliefs works then that’s so much less work to do. So what would an accomodationist stance look like?

An answer can be found in a book chapter by Kyle S. Van Houtan and Stuart L. Pimm: “The Various Christian Ethics of Species Conservation”. It’s a discussion of an attempt to use theology to understand some of the more reality-proof Christian groups in an attempt to change policy on conservation. If you’re expecting a laugh-a-minute deconstruction of the paper then you’re in for a disappointment. It opens with a quote from William Placher which argues morality has very little to do with religion. Whether or not you agree with them Van Houtan and Pimm are clearly on speaking terms with reality,

The problem addressed by Van Houtan and Pimm is the resistance to environmental campaigns by fundamentalists. Fundamentalists identify one of the evils of science in general is the lack of a moral imperative. Whether or not you’d describe Christian fundamentalists as moral is irrelevant here. Their perception of science is that it is, at best, a moral vacuum. This contrasts with ecologists who see their work as having a strong moral base. The first difficulty identified by Van Houtan and Pimm is language. If you’re in a narrow mindset where only Christianity is moral then identifiably unchristian language is clearly used to describe immoral activity. It’s a small step from Evolution, which is obviously the work of the Devil, to Ecology. This puts Ecology firmly on the side of the apes. If you believe in angels this is a dealbreaker.

…[E]thics in nontheological language will be worse than unattractive to Christians—such ethics will be incoherent. Theological language is what gives Christian ethics intelligibility. As a result, casually using “nature” or “biodiversity” in place of “creation” is incredibly significant when considering Christian environmental ethics.

Van Houtan and Pimm p119

This is clearly dead centre in Mooney and Kirshenbaum territory. We have a scientifically illiterate audience. We have a crisis for which there is clear scientific evidence; Van Houtan and Pimm would like to save up to a third of the planet’s species from extinction in the next century. We also have language identified as a major factor in preventing action. It would seem that science communication is urgently needed, but to whom? After a brief survey which shows that the planet’s ecosystem definitely is in danger. Van Houtan and Pimm move on to tackling the Christians. They are clear that Christians are plural.

This is one of my bugbears. It’s certainly easy to rail against stupid Christians, but stupidity is not a requirement for many Christian sects. The idea that Christians are morons is not just a case of lazy framing by non-Christians. It’s a political gambit by fundamentalists too. If I’m head evangelist for the Church of Christian Lunacy then I won’t campaign against the teaching of science because it’s Lunatic policy. I’ll say that the campaign against science is a Christian matter. This is a subtle attempt to pull Catholics and Protestants into the fight on my side because there’s the implication that if you don’t accept this Lunatic idea, you’re not really a Christian. It works because, as Van Houtan and Pimm make clear, there isn’t really leadership from the Churches on ecology. There are many different positions. To make things easier Van Houtan and Pimm neatly construct a four-fold typology of ecological positions.

  • Earthkeepers. These are the people who see stewardship of the planet as an imperative, based on their reading of the bible.
  • Skeptics. These people see no conservation crisis. This would include the Southern Baptist Church and Focus on Family. These are the people who see Ecology as junk science.
  • Prioritisers. These people do not value ecological matters as much as other concerns. For instance conservation is a good thing according to the Assemblies of God, but you don’t want to really push it too much, else you’ll end up with New Age Earth worshipping.
  • The Indifferent. The people who take no position.
Van Houtan and Pimm p129-131

This recognition of the diversity of Christian positions matters if you’re looking for a positive action:

Experience teaches that, when participants in two different fields of knowledge meet, they will have symmetrical views. For example, when economists meet ecologists, the former have a detailed drawing of the economy and a single, simple box for “ecology,” whereas ecologists have a detailed drawing of environmental processes and a single, simple box for “the economy.” This seems the case for religion and the environment. Those concerned with the practical issues of protecting the environment are likely to see the multifaceted problems of their trade, but view religion, ethics, and the church as single and monolithic. The reverse is also common.

Van Houtan and Pimm p131

This is a useful insight. Again I think it could support the Mooney-Kirshenbaum proposition that public Atheism harms Scientific communication because, if people like Richard Dawkins are the most prominent scientists, the obvious label on the Science box is ‘godless’. We therefore have a starting position for rebuilding science communication. What do Van Houtan and Pimm give use as tools for working on that? I’ll discuss this in full below.

Now I’ve discussed that, the next obvious question is why do Van Houtan and Pimm say so little about science communication given they’re talking about ecology? The reason is that they’re aware of the audience they’re talking to. The issue, even for those who’d style themselves as scientific sceptics, is not science. It’s religion and politics. They really go to town on this discussing the links between right-wing political groups and the nuttier Christian factions. They criticise the Cornwall Declaration and its reliance on technological fixes to various inconveniences:

Overexploitation is not a concern because the ability to extract natural resources increases with technological advances. One assumes that even biodiversity loss can be mitigated through biotechnology. If species drift close to extinction, surely their populations can be bolstered through Jurassic Park–like efforts… Are we to believe these arguments? More important, is there a biblical cause to do so?

Van Houtan and Pimm p134 (My emphasis)

This makes sense within the frame where Van Houtan and Pimm are working. As far as I’m concerned the definitive statement biblical statement on ecology is purely of historical interest. The idea that I should care about it as a guide to modern living makes my mental gears crunch. If I were a Christian like Pimm and – presumably – Van Houtan, I would see things differently, as they make clear in their conclusion.

Certainly, there are paths of environmental ethics that are secular, some of which are certainly unfaithful to both the Hebrew and Christian portions of the Bible. For those of faith though the primary concern is not nature itself nor humanity, but obedience to the scriptures. The remaining challenge then, requires theologians to teach the scriptures, ecologists to measure the state of the environment, and both to work in concert… We do not call for a baptizing of secular agendas—either liberal or conservative—but rather obedience to God’s word.

Van Houtan and Pimm p136-7

I think, as far as it tackles the problem identified by Van Houtan and Pimm, their paper makes complete sense. This is about galvanising militant Christians and you don’t do that with science. It’s an approach brings ethical problems of its own and a political cost. For example, Van Houtan and Pimm show the importance of the biblical character of the message in its delivery – but who delivers it? Could a young black woman deliver this message to a white patriarchal church in Florida? That’s a particularly pointed question, but accommodating the principles of various churches means that you state arguments from personal revelation or prejudice should replace arguments backed with evidence in public debate. Science is about evidence so while this approach might work politically by getting a result, in the longer term it is antithetical to science communication. Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s policy of accommodation sinks.


It’s hard to be certain because this example isn’t mentioned in their book. This is a bit odd.

Stuart Pimm certainly is mentioned in Unscientific America. He’s thanked for his comments on the book. It’s peculiar that he didn’t think to mention that he’d been involved in the kind of reaching out to science-resistant people that Mooney and Kirshenbaum were after. It’s particularly odd because Pimm is a Professor of Ecology at Duke University. Sheril Kirshenbaum, I’m told, is a Marine Biologist at Duke University. I’m not sure what her marine biological work there is, because the only mention of her research I found was a reference to her Science of Kissing but it’s likely she would have come into contact with quite regularly Pimm as she’s listed as being part of Pimm’s working group.

One of the recurring criticisms of Unscientific America is that it’s shallow and superficial. I think the above is a case in point. I have some difficulties with Van Houtan and Pimm’s paper, I don’t think it tackles the political environment of Christianity particularly well. As they mention, discussing the funding of the far-right Christian groups, there are bit social and political factors behind this. I think there’s interplay between religious belief and political funding. The impression I get from Van Houtan and Pimm is closer to a Patron/Client relationship. That’s not an entirely fair criticism though. For a start it’s the old chestnut “They didn’t write an entirely different paper that I wanted them to write.” It’s also not the end of the conversation. I think their ideas could be usefully picked up and developed or applied to other contexts. It lays out a positive argument which you can discuss. Bruising their Religion, the comparable chapter in Unscientific America, in contrast says much more about their personal blog-warring than it does about religion and science in the USA. Mooney and Kirshenbaum may, or may not, agree with Van Houtan and Pimm’s analysis but it’s clearly a missed opportunity that they didn’t think to mention it.

It’s also worth returning to the box. Not all Christians are stupid. Van Houtan and Pimm are very clear about that and talk about taking their message to specific Christian groups. They do not, as far as I read the chapter, argue that all the public should be treated like they’re in the remedial class. In the meantime since I started writing this Mooney and Kirshenbaum have published an article in the LA Times. Having previously criticised Dawkins for being an atheist in the public sphere, they now criticise him for being a scientist in the public sphere. I know Christians who hate what Dawkins says, or at least what other people say Dawkins says. Nonetheless they have a keen interest in science and are perfectly capable of coping with Evolution and science in general without any patronising allowances. Van Houtan and Pimm’s model has the sophistication to leave room for them. I much prefer following a policy that states religious people are not inherently more stupid than atheists.