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Austin Cline

Mooney Framing: Rejecting Science for Religion Means They're Compatible

By June 25, 2009

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Chris Mooney regularly insists that all he wants is to promote the "pragmatic" position that science and religion are compatible. He doesn't want critics of religion and theism to "shut up," he just doesn't want them to keep being so publicly critical. This differs from shutting up in that... well, Chris Mooney can't quite explain how it differs. But it does, really. You can trust him on that.

As a demonstration of just how trustworthy Chris Mooney is, as well as a demonstration of just what he he thinks "framing" is all about, he recently cited a report which reveals that there is a "silent majority" of Americans who agree with him that science and religion are compatible. You might be aware that the term "silent majority" doesn't have a positive history, but it doesn't look like Chris Mooney does — which is great, because it means he doesn't recognize the irony of using it.

Chris Mooney writes (emphasis added):

I heartily agree–my sense, too, is that the silent majority doesn’t side with either of the extremes. And I think the polling data eminently supports this. For instance, as David Masci of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life writes in a survey of that evidence: "These data once again show that, in the minds of most people in the United States, there is no real clash between science and religion. And when the two realms offer seemingly contradictory explanations (as in the case of evolution), religious people, who make up a majority of Americans, may rely primarily upon their faith for answers."

At the same time, though, let’s face it–in the science blogosphere, we don’t hear a lot from the “silent majority.” Rather, and admittedly with some important exceptions, we hear from the New Atheists.

Yet I am arguing on behalf of the silent majority, and that is what keeps me going. So my question is this: How can we wake them up, make them realize that this is their issue too, and help them reclaim the debate for the middle ground?

The data is pretty interesting, especially in that most people recognize that evolutionary theory is standard in science and that science is important for society:

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin's theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

What's most significant here, though, are some different numbers:

How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion. Only 28% of respondents in the same Time poll say that scientific advancements threaten their religious beliefs. These poll results also show that more than four-fifths of respondents (81%) say that "recent discoveries and advances" in science have not significantly impacted their religious views. In fact, 14% say that these discoveries have actually made them more religious. Only 4% say that science has made them less religious.

Source: Pew Research

So according to Chris Mooney, the "silent majority" which is willing to ignore science in favor of religion isn't "extreme." Apparently, the only thing "extreme" for Moony is atheists pointing out the conflicts which the "silent majority" is trying to pretend don't exist. Chris Mooney openly and unapologetically proclaims that he argues "on behalf of the silent majority" which doesn’t think that science conflicts with religion — and since they don't think science conflicts with religion because they are willing to ignore science whenever such a conflict might appear, Chris Mooney is necessarily arguing on behalf of this tactic as well.

I can't say that I'm surprised by the results above. People recognize the importance of science and so support science. It's also likely that many want to appear to be supporting science when surveyed about it. People also believe that their religion is important to them — and there is far greater pressure to appear to be supportive of religion in America. Admitting any conflict between the two would often require choosing one and rejecting the other, at least in part, but rejecting either science or religion would entail rejecting a part of an identity which one has built up for themselves.

People have trouble doing this, so they compartmentalize. They ignore the inconvenient bits they don't like rather than engage in any of the hard work necessary to examine what they believe, why, and whether any of the beliefs they've taken for granted should be amended or abandoned. Doing this allows them to pretend that conflicts between religion and science don't exist. So long as they don't feel conflicted, there is no conflict; so long as they are able to ignore or deny reality, they won't feel conflicted.

When I wrote not long ago that Chris Mooney had abandoned reason and science, I didn't realize just how thoroughly he had done so. I thought that his previous statements and falsehoods were bad, but this is actually quite a bit worse — and he still hasn't hit bottom. Chris Hallquist noticed that the Pew report revealed something rather different from what Chris Mooney was claiming and stated that this qualifies as a deliberate, unambiguous lie. He concludes his indictment of Mooney's honesty with this (via: Barefoot Bum):

It Mooney can´t get his facts straight about something so simple, it´s time to ignore him. For my own future reference, though, and that of anyone who´s morbidly curious about this mini-fiasco, Jerry Coyne has a nice compilation of relevant posts, which he seems to be continuously updating. Though it doesn´s include this most lovely-titled of posts. Notice how Mooney has nothing of substance to say in reply, saying only that the debate is a waste of time–in which case, why doesn´t he shut up?

Given the long history of so many people complaining about Chris Mooney telling critics of religion to just shut up, he naturally took umbrage at someone telling him to shut up... although Hallquist doesn't actually tell him to shut up. Instead, he asks why Mooney doesn't shut up if in fact the debate is the waste of time Mooney admits it is. Sounds like a good question to me, but remember Chris Mooney's standards of honesty just aren't very high here so we get this as a "response":

And now, an atheist blogger actually tells me to “shut up,” using precisely those words. I trust there will be round denunciation of this behavior?

Right, Chris Hallquist should be "denounced" for asking why Chris Mooney doesn't quit whining about something which Mooney himself says is a waste of time? OK, since I have been a person who has complained about Chris Mooney arguing that atheist critics should just shut up, I'll do it:

Chris Hallquist, how could you? You should know better than to ask Chris Mooney why he doesn't quit wasting time with something that he admits is a waste of time. Any sort of decent answer to this question would require a level of self-introspection which Mooney has never, ever demonstrated. No matter how many times people have critiqued his perspective and agenda, he has never, ever revealed that he has subjected them to his own internal review. Why would he stop to reconsider this?

Far, far worse though is the fact that you gave him an easy excuse to ignore the substance of your argument. I know, the question was tempting and I'm not sure I could have resisted either, but since I'm benefiting from 20/20 hindsight I get to pretend otherwise. You've noticed I'm sure that he never even answered the question that sparked his response (speaking of a waste of time: all that whining about a question he won't even answer), but more significant is the fact that he doesn't even begin to address why he is coming down on the side of people who openly, frankly, and unapologetically are willing to ignore science in favor of religion.

He's avoiding the fact that his "silent majority" only believes science and religion are compatible because they ignore science whenever a conflict appears. He avoids having to answer for the fact that he cites a quote stating "there is no real clash between science and religion" while ignoring the context of that quote — a dishonest tactic frequently employed by creationists and other science-deniers.

Granted, we have no reason to think that he would have directly and substantively responded to this issue even if the question hadn't appeared, but his spinning, dodging, weaving, and "framing" would have been far more amusing if he hadn't been distracted by the bright, shiny question you left dangling at the end of your post.

Naughty, naughty Chris.

So if science conflicts with religious beliefs, Chris Mooney's "silent majority" will simply ignore — which in practice will mean denying — the science in favor of their religious beliefs. The only way to "frame" such science is to lie about what it really says. You can "frame" things in an honest manner if there isn't direct conflict, but just problematic implications — if the science raises questions or problems for a religious belief which can't be easily answered.

When there is direct and unambiguous conflict, however, you can't get around that conflict without changing what either the science or the religion say. Religious believers won't accept it when an outsider tries to tell them that their religion teaches something different from what they thought (though internal religious authorities are free to amend their doctrines!). This only leaves changing what science says, but if you present the conclusions of science to appear to not conflict with religion when in reality they do conflict with religion, then you are lying about science in order to make religious believers feel better about their religious beliefs.

This is rather similar to telling people that there is a "silent majority" of Americans who don't think there is a conflict between science and religion without also telling them that this isn't because most Americans believe the two are always compatible, but rather because most Americans are willing to deny the science whenever a conflict threatens to appear.

June 26, 2009 at 3:10 pm
(1) Todd says:

(i didn’t come up with this)

Creationism and Evolution have one thing in common – a big stack of paper that tells what each is. But that’s where it ends.

Creationism says “This stack of papers states the absolute proof and if you challenge it you are a heretic who will burn in hell.”

Evolution(ism) says “These papers say the way we think things are based on the information we’ve found so far. If you can refute the evidence and findings in them, please do so, and add your evidence and findings to the stack of papers.”

One requires blind belief in “information” that cannot be examined or refuted. The other requires no belief and encourages examination and refutation.

June 27, 2009 at 7:54 am
(2) Andrew says:

I’ve always enjoyed the “silent majority” in an argument. I’ve concluded that since they are silent, they have no position, and are therefore indifferent to the issue being discussed.

June 27, 2009 at 11:18 pm
(3) Johnny B says:

Science requires proof in order to be accepted. There is no scientific evidende to support religion. Religion is based on fear of the unknown. There is no scientific evidence to support it

June 28, 2009 at 3:54 am
(4) Morgan-LynnGriggs Lamberth says:

Folks, in her book against creationism, Scott plays Mooney’s card in contemning scientists who find that the evidence shows no cosmic teleology as philosophy parading as science. Nay, pace George Gylord Simpson and Ernst Mayr ["What Evolution Is] science finds that nothing results from preconceived plans. The teleonomic/ atelic argument is thus thst there is no need to add God as an explanation as natural selection, the non-planning, anti-chance agent of Nature, contradicts Good the planner. Thus theistic evolution is indeed an oxymoron.
Would Mooney, Scott, Forrest and Ruse have theists then make the new Omphalos argument that God hides Himself behnd seemingly selection at works when He acts in accordance with Malebranche’s occassionalism/
Nay, selection is a sieve, having no intentions for us to appear as Jerry Coyne argues against Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson in his ‘ Seeing and Believing.” And to argue that God had intended for some species like us to appear begs the question as all teleological arguments so do!
Thus Mooney and the other accommodationists misjudge our insisting on telling the truth!
Now from the side of religion, it and science can be compatible, but from the side of science, nay! Austin, Coyne,Paul Kurtz, Frederick Crews, William Provine and I gainsay those folk.
They don’t know that our approach is wrong![ See Center for Inquiry article on ex-VP. Cheny and Pres.Obama.]
Their temerity irks me!
Then the argument from pareidolia is that theists see dvinity behind Nature and designs when there only natural causes at work and patterns as people see the man in the moon or Yeshua in a tortilla.
Thankfully, Mooney cannot make Austin or the rest of us tell the truth!
I see the further decline of religion, the numbers of believers in the third world notwithstanding; the people there will become like us with further industrialization. We have only lately with new atheist books and the internet informed others of our evangel- the hope that is reason. We can have a bigger voice than Robert Green Ingersoll ever have!
By the way, to change the subject, we ought to objurate Yeshua as Ingersoll and Lord Russell did and Miklos Jako, deist, does in ” Confroning Believers” that he was just another cult-leader with mean sayings. I would hate to be around such a fool!
Now the author is so wrong about us atheists!
Austin, this is a good book.

July 3, 2009 at 11:27 pm
(5) Miranda Hale says:

Excellent post! I’m very glad to see his ridiculous arguments being rightfully torn to shreds.

July 4, 2009 at 3:36 am
(6) Sigmund says:

I’m shocked that Chris Mooney actually answered a question at all! He normally treats questions the same way the religious approach awkward scientific facts – ignoring them in their entirety.

July 4, 2009 at 10:28 am
(7) Stan Pak says:

Very good post, Austin. I especially enjoyed your “reprimand” to Chris Hallquist.
I would never suspect that such eloquent and “pro-science” person on such Mooney could be so in odd with plain logic. This appeal to inconsistent “silent majority” is a shining example of his deficiencies in that matter.
Bashing Chris Hallquist for last remark in his post while ignoring the rest of it is to me a clear sign that Mooney is loosing his reliability to keep voice in this science-faith-conflict discussion. This guy should really start reading his own words carefully.

July 10, 2009 at 10:30 pm
(8) Johnny B says:

There is an old joke about religion and god that pretty well sums up the whole issue.

Joke: A man dies on the operation table in a hospital, but the doctors kept working on him and suddenly he woke up. The doctors were amazed, and said “Do you were actually dead?” “Yes the man said.” The doctors asked “What was it like?” “Well, I saw God!” “Wow” the doctors said, “What was he like?” “Well, first of all SHE was BLACK! Dispelling to popular conceptions.

July 11, 2009 at 10:46 pm
(9) Jonny B says:

Further into my thoughts on the here-after, I try to picture what Heaven and Hell must be like according to folk-lore or the Bible.

What are those who go to heaven doing? Are they sitting on little white clouds, dressed in a white robe and playing a harp? When you think of all the people qualify to be there, it starts to get ludicrus.

And what about all the folks who go to hell for their bad deeds. Are they shoveling coal into the huge furnaces of hell.

The magnitude of people in Hell and Heaven since the beging of time is tremendous. This alone makes me believe that there is no afterlife, and therefore no god.

Thus I believe “Heaven” is being well remembered by those who kneo you.

August 25, 2009 at 4:49 pm
(10) tracieh says:

>nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution.

It’s funny that he finds this dismal number encouraging. As though nearly 40% of the population having no clue about how scientists regard evolution is a good thing. Considering that “Teach the Controversy” is an organized effort, I’d say they’ve had a pretty noticeable impact if 40% of our population is confused now.

>The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

You think?

>When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll.

The interesting point here is that these are people who are acknowledging that they don’t come to their beliefs by examining anything real. In other words, usually we get information and we form an opinion. These are people who are saying right up front that they hold their opinions despite what can be observed. If my beliefs aren’t the result of evidence, then how can I have even come to them? If I don’t get my ideas from reality—I must be believing fantasy.

It reminds me of the constant refrain: “All this stuff [generally describing matter and energy] had to come from somewhere…?” When I ask people where they got that notion, there’s just a vague bunch of useless responses. “Well, it couldn’t have always existed.” Really? Why not? This is generally followed by an assertion about a being that “always existed.” They have no trouble believing something can “always exist.” In fact it’s their rebuttal—their answer to the problem that “stuff can’t just have always existed.”

>Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin’s theory.

So, very sad. When reality doesn’t align with what I think—I just deny reality. I don’t consider my beliefs could be incorrect. Then I go out and tell atheists how arrogant and closed-minded they are.

>This reliance on religious faith may help explain why so many people do not see science as a direct threat to religion.

I think anyone who has argued with an apologist before already knew that nothing is a direct threat to religion. When part of a belief system is “It doesn’t have to make sense in the context of reality—it just requires faith,” nothing can touch that. Not logic. Not evidence. Nothing.

>It’s also likely that many want to appear to be supporting science when surveyed about it.

Can I also suggest it’s possible that there are people who believe misinformation about science and call that their scientific support? I once argued with an apologist who criticized geology, biology, cosmology, genetics—any branch of science that supported a planet older than a few thousand years or that supported evolution. And if I had a dime for every time his replies included the words, “Science supports what I’m saying!” Even after I pointed out that he’s rejected the basic claims of nearly every major branch of science, he continued to insist science was his support. I don’t even know what to say to that.

I’m already long here, I know, but just to also add that I was disappointed to see Rabbi David Wolpe debating Sam Harris on the existence of god. Wolpe is one of those “enlightened” liberal religious leaders who thinks someone like Harris misrepresents religion. As much as I’d almost be willing to convert to Judaism myself on behalf of Wolpe’s undeniable charm, Sam Harris responds to real believers—who really come out and say what Wolpe thinks nobody is really saying. And Wolpe himself almost gets it. He’s so close. He talks about poetic language: “You are like a Summer’s Day.” And he asserts that what atheists are doing is trying to prove “You aren’t a Summer’s Day.” Certainly I agree it would be ridiculous to apply science to disproving all metaphors in human language. However, Wolpe then moves on to talk about being open to the possibility of something greater that is the reason for us and for everything—something, well, something that isn’t a metaphor, but an existent god. And once you hit that bar, you’re back into the realm where scientific scrutiny becomes plausible again. I can test for something that exists outside of a metaphor. If your claim is that your god is a metaphor—then I have no problem with you. I’m the first one to agree, god IS a metaphor. But if you’re then going to take that and run with it—to talk about what exists beyond measurable reality—that is also “real” and not metaphorical. Then we have the problem again of Wolpe believing and asserting things that simply have no justification _in_ reality. If they did—he wouldn’t have to hide behind a metaphor, only peaking out to throw claims of existent things that we can’t measure, observe or understand.

Dang it, Wolpe! Just stop and metaphor, and you’ve nailed it.

It is the same idea: Science is a nice tool—but you can’t expect me to actually be able to demonstrate what I believe aligns with reality.

I agree with Wolpe. We have feelings. We have experiences that really uplift us. We can reach some pretty high highs and some low lows. And we have the gift of poetry and metaphor. But why not celebrate the real _human_ nature of these things? Why should reality be spat upon by a claim that it just can’t be all that interesting unless I can find some way to make it more. Isn’t having the entire cosmos for our playground more than enough for any of us?

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