Chris Mooney is the best-selling author of The Republican War on Science and a number of other books, including Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. He is a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Arguing that the New Atheists polarize the discourse about the proper role of science in society, he recently discussed his own atheism and his new book with D.J. Grothe, associate editor of Free Inquiry.
Free Inquiry: Not only are many Americans scientifically illiterate, but many people don’t read and border on being actually illiterate. We don’t know science, but neither do we know history, art, literature, music, or philosophy. Why does science deserve all the hand-wringing?
Chris Mooney: We all should know more about everything, in an ideal world. The fact that we don’t is partly a public education issue and partly due to people’s busy lives in that they can only take in so much. But science has a unique place in our society, for the simple reason that scientific issues are constantly in play in major public policy debates and decisions that affect people’s lives. To be a good citizen, I’d argue that you need to know about science as it affects policy more than you need to know about some other areas of human knowledge.
For a lot of America, neither the Copernican Revolution nor the Darwinian Revolution has yet happened. So somehow a large part of the populace has missed two of the biggest revolutions in science (not to mention the Einsteinian Revolution). How much does that play into public policy? Evolution is only policy-relevant at the state and local levels, and as for the earth revolving around the sun, that isn’t hugely relevant to policy at all. But when you consider other examples of scientific illiteracy, such as the gigantic gap between what the scientific world thinks about the cause of climate change and what the public thinks, then you see how the public’s lack of scientific knowledge has important policy implications. Broadly speaking, scientific illiteracy is the cause of twenty years of gridlock on the global-warming issue.
FI: In your book Unscientific American, you take on the New Atheists, even though you are an atheist. You argue that the battle should be for scientific literacy as opposed to a battle against religion. You seem to argue that when the battle is science versus religion, public scientific literacy actually suffers.
Mooney: Right. We live in an overwhelmingly religious society, and we should just admit that not all of the religious have a problem with science. It is important to refute the fundamentalists when they encroach on science education across the country in regard to evolution. But in order to do that, it is critical that we mobilize the pro-science moderates. The New Atheism, as a strategy, flies in the face of this, since it is often about attacking and alienating the religious moderates.
FI: You say that to make a dent in the problem of scientific illiteracy, we should set aside the question of what is true about religion. Years ago, when we were both involved with the Center for Inquiry’s freethought campus outreach, you were every bit the atheist activist. As a science journalist today, isn’t truth a basic value for you? Don’t you have internal tension when you fault the atheistic scientists for pushing a scientific and naturalistic take on God and the supernatural?
Mooney: No, I don’t really feel that tension. Yes, I am an atheist, and yes, we should question religion. But we need to be aware of the context in which we’re doing it. In America today, diffusing tensions over science and religion is the best way to advance scientific literacy. My real issue with the New Atheists is their broad-brush attacks on all the religious, not just on the fundamentalists. Again, not all the religious are enemies of science. My other concern is that while it is fine to question religion, the tone in which the New Atheists have done so is highly abrasive and, at times, offensive. That doesn’t achieve anything. I think it is very important to uphold the value of a secular life and emphasize that you can be moral without God. But you cannot alienate your allies when you want to achieve better science education and literacy.
FI: When you were at Yale, you were part of an atheist student group connected with CFI. Have your priorities shifted since then?
Mooney:I wouldn’t change it even if I could, because I learned so much from my atheist activism. One of the things I learned was that if you go out there angry and attack religion all the time, people won’t like you very much. I remember when the Yale campus chaplain reached out to me after I wrote a piece for one of the campus newspapers that was strongly against religion. I learned from that and other experiences that we really do need to make distinctions between the religious moderates and the fundamentalists. To advance scientific literacy, we need the religious moderates on our side.