Toward Common Cause

Chris Mooney

I believe we should, for the most part, be “accommodating” toward religion (though I don’t like that term). And I believe that we atheists and humanists and freethi nkers should strive to avoid fighting among ourselves about religion. We share 99 percent of our intellectual DNA; it only makes sense that we should be able to make common cause.

Before I present my arguments, a few words about how I came to be engaged in this fierce, sometimes radioactive debate. I’m a longtime atheist. I was brought up in a science-centered family; my grandfather, Gerald Cole, was an evolutionary biologist at Arizona State University. He kept issues of Skeptical Inquirer lying around the house. When we kids were growing up, he created an invisible friend that he talked to for us. The friend was named Chuck, short for Chuck Darwin. Given this background, it should be no surprise that I was probably the most conspicuous campus atheist at Yale in the 1990s. I publicly debated the existence of God against Campus Crusade for Christ.

My atheism was one of the things that got me interested in writing about science. My first book, The Republican War on Science, came out in 2005. In it I argued that under the George W. Bush administration, scientific knowledge faced systematic attack across a range of issues: climate change, stem cells, evolution, and so on. The ethos of the era, I think, was epitomized by the president’s answer to a reporter’s question at a press conference following the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004. When Bush was asked if the United States had a warning system in place for the purpose of detecting tsunamis, it was clear that he had no idea. Flummoxed, he hemmed and hawed and finally tried to say something scientific. “I think we might be less vulnerable than other parts of the world,” he said—but quickly added, “but I’m not a geologist, as you know.”

The secular community really liked The Republican War on Science, though it contains hints of what would later be called an “accommodationist” message on science and religion. But in the mid-2000s, I don’t remember there being a sharp battle between “accomodationists” and “new atheists.” Seculars seemed united in saying that science should not be trampled by politics. Evolution should be taught, and we had better win the Dover trial—which, of course, we did.

When did things start to change? For me, it was when I went on the road talking about the book. I would rattle off all the ways science had been sinned against, and members of my audiences—many of them scientists, many of them secular in outlook—would get visibly frustrated, even angry. After each talk, the hands would go up and people would say, “I can’t believe my government is doing this; your talk made me want to punch a wall. But you haven’t given me any release—what can I do about this problem?” My instinctive answer to this question—“Buy the book”—was clearly insufficient. So I started looking for new answers, new solutions to that broad disconnect between science, politics, and society. That’s where some of the trouble started, including the first of my public controversies with PZ Myers.

The first argument was about the concept of “framing.” This is a powerful idea from the social sciences that George Lakoff and others have memorably extended into the political realm. I had begun collaborating with Matt Nisbet of American University, who has applied framing analysis to science. Briefly, framing is the idea that with any complicated topic, if you’re going to communicate it to a nonspecialist audience, you can’t communicate all aspects of it—there’s simply too much information. You’ve got to pare it down by putting it into some conceptual frame. Any topic can be framed in different ways: you can highlight some aspects of the issue and not others. If the topic is climate change, you could present it as an economic issue, and you’d be in the “green jobs” frame. If you presented it as a religious issue, you might talk about being “stewards of the creation.” You could utilize a national security frame, a public health frame, a moral frame, and so on.

Nisbet applied framing to the question of communicating about evolution, and that is where the sparks began to fly. He looked at existing data on how the public views the evolution question. The core finding was that rightly or wrongly, a great many people saw evolution as implying atheism, which meant that they would see the teaching of evolution as an attack on their faith. Nisbet sought a middle way to frame the issue that says “There doesn’t need to be a conflict; you can have your religion and eat evolution, too.” Or something like that. In more formal terms, Nisbet suggested that in order to win broader public acceptance for the teaching of evolution, advocates should seek to demonstrate that evolution and religion don’t have to be in conflict. His communication strategy on this issue would therefore be to marshal scientists who are also religious to communicate the importance of teaching evolution and to marshal religious leaders who also endorse evolution to communicate to their flocks in an effort to bridge the divide. Nisbet’s ideas, and my involvement in advancing them, touched off the first round of the argument.

The argument widened when Sheril Kirshenbaum and I coauthored Unscientific America (2009). The book wasn’t about atheism, per se, aside from a single chapter; it focused mostly on the gigantic gaps separating the science community and the American public. We recited a list of shocking facts such as the following:

  • Only 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally.
  • Only 13 percent follow science and technology news closely, a number that’s declining as science journalists vanish from the mainstream media.
  • Some 44 percent cannot even name a single scientific role model. Those who do manage to give a name mention Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, and Al Gore—those are the top three choices. So for average Americans, their idea of a scientific role model is either a nonscientist or someone who’s no longer alive.


Clearly, there is far too much the public doesn’t know or appreciate about science—and one of the widest disconnects, I believe, springs from the issue of science and religion. Large numbers of Americans feel alienated from the scientific world because they perceive it as hostile toward religious belief. And this isn’t altogether a matter of misperception. In the book, Kirshenbaum and I discussed the “religion gap” between scientists and the general population, and it is very real. For example, 52 percent of top American scientists claim no religious affiliation, versus (in this survey) just 14 percent of the American public.* Another 14 percent of the public self-describe as evangelical or fundamentalists (I think that number’s probably low); almost no scientists describe themselves that way. There is a genuine “two cultures” problem here, so it stands to reason that conflicts between science and religion will occur.

Still, we argued in the book that science and religion don’t need to conflict in every interaction. On the contrary, it makes good sense for secular people to try harder at getting along with religion if we want to encourage more Americans to be open to science, science education, and issues like evolution education. And here’s where the next big argument after framing began.

Let’s explore the position that we advanced in Unscientific America in greater detail. There are two separate but related issues. First, why don’t we always have to have a conflict between science and religion, although conflicts clearly do occur with regularity? And second, why should we adopt a conscious strategy of being “accommodating” or “pragmatic” in our dealings, as seculars, with the religious world?

As to why there doesn’t always have to be a conflict, let’s start by looking at the population of scientists in the United States. You find great diversity with respect to religion. You find scientists who are atheists and you find scientists, like Francis Collins, who are overtly religious—and everything in between. Most of these scientists, regardless of worldview, are doing good research and commanding the respect of their peers.

There’s also enormous diversity among world religions in terms of how they treat science. There are Christian fundamentalists who say the Earth is six thousand years old, but there is also the Dalai Lama, who is fascinated by neuroscience and has said that Buddhism will have to change if any of its tenets are disproved by science—and again, there is everything in between. There is no monolithic “religious position on science.” Even religious traditions with some antiscientific dogmas can have adherents who don’t take their faiths’ teachings seriously with respect to science.

Another argument about why conflict is not necessary—one we stress heavily in the book—draws on the history of science. Some of history’s greatest scientists were religious; in fact, it was precisely their religious view of the world that inspired them to try to understand the nature of what they believed to be God’s creation. It was only in the Victorian era, with the Darwinian revolution, when the idea of a real and necessary conflict between science and religion came to the fore. Newton, to name one, never heard of such a thing. That’s why today’s historians of science have almost uniformly concluded that the “conflict model,” as they call it, is not sophisticated enough to explain the varied interrelationships between science and religion that have played out through history.

For all those reasons, I believe that continual conflict between science and religion is not necessary. For the sake of clarity, let me stress that I am not endorsing Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria, which says that if we understand them properly, science and religion can never come into conflict because they don’t talk about any of the same things. That’s just not true. Sometimes science and religion clearly do talk about the same things, and sometimes religion definitely tramples on science’s turf. But even so I would argue that they need not always be in conflict, for the reasons cited above.

Let’s move on to my second point: that seculars should be accommodating, pragmatic, and tolerant rather than purely confrontational toward religion and religious believers. Why?

For me the answer begins with basic human psychology. People are highly resistant to information that contradicts their preexisting worldviews. Human beings are notorious for seeking out “facts” to support what they want to believe anyway and for arguing away any information that contradicts those supposed facts. There’s a vast research literature on this, though much of it doesn’t strictly involve religion. But it’s the same core issue of belief persistence, and let me give you just one study as an example.

University of Michigan political scientist Brendan Nyhan studied what people did when they encountered newspaper article corrections that flew in the face of their ideological predispositions. He had subjects who held known political stances read news articles and then read corrections that contradicted something they believed. So for instance, conservatives read an article suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, followed by a correction saying it didn’t—and here’s the crazy thing. They were more strongly convinced that Iraq had WMDs after reading the correction. Liberals read an article that accused then–President George W. Bush of banning stem cell research and a correction noting that he didn’t actually ban it, he merely constrained it greatly. They didn’t change their minds either.

There have been many such studies in which people display incredible tenacity in holding onto wrong information that they deeply believe. I think there is great similarity between religious and political views in terms of the strength with which they are held, and indeed, sometimes they overlap. What I take away from this research is that an in-your-face confrontational approach with respect to religion is not likely to change many minds.

Let’s look specifically at religion and evolution. Again we have relevant data. A discussion of the polling evidence by David Masci of the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life noted that 14 percent of those who reject evolution cite a lack of scientific evidence, but that was rarely the main reason for doing so. Respondents were far more likely to cite Jesus, God, or religion as the reason. So we know that when it comes to evolution, many people reject science because of a perceived conflict with their religious values or beliefs.

Now consider another statistic. In a recent Time magazine survey, 64 percent said that if science were to refute one of their religious beliefs, they’d just keep on believing it. Exactly. Those people aren’t going to just change their minds because we hit them with a reasoned argument. That’s just not the kind of animal Homo sapiens is. And this suggests that in virtually all cases, you’re not going to undermine strongly held religious beliefs by crusading straight at them.

I think we need to know a little bit more about what kind of resistance we’re dealing with. In our book, Kirshenbaum and I quoted Kenneth Miller of Brown University, a religious evolutionist whom I think has sound insights into what actually drives creationism. He argues that creationists aren’t driven first and foremost by scientific fact—rather, they are actually driven by emotion. They view evolution with such revulsion because they perceive it as an affront to their moral values. However wrongly, this is how they see things—evolution is an arrow targeted at the heart of their religious culture, which is the central organizing principle of their lives and the lives of their children. This isn’t something we have to interpret, by the way, or read between the lines: it’s stated explicitly in the famous Wedge Document (1999), in which the pro-”intelligent design” Discovery Institute revealed its strategic thinking. Creationists resist evolution because they believe that everyone will lose their morals if evolution is generally accepted. They’re wrong about this, but none­theless that is their motivating belief.

Knowing all of this, I’m not sure we should expect rational arguments to work. And knowing this, as a strategic matter, why should anyone try to defend evolution by directly attacking these deeply held beliefs? Wouldn’t it make more sense to try the Francis Collins or Kenneth Miller route of enlisting someone who is religious and also supports evolution to address these believers in a way that they can more easily accept? Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace something like the Clergy Letter Project, in which Christian pastors who support evolution signed an open letter saying that it’s okay to be a Christian and also support science?

In my view, direct confrontation is doomed to hit a wall and trigger fierce emotional reactions, due to basic human nature. whereas these more sensitively framed approaches have at least
some potential to penetrate believers’ entrenched resistance. And that’s not all: the confrontational approach also fails to think strategically about the way the media works today. Today’s media landscape is incredibly fragmented. People tend to seek information from sources that they already know they agree with. So we evolutionists all read our science blogs, and there’s lots of acceptance for atheists there. Meanwhile, religious people have their religious corner of the blogosphere, and staunch anti-evolutionists have their anti-evolution blogs, and the folks reading these sites keep seeing atheists described as mean and nasty and heartless. If these readers encounter our direct arguments against religion at all, it will be as they are reinterpreted, distorted, and rebutted by some right-wing blogger who reassures them that you are obnoxious, and no one should believe you.

So these are the reasons I take the stance that has been labeled “the spirit of accommodationism.” And in that very spirit, I’d like to reach out to the new atheists and say that even if you don’t care to be friendly toward religion, I think we ought to be friendly toward one another. We’ve had a lot of differences, and yet as I mentioned, we share all that intellectual DNA. We should be able to find common ground.

To that end, per­haps we can shift the focus away from science and religion and occasionally start talking about science and spirituality, where I think we might find something that divides us less. It turns out that many scientists now describe themselves as “spiritual” even though they have no religious beliefs or supernatural commitments whatsoever. Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund has done the biggest study I know of on the religious views of U.S. scientists, and she found that over half describe themselves as spiritual. Most interestingly, 20 percent say they are spiritual but not religious—these are atheists and agnostics who nevertheless point to something “spiritual” that inspires them.

Granted, their use of that word is quite different from what members of the general public tend to mean when they talk about spirituality. For a lot of Americans, spirituality means, “Oh, I’m a little Buddhist, but I’m still a little Catholic, but I like crystals and acupuncture.” Ecklund’s scientists reject that approach—one told her, “I’m not some flipping new ager.” One atheist biologist described it to Ecklund in these words: “It’s that feeling you get standing by the seashore looking out over the endless expanse of water, or standing in the rainforest listening to the insects and the birds in their huge diversity and incomprehensibility, or the feeling you get considering the age of all things in existence and how long it could go on, sort of awe at the totality of things. If that’s what spirituality is, I get it.”

After reading that I said, “You know, I get it.” I’ve had that experience of feeling transported by nature. My family has a house in Arizona where I go for renewal. It is where I’ve found my best inspiration, and it is where I have felt spiritual in a way that has nothing to do with religion and never will. I think that a lot of atheists have had similar experiences. Even Richard Dawkins said in a recent interview that “spirituality can mean something that I’m very sympathetic to, which is a sort of sense of wonder at the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time.”

So maybe we accommodationists and new atheists alike can find a way to give a more positive, inspiring message about science and secular spirituality without needing to invoke scientists who somehow get both science and traditional religious faith to work for them. Maybe we can appeal to the growing ranks of the so-called Nones, the millennials who say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.” Maybe we can send them the message that science is not something just done by a robot; it’s something that deeply inspires the people who undertake it and serves as a deep source of meaning in their lives.

Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is the author of three books: The Republican War on Science (Basic Books, 2005), Storm World (Harcourt, 2007), and Unscientific America (with Sheril Kirshenbaum, Basic Books, 2009). He is one of the hosts of the Center for Inquiry’s podcast Point of Inquiry. This article is an edited version of his talk, which was transcribed by Blaize Barnicoat.

I believe we should, for the most part, be “accommodating” toward religion (though I don’t like that term). And I believe that we atheists and humanists and freethi nkers should strive to avoid fighting among ourselves about religion. We share 99 percent of our intellectual DNA; it only makes sense that we should be able …

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