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Fire breathing only makes it harder to talk: An activist with the Science and Rationalists' Association of India demonstrates against the claim that Mother Teresa performed a miracle in Calcutta. (AFP/Getty Images)

Science Vs. Religion: A Heated Debate Fueled By Disrespect

Sep 9, 2013

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A few years ago, over dinner, a friend and fellow academic "came out" to me as a theist.

The conversation later struck me as quite funny. Only in my exotic academic enclave, I thought to myself, would two Americans have a conversation in which the Christian theist "came out" to the atheist Jew. In most American communities, my beliefs would be the anomalies, to be revealed selectively and with caution.

A few weeks ago, writer Virginia Heffernan made a similar confession in a post at Yahoo! News:

"At heart, I am a creationist. There, I said it. At least you, dear readers, won't now storm out of a restaurant like the last person I admitted that to. In New York City saying you're a creationist is like confessing you think Ahmadinejad has a couple of good points. Maybe I'm the only creationist I know."

The response was characterized in The New York Times as "swift and harsh." One blogger described Heffernan's post as a "spectacularly bad piece." Among the 600-plus comments on Yahoo! News were charges of being "intellectually vapid" and offering "the intellectual equivalent of a ditry [sic] bomb."

Of course, the vitriol goes both ways; it isn't just believers who sometimes face a hostile reception when they voice their beliefs. Atheists are among the most distrusted groups in America and face discrimination in various forms, some of it "overt and widespread."

Issues about science and religion have become so politicized and polarizing that it's hard to find public forums in which people with different commitments can meaningfully engage in discussion and debate. You know, respectful conversations, ones in which we interpret each other charitably and don't simply assume that those who disagree with us are foolish, immoral or just plain stupid.

I'm not arguing for a middle ground in which we all compromise. The best position isn't necessarily the one in the middle, or the one that wins by majority vote. But I do think we need a "charitable ground," if you will — some shared territory in which we recognize that other people's religious and scientific commitments can be as deeply felt and deeply reasoned as our own, and that there's value in understanding why others believe what they do.

If there is some charitable ground out there, it's a small territory with contested borders.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post here at 13.7 that asked, "Is there existential meaning beyond religion?" It linked to an article at the Boston Review titled "Can science deliver the benefits of religion?"

In the article, I summarized some ideas from psychology and cognitive science concerning the psychological bases for religious beliefs and whether scientific beliefs can provide some of the same psychological benefits typically ascribed to religion. Although it wasn't my intention to do so, I knew that I might upset some religious believers. What I didn't anticipate was uncharitable reactions from both religious believers and atheists.

On one side, some religious believers seem to have taken my article as an attempt at "a rational argument discounting a certain strain of creationism." But I don't see how my discussion of the psychological causes and consequences of religious and scientific beliefs could be taken as an argument for one belief or the other — taking it to be one suggests an antecedent assumption of hostility; that my intent was to present certain views as foolish or false.

On the other side, a comment at Jerry Coyne's blog, Why Evolution Is True, suggested that — in light of the article — I should be added to Coyne's list of "Most Annoying Accommodationists (Female Category)." The main target of Coyne's original post was Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist who has studied and written about supernatural beliefs. Highlighting a major offense, Coyne wrote of Luhrmann:

"What's most annoying is that she keeps her own beliefs under wraps, trying to cater to believers of all stripes while not alienating any of them."

Is it so terrible to try to be accessible to a broad audience with diverse beliefs, and to prefer not to alienate people? Is it terribly na´ve of me to think that we can have real discussion about difficult issues without being dismissive of alternative positions or those who hold them?

Here are some things that I'm not saying:

All perspectives are equally valid. They certainly are not. We may not have everything figured out yet, but some perspectives are better supported by evidence and arguments than others.

It's perfectly OK for people to believe whatever they want. Most beliefs are fine. Some lead people to do unfortunate things, whether it's support female genital mutilation or dismiss climate change. Part of me thinks there's nothing wrong with any beliefs, only with particular actions. The problem is that actions and beliefs often go hand in hand.

You shouldn't try to change someone's mind when it comes to scientific or religious beliefs. When you're trying to enjoy a nice family meal with your conservative Christian in-laws and your card-carrying Skeptics Society cousins, maybe you shouldn't. It's up to you. But as far as I'm concerned, there are some contexts in which it is appropriate to aim for persuasion, provided you do so respectfully and not dogmatically.

We shouldn't engage in serious debate about personal or sensitive issues. Of course we should. But serious, constructive debate is not only consistent with a charitable and respectful attitude toward your conversant, it may require it.

Here's what I am saying:

We should engage in respectful debate and discussion. We should assume, as a default, that others hold their religious and scientific beliefs deeply, genuinely and reflectively. People rarely believe what they do because they are stupid, heartless, immoral, elitist or brainwashed. Let's find some charitable ground.


You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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