Missing the Point

Jason Rosenhouse has himself missed the point in his criticism of Josh Roseneau's response to Jerry Coyne's blog about Chris Mooney and others' "accommodationist" heresy against the high priests of evangelical atheism.

Roseneau was citing studies which showed that people are more likely to be persuaded by arguments when told that they come from someone who shares an opinion on something else - even when the something else may have no apparent relation to the topic of argument - and applying this to suggest that persuading fundamentalists not to oppose the teaching of evolution in schools might be more effectively done by identifying points of commonality with the religious position than asserting baldly that the religion was totally without value. Not only does Rosenhouse derisively and incorrectly identify this finding of common ground with being liked, but he also (surprisingly for a mathematician) seems not to understand the difference between having a point of conflict and lacking any point of agreement.

For many religious people, the needs met by their faith may well be met by something far more reasonable which Rosenhouse (again derisively) says "trivializes religion to the point of making it vacuous". But again he is deeply wrong here. Those core needs for what might be called a feeling of oneness with the universe and a sense of confidence in one's innate value and morality are decidedly not trivial, and are deeply felt by many. So those who start by announcing a claim that agreeing with them will leave those needs unmet can reasonably expect to meet quite aggressive resistance. On the other hand one who starts by asserting that what is truly valuable in religion can be found also in a rational worldview (and in fact I would venture to say that not only is that true but that it can be matched and exceeded there to boot), will find interlocutors less likely to resist both listening themselves and (more importantly) to object to having a proper education provided for their children.

If you think, as I do, that what you offer provides ultimately better ways of meeting the core needs addressed by religious faith, then it is not dishonest to emphasize that fact when talking to religious people. (But conversely, if you don't honestly believe that you have something of equal or greater value to offer in place of that faith then I suppose I would have to question the morality of intervening at all.)

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