The Sciences

Carl Sagan wins again. New evidence for the rejection of new Atheist communication strategies.

The IntersectionBy The IntersectionMay 24, 2011 3:43 PM


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This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., an HIV research scientist and aspiring policy wonk, who recently moved to D.C. to get a taste of the action Hi Intersection readers! I'm happy to be back. Because my day job as a research scientist is rather demanding, I am unable to be a full-time blogger, however Chris has invited me to contribute on occasion. I am pleased to be able to continue to share my ideas with you and I truly appreciate your feedback. This has been a wonderful learning experience. As I said before, you have much more to teach me than I have to offer you. That is an ideal arrangement for me.

Now, I'd like to discuss a topic that came up in the recent Point of Inquiry interview in which Chris took the interviewee seat to chat with Ron Lindsay, President and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Ron led a conversation about criticisms of Chris for his "accomodationism" and the effectiveness of the new Atheists communication methods for persuading the religious to reconsider their position on evolution. At one point in the interview, Ron brought up the higher level of secularism among Europeans and proposed that critical analysis of religion should be the means to get people to understand science better and maybe accept evolution. In other words, the way to get people to accept evolution is not to soft-peddle criticism of religion but rather to subject religion to rather harsh criticism. Chris appropriately responded, "If you assume the harsh criticism is going to change their minds, which is something that I strongly reject. I think it will backfire..." So the question is how do we convince them to retire their religious beliefs? Chris' made this thoughtful recommendation:

"I would try to empower the messengers that they (religious folks) will listen to, people who are more like them, people who they trust. That means people in their community, pastors, scientists who are religious, people who are closer to them and can speak a bit more of their language and may be able to move them. It will still be very hard. You will still trigger a lot of resistance, but I think there will be more openness than, kind of, the frontal assault from someone with whom you have very little or nothing in common: an atheist."

I agree with Chris on this response. Prior evidence suggests that opinions of others are more likely to be accepted when they derive from individuals who represent values similar to one's own. However, new research suggests that atheists and others who wish to improve science communication can increase their effectiveness by adopting new tactics not included in Chris' comment. And, Surprise!, the most effective tactics are not those used by Richard Dawkins and the "new Atheists." Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College have conducted a study that suggests that a more naturalist approach as used by the late Carl Sagan is more effective than that used by the new Atheists at persuading individuals to accept Darwin's Theory of Evolution and reject the Intelligent Design Theory. Lead author Jessica Tracy and co-authors Joshua Hart and Jason Martens identified "death anxiety" as one motivator for the acceptance of Intelligent Design Theory over Darwin's Theory of Evolution. The authors explain that peoples' thoughts about their own mortality "may be central factors underlying the success of the IDT movement and corresponding doubt about ET." Essentially, preference for IDT is part of a "terror management" strategy that offers more psychological security than acceptance of ET. However, the language used to communicate ET can be crafted in such a way as used by Sagan that it becomes more appealing perhaps more comforting, even to those inclined to prefer IDT. This article offers fertile territory for discussion on ways to improve communication strategies for those of us who wish to effectively reach those in the religious community. Although there is room for criticism of this study, I believe there is now a growing accumulation of scientific evidence that supports the rejection of the tactics used by Dawkins and other new Atheists.

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