The Sciences

My Free Inquiry Interview: Why We Need Religious Moderates

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMar 22, 2010 1:25 PM


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A while back, well before I knew I would be a new host to the show, I did an episode of Point of Inquiry with D.J. Grothe to discuss the arguments and controversy engendered by Unscientific America. In the process, we got into quite a lot of detail about my views on science, religion, and free inquiry--many of which are either misunderstood or misrepresented in parts of the atheist blogosphere. I mention this because I just noticed that a recent issue of Free Inquiry has actually printed a transcription of part of the Point of Inquiry interview, including passages like this:

FI(D.J. Grothe): In your book Unscientific America, 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.

This is precisely what Unscientific America argues, too. D.J. continues:

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 to 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.

Then D.J. bores even further into my past, focusing on the days when I was the campus atheist:

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 religious moderates and the fundamentalists. To advance scientific literacy, we need the religious moderates on our side.

Again, you can hear the full interview here

. I wanted to post this so people can see what my actual views on this subject are. D.J. was good enough to try to understand those, and I think our interview was successful as a result.

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