Mooney and Kirshenbaum: Atheists turn Americans from science, strangle puppies

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has begun reading and posting on Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s new book, Unscientific America, an analysis of why the American public is so scientifically illiterate (I’m going by the blurbs; I haven’t read it yet). According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, one of the main reasons for this illiteracy is — can you guess? — the ATHEISTS. Yes folks, our stridency and militancy have alienated flocks of Americans, turning them away from science. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens all get their licks, with special opprobrium reserved for P. Z. Myers. See link above for Ophelia’s first take, and the second is here.

I will reserve making my own comments until I read the book.

One other note: three liberal English theologians, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, have joined forces to prevent British citizens suffering from terminal illnesses to seek euthanasia in countries like Switzerland. Liberal religion harmless? Not in this case. See the link for Anthony Grayling’s take and the original news item.


  1. Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    If true, that’s ridiculous. The vocalism of the “New Atheists,” or at least the attention it now receives, is rather more reaction against attempts to force religiously-inspired ignorance into labs and schools than it is the cause of anything.

    That said, Mooney and Kirschenbaum are entitled to criticize whoever they think is using the wrong tactics in opposing the war against science.

    At present, though, I can’t say there’s much evidence of the recent spate of anti-god books having much effect either way. A kind of backlash against the theocrats does seem to have taken hold, but it’s not clear that atheist books did anything more than to ride that wave.

    Nevertheless, that change in mood may yet make cause a more receptive audience for atheism in the future than in the past.

    Glen Davidson

    • Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. I’d also argue that the popularity of the “new atheists” is a bit too recent a phenomenon to account for most of the current science illiteracy. Can’t really blame Dawkins for the Scopes monkey trial, can you?

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted July 2, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        Can’t really blame Dawkins for the Scopes monkey trial, can you?

        Hey, why not? Mooney’s good buddy Rush Limbaugh has blamed Obama for everything from Gov. Sanford’s infidelity to the recession.

    • Posted July 1, 2009 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      “At present, though, I can’t say there’s much evidence of the recent spate of anti-god books having much effect either way.”

      The strength of the anti-god books is just that, along with a push for more rationalism. It’s along a continuum of course but promoting better science literacy seems almost as an afterthought.

      Perhaps will Myers get around to it.

      Whatever lasting impact these books have will be in the political arena it would seem. For instance, in nominating an outspoken atheist presidential adviser or supreme court justice.

  2. Posted July 1, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Oh, wait, it is out turn to be at fault? I could have sworn it was the gays . . .

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 1, 2009 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure in the next round it will be the ethnic minority gay atheists; given that ethnic minorities, gays, and atheists as groups of their own are all solely responsible for the evils of the world (because as everyone knows, the faithful do no evil), then the ethnic minority gay atheists must surely be their evil leaders – and the jewish ones of course must be the absolute worst.

  3. Posted July 1, 2009 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    It’s true all right – see the direct quotes.

    Of course Mooney and Kirschenbaum are entitled to criticize – but it is for one thing pretty disingenuous for Mooney then to keep saying he is not telling atheists to shut up, he is baffled that anyone thinks he wants atheists to shut up, all he is doing is advising atheists how to convey their message better, etc etc etc etc.

    • Michael Gray
      Posted July 1, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      …with a truly bizarre definition of ‘better’…

      • articulett
        Posted July 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. (I just want you to know how much I enjoy your posts.)

  4. articulett
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I think the emperor’s clothes makes an apt analogy in this case. Which teacher communicates the science of the situation the best?– the one who declares the emperor naked or the one making semantic arguments about imaginary fabrics and invoking some mystical “other ways of knowing” while deriding those who speak the blunt truth?

    Mooney is in the latter category. He enables delusional thinking while deriding those who’d cut it off at the quick. He wants to imagine himself the “good guy” as he muddies scientific thinking further and denigrates those more honest then himself. He is confirming his own delusions of grandeur as he makes apologetic noises about the delusions of others, and I am not fooled. His methods are more responsible for “unscientific America” than the undiluted honesty (and pointed irreverent humor) of those whom he imagines himself superior to.

    Where is the evidence that your method works, Chris? Do you have any evidence to go with your spin? I think the “new atheists” have educated far more people in regards to the benefits of rational thought than you and your accomodationist pals have. In any case, there is certainly room for many methods, and you’ve failed to make a case that your “respect faith” method are superior in any way. To me, you sound almost as muddle-mouthed as religious apologists–so many words, and so little said.

  5. articulett
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    The biggest problem with the accomodationists, apologists, and believers is that the methods they’d use to pretend that there are “other ways of knowing” are the very same methods other people use to claim knowledge about things that are harmful, evil, wicked, unjust, superstitious, and just pain wrong. When you give lip service to this idea that faith is an avenue for truth, then you are implicit in all actions that result from such faith. You cannot pretend that these methods support some supernatural beliefs and not others.

    When you want to know what is true regardless of what people believe or you want a method that is proven to work– then nothing beats the scientific method. This is the method responsible for all of the scientific knowledge and technology in the modern world– information that would seem “miraculous” to those in eons past.

    If you want to know what is true as opposed to confirming what you’ve come to believe (or want to believe), then empiricism is the only proven method, and religion has no more to offer than any other superstition, propaganda, or specious claim.

    • Michael Gray
      Posted July 1, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

      …just pain wrong

      The muses are at work again! 😉

  6. Badger3k
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Since I teach in an alternative setting for high school students, should I take this “alternative way of knowing” (that has such value to Mooney and his ilk that we can’t criticize it) from my students? If they want to say they know what Shakespeare wrote without reading a word of it, should I accept that as valid?

  7. Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    The other reason it really can’t just be the “new” atheists is that it’s not just biology that contradicts a religious explanation of the world. It’s chemistry, physics, astronomy, geology, medical science apart from biology…..

    Oh wait. Am I picking on them again?

    • Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      In fairness, astronomy, geology, etc., only destroy the more fundamentalist religious views. You really do need evolutionary biology in there to make any sort of providential theism, however “moderate” seem so implausible. It destroys human exceptionalism, explains the faux design of living things, raises questions about why a loving God would use a mechanism that inevitably causes so much suffering, etc.

      • Posted July 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

        It also kicks “Original Sin” smack in the ass. No original sin, no reason for JC to get all crucified, no reason for Xaintity. Now I realize most people arguing about the evils of evolution are not thinking more deeply about the effect on original sin and its repercussions, but its there nonetheless.

      • Barry
        Posted July 2, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

        You just think it kicks original sin in the ass. Don’t you know that someone would provide an explanation for that too? (Google: Daryl Domning original sin) Domning is a scientist, and that just goes to illustrate the truth of a famous axiom: “For every Ph.D. there exists an equal but opposite Ph.D”.

  8. Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Second (and last) installment now available.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted July 1, 2009 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

      Thanks Ophelia, These installments are eye opening.

      Mooney and Kirshenbaum have truly lost their marbles going by the excepts you provided.

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted July 2, 2009 at 6:36 am | Permalink


  9. MadScientist
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    Re. the archbishop of Canterbury, the catlick church always preaches about the “dignity of man” while stripping humans of all dignity. Humans can’t possibly be responsible for doing good, godditit! Humans cannot possibly be moral without god. Humans may not die with dignity as they choose – they must suffer as god intended because god loves them.

  10. Posted July 1, 2009 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dr. Coyne,

    Most of these comments are directed at Chris, but we co-wrote Unscientific America and I want to thank you for reserving judgment until you read the book.

    Most review copies are going out now, including yours. As I just posted at Pharyngula, no one at ScienceBlogs has received it yet as far as we know. We look forward to hearing your perspective.


    • Reginald Selkirk
      Posted July 2, 2009 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      We look forward to hearing your perspective.

      In the way that we look forward to a good case of the measles.

  11. Abbie
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    Um. Isn’t this just going to make PZ more famous? What was he thinking?

    • CW
      Posted July 2, 2009 at 12:32 am | Permalink

      “What was he thinking?”

      I imagine it was his usual thought: “I’m smarter than Dawkins and nicer than PZ, everybody should like me best! Don’t listen to them, listen to meeeeeee!”

    • Posted July 2, 2009 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      Yeah, isn’t it weird? That’s the nature of this business: to criticize, you have to reference, which calls more attention to the counterclaim. I’ve noticed that one of the ways creationists deal with the problem is simply by not linking to anything critical of their ideas…I can at least give Mooney/Kirshenbaum credit for mentioning names.

    • Posted July 2, 2009 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      I gotta wonder, though, just how famous is PZ outside of his minions and the various nut-groups he has pissed off?

  12. Posted July 2, 2009 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Everyone,
    Our book is not out yet, though some copies are circulating. We would only ask that before making up your mind, you read the actual book–like Dr. Coyne has said he’ll do above–and not the above-linked critique of a single chapter. The book itself is not about the New Atheism, but the troubled place of science in our culture, and what that means for our shared future.

    More here

    Chris Mooney

    • Posted July 3, 2009 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

      That’s nice, Chris, but you still spent at least a chapter stabbing atheists who dare to actually talk about their positions, right?

      So, really? That’s *one* of the problems you see? Incredible. Or maybe not. You’ve found a niche and you’re bound and determined to milk it, aren’t you?

      Jerry is getting his free copy, and will read it. If he and other respected voices tell me it’s a great read if you are interested in science, I might. But please don’t ask people here to spend their precious dollars on your book. Money and time are both in short supply.

  13. Posted July 2, 2009 at 9:26 am | Permalink


    I make very clear in my posts that I am talking about one chapter, not the whole book. As I said on your blog, I didn’t know I had an early copy, I thought I just had one of the many that had been sent out. I’m sorry if I posted prematurely, but I didn’t intend to.

    I nowhere say the whole book is about ‘the New Atheism,’ of course, but that chapter decidedly is about that, and it decidedly says things that you seem to have been backing away from recently. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, especially since you ignore most of my questions (and other people’s too) and answer others with suprise at everyone’s misunderstanding of what you’re saying. You said at Russell Blackford’s blog that you were baffled by his account of what you’re saying – well I’m baffled by your bafflement.

  14. Posted July 2, 2009 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    Still no answer from Chris. Not here, not at my place, not at Chris’s place, not at Russell’s place. Still he simply ignores fair, reasonable questions – and yet he is apparently surprised when the objects of his criticism get annoyed. Chris, if you would ever answer the serious questions, I for one would get less annoyed.

    • Posted July 3, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

      Huh… what a shocker. I’m familiar with another group who reacts in a similar manner when confronted, seeming to read and respond to what they want, while studiously ignoring the tough questions. I don’t really think I need say who.

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