Category Archives: Book Reviews

“Sharing Reality” and how to persuade people

How does one best persuade people to favour a secular and science-based view of life? That’s the topic of Jeff Haley and Dale McGowan’s new book: Sharing Reality: How to Bring Secularism and Science to an Evolving Religious World (of which the authors kindly gave me a review copy). [ link; link]

They start by discussing how not to do it. They quote Neil deGrasse Tyson’s remarks to Richard Dawkins:

“And it’s the facts plus the sensitivity [that], when convolved together, create impact. I worry that your methods, and how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective.” It’s significant that Tyson didn’t complain that Dawkins’s approach was unpleasant or disrespectful. He said it was ineffective. His argument is that Dawkins’s own presumed goal of convincing others that his ideas are worthy and important is short-circuited by a failure to consider the state of the mind on the receiving end of those ideas.

It’s a common complaint, that Dawkins is too acerbic and dismissive of religious opinion, appearing to talk down to people. For example, Emily Willoughby writes:

With few exceptions, the strategy for combating creationism has been one of attacking and dismissing the foundation of this belief system. Yet it should be obvious that mocking someone’s beliefs does not win ideological battles.

But is it indeed “obvious” that such tactics are ineffective? A gentler approach might lead to a more pleasant interaction, but one which, thereby, has little long-term impact. After all, religious commitments are largely emotional, and it may need emotion, not anodyne interactions, to alter them. I’m willing to bet that Dawkins has persuaded more people to adopt atheism than any other individual one could name, and he does have a rather large collection of letters and emails from converts.

Further, and if nothing else, open disrespect for religion can move the Overton window, altering how religion is treated in society. Indeed, haven’t the New Atheists largely succeeded in doing that?

I don’t claim to know how best to persuade people, and would be interested in actual evidence about this (which is not the same as people reporting what is “obvious”). I suspect that a range of styles, from the aggressive to the conciliatory, might be best overall, with different people adopting the style that best suits them. In particular, in the public media, an acerbic and dismissive attitude to religion might be optimal, whereas when talking to individuals, especially people you know, a more friendly and conciliatory approach might be better.

The book by Haley and McGowan is at the conciliatory end of the spectrum, though it itself is not aimed at persuading religious people, it is instead advice to the non-religious on how to persuade people. Their aims are ambitious, they want to persuade society to accept a secular and sceptical outlook that embraces science. They coin the term “evidism” to connote “the value of discovering and accepting truth in all matters”.

Only by empowering people, by lifting them out of ignorance and fear, can the strength of real knowledge begin to eclipse the power of traditional or intuitive false beliefs. The most effective way to achieve that empowerment doesn’t start with ridicule, which often causes people to retreat further into the ridiculed belief. It begins with empathy for those who still find themselves in the grip of those natural beliefs.

One immediate problem with the term “evidism”, however, is that everyone thinks that they themselves are judging sensibly on the evidence, and are arriving at truth. No-one thinks of themselves as needing “lifting out of ignorance and fear”.

We might think of the religious that way, but the term “evidism” could well meet the reply: “of course I’m judging on evidence, I’m an evidist myself, that’s why I’m a Christian and accept the literal truth of the Bible and reject the pseudo-science of Darwinism!”. Very few of those who reject evolution or climate change or the efficacy of vaccination think of themselves as rejecting science, they think of their opponents as rejecting science in favour of ideological atheism or “Big Pharma” or whatever.

I agree with the authors that there is no ideal term to rally around (atheism, humanism, naturalism, secularism, non-theist, freethinker; all have drawbacks) but I’m not convinced that evidism is an improvement, leaving aside the very low likelihood of an invented new term actually catching on.

A further strategy that the authors suggest is to re-interpret religion in ways making it fully compatible with science. They want to “give space for religions to evolve to change their positions on facts to be consistent with science”. The idea is that religion is too big, too entrenched to overturn, and thus a better strategy is to subvert religion by turning it into doctrines that accept the secular, scientific outlook that the authors want.

Well maybe, and there are already religious groups like this, the Unitarian Universalists and some varieties of Buddhism. But they’re very much minority positions. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if all religions with supernatural beliefs rejected their theologies and accepted naturalism? But persuading people to do that would likely be no easier than persuading people to simply stop being religious.

Religion is still sufficiently prevalent in the US that American authors can tend to accept its dominance as a given, but the experience of parts of Europe and Scandinavia shows that whole populations can simply — and over not that many decades — become less religious to the extent that religion is no longer as big a problem.

A large part of the 200-page book is taken up with advice on the nature of science, on promoting education and secularism, and on human cognitive biases that can get in the way of a scientific outlook. Much of this is sensible and knowledgeable and well worth a read. I couldn’t help thinking, though — and here I’m probably being a bit unkind — that much of this had a slight air of naivety, as though all we have to do is explain all of this to our acquaintances and they’ll be persuaded. Would that such would work! As a teacher I know that you can explain something as clearly as you can six times spread over a semester, and half the class will then demonstrate in the exam that they still don’t understand. And that’s about mere factual stuff that should be easiest to teach; changing people’s values and world view is harder.

What is lacking here is an account of having put all this good advice into practice and of how well it worked. The authors’ scheme needs to be battle tested, and shown to work better than the ongoing cacophonous debate. Have they tried the term “evidest” on their acquaintances? How did it go?

As it is, the advice is too theoretical, whereas what would interest me is reports of what did actually work in practice, of testing and controlled trials, and of hands-on experience of having changed people’s minds. Is Dawkins’s approach actually counter-productive? (Hard evidence please, not just gut feeling!) Does Neil de Grasse Tyson’s gentler approach (he refuses to even call himself an “atheist”, though he is one) work better? (Ditto!).


Alex Rosenberg’s Guide to Reality and morality under scientism

Alex Rosenberg’s An Atheist’s Guide to Reality is the most radically scientistic book that I’ve read. I should thus like it a lot! And generally I do, but with some reservations.

I’ll address here one argument that Rosenberg makes about morality and politics which I think is faulty, and, indeed, not “scientistic” enough. I’ve seen other atheists make the same argument so it is worth exploring. Continue reading

A “theology of science” debate with Tom McLeish

Last November I took part in a debate on science and theology at the invitation of the Keele University Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow speaker (I don’t want to call him an “opponent”) was Professor Tom McLeish of Durham University, a leading soft-matter physicist.

Tom McLeish portrait

Professor McLeish is a Christian who has written a book, newly out in paperback, Faith and Wisdom in Science. To prepare for the debate I ordered a copy for the library. My first indication that this wasn’t a typical science book was that it got shelved with books on Biblical exegesis, and I thus found myself wandering to a region of the library where I’d never previously been!

Tom McLeish book Faith and Wisdom in Science

I liked the book, one can learn a lot about the nature of science from it. Tom McLeish emphasizes that science is a fundamentally human enterprise with deep roots in our history. Science is not just a modern phenomenon, newly sprung on the world with The Enlightenment, but is a continuation of age-old human attempts to understand ourselves and our place in the universe. It should not be seen as a separate, arcane and primarily theoretical subject (as it is often badly taught in schools), but as human exploration.

As Professor McLeish explains, science does not accept that anything is outside of its purview. And neither does theology. If the claims of the Abrahamic religions are true then theology must infuse every aspect of our existence. Thus the oft-stated and politically-correct claim that science and theology operate in different domains and answer different questions is deeply unsatisfying both to scientists and to theologians.

With a foot in both camps, Professor McLeish sees this clearly. He thus talks, not about theology and science, but about a theology of science. His book sets out that vision.

My role in the debate was to present the alternative way of reconciling two idea-systems that both claim to be all-encompassing — and that is to play the atheistic curmudgeon and simply reject and excise theology entirely. Continue reading

T. H. Huxley, James Clerk Maxwell, and the divorce of science from religion

A review of “Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon:
from theistic science to naturalistic science”,
by Matthew Stanley of New York University,
University of Chicago Press, 2014

At the beginning of Victorian-era Britain, science was so thoroughly entwinned with religion that “it was expected that men of science would take religious considerations into account”, says Matthew Stanley. But by the end of that era things had changed so much than now “it seemed impossible that they would do so”.

Stanley explores the decades when science changed from being theistic — with most scientists taking it for granted that a god was an integral part of the world and how it worked — to being atheistic, no longer having any need of gods as part of the explanation. The contrast is exemplified in the theistic James Clerk Maxwell (“I have looked into most philosophical systems, and I have seen that none will work without a God.”) versus the anti-clerical Thomas Henry Huxley (“Extinguished theologians lie about the cradle of every science …”). Continue reading

A review of “Beyond an Absence of Faith”

This review was written for Richard Dawkins Foundation

Beyond an Absence of Faith, edited by Jonathan Pearce and Tristan Vick, brings us the stories of 16 people who came to reject the faith of their upbringing. Most of the writers are American and former Christians, though some are former Muslims. They tell us of their journeys from strong religious faith to atheism, and in the process give a vivid account of the state of Christianity in America today.

What is striking is how all-encompassing and cult-like religious faith can be. These are not the stories of luke-warm believers, but of people for whom religion was a central feature of their lives. We read stories of people brought up in a “fundie bubble” to the extent that:

At one point, I counted five of seven nights of the week as church functions. Monday was a discipleship with a church leader and some students. Wednesday was a youth service. Thursday was a large-group discipleship, where we met at someone’s house for prayer and Bible study. Friday was the “Powerhouse,” a sort of hangout for teens with live music and a small service. Saturday was the Hellfighters service, and Sunday was the main service …

This is coupled with indoctrination of children so complete that one writer recalls:

I came home to an empty house, and became worried that everyone else had been Raptured away while I was out.

Continue reading