The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Skepticism & Criticism of Religious Claims is Not “Intolerence”, It’s Necessary

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 3, 2010

I just got done reading an excellent article from the Scientific American website by Dr. Lawrence Krauss, the theoretical physicist who wrote The Physics of Star Trek and avid defender of science & reason, whereupon he discusses something to which all allies of rationality & free inquiry should pay attention.  It seems that recently there has been a growing movement to staunch the criticism of any religious belief, even if said belief is demonstrably harmful to the believers or to others, by labeling those who question or criticize said belief as “intolerant”.  I suppose the implication is that if we are “intolerant”, then we are somehow mean, nasty, and morally bad people who should be dismissed.

Allow me to point out some selected section’s of Dr. Krauss’s article, along with my own comments…

Faith and Foolishness: When Religious Beliefs Become Dangerous

Every two years the National Science Foundation produces a report, Science and Engineering Indicators, designed to probe the public’s understanding of science concepts. And every two years we relearn the sad fact that U.S. adults are less willing to accept evolution and the big bang as factual than adults in other industrial countries.

Except for this time. Was there suddenly a quantum leap in U.S. science literacy? Sadly, no. Rather the National Science Board, which oversees the foundation, chose to leave the section that discussed these issues out of the 2010 edition, claiming the questions were “flawed indicators of scientific knowledge because responses conflated knowledge and beliefs.” In short, if their religious beliefs require respondents to discard scientific facts, the board doesn’t think it appropriate to expose that truth.

I blogged about this particular screwup on the part of the NSF in an earlier post. The thing that concerns me about this move on the part of the NSF is how the influence of this politically-correct “we can’t criticize religion” or “we can’t even mention religion when it is an obvious contributing factor to the rejection of science by many Americans” has crept its way into the upper echelons of scientific institutions.  If we aren’t willing to face the hard fact that almost half of Americans outright reject the theory of evolution because of their religious beliefs, then how can we expect to address the problem of scientific illiteracy in this country?  Ignoring the problem or sweeping it under the rug won’t fix it.

Dr. Krauss continues…

I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion. The kindly Dalai Lama, in a recent New York Times editorial, juxtaposed the statement that “radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold religious beliefs” with his censure of the extremist intolerance, murderous actions and religious hatred in the Middle East. Aside from the distinction between questioning beliefs and beheading or bombing people, the “radical atheists” in question rarely condemn individuals but rather actions and ideas that deserve to be challenged.

Surprisingly, the strongest reticence to speak out often comes from those who should be most worried about silence. Last May I attended a conference on science and public policy at which a representative of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences gave a keynote address. When I questioned how he reconciled his own reasonable views about science with the sometimes absurd and unjust activities of the Church—from false claims about condoms and AIDS in Africa to pedophilia among the clergy—I was denounced by one speaker after another for my intolerance.

And this is the real crux of the matter: a blatant attempt to silence criticism of & free inquiry regarding religion by labeling questioners as “intolerant” and equating them with “radical atheism”.  As an atheist myself, I find this both insulting & amusing at the same time – insulting because the implication in this argument is that there is something immoral about being an atheist, and this smear is also an attempt to quiet dissent within the ranks of the religious themselves (because many religious believers don’t want to be associated with atheism); I find it amusing because the very nature of this argument shows just how, to coin a phrase, the emperor has no clothes.

If the best that these would-be defenders of crazy, and sometimes dangerous, religious beliefs & practices can come up with is a blatant ad-hominem attack against the critics, then they don’t have much to stand on.  Case in point: just look at the amazingly stupid & audacious comments sent out repeatedly by the Vatican in recent months as news of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal has rocked the upper reaches of that religion’s hierarchy – rather than accept responsibility for the cover-up of the systematic rape & abuse of children by the priests that they have continually protected, many in the Vatican have chosen instead to blame “rampant secularism” for these crimes.  Fortunately, the Vatican’s politically motivated & morally bankrupt strategy hasn’t worked, it seems.

Let me close with Dr. Krauss’s last words, as I think he says it best:

Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children.

9 Responses to “Skepticism & Criticism of Religious Claims is Not “Intolerence”, It’s Necessary”

  1. Craig said

    I agree that criticism of religions should be tolerated, and so should criticism of science.

    • mattusmaximus said

      Yup. The thing about science is that, as an institution, it is pretty self-critical & self-corrective, whereas religions tend towards the opposite. But all that aside, I’m more than happy with criticism of science as well as religion.

      • craig said

        Unless people disagree with the “consensus”?

      • mattusmaximus said

        It boils down to evidence. If the consensus goes with the evidence, and some dissenters go against the consensus, then those dissenters are wrong. But they’re still allowed to criticize all they want, even if they are wrong. And just because I, or others, may take those who deny scientific evidence to task for making their unsubstantiated claims, it doesn’t mean that I think they should be silenced. It just means I disagree with them.

        No one in science is silencing dissenters – they are often allowed to make their arguments, it’s just a question of whether or not those arguments are convincing in light of the evidence. Check the peer-reviewed literature in many different fields of science, and you’ll find plenty of vigorous disagreement & debate. But in order to participate in that discussion (at least at the professional scientific level), you do have to be following the scientific method.

        Contrast this with the comments slung at Dr. Krauss at the conference he mentions in his article. Those comments amount to stating that one isn’t supposed to be critical of religion at all. The charge of “intolerance” is meant to shut down *any* critical analysis of religion. At least, that’s my take on it.

  2. Craig said

    What if the consensus goes beyond the evidence as it does with evolution and global warming?

    • mattusmaximus said

      Well, in answer to Craig’s post, then those notions – evolution & global warming – would have to be revised. However, as of this point, the scientific consensus on both of those issues is pretty sound and strongly supported by the evidence as well as a wealth of experiments & testing. I know where Craig is going with this: he’s going to start yammering on and on about how “there is no consensus” or that “the consensus goes beyond the evidence” on evolution & GW, but those claims are demonstrably not true.

      So, to head it off at the pass for any lurkers reading this exchange (because I know Craig will simply dismiss it), here we go…

      Observed Instances of Speciation [i.e. Macroevolution]
      http://talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html

      Humorous Testing of the Scientific Attitudes Toward “Intelligent Design” Via Scientists Named “Steve”
      http://talkorigins.org/faqs/steve/

      Is there a scientific consensus on global warming?
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/global-warming-scientific-consensus.htm

      Does the IPCC represent a scientific consensus?
      http://www.skepticalscience.com/ipcc-scientific-consensus.htm

      General reference on evolution/creationism: http://talkorigins.org

      General reference on global warming science: http://www.skepticalscience.com

      In addition, for the lurkers, you should know that Craig here is a regular commenter on my blog posts, but he has an agenda. Notice that his email address is *****@lifeway.com. Lifeway is a company which espouses “Biblical solutions for life” and they are a non-profit linked with the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, their website states:

      Established in Nashville, Tenn., in 1891, LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention is one of the world’s largest providers of Christian products and services, including Bibles, church literature, books, music, audio and video recordings, church supplies, and Internet services through LifeWay.com. The company also owns and operates 156 LifeWay Christian Stores across the nation, as well as two of the largest Christian conference centers in the country.

      Not to mention, the Southern Baptist Convention has taken strongly anti-scientific stances regarding issues related to evolution (for the SBC’s outright rejection of evolutionary science see this link). Ironically, while Craig pushes the anti-evolutionary view espoused by the SBC, he seems to reject – apparently for ideological reasons – the SBC’s stance on global warming, which in 2008 acknowledged the reality of GW and proposed to encourage its members to combat it.

      It is apparent to me, through much of our correspondence here, that Craig is merely interested in putting forth his Biblical worldview and not discussing actual science (even climate change science accepted by the SBC). I will allow the lurking reader to draw their own conclusions based upon the information I’ve provided as to whether or not he is a trustworthy source of information.

      • Craig said

        Ouch, Matt! Not cool broadcasting my email address.

        I don’t feel that my comments have warranted such an attack, and this is definitely a diversion from the topic at hand, but I feel obligated to take a moment to defend myself. Yes, I work for LifeWay, but I do not speak for them or represent them in this matter (or in any matter to be honest – I work as an analyst for their retail stores division), and I am not a Southern Baptist. You are right in saying that I have a Christian worldview, but it is not my “agenda” to promote my faith on your blog. My main criticism is that too much of accepted science today is based upon unempirical evidences. I have great respect for the scientific method (I hold two science degrees myself), and it pains me that it is often disregarded because the issues have been declared to be already decided.

        As for your links, I do not dismiss them. I make every effort to read the information you point me to. I don’t even argue that the evidences presented therein are untrue, merely insufficient.

        For example, I do not deny that speciation occurs, given the definitions of species as laid out in your first link (http://talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html). However, I do submit that none of the evidences presented in this article adequately support a conclusion that all life forms are derived from a common ancestor. I appreciate the writer’s honesty in describing the difficulties in agreeing on a definition of the word “species”, and I particularly like what he says in section 3.0 about scientists agreeing with the consensus without personally examining the evidences:

        “First, it appears that the biological community considers this a settled question. Many researchers feel that there are already ample reports in the literature. Few of these folks have actually looked closely. To test this idea, I asked about two dozen graduate students and faculty members in the department where I’m a student whether there were examples where speciation had been observed in the literature. Everyone said that they were sure that there were. Next I asked them for citings or descriptions. Only eight of the people I talked to could give an example, only three could give more than one. But everyone was sure that there were papers in the literature.”

        Several of your other links are just to confirm that I am in the minority (which I am comfortable with), and the last two contain so much information, that it would be very difficult for me to address it all here (although, I thank you for the links – I will investigate them thoroughly – although much of this I am already familiar with). I feel like I am looking for the needle that supposedly settled these issues, and you are throwing haystacks at me and saying, “it’s in there somewhere- find it yourself.” If you know where the needle is, can’t you point me to it more directly?

        By the way, I had no intention of “yammering on”, until you attempted to silence me (which relates to your original post, I think). I hope you will note that I am only responding to the information and accusations that you threw at me, not standing on a soapbox, and my desire is for civil, intelligent debate. I thought that I was part of the “self-critical” component of science you described in your response to my first comment. I do consider myself to be part of the scientific community, Christian though I may be.

      • mattusmaximus said

        Craig said:

        Ouch, Matt! Not cool broadcasting my email address.

        You’re right, that was over the line. I have adjusted the earlier comment so as not to show your entire email address, merely the @lifeway.com domain. My apologies.

        Craig said:

        I don’t feel that my comments have warranted such an attack, and this is definitely a diversion from the topic at hand, but I feel obligated to take a moment to defend myself. Yes, I work for LifeWay, but I do not speak for them or represent them in this matter (or in any matter to be honest – I work as an analyst for their retail stores division), and I am not a Southern Baptist. You are right in saying that I have a Christian worldview, but it is not my “agenda” to promote my faith on your blog.

        I think your comments, your repeated comments all over my blog, which smack of typical creationist talking points, do warrant me “outing” you. I think it’s important for others to see how you are distorting the science via your religious worldview. If you don’t like it, too bad.

        Craig said:

        My main criticism is that too much of accepted science today is based upon unempirical evidences. I have great respect for the scientific method (I hold two science degrees myself), and it pains me that it is often disregarded because the issues have been declared to be already decided.

        Nice. Too bad the scientific experts, you know – the people who make their entire careers out of researching these specific topics – in the fields you like to criticize – evolution & climate change – disagree with you. Tell me, Craig, how much peer-reviewed scientific research have you done in these fields? Oh yeah, that’s right – you work for a religious organization, so that makes you imminently qualified and thus you must know more about evolution & climate science than these people!

        Btw, the issues have already been decided because of the massive weight of the evidence that you so readily dismiss because it doesn’t fit with your religious & ideological worldview. However, there are many open questions in the fields of evolution & climate science that are being openly & vigorously debated by actual scientists, but none of those questions relate to what you are bringing up.

        Craig said:

        As for your links, I do not dismiss them. I make every effort to read the information you point me to. I don’t even argue that the evidences presented therein are untrue, merely insufficient.

        Yes, you do. For example, on evolution I provided you with literally hundreds of pages of information from the Talk Origins website – specifically at http://talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/ – which illustrates all the evidence to date for evolution. Included within those pages are references to numerous papers & original sources that you could read for more information, if you truly cared to or took the time to seriously study the subject.

        You state that the evidence is insufficient, yet you never state what would be sufficient – this is a typical creationist tactic that I’ve seen numerous times. It’s called moving the goalposts, and it is a logical fallacy that is used (either consciously or not) to stack the deck in favor of creationism. By never actually stating what would qualify as sufficient evidence for evolution, no matter what evidence is presented (and there’s mountains of it, as I’ve shown), the creationist in question can merely ignore all said evidence and run off saying, “See? The evidence isn’t sufficient – therefore, evolution is a sham!”

        And similar tactics are used by those who deny the reality of global warming.

        Craig said:

        For example, I do not deny that speciation occurs, given the definitions of species as laid out in your first link (http://talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html). However, I do submit that none of the evidences presented in this article adequately support a conclusion that all life forms are derived from a common ancestor.

        See my previous comments. You have never defined what would constitute sufficient evidence, and I submit that you never will. Because if you do, then you wouldn’t be able to run off with the goalposts and stack the argument in your favor whenever you wish.

        Craig said:

        I appreciate the writer’s honesty in describing the difficulties in agreeing on a definition of the word “species”, and I particularly like what he says in section 3.0 about scientists agreeing with the consensus without personally examining the evidences:

        “First, it appears that the biological community considers this a settled question. Many researchers feel that there are already ample reports in the literature. Few of these folks have actually looked closely. To test this idea, I asked about two dozen graduate students and faculty members in the department where I’m a student whether there were examples where speciation had been observed in the literature. Everyone said that they were sure that there were. Next I asked them for citings or descriptions. Only eight of the people I talked to could give an example, only three could give more than one. But everyone was sure that there were papers in the literature.”

        Nice quote mine – another typical creationist tactic. I suppose that your intent here is to give the impression that because there actually is discussion & debate within science (like I keep telling you), then that implies that “evolution is bogus!” You are also neglecting to mention that this researcher is writing all of this information down as evidence in favor of evolution, but that’s typical of this kind of creationist argument – take what is written out of context and try to present it as the opposite of what it is. I’ve seen this tactic many times before as well, and what maddens me more than anything is how dishonest it is.

        Craig said:

        Several of your other links are just to confirm that I am in the minority (which I am comfortable with), and the last two contain so much information, that it would be very difficult for me to address it all here (although, I thank you for the links – I will investigate them thoroughly – although much of this I am already familiar with). I feel like I am looking for the needle that supposedly settled these issues, and you are throwing haystacks at me and saying, “it’s in there somewhere- find it yourself.” If you know where the needle is, can’t you point me to it more directly?

        I’ve provided you the information as directly as I can. Remember, I’m not a biologist, so you have to work with what I’ve given you – I’m providing you with all the same information I’ve used to learn about evolution. It’s not my fault if you don’t want to do some homework. I did it, so can you.

        Besides, if you really want to learn something, try asking a specific question, not just going on and on about how “the evidence is insufficient” and then never stating what would be sufficient.

        Craig said:

        By the way, I had no intention of “yammering on”, until you attempted to silence me (which relates to your original post, I think). I hope you will note that I am only responding to the information and accusations that you threw at me, not standing on a soapbox, and my desire is for civil, intelligent debate. I thought that I was part of the “self-critical” component of science you described in your response to my first comment. I do consider myself to be part of the scientific community, Christian though I may be.

        First off, if I was trying to silence you, why would I let you post on my blog, completely unedited? Quit trying to make a martyr of yourself, Craig – it’s childish & demeaning.

        Second, all I’ve done is respond to your points. If you cannot handle that or the manner in which I respond, go away. Remember, you have chosen to come here to make these statements, and I’m not making you say anything you don’t want to say. If you cannot handle having a somewhat challenging discussion with someone who doesn’t agree with you, I suggest getting off the Internet altogether. It’s a place for grown ups, you know.

        Lastly, quit trying to play the Christian card, yet again. I know plenty of Christians, both scientists & non-scientists, who fully accept evolutionary science, and they do so because of the weight of the evidence in favor of evolution and a respect for the scientific method. In fact, one of my friends is an evangelical Christian who is at his wits end with his church & many of his fellow believers because they insist upon playing the very same games that you are playing here – I even wrote up a blog post about it called “Evolution/Creation Thoughts from a Thoughtful Christian”.

        You might find it a worthwhile read, or not. I honestly don’t care whether or not you read the link; it’s more for the lurkers now than anything.

        Which brings me to my final point – this entire exchange we’re having would make a great blog post. I think I’ll put something up this weekend so that more people can see the specific methods that creationists employ when trying to tear down evolutionary science🙂

  3. limey said

    I certainly agree that criticism is essential. In fact I would go so far as to say that every should have their beliefs questioned.

    My problem is that the most vocal critics of religion, and those which get the most press, go beyond simple criticism and into the realm of intentionally causing offence as though its some form of sport. Richard Dawkins being the most obvious example. When he talks about science and evolutions he is a genuine joy to listen to as his enthusiasm for the subject comes through. When he turns his sights on religious commentry he sounds like a bitter old man and it quite litterly turns me off him altogether, as a result my opinion of him is extreemly low.

    He’s not alone in this matter either, I listen to quite a few science/skeptical podcasts and there are some personalities which appear to take pleasure from seeing how far they can go beyond the line of decency between critical comment and outright insult. Its not nice to listen to. Being right is not an excuse to act like an immature schoolyard bully.

    It is possible for religious and athiest people to get along and live happily together while respecting each other through critisism and not resorting to a downward spiral of insult and counter-insult.

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