The Fallacy of the Excluded Middle: A Response to Mooney and Nisbet

There have been a wide variety of responses to the PZ incident. Quite a large number of us a busy laughing at the irony of it. There has been some criticism, for example see here, here, here, here, and here. The critics argue that we are playing into the creationists hands by providing free publicity (much the same way christian protests over The Last Temptation of Christ ended up promoting the movie and increasing attendance). They also argue that we should be seeking the middle and joining with liberal and moderate christians who value science. When we point to, say Cheri Yecke, Ken Ham, or William Buckingham, we get told we are focusing on the extreme outliers, that we should work with people like Francis Ayala or Ken Miller. So, okay, let’s look for the middle. Since I live in Missouri let’s start there.


The Missouri Baptist Convention is pretty big here in Missouri, perhaps we can find someone like Ken Miller there, someone we find a common cause with. Unfortunately, Project 1000 ended any hope of that. Project 1000 packed the Missouri Baptist convention with theologically and socially conservative pastors, which allowed them to take over the convention. It goes without saying that in the process a lot of liberal and moderate pastors got driven out. From Project 1000:

Our desire is to see the leadership of the Missouri Baptist Convention move from a …center-left majority that has been willing to tolerate liberalism, to a … center-right majority whose leadership will reflect a commitment to sound Biblical truth [emphasis mine - afarensis].

In 2006 they ousted 19 moderate churches.
Enter Ken Miller to try and talk to the Missouri Baptist Convention, I’ll ignore the fact that most Missouri Baptist Convention members I know think that the Catholic Church is, well I’ll be diplomatic and say evil, how successful will he be? You might think that since they are christians Ken can talk to them in their own lingo, but you would be wrong.

The boundaries between true belief and falsehood are most strictly patrolled, then, in the neighborhood where falsehood takes the form of other Christian doctrines. These other “believers” are the ones most likely to be held up to ridicule and condemnation from the pulpit; and it is against them that believers must defend themselves in everyday confrontations. Precisely because these outsiders also claim to be Christians and say they are headed for heaven, Southside members must devote a good deal of energy to defining their own distinctiveness. When they look for differences, they find enough to conclude that many other “Christians” are not part of God’s family. [emphasis mine - afarensis]

The above quote is from a book called Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World by Nancy Ammerman and states in a nutshell why Ken Miller simply can not speak in any meaningful way to conservative christians here in Missouri (or anywhere else). To make it quite simple Ken Miller and Francis Ayala are far worse, to conservative christians, than outright athiests such as PZ Myfgherdzs or Richard Dawkins, and the reason they are far worse is because they are compromising the truth of the Bible in their accommodation to modernity.
Okay, so the Missouri Baptist Convention is out. Ken Miller and Francis Ayala are both Catholics, so maybe we should try something closer to home and try talking to the Catholic Church. Let us try talking to the Archbishop, Raymond Burke. Unfortunately, he is not going to be able to help us. You see awhile back Bob Costas organized a charity concert to benefit the Bob Costas Cancer Center at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. One of the guests scheduled to perform was Sheryl Crow, who has some strong views about abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research. Even though Sheryl was there specifically to sing and would not be discussing her views, Archbishop Burke resigned as chairman of the board of the event. The Archbishop’s reasons were:

“Her appearance at a fundraising event for Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center is an affront to the identity and mission of the medical center, dedicated as it is to the service of life and Christ’s healing mission,” he said.

Like the Missouri Baptist Convention and the Southsiders, Archbishop Burke can not engage in what he considers to be a compromise of his theology. This is no isolated incident for Burke. He also banned Catholic participation in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure for the same reason. He has also criticized Rick Majerus. Clearly, the Catholic church isn’t going to be of much help either. We seem to running out of places to look for the moderates and liberals to help our cause and even if we found them there would be few willing to make the same theological concessions that Miller and Ayala have made.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t find allies wherever we can, but I do think that making that our sole strategy is misguided and ignores the results of an entire field of study called the sociology of religion. It ignores the fact that religions do more than tell you how to go to heaven, rather, they also structure the believers relationship with the world, with the people in the world, and it creates and maintains boundaries which separate the believer from the nonbeliever (among other things). The boundary maintaining function is, of course, where the problem is, because even slight deviations from theological correctness are enough to get one labeled “outsider” or, more to the point Judas Iscariot. Nothing in the above criticisms tell us how to overcome this mechanism and so they are doomed to failure.

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24 Responses

  1. Ok, I’m confused. How does the bishop’s moral opposition to abortion and stem cell research automatically disqualify him from an alliance against creationists and others trying to destroy science education?

  2. Very well said, all quite good points.

  3. Most scientists are for stem cell research, which would cause the Archbishop not to work with them much the same way he refuses to work for the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which does not advocate abortion rights as far as I know) and much the same way he tried to get Majerus fired. Note also, that Nisbet wants to expand this strategy beyond just the evolution/creationism debate, which, although a big part of the problem, isn’t the only issue where religion and science come into conflict.

  4. Let’s not forget that Nisbet not only disagrees with the way PZ, Dawkins et al present their positions, he also directly disagrees with them on their positions. So at what point do we go from a tactics/framing dispute to disingenuously using that as an excuse to tell people you disagree with to just sit down and shut up?

  5. As a former fundamentalist, I think Nisbet is just a bit out of touch with the people he thinks he is going to reach with his framing. Ken Miller and Francis Ayala are what fundamentalists call lukewarm Christians. Any fundamentalist who has spent more than 10 minutes in Bible study knows chapter and verse how bad lukewarm Christians are. (Rev 3:14-16 for you unwashed heathens.) Translation: God hates Ken and Francis far more than PZ and Richard. Being a lukewarm Christian is the worst of the worst in the eyes of a fundamentalist.

  6. The Burke thing is unfair; Ken Miller isn’t known for his attitude on stem cell research and I doubt he’s ever made an issue about it. In contrast Crow is very vocal about her views.

  7. There’s a very real problem here. But it’s one that nobody in the “anti-religious, anti-creationist” camp seems willing to address. And that is, that no, you are never going to be able to “get” to the conservative Christians of various denominations and traditions, by becoming more “moderate”. That goes for Archbishop Burke, as well as the likes of the Missouri Baptist Convention. So you don’t look there! You look for the likes of Ken Miller or Francis Ayala, who at least are trained as biologists and, by training, are acquainted with evolution. Both these gentlemen are Catholics, and Ayala is a Jesuit priest. This is just an example. Not all Christians are “the same”, not even members of “the same” faith tradition, as the above examples show. This is true of members of other faith traditions as well. Whether or not Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are “the right” kind of spokespeople for fighting creationism, I don’t know. But I really think that it’s time to stop turning away from potential allies who just happen to be persons of faith, and set our goals to getting as many allies in the scientific and other communities, as we can. This is the only sensible way to deal with these people. Speak out, folks, and form coalitions!
    Anne G

  8. There’s a very real problem here. But it’s one that nobody in the “anti-religious, anti-creationist” camp seems willing to address. And that is, that no, you are never going to be able to “get” to the conservative Christians of various denominations and traditions, by becoming more “moderate”. That goes for Archbishop Burke, as well as the likes of the Missouri Baptist Convention. So you don’t look there! You look for the likes of Ken Miller or Francis Ayala, who at least are trained as biologists and, by training, are acquainted with evolution. Both these gentlemen are Catholics, and Ayala is a Jesuit priest. This is just an example. Not all Christians are “the same”, not even members of “the same” faith tradition, as the above examples show. This is true of members of other faith traditions as well. Whether or not Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers are “the right” kind of spokespeople for fighting creationism, I don’t know. But I really think that it’s time to stop turning away from potential allies who just happen to be persons of faith, and set our goals to getting as many allies in the scientific and other communities, as we can. This is the only sensible way to deal with these people. Speak out, folks, and form coalitions!
    Anne G

  9. Joshua – Maybe you should try Googling for Ken Miller and stem cell research. You will find that he does speak about it.
    Anne – The point was that here in Missouri the conservatives have gotten rid of, or are in the process of getting rid of, all the Ken Miller types.

  10. Have you tried looking to those 19 Expelled (sorry) moderate churches? If you haven’t done that, I can’t see how you can avoid the accusation that you too are pointing to outliers.
    I’ve been watching this from afar, and one thing that gets missed is the question of what the target audience is you’re trying to reach. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s the active members of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Rather it’s the rank and file of Middle America. They’re the ones you should be targeting, so you have to find the way of delivering the message that will reach them and persuade them. They tend to be moderate – I think most don’t care about the details of the debate, they’re too busy getting on with their lives.
    This becomes a political problem. If you want to argue that being on the extreme end is the best way to persuade the mass of American public opinion, you have to explain why people like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich did so poorly.
    Mind you, I totally disagree with Chris Mooney that this helps Stein. It might increase publicity and even help them make some more money, but from the bigger picture, it’s a great story that’s going to be used against creationists to point out their perfidy.

  11. Have you tried looking to those 19 Expelled (sorry) moderate churches? If you haven’t done that, I can’t see how you can avoid the accusation that you too are pointing to outliers.
    I’ve been watching this from afar, and one thing that gets missed is the question of what the target audience is you’re trying to reach. Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s the active members of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Rather it’s the rank and file of Middle America. They’re the ones you should be targeting, so you have to find the way of delivering the message that will reach them and persuade them. They tend to be moderate – I think most don’t care about the details of the debate, they’re too busy getting on with their lives.
    This becomes a political problem. If you want to argue that being on the extreme end is the best way to persuade the mass of American public opinion, you have to explain why people like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich did so poorly.
    Mind you, I totally disagree with Chris Mooney that this helps Stein. It might increase publicity and even help them make some more money, but from the bigger picture, it’s a great story that’s going to be used against creationists to point out their perfidy.

  12. I know 2 kinds of religious people: those who are so threatened by any kind of attack on their beliefs that they will defend against it uncompromisingly (and unthinkingly); and those who are completely comfortable with diversity of opinion including that of atheists. I fail to see how any discussion of religion, no matter how “framed,” will impact either group. The only ones that it will affect are those whose opinions are still unformed, primarily the young.
    In general, I think that discussions of science and religion should be separated as much as possible. Any mention of religion in any discussion always introduces so much noise that the science never gets heard.

  13. Most scientists are for stem cell research, which would cause the Archbishop not to work with them much the same way he refuses to work for the Susan G. Komen Foundation (which does not advocate abortion rights as far as I know) and much the same way he tried to get Majerus fired.
    According to several pro-life websites, the Foundation gives a lot of money to Planned Parenthood, which is probably where the opposition comes from. The truth is neither of us knows what issues the Archbishop would be willing to work on unless someone asks him.
    Anne – The point was that here in Missouri the conservatives have gotten rid of, or are in the process of getting rid of, all the Ken Miller types.
    Among Baptists, maybe. But you could always try Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc. etc. And “gotten rid of”? What are they, bumping them off? Sending fishes wrapped in newspapers to their families? The moderates are still there. Getting kicked out of the convention would probably make them even more receptive.

  14. Bob – The MBC has over 700,000 members in hundreds of churches. They are the state affiliate of the SBC. I don’t know if the same thing is happening in other states, but I do know that the man responsible for Project 1000 played a similar role in Texas. Potentially, then we would have to write off millions of people in thousands of churches.
    Boo – The Archbishop has clearly stated that his reasons for refusing to participate in any way with the Race for the Cure is stem cell research. By getting rid of I mean marginalized because they are theologically impure.

  15. To be clear, I am not saying we should not work with people like Ken Miller (who is actually a really nice guy), I’m saying that in some areas of the country they are quite rare and marginalized. I am also saying that, despite the fact that Ken Miller and Francis Ayala are christians, there are large numbers of christians that they could not speak to because of the theological accommodations they have had to make to pursue science. Consequently, we need more than one strategy. The point of the Archbishop Burke story is that Burke refuses to work with anyone, regardless of their cause, who has supported stem cell research, again regardless of their cause. This means he would send organizations like the AAAS packing. Finally, the most important point of my post is the last paragraph, please reread it.

  16. The critics argue that we are playing into the creationists hands by providing free publicity

    I’d like to point out that the line there is no such thing as bad publicity applies to entertainment. It does not apply to intellectual positions.

  17. The Missouri Baptist Convention is pretty big here in Missouri, perhaps we can find someone like Ken Miller there, someone we find a common cause with.

    Maybe you could try to find a prominent local scientist, or perhaps a retired scientist who would know the area and have time to spend on the issue. Maybe someone like David Menton.

  18. The Missouri Baptist Convention is pretty big here in Missouri, perhaps we can find someone like Ken Miller there, someone we find a common cause with.

    Maybe you could try to find a prominent local scientist, or perhaps a retired scientist who would know the area and have time to spend on the issue. Maybe someone like David Menton.

  19. Tegumai said …the line there is no such thing as bad publicity applies to entertainment. It does not apply to intellectual positions. That’s why it works for the Creationists; if they had any intellectual integrity, they would be a bit more honest and willing to listen.
    I’m just now reading an item in Science(subscription req’d) (22 February) about one former Creationist’s path from YEC to real paleontologist: “The inconsistencies he found led step by step, over many years, to a staunch acceptance of evolution. With this shift came rejection from his religious community, estrangement from his parents, and, perhaps most difficult of all, a crisis of faith that endures.” Sounds like strong forces working against acceptance of reality.

  20. Tegumai said …the line there is no such thing as bad publicity applies to entertainment. It does not apply to intellectual positions. That’s why it works for the Creationists; if they had any intellectual integrity, they would be a bit more honest and willing to listen.
    I’m just now reading an item in Science(subscription req’d) (22 February) about one former Creationist’s path from YEC to real paleontologist: “The inconsistencies he found led step by step, over many years, to a staunch acceptance of evolution. With this shift came rejection from his religious community, estrangement from his parents, and, perhaps most difficult of all, a crisis of faith that endures.” Sounds like strong forces working against acceptance of reality.

  21. Tegumai Bopsulai, FCD – That was brilliant. I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard.
    QrazyQat – Thanks for the correction. I had always been under the impression that TLTC had done well due to all the protests and media attention. Makes it a good analogy for Expelled. Although more people are going to see documentaries I don’t think that, even with all the controversy, there will be much of an audience for what is, after all, a niche film.
    Mark – All the more reason why we need a better understanding of those forces before we trot out Ken Miller and the AAAS.

  22. sorry about the double post
    also, just to be clear, I also agree that Nisbet is wrong in this case. PZ perfectly framed his expulsion.

  23. Thanks for the correction. I had always been under the impression that TLTC had done well due to all the protests and media attention
    It’s one of those accepted but unexamined things; I don’t know why people just repeat things like that without ever checking them, but that’s where that Darwin quote I like comes in: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long”. It’s not just in sceicne that false facts endure long and are highly injurious; in this case and others this particular false fact is used to suggest that one should shut up and not object to the objectionable. And it gets used by people who no doubt do not want to remain silent in the face of the objectionable. In the same way — you may have noticed over the years — the rightwing often points to boycotts as somehow unethical when it’s left-leaning; when radical rightwingers stage a boycott it’s a-okay American pie.
    Bottom line: Buzz, any old buzz, does not equal good marketing; there is such a thing as bad publicity.
    Over at Panda’s Thumb today they pointed out another, actually apropos, proxy for the Expelled case. The Left Behind game, which was radical rightwing Christian stuff and got major buzz online. But the buzz wasn’t good for it, because the buzz was very bad. And amazingly like the Expelled buzz, about the incredibly poor quality of the product, it’s boring nature, the misleading way it was presented, etc. The producers of the game have been reduced to giving it away.

  24. Thanks for the correction. I had always been under the impression that TLTC had done well due to all the protests and media attention
    It’s one of those accepted but unexamined things; I don’t know why people just repeat things like that without ever checking them, but that’s where that Darwin quote I like comes in: “False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often endure long”. It’s not just in sceicne that false facts endure long and are highly injurious; in this case and others this particular false fact is used to suggest that one should shut up and not object to the objectionable. And it gets used by people who no doubt do not want to remain silent in the face of the objectionable. In the same way — you may have noticed over the years — the rightwing often points to boycotts as somehow unethical when it’s left-leaning; when radical rightwingers stage a boycott it’s a-okay American pie.
    Bottom line: Buzz, any old buzz, does not equal good marketing; there is such a thing as bad publicity.
    Over at Panda’s Thumb today they pointed out another, actually apropos, proxy for the Expelled case. The Left Behind game, which was radical rightwing Christian stuff and got major buzz online. But the buzz wasn’t good for it, because the buzz was very bad. And amazingly like the Expelled buzz, about the incredibly poor quality of the product, it’s boring nature, the misleading way it was presented, etc. The producers of the game have been reduced to giving it away.

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