15 March 2009

Why Bother?

I’ve been reading a lot of blogs lately. Cranky blogs. My wife and my folks got me an iPhone for Christmas, so thanks to Google reader I can follow any number of blogs while I wait for reactions to finish or programs to compile. Back when I started God and the Chemist I wasn’t nearly so immersed in the on-line form of the science vs. religion/evolution vs. intelligent design vs. creationism argument. Now, after a couple months of reading almost daily from PZ Meyers, The Discovery Institute, Richard Dawkins, Ken Ham, Michael Behe, etc., I almost wonder why I bother.

These guys are not getting through to each other.

There have been a handful of cases where one blogger is criticized by another in a public forum (an open letter, a scientific article, a conference). There is public debate and rebuttal, but on their respective blogs the combatants point out the (apparently) obvious errors in their counterparts' arguments with varying levels of derision. Neither gives any ground. Neither party changes their mind. Worse, if you read the comments, the large majority are supporters of the author’s views who congratulate themselves on their superior knowledge. The occasional detractor that joins in is often excoriated, flamed, or outright banned. It all gives the readers the impression that this conflict really is intractable, that there really can be no middle ground.

I almost believe them. I’m almost ready to pick a side and start lobbing grenades.

But then I start thinking about whose ideas I’m reading. It’s actually a relatively small group of guys (yes, some ladies, but mostly guys). Anyone who takes the time to write (or comment) on a blog, especially a blog about an incendiary topic, has to have enough of an opinion that they feel like sharing it. And if they’re a well-known blogger, they’ve obviously shared a strong enough opinion enough times to gain a readership. So just because a blogger (or radio show host or TV show host) seems unwilling to change his mind doesn’t mean that the rest of the world is equally unwilling to seek charitable understanding. The same is true, I suppose, about a blog’s followers. My friend Chris is full-time and prolific blogger. He tells me that only a small percentage of a blog’s readers actually post, and that these posters are a self-selective group. They are often looking for track-backs to their own blogs or, in the case of the nastier commenters, have a proclivity for flame wars no matter the subject matter, or they just have a lot of time on their hands. In any case, the vocal followers of a blog are probably not a representative sampling of the world at large any more than the bloggers are.

I was in college when the U.S. invaded Iraq and deposed Saddam Hussein. Every Friday there would be protestors on a street corner near the university. They would wave signs with slogans like “No War for Oil”. Pretty soon an opposing camp started coming to the rallies, standing on the opposite side of the street holding signs with slogans like “Support Our Troops”. At most there were 50 people involved in these little rallies, but thousands of people driving past them. A few would honk in support of one side or another, but most of us wouldn’t say or do anything. I always thought that if I were to join the Friday Rallies, I would hold a blank sign, or a sign that said “These are complex issues that deserve a lot of thought and I don’t feel strongly enough in either direction to make a definitive statement on this sign”.

My unwillingness to yell hasn’t changed much. P.Z. Meyers probably isn’t going to change his mind anytime soon. Neither is Ken Ham likely to decide that he’s been wrong about the Bible all this time. But unlike holding a sign at a protest, blogging allows a lot more room for discussion of nuanced ideas. So for the time being I’m going to continue to write as if there were anyone out there who thinks there might be a third way (or a fourth or a fifth). If no one reads or cares, at least this will have been a good exercise in essay writing. But it is my sincere hope that my thoughts here will add some meaningful content to your thoughts and discussions on science and faith.

1 comment:

  1. This is the best thing I have read in months. I don’t think you are in any sense alone in thinking that there might be a third (or fifth) way, in fact I think you said exactly what (tens of) thousands of people have felt but had been unable to put into words. I think the next phase probably is Dawkins and Dennett and Hitchens and Harris against Francis Collins and Ken Miller on the more nuanced aspects of the debate, which will be when we as a species and a culture will start to move on, but for now we still have a way to find away to get the goblins of creationism and theocracy to stay dead.

    Anyway, great peace of writing and I admire you’re willingness to draw fire from both sides.