“And now we go to Tony, calling from Orlando. Tony, are you there?”
“Hey, dittos, Rush. Longtime listener, first time caller. I just wanted to call and ask you what’s up with all this global warming stuff. I mean, is the planet really getting warmer, and are people to blame?”
“Well Tony, I’ll tell you. I have an opinion on that, but some people find my style brash and offensive, so I’m just going to sit back and shut up and let someone nicer try and defend the conservative point of view.”
Does that sound a bit strange? It might, if you’ve ever listened to Rush Limbaugh, or Bill O’Reilly, or James Dobson, or D. James Kennedy, or any of the other conservative masters of “framing.” And yet, some people are seriously suggesting that the above approach is the one PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins ought to be taking, in the interests of “framing” science. Don’t the “framing” advocates ever listen to how real framing is actually done, by those whose apparent success is the reason we even want to frame science in the first place?
Nobody ever became a successful framer by being a nice guy. You become a successful framer by making people think the other guys are scum. And particularly in the case of science, you frame the anti-scientific case by making the other guys look like a particular brand of scum called “atheists.”
Of course, it goes without saying that this particular tactic depends on the implicit assumption that atheists are scum, that they’re corrupt, immoral, evil, nasty, and downright icky all around. Christians and other religious folk have been spreading that slander around for so long that a lot of people just take it for granted. And even when they don’t, there are plenty of people willing to pitch in and reinforce the idea that atheism is gross and disgusting, something to be swept under rugs and hidden away in dark closet depths.
The thing is, framing does not require that scientists actually be atheists. It’s enough to simply accuse them. If people were going to check the facts and see through the slanders, framing wouldn’t work in the first place. Burying the atheists is not going to diminish the effectiveness of anti-science framing in any way.
What we need to do is attack the problem at the root, by directly confronting the stereotypical notion that atheists are automatically family-hating, alcoholic, eagerly sinful blights on society. When PZ Myers shows up in front of people speaking frankly and with remarkable restraint concerning his own beliefs, anti-science framers may seize on the opportunity to shock Christians with his callous disregard for things religious, but really, is it all that shocking? Discovering that an atheist has little use for worship is like discovering that Christians believe in hell and damnation. Ok, one or the other might conflict with what you’d prefer to believe, but seriously, shocked that someone else might hold beliefs consistent with his or her own worldview?
PZ Myers is not the problem, nor is he doing science any disservice by honestly and openly explaining what his own personal beliefs are. He didn’t even call for the abolition of religion, you notice. His most “scathing” slam against religion was to suggest that it ought to be a side dish rather than the main course. Sure, that might offend the hard-liners, but then they’re professionally offended. It’s part of being a hard-liner. Middle-of-the-roaders, the people we really want and need to reach, are more likely to realize, Hey, PZ isn’t nearly as rabid and intolerant as Ben Stein frothing at the mouth and blaming evolutionists for everything from Auschwitz to zoophilia.
No, the real problem isn’t PZ, it’s the people, ostensibly on the pro-science side, who are vocally supporting the anti-science cause by working so hard to reinforce the stereotype of atheism as evil, reprehensible, and taboo. Can you imagine telling Einstein that he ought to keep his theories to himself because he’s Jewish, or George Washington Carver that he ought to not tell anybody about his work because he’s black? The keystone of the anti-science strategy is to use atheism as the tar with which to tarbrush all of science (or at least all of it that they don’t approve of). Whether Myers and Dawkins roar like lions or bleat like lambs, as long as the anti-science guys can get away with promoting prejudice against atheism, and as long as people on the pro-science side support and promote this prejudice instead of combating it, our attempts at “framing” will never be as effective as theirs.