Monday, August 24, 2009


Dividing the Question

Science and religion need a truce | Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk:

[A]ccommodationists – still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers. Whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

It is controversial whether religious belief is compatible with good science and, in particular, with commitment to Darwin's theory of evolution.

It is also controversial how best to promote scientific literacy and support good science. Given that fundamentalist Christianity undermines scientific literacy in virtue of its rejection of evolution we could argue the way to promote scientific literacy is to discredit fundamentalist Christianity and, just to be on the safe side, take down non-fundamentalist Christianity and religion generally as well since "moderate" religious believers who, even if they don't reject evolution outright, will claim God "guides" evolution--which is a rejection of the core insight of the theory. On the other hand, given that many people are religious believers and of those only a minority are intransigent fundamentalists the best way to sell good science might be to persuade people that evolution is not (uncontroversially) incompatible with religious belief.

So there are two independent questions, which are invariably muddled, in discussions of "accomodationism":

(1) Is the theory of evolution compatible with religious belief?

(2) What is the best way to sell the theory of evolution (to promote scientific literacy, and to support good science)?

(1) is a philosophical question and, like all philosophical questions, is disputed. It is, in any case, the business of philosophers of science.

(2) is a strategic political question and, like all questions of this nature, asks for cost, benefit, risk assessment. It is an empirical question which strategy will be most effective in selling the public on evolution and promoting scientific literacy: the New Atheist strategy or the Accommodationist strategy. This question is the business of social scientists, pollsters and science teachers in the trenches.

How are the two questions related? Well, if you answer yes to (1), if you believe that the theory of evolution (and good science generally) is compatible with religious belief then you should clearly be an Accommodationist. If however you answer no to (1) it is an open question whether you should adopt the Accommodationist strategy or not, and the answer will depend on empirical considerations concerning the costs, benefits and risks of Accommodationism.

Suppose you answer no to (1): you believe that religious belief is incompatible with good science and with the theory of evolution in particular. Adopting the Accommodationist strategy does not commit you to lying about your answer to question (1) or to promoting the idea that religious belief and science are compatible. You are committed at most to noting, if asked, that (1) is a disputed question. All you have to do is tell the unvarnished truth: "Some people, like me, believe that science and religion are incompatible. Others, including some scientists and philosophers of science, believe that science and religion are compatible. Like all philosophical claims it's controversial: there are smart, reflective, informed people on both sides."

Moreover, unless you are asked, you don't have to speak to this question at all. If you want to write a book defending and popularizing evolution, write about evolution. You may have a variety of views about other related issues. You may believe that the National Science Foundation should get more funding or that scientists should be allowed to teach in public high schools without special teaching credentials or that all the sciences are reducible to physics in accordance with the Unity of Sciences program or that they are not reducible to physics or that science and religion are incompatible. That's fine, but you can editorialize elsewhere. The most effective way to teach people about evolution and get them interested is to write about evolution in the clearest and most lively way you can and avoid distracting readers by promoting other agendas.

This is not dishonest. It is not fudging or going into the closet on atheism or even simply being "nice." It is a matter of keeping on topic. Given the bully pulpit it's always tempting to expound your views on everything from the state of the economy to the virtues of your new iPhone. But there is no reason why you should.

I sometimes wonder what the priorities of some "New Atheists" are. Is the aim really to defend good science by attacking bad religion? Or do they in fact view the defense of evolution as a golden opportunity to promote atheism?

I don't have objection to the promotion of atheism in the media, on the sides of busses or anywhere in the public square. Atheists complain that they've been silenced while religious believers have carte blanche to preach to the multitudes. If that's true it is indeed unfair and I think it would be just fine if atheists shouted as loudly and got just as much media exposure as religious believers. Of course once the novelty has worn off most of us won't pay any more attention to atheist busses than we do to the billboards that pop up every Christmas announcing that Jesus is the reason for the Season. Ho-ho-ho...hum.

What I find objectionable is the use of science education as a vehicle for promoting atheism. It would be equally objectionable if Christians used music education to promote religious belief or if ideologues with axes to grind used courses in the social sciences to promote their political agendas, whether left, right or center.

It's disgraceful that over 40% of Americans don't buy the theory of evolution, which is not in any way seriously controversial but is an established fact. It is shocking that even more are convinced of the efficacy of quack medicines, believe reports of psychic phenomena and extra terrestrial visitations, spend their money on pseudo-scientific self-help books and bogus therapies, and give credence to all manner of fashionable nonsense. Scientific literacy and beyond that plain respect for rationality is important.

Now maybe new atheists will argue that in the long run the most effective way to promote scientific literacy and critical thinking is to discredit religious belief. If so, I'd like to see arguments backed by empirical evidence from history and the social sciences. I haven't seen any compelling arguments yet and from what I have seen it seems more likely that attempts to attach an anti-religious agenda to science undermines attempts to promote scientific literacy. In general, ceteris paribus, the most effective way to defend a thesis is by showing that it is cheap--that it is not burdened with many entailments or further commitments and does not have hidden costs. I can't think of any better way to sell evolution than to make the case that it is cheap--that it does not entail the rejection of religious belief.

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