The evolution blogosphere has lately been abuzz over the question of compatibility between science and religion. Jerry Coyne got the ball rolling with this post, criticizing the accommodationist views of the National Center for Science Education. He writes:
Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend. By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one. By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist. Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.
Many others have weighed in since then. P. Z. Myers supported Coyne, as did Larry Moran here. Over at The Panda’s Thumb, Richard Hoppe initially criticized Coyne, but then softened his view. Russell Blackford largely supported Coyne’s view, while Massimo Pigliucci is largely critical (though he is not referring to Coyne directly.) There have been other posts as well.
Clearly what is needed is for me to wade in and lay down the law.
Short version: I’m with Coyne and Myers. Now for the long version…
It is not because of Richard Dawkins that people think there is a conflict between evolution and Christianity. Most people can see for themselves that a view of life in which humans arise as an accidental byproduct of a bloody and violent evolutionary process is not the same as a world in which an all-powerful, all-loving God created the world specifically for human beings. Such people should not be derided as ignorant or theologically unsophisticated. They don’t need to be lectured about Augustine or about the proper way to read the Bible, and they are usually thinking more clearly than your average professional theologian.
Evolution makes a mockery of the Biblical account, exacerbates the problem of evil, kills the argument from design, and reduces the status of human beings. Very clever people constrained only by their imaginations have concocted arguments in reply to these points. They have yet to come up with anything remotely convincing, however, and we should not be surprised that so many people see an obvious conflict.
It is flatly wrong to claim that it is only Biblical literalists who have a problem with evolution, or that the vast majority of religious denominations have made their peace with it. Biblical literalists are thin on the ground at the ID conferences I have attended. Many of them loathe the literalists for having made anti-evolutionism seem so benighted. I simply know too many people who are deeply skeptical of evolution but have no use for Christian fundamentalism or evangelicalism.
The next point is that the good guys are getting shellacked in the court of public opinion. Polls show huge support for young-Earth creationism, and overwhelming support for “teaching both sides” in science classes. There isn’t a school district in the country where we can afford to put this issue to a direct, popular vote. We have the courts, and that’s it. If the courts ever step out of the way, all the accommodationist talk in the world will not save us.
The morbid fear that people like Dawkins or Myers will scare away moderates is further evidence in support of my view. No one would take seriously an atheist who abandons the cause of good science education because John Haught and Ken Miller say their faith is strengthened by evolution. No one tells Francis Collins to tone it down for fear of scaring away more secular types.
When I read Miller, for example, I say he is right about the science and wrong about the religion. I am happy to make common cause with him on the subject of science education, but on religious questions we are on opposite sides. Why don’t moderates have the same reaction to Dawkins? The reason is that the moderates frequently have not really made their peace with evolution. They have compartmentalized. They’re not really comfortable with evolution, but they are content to ignore it and just let the scientists do their thing. But when someone like Dawkins comes along and throws it in their face, they can no longer ignore it. That’s why Dawkins is so threatening.
As for the NCSE, I have no objection to them pointing out, as a simple empirical fact, that many people have reconciled evolution and Chrisitanity, and I have no objection to them taking the pragmatic view that we need religious moderates on our side. I not only don’t object, I think that’s what they should be doing. There are many teenagers growing up in religiously isolated towns who are no doubt genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this subject. Maybe they hear a talk by Eugenie Scott and have their eyes opened.
There is no question, however, that the NCSE goes well beyond this, to the point of trying to marginalize the views of those who regard evolution and Christianity as being at odds. Coyne documents this nicely, and he is right to find it troubling.
It bothers me that they do this, but the list of things that bother me is very long and this one ranks pretty far down. It’s not as if the NCSE is out there evangelizing or holding revival tent meetings. Outreach to religious communities is good politics, and the NCSE is our front line in fighting the incessant political battles that surround this issue. I’m not going to get worked up over the fact that occasionally they go to far.
Accommodation and outreach is fine as a short-term political strategy, but it’s a loser in the long-term. If the idea is that we’ll keep putting Ken Miller and Francis Collins out there, people will be persuaded to accept more liberal sorts of religion, and then this problem will simply go away, then I think we are following a very bad idea indeed. The only long term solution is to create a society where traditional forms of religion are far more marginilized than they currently are.
I do not believe it is impossible to bring about such change, but it will not happen from polite discussion and philsophical discourse. It will happen when atheism becomes so mainstream that the younger generation no longer regards it as something exotic or strange. Eloquent polemics are a good start, as are billboards and other sorts of advertising.
There is a need for both the NCSE and P.Z. Myers. They both have an important role to play in defending science education and fighting creationism. But people who whine about polemical atheists hurting the cause are wrong. They are helping the cause. They are, in fact, the only hope for a long-term solution.