As a coda to the previous post, have a look at this post from Jerry Coyne. Since some of his blog posts have been at the center of the recent dust-ups about accommodationism, he elected to provide a clear statement of his views on this topic. He presents things in a list of six numbered points, five of which I agree with. Here’s the one with which I disagree:
I think the National Center for Science Education and other scientific organizations should make no statements about the compatibility of science and religion. When they insist on this compatibility, they are engaging in theology. And if they must say something about compatibility, let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as incompatible.
This goes a bit too far for me.
First, it is unrealistic to think the NCSE, or other science advocacy groups, could avoid making any statements at all on this subject. It seems to arise inevitably whenever evolution is discussed in public. Since the NCSE is in part a place you can go to get information about all aspects of this issue, it seems perfectly appropriate to have resources available on this topic.
Second, I think it is fine to point out that many people see no problem reconciling evolution and religion. For one thing, it is true. For another, I think a lot of people are genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this issue. Most people do not need to have it explained to them that evolution poses real challenges to traditional religion. They do, in many cases, need to be exposed to the views of those who manage to reconcile the two.
So what should the NCSE say? They should say simply that there is a diversity of views on this issue. Some people think they are incompatible, for a variety of reasons. But others see them as perfectly compatible, even mutually reinforcing. By all means point to Ken Miller and Francis Collins as people who have recently written engaging books describing how to reconcile the two. I don’t even object to spotlighting their books and not spotlighting the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. After all, the books by Hitchens and Harris say almost nothing about evolution, and even Dawkins mentions it only tangentially. If someone writes a decent book focused specifically on how evolution challenges traditional religion then by all means mention it as well. I am not currently aware of any such book. (The “decent” provision rules out the various YEC tomes that make this argument.) I doubt if such a book will ever be written, simply because it is perfectly obvious how evolution challenges religion. Finally, I think it is perfectly fine for the NCSE to have a full-time employee devoted to religious outreach. If such outreach can lead to people being moved to more pro-science forms of religion, I think that is great. At any rate I certainly do not see what harm is done by such an effort.
I see no reason why this presentation, which is entirely true and potentially useful politically, needs to cross the line into asinine and genuinely controversial claims about science and religion being separate, but equally valid, ways of knowing. There is no need to demonize those who think science and religion are like oil and water, and to paint them as no better than religious fundamentalists. There is no need to pretend that NOMA represents some consensus view among scholars, or that there is only one correct way of viewing the relationship between science and religion.
Is that so complicated?
For the most part I think the NCSE does a good job on this score. Occasionally someone goes a little overboard, like Kevin Padian in his recent statement. This bothers me, but as I have noted before the list of things that bothers me is very long, and this little offense ranks pretty far down. There are so many bigger outrages coming from the other side that I think I will save the lion’s share of my anger for them.