My post about science/religion disputes has prompted responses from my SciBlings Bora Zivkovic and Mike Dunford (here and here respectively. Since they are among my favorite bloggers, it pains me to have to disagree with them. Alas, disagree I must.
I will begin with Bora, since I fear he has misunderstood my central point. The starting point of my post was my disagreement with this statement from Thomas Dixon:
Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.
Bora characterizes my objection to this statement as follows:
Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political.
I certainly did not deny that the Galileo affair was a political dispute. I wrote this, recall:
In the present case the second part of the sentence does not contradict the first. The Galileo affair was a science/religion dispute that played out in the political arena of rival claims to knowledge and authority.
My position is that the Galileo affair (and the more modern fights over creationism) are political disputes that arise because of underlying differences of opinion about science and religion. I say these fights are “primarily” about science and religion because I regard the motivations and beliefs that lead to the political fighting as more fundamental than the historical minutiae of how those fights played out. I will return to this in a moment.
As an analogy, suppose I said that modern fights over abortion are primarily about differing views on the moral status of the fetus. Would anyone challenge that statement by saying, no, abortion fights are actually political disputes? Is my statement contradicted by the observation that the abortion issue was very much on the back burner until the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which galvanized the anti-abortion side by (in their view) legislating from the bench? Certainly not. The historical details of how abortion fights have played out are important and essential to a thorough understanding of the issue. They just do not change the fact that the cause of all the politicking comes down to different philosophies and worldviews.
The title of Bora’s post is “All Science vs. Religion Conflicts are Essentially and Primarily Political Conflicts.” Why stop at science/religion conflicts? Most of the major human conflicts historians study are political conflicts (as Bora goes on to note later in his post). The word “political” just means that the government is involved in some way. To the extent that people tend to fight about control of land or resources or the authority to make and enforce laws, most major human disputes can ultimately be described as political. That is simply irrelevant to the broader question of whether it was hostility between science and religion that was largely responsible for what happened to Galileo.
The clean distinction Bora is trying to draw between political disputes on the one hand and science/religion disputes on the other is simply not workable. Not in general and not in the specific cases of Galileo or modern creationists. In these disputes the politics and religion are so intertwined that it is effecitvely impossible to separate them. As the saying goes, this is not a case of Either-Or. It is Both-And.
Bora now writes several paragraphs in which he emphasizes that religion is often used as a cynical ploy by ruling elites to rally the masses to fight in causes that are really about political power. This is certainly true, and I agree with much of what Bora says, but in the end he goes overboard with this. For example, he is simply wrong when he writes this:
Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power. (Emphasis added).
That bold-face sentence is way, way off. The science/religion angle is manifestly not just window-dressing in this dispute. In fact, this whole paragraph is far too simplistic and overstated. I can only encourage Bora to attend a creationist gathering some time and talk to some of the participants. Most of them do not fit his stereotype.
Yes, of course they want power. But the reason they care so deeply about having power in this area is their sincerely held belief that matters of eternal significance are at stake. If we are talking about young-Earth creationists specifically, then we have a textbook science/religion conflict. The YEC’s genuinely believe that the methods of science are fine for many purposes, but they are employed by fallible humans who need the inerrant authority of the Bible to keep them honest. The Bible, to them, is a source of evidence that trumps anything a scientist might discover. Power is not an end in its own right, at least not for most of them. Power is simply a means to the end of reshaping society in a way more consistent with their perception of God’s will.
Mike makes many of the same points as Bora, so I won’t say as much about his post. He writes:
When you get right down to it, the Galileo affair was almost irreducibly complex. The very real conflict between science and religion over who gets to declare what the physical world was certainly a major factor, but it was only one of many.
Indeed, but it was an exceptionally important factor. The only reason Galileo posed any threat at all to the Church’s authority was his audacity in using his own research to challenge their interpretation of the Bible. That the Church authorities might have been inclined to overlook it had they not been facing political pressures on so many other fronts does not change that fact. That is essentially why I believe the science/religion angle has to be regarded as paramount in understanding what happened. Had the Church not arrogated to itself the right to hold forth on the natural world based on its understanding of scripture, all of the political pressures they faced would have been irrelevant.
I left a comment to his post, and Mike has now replied. The key portion is this:
There have been battles over evolution in the schools, to be sure. But in both Dover and Texas (just to cite two examples), many of the same school board members were looking to transform the curriculum in other subject areas as well. At the same time, members of many of the same religious groups have been (and are) fighting to ensure that their beliefs remain or become law when it comes to issues as diverse as sex ed, abortion, birth control, end of life healthcare, prayer in the schools, religious displays in public buildings, the so-called war on Christmas, homosexuality in general and same sex marriage in particular, Muslims in the military, women in the military, proselytization in the schools, prisons, and military, and public funding for faith-based programs. And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.
If science were the only – or even the primary – battleground, I think I would be fairly comfortable referring to the creation/evolution struggle as a conflict between science and religion. As it stands now, I am far from convinced that is the case. As far as I can tell, the people fighting on the side of religion don’t think their beliefs are more authoritative than just those of science – I think they believe that their beliefs about absolutely everything are more authoritative than anyone else’s.
Since this includes cases where their beliefs conflict with the religious and/or philosophical beliefs of others, and not just cases where their views collide with our scientifically-based understanding of the world, I think it makes more sense to view the creation/evolution struggle as being one part of a larger battle for political control over secular life than as an isolated case of a science/religion conflict.
I agree with nearly all of this, but, again, I don’t see it as contradicting my argument. It is certainly true that the mindset of Christian fundamentalism comes into conflict with many aspects of secular society, not just science. They want to see profound changes in all of the areas Mike lists and in many other besides, and their views on these matters can mostly be traced back to their idiosyncratic views about the authority of the Bible (to the extent that there is a reasoned argument for them at all). No question about it.
But why should that stop us from focusing on the creation/evolution conflict and noting that the source of that conflict specifically comes down to the different approaches to knowledge encouraged by science and religion? Not all religion obviously, but a particular strain of religion that is numerically very well-represented. The evolution/creation dispute is a fight between science and religion. It is also one front in a broader war between religious fundamentalism and secular society.
Is that so complicated?
You might wonder at this point why I am making such an issue of this. We all seem to agree that the Chuch’s rather extreme response to Galileo was the result not just of a conflict between science and religion but also of a variety of political considerations that left Pope Urban VIII feeling he had to come down on Galileo to preserve his authority. And we agree that the evolution/creation dispute is one front in a broader fight between rival worldviews that encompass more than just a dispute between science and religion.
The reason is that underlying the Galileo affair, the evolution/creation issue, and countless other places where science and religion have come into conflict, is a very bad idea that continues to have great force in our society. Specifically, that religious revelation is a reliable source of information about the world. Sadly, it is not, and to the extent that large numbers of people think that it is it nearly always leads to negative consequences. Since revelation plays a central role in the numerically most prevalent forms of religion in the world, I think it is fair to say simply that religion is largely based on a very bad idea. It does not lead necessarily to harmful consequences, but it does so with sufficient frequency as to be worth commenting on.
The trouble is that so many people, including many academics, seem determined to absolve religion of the frequent harm it has caused to society. To pretend that the Galileo affair was primarily a complex political dispute in which the science/religion angle recedes to irrelevance is to ignore one of the central lessons the incident teaches us. Likewise, emphasizing the political aspects of creationism at the expense of the religious dimension is also to ignore something of great importance. The same bad idea runs through these and so many other incidents.
We should not be working too hard to preserve a role for this way of thinking in modern society. To me it looks like so many of the academics who write in this area are doing precisely that. These disputes can not always be about something else. Sometimes you have to be willing to say that the fight was the result of the poor ways of thinking encouraged by religion.