Jerry Coyne and P. Z. Myers (here and here respectively) have taken note of a session at the upcoming AAAS Annual Meeting entitled: Evangelicals, Science, and Policy: Toward a Constructive Engagement. They object to this intrusion of religion into a science meeting. In the comments to their posts, Nick Matzke has been gamely trying to defend the session.
These sorts of discussions always remind me of the paleontology conference I attended in 2009. I reported on it here and here. The conference featured two sessions of interest. I was there to participate in a panel discussion on countering creationism, which inevitably involved people discussing the relationship between science and religion. The morning’s session had also featured several talks on the issue, from people like Ken Miller and Genie Scott. I thought all of this was fine. It’s an issue that was clearly of interest to paleontologists and a variety of viewpoints were represented.
Contrast that with another session held that afternoon called “The Nature of Science and Public Science Literacy.” The title sounded good, but the session itself was just full-on Christian apologetics. No discussion, no debate, just a revival tent atmosphere and lots of bashing of atheists for unfairly mixing science and religion (this at a paleontology conference, recall). It was a pretty shameful display, and not at all something that reputable scientific society should have wanted any part of.
So the verdict on this session? A bit mixed. The description sounds fine:
Evangelical Christians constitute approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population, and their influence on public policy is considerable. As a community with major concerns regarding science, ethics, and national priorities, its impact on science policy has been particularly significant, as in the case of stem cell research. Around such controversial issues, communication between science and evangelical Christianity has been hampered by limited appreciation of both the scientific facts and each others’ concerns. On the other hand, new models of positive engagement between these communities around global issues such as climate change is encouraging awareness and leading to science policies that benefit both science and society as a whole. As science progresses in other disciplines, evangelicals will continue to play a significant role, but their positions on many of these issues have not yet been fully formed. The opportunity thus exists to anticipate concerns and to develop a positive understanding that will benefit scientific advancement. One example is neuroscience, which has implications for both policy-making and religious understanding. Speakers will discuss their experiences with stem cell and climate change policy and explore how these experiences can inform engagement between the scientific and evangelical communities to benefit policies relating both to neuroscience and to science more generally.
I have no problem with a session based on this theme, though some of it sounds very naive to me. I don’t think a failure to appreciate each other’s concerns is really a big factor in the tension between science and evangelical Christianity. The tension exists because they are genuinely at odds, and all the talking in the world will not change that. The engagement between scientists and evangelicals on climate change has been interesting, but I suspect its impact has been grossly overstated. And on issues like evolution and stem cell research I wonder if evangelical opinion is quite as pliable as is suggested here. Still, I don’t think this description sounds like an unreasonable mixing of science and religion.
But some red flags go up when we look at the speaker’s abstracts. Here is one, from a talk entitled “Neuroscience and Evangelical Christianity: Anticipating and Alleviating Concerns”
Neuroscience seeks to understand the biological mechanisms underlying behavior, including the most complex aspects of our mental lives. To the extent that this project is successful–and progress has been substantial–fundamental questions arise concerning the nature of personhood, choice, and responsibility for behavior. Are we nothing but the sum of our neurons? Does my brain shape me, or do I shape my brain? Is freedom of choice an illusion? On such issues, resolutely reductionist accounts of behavior will no doubt create conflict with Christianity and other major religious traditions as well. Mainstream Christian thought, for example, postulates the existence of an immortal soul, related to but potentially independent of the physical body, which comprises the most profound essence of personhood. In contrast, Francis Crick’s “astonishing hypothesis” postulates: “You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” Is it at all conceivable that these notions can engage constructively? Can another round of conflict between religious and scientific communities be headed off, or at least steered in directions that are open and curious rather than dogmatic and destructive? I hope to suggest ways in which both religious and scientific communities can move beyond their own “fundamentalist” tendencies toward a more nuanced conversation concerning human personhood and related social and policy issues such as criminal responsibility, cognitive enhancement, and end-of-life concerns.
Nuanced conversation? Engage constructively? Move beyond their own “fundamentalist” tendencies? I call foul. This is apologetics, phrased with the standard dog-whistle tropes. To judge from this abstract this talk is going well-beyond fostering communication between science and religion. It sounds like its promoting a particular view of what the science/religion relationship ought to be. I could be wrong, and I’m sorry I will not be able to go to the talk. But that abstract does not inspire confidence.
Another talk is entitled “The Scientists and Evangelicals Initiative: Partnering To Protect the Environment ” Here’s the abstract:
I am occasionally asked to comment on my interactions as a scientist with leaders in the Christian faith and especially the Evangelical Christian community. I must first admit to having been reluctant to engage in such dialogue formally, because of my misperceptions about this community’s likely receptivity to the views of scientists. In part my bias was based upon the public pronouncements of very highly visible spokespersons who seemed unlikely to be open to consider the views of scientists, perhaps especially to those of climate scientists.
What resulted from discussions launched by Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment and the National Association of Evangelicals (which represents 45,000 local churches) was a remarkably productive exchange of views about the power of partnership between our communities. Stewardship for the whole of the Creation was clearly a shared goal. Although we approach this topic from different perspectives a mutual respect for these differences allows us to see that we have a great deal in common. We have resolved to deploy jointly, whenever possible, our respective resources to address climate change. This not only includes efforts to reduce the drivers of climate change, but also, and very importantly, the necessary additional efforts to prepare for adaptation, and most especially to assist those without means to do this on their own, within our national borders and beyond.
There are important opportunities to apply this model to other problems, and one of particular urgency relates to the perilous nature of global nuclear security, especially with respect to the enormous arsenals of weapons held by both the USA and Russia.
That sounds a lot more promising. That bit about capitalizing “Creation” is annoying, but that is a detail. I don’t see a mixing of science and religion here, just a clear discussion of a potentially fruitful line of dialogue between scientists and evangelicals.
The third talk is about evangelicals and stem-cell research, but there is no abstract available.
My objection to this sort of thing is simply that the exclusion of voices that see a less chummy relationship between science and religion just seems like a denial of reality. When you attend one of these sessions you get the impression that all the nice sensible people understand that even very conservative forms of religion are compatible with modern science, with just a handful of fanatics arguing anything different. Back on planet earth scientists are overwhelmingly non-religious or hew to very liberal sorts of religions, while majorities of religious voters support anti-science candidates.
They do this, mind you, not because they are confused about the true nature of religion, but because they are correctly perceiving a fundamental conflict between what science is saying and what their religion teaches. It just seems silly to have session after session on this sort of topic while denying that simple truth.