I am arriving very late to the party on this one, but I would like to reply to one portion of this post from Jean Kazez. She writes:
Likewise, I don’t see much point in discussing religion/science incompatibility in the public square. We can all agree on very plain and simple things–if science, then no creation in 6 days. If science, then no dinosaurs living at the same time as humans. Lots of limited incompatibilities like that are indisputable. But the more sweeping assertion that science rules out most of religion is complicated and technical (what is science? what is religion? what is compatibility?). And there are important issues about the impact of making that assertion. There’s room for debate here–I feel more confident about the meta-ethics example–but there’s certainly nothing appalling about the position that sweeping assertions of science/religion incompatibility are ill-advised.
This is so, so wrong.
Most of Jean’s post is about the impropriety of discussing certain metaethical theories in the public square, specifically moral error theory. The idea is that the issues involved are too complicated, and too easily caricatured to the detriment of atheists, to be worth discussing in public. Hence the “Likewise” at the start of the quotation.
In a comment to her own post, responding to someone who had mentioned Sartre and Dostoevsky, Jean wrote:
The layman can understand what a few of the issues are just by reading Dostoevsky and Sartre, but I don’t think you can make any real headway on them without expertise in very technical areas of philosophy. Some areas of philosophy are not accessible to the layman, just like some areas of math or biology or linguistics.
Yes, let’s ponder some of the things the poor benighted layman cannot hope to understand. Galois cohomology comes to mind. It’s terribly complicated. Given eight hundred words on the op-ed page of the local newspaper I would probably do well to find a different topic. But is the complexity of the subject the main reason, or any reason at all, for not discussing it in public? Surely there are more pertinent reasons, like the complete irrelevance of Galois cohomology to any concern of public interest.
Contrast this with, say, the science of global warming. It’s also very complicated. Hardly the sort of topic that can be done justice in a short essay or television interview. But since this is a topic of great public importance, I suggest we resist the temptation to retreat to our ivory towers and behave condescendingly towards laymen. We might even decide that something less than a professional-level understanding is sufficient for people to make informed decisions. And since the opposition does not seem to be wringing its hands over the sheer complexity of it all, I think we just might have to sacrifice some of our academic purity.
Is there any issue of current political concern that isn’t complicated and technical? Is it simple to understand the causes of the economic crisis or the current political turmoil in Egypt and Libya? Of course not, but it is imperative to make the effort, because the issues are relevant to the public, and because the political right would be happy to have its fantastical version of events take hold as the official story.
That is how many of us see the issue of science/religion compatibility. We note the excessive respect and power granted to religious institutions and see a serious social problem. We note the existence of well-funded groups relentlessly peddling science/religion compatibility, a view we tend to regard as pernicious nonsense. Those seem like good reasons for pushing back when given the chance, even if that means, perhaps, being dismissive of the ontological argument or not discussing the merits of Jainism. Endlessly fretting about nuances and technicalities has its place, but so does cutting to the heart of the matter and telling it like it is.
Here’s another reason. People tend to be insular. This is especially true of religious conservatives. They tend to keep doing what they’ve always done, and thinking what they’ve always thought, until something novel catches their attention. If you want to win people to your way of thinking you must first make them aware that your way of thinking is out there. Sometimes that means screaming and yelling a bit, and not worrying so much about bruising a few feelings. You write your op-eds and your letters to the editor not simply because you think you can thereby capture every nuance of an issue, or that you will bowl people over with the force of your arguments, but as one small contribution to ensuring that your ideas are part of the public conversation.
So that is two points of disagreement between Jean and me. I see plenty of point in discussing science/religion compatibility in public and I do not think the complexity of the issue is any reason at all for doing otherwise. So let’s move on to the next consideration. Perhaps arguing for the incompatibility of science and religion is the sort of thing that is so offensive and incendiary that basic political considerations militate against being too vocal. You have to pick your fights in life, and there are situations where being right isn’t necessarily the most important thing. I assume that’s the sort of thing she has in mind in referring to the impact of making the assertion.
I can only say I find this view incredible. Consider Jean’s other example. She notes that moral error theory commits you to the view that the statement, “Torturing babies just for fun is wrong,” cannot be described as true. If this view becomes
closely associated with atheism it could make us look very bad. She describes this as a good reason for not linking atheism with this view in the public square. I quite agree. I would look at the ease with which the conclusions of moral error theory can be caricatured, and the general irrelevance of metaethics to issues of public concern, as good reasons for not making too big a fuss about it.
But is that remotely comparable to the assertion that science and religion are incompatible? Is the impact of that view on the average layman similar to making them worry you are soft on baby torture? Unlike moral error theory, which is virtually unknown outside of the local philosophy department, the view that science and religion are at least in tension if not flatly incompatible is really very common. You are not going to shock anyone by endorsing it. It just is not a terribly incendiary thing to believe or promote. Certainly it is no more shocking to people than is atheism itself, but I assume no one is arguing that atheists should never discuss their religious views in public.
Jean’s post is part of a much larger series that has recently engulfed the small corner of the blogosphere that cares about these things. Russell Blackford has an excellent post on the subject, as does Jason Streitfeld. Go read their posts as well!