The Intersection

PZ disagrees with my suggestions about strategies for defending evolution. More specifically, he disagrees that we should be using, as messengers, scientists who reconcile faith and evolution (aka Ken Miller) to reach the broader American public. As PZ puts it:

Why, sure. And the ideal messenger to reach the public on Democratic ideals is a moderate Republican. The way to win friends and persuade people is to dilute your message so much that you sound just like them. Baa-aaa-aa-a.

Ah, but are we diluting our message here? I don’t think that we are. The goal, for me, is to “defend the teaching of evolution,” and any message will be consistent with that objective. But that objective is not in any way compromised if the defenders of evolution (the messengers) are theists. I guess I’m wondering what PZ thinks the goal is, if not to defend evolution itself as a first priority.

But PZ continues:

I disagree strongly with this whole idea of an “ideal messenger”. Ken Miller is one messenger, a good one I will agree, but I object to the notion that the best representative of science is one who holds a set of non-scientific ideals.

I also confess to a bit of Miller Fatigue. He’s a good guy, don’t get me wrong, but whenever the conversation turns to how to get the scientific message across, it’s his name that gets brought up. Why not mention Collins of the HGP, or Ayala, or…and there’s another problem. These paragons of Christian thought aren’t that common in science, and actually aren’t very representative. If you want an “ideal messenger”, it should be someone who really doesn’t give a damn about religion, someone who rejects simplistic fundamentalism, someone who thinks the answers are found by looking at the world, not praying for a revelation. Fishing for the rara avis with notions peculiar for a scientist is not convincing to me, or most importantly, to the people we need to convince…unless they’re so stupid they can’t see through our façade.

After having read this, I think I know why PZ and I always seem to disagree about science and religion. We’re coming at the same topic from two different perspectives.

I view the evolution battle as a political fight in which the two different sides are competing to move the American public into their camps. Indeed, the “Wedge” strategy is an explicitly political strategy–one that involves dividing people over religion. By contrast, I believe that we need to unite people over evolution (which means, defusing the power of the Wedge to make religionists distrust “Darwinism” because they believe it entails atheism). And in doing so, we need to be just as strategic as the other side–if not more so.

PZ seems to come at it differently, at least in his emphasis. On an intellectual level, he just doesn’t find those who reconcile science and religion to be very persusasive. (Frankly, as a non-reconciliationist myself, I can personally understand where the puzzlement comes from.) Such folks hold “a set of non-scientific ideals…aren’t that common in science, and actually aren’t very representative.” They are not, in PZ’s view, the “ideal” messenger, because the ideal messenger would be someone who actually embraces a thoroughly naturalistic outlook on the world and how to understand it–as (he contends) most scientists do.

Here’s how I would reply to this. First, the question is, “ideal messenger” for what purpose? When I say “ideal messenger,” I mean an individual who is able to break through the mountains of distrust and misinformation–sown by the ID camp and by fundamentalist churches nationwide–that are preventing so many Americans from accepting evolution. And because this is a political campaign we’re fighting, I think we do need to have, if not a single messenger, then at least a unified communications strategy, insofar as it’s possible. The other side certainly strives to achieve such unity, and it has done wonders for them.

And what shall our messenger say? Well, again, PZ thinks the “ideal messenger” will reflect the fact that many or most scientists have trouble justifying a religious leap of faith while simultaneously nourishing a commitment to understanding the world in a naturalistic way. But I say: Isn’t this walking right into the “Wedge” trap? The “Wedge,” remember, tries to make religious Americans suspicious of evolution by suggesting that it’s inherently materialistic and atheistic. And PZ’s strategy…well, it confirms that scientists are, indeed, materialistic and atheistic. Or am I missing something?

The point is, the “Wedge” is trying to use the power of religious devotion to defeat evolution. The reason this is a clever strategy is that, right or wrong, religious devotion is a very powerful thing in America. It is a core part of our history, and I think it would be foolhardy to try to defeat it head-on (not to mention potentially inconsistent with the more limited goal of defending evolution).

Rather, we need to defuse this powerful political weapon that our opponent is wielding against us. And that’s where the scientists who are also people of faith come in. They have an instant credibility with religious Americans that atheist scientists do not and cannot have. They can speak in a language that such Americans can really understand. Thus, they stand in the best position to defeat the “Wedge.” And that’s what I really want to see happen.

Permit me to use an analogy. Some years ago, IDists sought to make peace with Young Earth Creationists by deferring a battle over the age of the Earth until such time as evolution was defeated. It didn’t work perfectly, but it was, strategically, a smart move. And it’s something we could learn from. If evolution defenders are wise, they will do something very similar: Defer a battle over the existence of God until ID and creationism are defeated.

Believe me, it would do wonders for our political chances in this contest.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    February 7, 2006

    They have different strategies (and speakers) for different audiences.

    Why can’t we also tailor our strategies and speakers to fit the various target audiences?

  2. #2 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 7, 2006

    In some sense, I see PZ’s strategy as making the pushers of a theocratic agenda take a look at their own intolerance. Some scientists are “godly” types, some aren’t. But, qua scientists, they don’t care whether others are godly or not. Scientists are engaged in a certain kind of methodology, and they’re offering society at large (whether fundamentalist, atheist, or anywhere in between) the fruits of their labor.

    The point is that the scientists are not oppressing anyone here. The scientists are not trying to get the religious folks to edit their press releases. The scientists don’t see the very existence of religion as a fundamental threat to their scientific enterprise.

    The “people of faith” (or at least the vocal, bullying subset of them) are. And really, it makes the comparison pretty stark. While some scientists may, personally, have chosen between science and religion, they’re not jumping up and down telling people they have to make a choice. Only the religious right makes the “it’s us or them” move.

    Bending over backwards to appear more like religious folks — given the religious folks who have been most visible in this culture war — seems like a riskier strategy than offering a low-vitriol alternative.

    But, this is just my take — I don’t mean to put words in PZ’s mouth.

  3. #3 Phobos
    February 7, 2006

    It seems to me that the “ideal messenger of science” would be someone expressing neutrality toward religion (or perhaps curiosity) until the point where it becomes necessary to reject a faith-based explanation in a scientific debate. But I agree that, politically, someone like Miller can reach more people in this national debate. In a public debate, the more neutral messenger would have one less distraction to face (i.e., quote-mined statements about personal beliefs in God).

  4. #4 Mark Paris
    February 7, 2006

    As I poined out in a comment to PZ’s post, there are two different approaches because they are trying to do two different things. One is political or philosophical (one can be a scientist and believe in god) and the other is simply to do science. As Dr Free-Ride points out, scientists are not demanding that the religious believers give up their religion; it’s the religious who are demanding that everyone else give up science.

    However, perhaps your approach, Chris, could be viewed as pragmatic. Maybe there should be a scientific Department of Propaganda that fights the science-censors on their own turf.

  5. #5 PZ Myers
    February 7, 2006

    Judo!

    The DI is attacking us by saying we’re a bunch of unbelievers. You’re suggesting that our best response is to deny and confront that, but putting our own believers front and center.

    I’m saying that our front line is awfully weak and unconvincing, and a better strategy would be to use their attack, and admit that yes, we are a bunch of secular naturalists, and that is a good thing. I think the pretense that a believer represents us well is doomed — they know we aren’t mostly that type, we know it, and all we’re accomplishing is to communicate the message that the ungodly are to be hidden in shame.

  6. #6 David Wilford
    February 7, 2006

    I think the strategy of countering the likes of the DI with scientists like Ken Miller is sound, as it finesses the creationists into discussing the subject of evolution instead of faith. In fact, whenever a creationist tries to change the subject from the science of evolution to the question of faith, they should be called on it, gently, but firmly. That’s about all there really is to this particular process discussion, IMO.

  7. #7 Rus Wornom
    February 7, 2006

    I suggest you consider the concepts of marketing to get the facts across. Spokespeople come and go. More people like (hence, trust) Ryan Seacrest than they do anyone on NPR. Science needs a Carl Sagan for this decade — a communicator who can explain science, yet still touch the hearts of America.

  8. #8 P.M.Bryant
    February 7, 2006

    As coturnix suggests, there is no reason why we science supporters and evolution defenders shouldn’t have multiple types of messengers on this. There are plenty of us to go around, whether religious or non-religious or anti-religious. And plenty of people are willing to listen to one subset of us or another.

  9. #9 IndianCowboy
    February 7, 2006

    I’ll side with Mr. Mooney on this one. To use an analogy from another area I’m active in:

    As a pro-life activist (really just ending late term abortions is all I want and all I believe is justifiable empirically and from the point of view of classical liberalism), I’ve been involved with a few groups, all of them secular.

    As might be expected, many in those groups are religious christians (I was hte only non-christian at one point). They are thus often tempted to resort to ‘you’re killing god’s children’ or ‘The Bible says’ blah.

    Often it was up to me to enforce them keeping such rhetoric out of our demonstrations, talks, and debates. My argument was simple:

    “Is your audience going to be largely Christian? No, they aren’t. So by arguing using a Christian theological perspective you’ve turned one battle into two. First you’d have to convince them to adopt a Christian worldview, and then you’d have to convince them why abortion is wrong from a Christian perspective.”

    PZ, just as my christian co-conspirators were wont to do, you are closing ears before you even have a chance to warm up.

    While I don’t think we need to grab the reconciliationists and push them out in front of us as a battering ram, I do think that we need to approach the Evolution debate from a god-neutral perspective.

    Don’t fight a two front war when you don’t have to, dammit.

  10. #10 oran kelley
    February 7, 2006

    I don’t come across many arguments where I say “You’re both right,” but this seems to be one.

    In the struggle for hearts and minds with the religious right, folks like Miller are great weapons for those wishing to protect the teaching of evolution.

    However, Miller is far from an “ideal messenger” for the more general cause of science because picking him as a messenger is itself a sort of concession to other attacks the religious right is making on the life of the mind and freedom of conscience.

    Not that Miller isn’t a fine fellow, but his tactical usefulness, I think, comes at a strategic price.

    OPK

  11. #11 Nathaniel Tagg
    February 7, 2006

    I think PZ is right: if a scientist is discussing the science, it shouldn’t matter if they are religious or not. This is in fact our whole point, that science is about seeing the world as it is, not about who sees it.

    Displaying the theistic scientists helps only a religious debate (i.e. the old “is science compatable with faith” chestnut).

    There’s no problem with that, of course, but to show ONLY that concedes the central issue that religious considerations should dominate.

  12. #12 PZ Myers
    February 7, 2006

    We have to.

    I think the attempt to put a coat of Christian paint on the scientific enterprise is doomed to failure. Seriously: our opponents are ignorant and deluded, but they aren’t all stupid.

  13. #13 Jon Winsor
    February 7, 2006

    Frankly, as a non-reconciliationist myself, I can personally understand where the puzzlement comes from.

    The thing is that scientists are characteristically interested in what you could call epistemological questions. Not everyone is so interested. This is because most people tend not to be as intimately involved with them day to day. They’re preoccupied with other things.

    I was thinking of this the other day when I was listening to this NPR podcast on Bill Murray’s great movie *Groundhog Day*. This movie is about stuff which you could call *soteriological*–nothing to do with epistemology. The movie is completely uninterested what is happening as far as the time loop. The important thing is the experiences of the characters. And the interesting thing is that the whole soteriological angle is not particular to any one religion, as the panel on the show discussed…

    Epistemology for a lot of people is just not a primary concern. It’s not what their day to day experience is about. They find a movie like *Groundhog Day* a lot more relevant then say, (this is all I can think of off the top of my head) *Columbo*.

    It’s fine that scientists are preoccupied with questions of epistemology because that’s their job. But if you start beating people over the head with a science stick, telling them they should be interested in the epistemological, what’s wrong with them, then I think you’re going to make adversaries when you don’t need to. (Even though it’s the 21st century and they don’t know better than Intelligent Design.)

    It seems to me that the “ideal messenger of science” would be someone expressing neutrality toward religion (or perhaps curiosity) until the point where it becomes necessary to reject a faith-based explanation in a scientific debate.

    This sounds like a good approach to me…

  14. #14 Sylvia
    February 7, 2006

    Attacking the “wedge strategy” head on may only serve to hammer it in deeper by reinforcing it. Those promoting it are operating from a position of “high principle” rather than from reason. With that kind of self-righteousness dialogue isn’t possible so you just get more polarization. While it is dangerous to ignore, care is needed not to fall into the same trap. So I tend to favor a slower more laborious route – of taking whatever opportunities present themselves to raise questions that challenge the world view of those attacking science – and provoke them to think. That is what science does best. Even if views don’t change overnight, it can at least lead to more intelligent and respectful debate. I work the polls in my precinct every election day, for the Dems, and have a habit of having election day conversations with the Republican precinct chair because I am genuinely curious to know why he believes what he believes. Last time, at the conclusion of our conversation, he was almost ready to vote against Bush, even if only for the sake of preserving checks and balances. He didn’t – but he can no longer dismiss me as a stereotype.

  15. #15 Alejandro
    February 7, 2006

    Much as I hate to disagree with PZ, I have to go with Chris here. This is not about “putting a coat of Christian paint on the scientific enterprise”. That would be hypocrital and doomed to fail, I agree. But this is about showing that science and religion are not necessarily contradictory. And they are not. Science is contradictory with certain forms of religion, the fundamentalistic/literalistic ones, but not with all religion per se. And exposing more the public to people like Miller will make them realize that.

    I agree with PZ (and also with Mooney, I think) that there is a deeper kind of contradiction between having a scientific attitude (submitting all beliefs to criticism, not believing without evidence, etc) and the religious spirit; that is what makes people like Miller relatively rare. But this contradiction operates in a meta-level which is not relevant to the public debate about evolution. What matters to this debate, the one that it is crucial to win, is that accepting the concrete discoveries of science about our origins is compatible with believing in God. If we don’t manage to convince the general public of that, they will never (at least in America) accept evolution.

  16. #16 Chris Mooney
    February 7, 2006

    I expected a lot of replies, thank you all…heading out to dinner now, but will be chiming in later on.

  17. #17 Deech56
    February 7, 2006

    As a Christian who is a scientist (as opposed to a Christian Scientist – big difference) who also debates evolution with various proponents of YEC or ID, I can tell you that we seem to function best as examples of people who can reconcile faith and science. It is futile to debate the fundies – the argument turns into “how can you believe some but not all?” and one comes to a realization that for some, if one comma in the Bible is incorrect, the whole book falls apart. There do seem to be a large number of people who like the sound of ID, though, but have never heard someone explain the deficits in the proposal. These people (who I believe are Ken Miller’s primary audience) become turned off if their faith is attacked and just don’t listen to all the scientific support favoring evolution.

  18. #18 Aerik
    February 7, 2006

    I can’t help but reminded in some way about A Simple Ruse, But it Won’t Do from butterfliesandwheels, in which Michael Ruse’s argument that anti-evolution sentiments are in part the fault of scientists themselves is refuted quite nicely. You see, Mooney, when you talk this “ideal messenger” crap, you remind PZ and I about what Ruse is saying here. We must never conflate the defense of the popularity of science across demographics with the defense of the integrity of science. We must never fool ourselves into believing that getting religious people agree with us is a philosophical, scientific, or existential victory of any kind.

    If we gave the religious boneheads their “ideal messenger,” and got them all to accept evolution in some way, we’d be misrepresenting evolution, and science in general, in subtle but important ways. I don’t like Bill Maher and his anti-evolution rhetoric, but I can’t help but be reminded of this one time I was flipping through the 12 HBO channels (and still didn’t find anything to watch, which is sad) and happened to watch five minutes of his show. Some rich trouser-stain is talking about how it’s ok that the oil industries could make $36 billion in profit, and that Americans’ problem with it is “just a p.r. problem,” and Maher’s reaction was, “Just a PR problem–what a typically Republican answer.” And I had to agree with that quip there. And your “ideal messenger” crap just rings a bell, you know?

  19. #19 razib
    February 7, 2006

    i second Alejandro’s comment in large part.

    consider, r.a. fisher was a traditional anglican. his intellectual descendent, w.d. hamilton was an agnostic whose attitude toward the religious was live & let live (see defenders of the truth). hamilton’s popularizer, richard dawkins is a militant atheist. these three individuals all share the same basic scientific paradigm, an individual/genic selectionist perception of how evolution works. but, their attitudes toward religious questions are/were fundamentally different.

    the point about necessary and sufficient conditions is important. individuals like peter atkins and to some extent richard dawkins will suggest that atheism is a necessary implication of a scientific world view (or, more precisely, scientific materialism). other scientists who are atheists would disagree, they perceive religion as to some extent orthogonal to science (the late s.j. gould promoted this). both are correct, because “religion” to a far greater extent than science inhabits a wide sample space of permutations. some religions are necessarily contradicted by modern science. some religions are not. we know, more or less, what science is. religion on the other hand is a slippery blob.

    as for the tactic of using religious scientists as a front, i think it is a tactically justified position. chris is right, the fact is that the majority of americans are religious, the majority of americans not republicans, so the analogy with moderate republicans does not work, since the democrats have a large base. naturalistic atheism does not (i am skeptical it ever will). some have been making the argument that the evolutionary hypothesis can stand on purely rational and empirical grounds, the messenger does not matter. i disagree, most people will never really understand or care about evolution on a deep level. scientists should and can hope to be left alone and funded, but i don’t think they can ever expect the typical person on the street to care much about the details of evolution as a scientific hypothesis as opposed to name attached to a loose collection of perceptions. looking at it from the perspective of public relations and marketing chris’ position makes a lot more sense.

    i use these sneaky tactics all the time. use st. augustine or st. thomas of aquinas to attack the contentions of intelligent design, most christians don’t know if your quotes are correct (link to vouch for their veracity), but they think that they should respect these figures, the content of their ideas are irrelvant. i have used paul krugman’s negative quotes about stephen jay gould to convince people i know who have a left-wing inclination that dawkins is a viable alternative as far as an evolutionary thinker goes. the people in question don’t care about the science, but the messenger, krugman, carries weight.

  20. #20 anthro
    February 7, 2006

    Thank you Chris for this post! I also have to agree with some of what Alejandro said on this one. I am always somewhat mystified when someone lumps fundamentalist views into a far reaching stereotype that gets applied to millions or billions of people on the planet.

    There are many people who hold a religious belief and are practicing scientists who have personally reconciled an understanding of evolution with their belief system; people for who the scientific method gets them excited to go to work in the morning, and excited to continue discovering and learning their entire lives – people who are passionate for science; yet it is often these people who get labeled into what practically is defined as an enemy camp by some commentators.

    Since I am one of these people, and know others professionally, I am thankful I also have colleagues and friends who are atheists, but rather than being condescending or insulting, actually share, learn and move science forward in a cooperative, professional atmosphere.

  21. #21 Gerry L
    February 7, 2006

    Ideal messenger? “Ideal” is a relative term. We non-theists don’t need a Miller explaining the evolution to us. But if his religious credentials allow him to be heard by an audience that is suspicious of science, great. I don’t think anyone is saying the Millers of the world have to be the only spokespeople for evolution. They’re the warm-up act.

  22. #22 bad Jim
    February 7, 2006

    A commenter on Myers’ post suggested using religious professionals who accept science, rather than the rare scientific figures who accept religion. They’d be more credible on religious issues than the scientists, and, since communicating with lay audiences is part of their job, they might even be better spokespeople, period.

    This presumes people speaking at a political forum rather than an educational setting, where religious issues would be irrelevant.

  23. #23 Jason
    February 7, 2006

    I agree with PZ that having a spokesman promote naturalism and materialism is vital. At its core, the evolution-creationism debate is about naturalism and materialism. The Wedge Document makes this clear. The DI “seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies.” Intelligent design ‘scholars’ gripe because the scientific method presumes methodological naturalism and provides only material explanations for the natural world.

    Unfortunately, as Chris points out, ID folks also often accuse scientists of having a fully materialistic or atheistic worldview because they are scientists, forgetting that using materialistic explanations in science doesn’t mean you have a full-fledged materialistic worldview .

    Chris’ approach may work in the short term to get evolution taught in schools, but ultimately defending naturalism and materialsim in science is the most important point–it hits the DI straight on as well as all those people that are all for evolution being taught in public school, but still draw the line at the idea human evolution or rely on some form of the “Nonoverlapping Magesteria’ idea.

    On evolution, science and religion do overlap-they both address how humans and other organisms came to be. Where you stand in the on the continuum on this issue–wheather you are a young earther, theistic evolutionist, or atheist–depends substantially on how you weigh science and religion as different sources of knowledge. Moving someone from a biblical creationist to a theistic evolutionist won’t just happen with some political reframing, you have to get them to be more confident in materialism and naturalism first. If they don’t trust the philosophy behind science to begin with, politics doesn’t matter.

  24. #24 miko
    February 7, 2006

    crossposted on pharyngula

    I understand the positition of people who advocate the politically expedient stance of “you can hold whatever religious beliefs you like and still believe in or support the teaching of evolution.” I think the resistance to it we see from a lot of people here underscores a fundamental political weakness of the left (and perhaps scientists in particular) compared to authoritarianism and the right. The right stays on message, rarely break ranks, and speak and act with total confidence. The left is inherently pluralistic, and it’s hard to convince critically thinking scientists or atheists that political expedience should be a driving force in choosing what to say or how to say it.

    It’s so weird that science/atheism/the left are the ones cast as the exclusionary group in this situation. The left’s tent is a lot bigger (though less crowded) and is a much more tolerant environment. We are welcoming of religious people, people of ANY religion I might add. But here’s the catch: you can’t impose your personal beliefs on others. (Also, the lesser known bylaw you can’t just make shit up to support your freaky ideology.) And that’s the kicker, and that’s what this fight has to be about…not just the narrow issue of teaching science in science classes.

    I’m sure many Americans could be brought into the “religion and evolution are reconciliable” camp with the right tepid non-confrontational unified message and lots of money…we are nothing if not frighteningly malleable under the hands of able marketers. Hammering home the party line just isn’t what we do well, because there isn’t a party line, there is a plurality of opinion.

    Finally: SEED, YOU BASTARDS. OMFG I must have been one of the first people to subscribe to this magazine several years ago…I paid for two years in advance and received a grand total of two issues. Apparently, changing addresses was too mind-blowing for them to deal with, despite several letters and who knows how many emails. All unanswered. Several actually bounced back as undeliverable. I’ve finally given up, thanks for nothing, assholes. They can produce a magazine and run a web site but the subscription department can’t handle an address change or reply to email? Pathetic

  25. #25 Joseph O'Donnell
    February 7, 2006

    One thing I admire about Professor Meyers, is at least he isn’t the kind of person that you find on the “ID side” of things. He doesn’t say one thing to one audience and then another to an entirely different one. That consistency and honesty of what position he holds is much better than trying to ‘pretend’ he doesn’t have a problem with religion (when he does). I happen to disagree with his views that evolution isn’t compatible with my particular religion, but at least he’s direct and honest about what he thinks.

  26. #26 Timothy Chase
    February 8, 2006

    Here are two short posts I really liked, but in reverse chronological order.

    Phobos wrote:

    It seems to me that the “ideal messenger of science” would be someone expressing neutrality toward religion (or perhaps curiosity) until the point where it becomes necessary to reject a faith-based explanation in a scientific debate. But I agree that, politically, someone like Miller can reach more people in this national debate. In a public debate, the more neutral messenger would have one less distraction to face (i.e., quote-mined statements about personal beliefs in God).

    Personally, I think we need different messengers for different tasks. As long as the major sticking point for people even opening their minds to evolution consists of their religious beliefs, we can expect them to react defensively and without much rationality on the topic of evolution vs. creationism. If they do not feel as if their religious beliefs (which they may regard as being fundamental to defining themselves) are under attack, they are more likely to rationally consider the evidence for evolution — rather than learn how to recite creationist arguments. Once they have begun to actually consider the evidence for evolution, the religious will undoubtedly be willing to listen to others regarding the scientific issues regardless of religious affiliation.

    MissPrism wrote:

    What I think matters most is that messengers make it clear which “hat” they are wearing – in other words, when they are speaking as scientists, and when they are speaking as atheists or Catholics or whatever – and don’t expect their expertise in one field to carry much kudos in another (even one which they regard as nonsense).

    What I especially like about this is that there isn’t any reason why anyone (most especially including the Rottweiler of evolution) should have to muzzle themselves. (Yep — I think he is just to damned brilliant to gag!) However, when people begin mixing evolutionary biology and their own personal ideologies or philosophies (showing how their personal philosophies grow out of their understanding of science, or showing how their religious beliefs are compatible with their understanding of science), they should make this clear. A little disclaimer to the effect of “in my own personal view” or even “in my view” should probably be enough. This won’t prevent the quote-mining, but it should help as it can be pointed out at least after the quote-mining.

    However, I think it would help everyone involved if we try to keep the rhetoric to a low roar. If you are preaching to the choir, heavy-handed rhetoric might be just the thing. However, if for example you actually intend to get people to consider your views on religion when they do not already agree, the most effective way would be to approach the topics in a cool, calm manner. The alternative is likely simply to make people feel like they are being attacked, put them on the defensive, and cause them to shut down as far as their ability to listen to you is concerned — if not actually drive them to support those whom you oppose.

  27. #27 Timothy Chase
    February 8, 2006

    Gerry L. wrote:

    Ideal messenger? “Ideal” is a relative term. We non-theists don’t need a Miller explaining the evolution to us. But if his religious credentials allow him to be heard by an audience that is suspicious of science, great. I don’t think anyone is saying the Millers of the world have to be the only spokespeople for evolution. They’re the warm-up act.

    Exactly. What is “ideal” really depends upon the context. I don’t think that Miller, for example, would necessarily go over that well at some Protestant churches. For some people, clergy who accept evolution may be the opening act. This might be followed by religious scientists (in the US, approximately 40 percent of all scientists are presumably religious). Others might skip immediately to the religious scientists, or go immediately to the science itself. It depends upon their context. But oftentimes, just to get people to react non-defensively, you need for them to realize that there are scientists who aren’t simply gunning for their god or taking potshots at their most personal beliefs.

  28. #28 Timothy Chase
    February 8, 2006

    Joseph O’Donnell wrote:

    One thing I admire about Professor Meyers, is at least he isn’t the kind of person that you find on the “ID side” of things. He doesn’t say one thing to one audience and then another to an entirely different one. That consistency and honesty of what position he holds is much better than trying to ‘pretend’ he doesn’t have a problem with religion (when he does). I happen to disagree with his views that evolution isn’t compatible with my particular religion, but at least he’s direct and honest about what he thinks.

    I admire PZM’s directness and honesty as well. However, sometimes I think diplomacy is better — so long as it doesn’t involve dishonesty. I personally don’t care what an individual’s religious beliefs are — so longer as they recognize that science should be independent of an individual’s religious beliefs, and so long as they recognize the Separation of Church and State. Give me that much, and I generally just don’t care. Personally (and at the risk of offending just about everyone), I regard religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs as essentially superficial — what matters is the individual, how they choose to live, and how they choose to interact with others. The rest, from my perspective, is pretty irrelevant.

  29. #29 razib
    February 8, 2006

    they both address how humans and other organisms came to be.

    you are using a specific definition of a religion. i’m not trying to be an ass, but i do think that some nominalism in the “what is religion” debate is justified. after all, jains are atheists and religious. the two sets do have intersections!

  30. #30 Timothy Chase
    February 8, 2006

    Jason wrote:

    Chris’ approach may work in the short term to get evolution taught in schools, but ultimately defending naturalism and materialsim in science is the most important point–it hits the DI straight on as well as all those people that are all for evolution being taught in public school, but still draw the line at the idea human evolution or rely on some form of the “Nonoverlapping Magesteria’ idea.

    I have to disagree — essentially because I am in large agreement with Karl Popper’s Principle of Falsifiability, the line of demarcation which he drew between empirical science and other claims to knowledge. If you are talking about metaphysical naturalism or materialism, you are talking about metaphysics. Methodological naturalism is an epistemological approach which does not require the acceptance of metaphysical naturalism. Methodological naturalism is essentially implied by the Principle of Falsifiability. Metaphysical naturalism (which necessarily goes beyond the limits of empirical knowledge, now and forever) necessarily goes beyond the limits of empirical science — in much the same way as the claims of ethics, philosophy and religion. And yes, this is the ‘Nonoverlapping Magesteria’ approach. As long as there exists no means for empirically testing claims regarding the fundamental, metaphysical nature of reality or the claims of ethics, I can see no reason for abandoning it.

    As for hitting DI straight on, I believe your approach will only invite complementary schismogenesis, where you may very well end-up pushing your potential allies to the away, causing them to support the other side.

  31. #31 IndianCowboy
    February 8, 2006

    Many consider atheism to be just as dogmatic and religious a viewpoint as monotheism, myself included.

    And, as Razib pointed out, there are intersections. There have been many schools of Hinduism (and Buddhism) that are agnostic in their viewpoint over the years. Taoism, if I recall, is agnostic. Confucius, I forget.

    But more importantly, there are many Christians who are only happy to view their religion the same way Hindus are taught to: As a guide to living and as a series of fables and stories, rather than the written word of God.

  32. #32 Carlie
    February 8, 2006

    I am with Chris here. As a paleontologist who grew up as a fundamentalist Baptist, I think what most of the PZ backers are missing is an understanding of just how firm the mindset of a fundamentalist is. We’d like to think that presenting things rationally will work, but it won’t. It’s a complete conditioning to believe the Bible, with the interpretation you are raised with, as absolute no matter what. Anything that appears that is contrary to that is by definition incorrect and most probably an insidious evil way to lure people away from God. Anything that seems inflammatory just makes it worse; attacking their beliefs is proof that they were right in your ulterior motives. (I’m not paranoid, they really are following me!)

    To get a fundamentalist to even consider evolution, the whole religious angle has to be defused first. The best way to do that is someone who is from their own turf, because they have an instant trust bond. It may not be strong, but it is there. Anyone else is just automatically dismissed.

    I know that this doesn’t apply to a lot of Christians out there, and that many are perfectly willing to listen to a rational argument, but I’m just providing the outline of the most devoted of the fundies. I know, I was one. Hell, I was a paleontologist for years before I was able to shake the fundamentalism; it’s very, very difficult to extricate one’s mind from it when it’s been programmed in since birth.

  33. #33 Mark Paris
    February 8, 2006

    The argument won’t be settled unless the terms and goals are defined. There are certain facts. One is that religion is irrational; that is, it consists of a set of beliefs in things that have no objective reality and cannot be determined by any kind of unbiased examination. In other words, there is no evidence for any supernatural existence. Thus a purely scientific approach to belief must exclude religion.

    But that’s not really the point here.

    Non-rational beliefs drive the behaviors of lots of people, and thus they drive public policy in the US. There is no way a large number of scientifically-illiterate American adults will be educated in any public forum. If our goal is to ensure that public science education is not diluted with irrational, religious beliefs, a pragmatic approach might consider a number of alternatives that don’t involve publicly promoting atheism. I would never ask anyone to lie in public by saying that science does not imply atheism (as I believe it does), but I see nothing wrong with having religious people state that a particular area of science, like evolution, does not necessarily contradict their religious belief. Given my own beliefs, this would be in essence a lie of omission if I did it. But given the current state of education and politics in the US, it also might just be necessary to find someone who does not consider it a lie of omission.

  34. #34 Inoculated Mind
    February 8, 2006

    Very interesting discussion going on here. I think I can add something.
    Some people believe things based upon who says them, and others believe based upon what exactly is said. If the goal is to get people to accept evolution, then you have to approach it in different ways for the different kinds of people out there.
    If an atheist scientist says evolution is true because of X, Y, and Z, the first kind of people will think “Atheist – distrust.” The second kind will think “X,Y,Z, sounds good – trust.” If a religious scientist says I’m religious and I have no problem with reconciling evolution and believing in god, the first group may go “religious – perhaps trust” and the second, “yeah, but, you’re forgetting X,Y, and Z.”
    Granted its not as simple as that, but there are differences between how various kinds of people approach topics like evolution.

    Last fall, I helped put on (actually I got to be the M.C.) an evolution-defending panel of professors from UC Davis, organized by the Agnostic and Atheist Student Association in response to the frequent visits of IDists such as Behe to our campus. Before we got the professors signed on, I suggested to the president of the club that we get a professor who was religious because they could speak to the issue of reconciliation. (And keep people from paying attention only to the philosophical leanings of the club and its panelists.)

    Well, we never asked the professors about their religiosity, but one of them was indeed religious, and he went on for a bit about the dishonesty of his fellow church-goers on this issue. One of our three panelists was a very soft-spoken cheerful (and blind) atheist scientist, and he went on about the grandeur of life, in a cosmic Einstein-esque way.

    I concluded the forum with a little explanation of what Dawkins meant when he said that evolution allows him to be an intellectually-fulfilled atheist. I countered that Miller might feel the same way about it, that it makes him an intellectually fulfilled theist. And then I emphasized, that evolution should not be believed because one is religious and evolution fits into their beliefs, nor because they are an atheist. It should be believed on the basis of the scientific support for it.

    My conclusion from that experience is that we don’t need a single person to be a poster-child for evolution, like Ken Miller, nor that we should have naturalists be the main proponents either. We should have both of them together, sitting side by side in front of an audience, agreeing that science is the best way to these answers. Showing the diversity of thought in the various people who believe in evolution makes a great contrast next to people from the ID side, where there is really only one viewpoint. The Raelians don’t count.

  35. #35 mike
    February 8, 2006

    I think PZ is confusing 2 issues here. The battle over teaching creationism and the case for evolution.

    The first is a political debate and it is almost exclusively a religious one. Ken Miller makes that case that you don’t have to reject God to accept evolution. Until that case is made convincingly to the majority of non-scientists we will continue to have these battles.

    The second issue is a scientific one. Doctors, biologists and medical researchers in particular need to make the case that if you want the best medical care you have to support excellence in science education and that the theory of evolution is a cornerstone of biological science.

  36. #36 IndianCowboy
    February 8, 2006

    I’m an agnostic, and by that I mean not only do I not know if there is a god or not, I don’t care. It is not germane to my life whether his existence is proven or not. If someone proves God’s existence, if they prove his nonexistence, doesn’t change the way I live.

    Science doesn’t imply atheism any more than an absence of evidence= evidence of absence.

  37. #37 GH
    February 8, 2006

    Science is contradictory with certain forms of religion, the fundamentalistic/literalistic ones

    That pretty much covers Christianity for even it’s most liberal forms are all literalistic at their core.

    Other religions are different.

  38. #38 Keanus
    February 8, 2006

    Chris, this has been one of the most thoughtful collection of comments I’ve seen in some time, and it addresses a fundamental issue re the public acceptance of evolution. At root it’s a political debate, not a scientific debate, but like all political debates, framing that debate matters. And approaching it with the tactics that PZ supports is to accept the frame that the DI has put forth “…the overthrow of materialism [in which the DI equates philosophical materialism and methodological materialism] and its cultural legacies.” I don’t think that’s wise. To accept that frame for the debate is a sure loser for evolutionary biology among the public at large, the great majority of whom are theists. And it’s also completely wrong, methodological materialism is the basis of science, not philosophical materialism. As passionate as some supporters of evolution may be about the latter, pushing it in the public sphere will only turn away the soft supporters of ID.

    The audience we seek to reach are not Behe, Dembski, Wells, Johnson and friends—they’re long gone and totally unreachable—but the great mass of the public who support ID because they don?t understand evolution, think wrongly that it requires atheism, and fear, again wrongly, that evolution leads to amoral behavior. These are not folks with an epistemological mindset. They fear what they don’t understand, and that’s a chord the DI plays to the hilt. We need to allay that fear in any way possible. The public fears atheists, believing them to be naturally immoral, greedy and conniving. And that’s exactly how the public sees a Richard Dawkins or a PZ Myers, whether they like it or not. When they speak that mass of the public who are theists and followers of ID just tune them out.

    I grew up in the Old South, the land of mint juleps and born again Christianity, and what I hated most of all growing up was the militant evangelism of those fundamentalists with its contempt for the beliefs of others. As much as I enjoy PZ’s wit and erudition at Pharyngula, on more than one occasion I’ve got a stiff whiff of evangelism, atheistic evangelism, from one of PZ’s postings, and it turns me off. Whatever the source, evangelism, which I define as the attempt to convince someone else of one’s irrational beliefs, is repugnant. And I say that as a life long (the half century since my teen years) atheist.

  39. #39 Robert Berger
    February 8, 2006

    The concerns about any debate between scientists and ID folks is not about religion or science. It’s about politics and power. The political concern of those who follow ID is very little about science and mostly about coveting space in the marketplace of ideas and blocking the influence of unwelcome ideas on their children. The arguments of ID folks are not about a competing theory, but about fitting evidence into their belief system.

    The concerns of scientists have to do with continuing to have adequate funding to do their work without interference by those whose religious beliefs clash with their work.

    I’m thinking that the best strategy do address the political concerns of scientists is to improve popular understanding of science through appeals to imagination–telling the stories of science–again, Carl Sagan. The question of God is irrelevant to the pursuit of understanding the natural world. It does not appear so far that the question of God’s existence can be addressed through scientific method, but that many questions of our existence can. Exposing the American public and hopefully our children to scientific wonder may bolster support for scientific activity.

  40. #40 fyreflye
    February 9, 2006

    An article by a biographer of William Jennings Bryan in the current Dissent online offers a good outline of the history of evangelism and politics in the US and demonstrates why evangelical Christianity will not go away and why secularists like ourselves need to concentrate on returning its adherents to its historic liberal tradition rather than trying to convert them to atheism. We’re badly outnumbered and we cannot win a head to head fight with one of the most powerful forces in American culture.
    http://tinyurl.com/c29e2

  41. #41 DStopak
    February 9, 2006

    Here is a somewhat different take on argument between Evolution & ID/Creationism. I hear two parallel conversations going on which too often never get connected.

    On one side is the scientist, outraged that non-scientific values of faith are being inserted into the biology curriculum, frustrated in disputing about false minutiae of fact in the face of overwhelming evidence that organisms have in fact evolved. How maddening to explain that evolution is the root of biology, the fabric of the life sciences and that without this lynch pin, understanding the rest would be gibberish.

    But that is not what the other side is arguing about. Darwin himself was highly conscious of the broader ramifications of evolutionary theory. That it is a transcendent idea which reflects upon the meaning of life and impinges on widely held religious doctrine.

    And that is what the other side is truly arguing about. It is not really about Intelligent Design, which when examined closely is both bad science and even worst theology. Nor even about a literal reading of the Bible. As a quick reading of the Book of Genesis will demonstrate, the creation narrative is not even internally consistent. But evolutionary theory does place difficult challenges to the belief in a personal God whose relation to mankind is special and there’s the rub.

    Some might say that it is not the job of science to bridge this gap and that the metaphysical implications of evolution are beyond scientific inquiry anyway. I don�t have a specific roadmap, but I think it important to acknowledge the threat that evolution presents to some religious minds and to engage those deep seated fears constructively.

    To those who object to having a chimpanzee for an ancestor, it is not sufficient to point out that no, they in fact share a common ancestor with chimpanzees. Perhaps what is required is for scientists to share some of their wonder and awe at the procession of life and the continued mystery of it all despite our progress in understanding. I think that is a common attitude among working scientists and really is not all that different from what a person of faith feels.

  42. #42 Carlie
    February 9, 2006

    Robert wrote:
    “The political concern of those who follow ID is very little about science and mostly about coveting space in the marketplace of ideas and blocking the influence of unwelcome ideas on their children.”

    Except that for many of the most zealous of them, it isn’t quite about that either. It’s about eliminating that influence for everyone, not simply because they “don’t like it”, but because the immortal soul of every person in the world is at stake, and as knowers of the truth, they are absolutely obligated to try and prevent people from going to hell. I think that’s a primary disconnect that many scientists have with fundamentalists. The scientists don’t realize how much is at stake in the minds of the IDers. It’s not *just* about rationality, or truth, or the mechanisms of the operation of the world (as important as those may be to the rest of us). It’s about the eternal situation of every person’s soul, and anything that attacks any bit of the whole theistic package is cause for tremendous alarm and counterattack.

    I do, then, agree with Robert that pushing popular understanding of science is a good way to go. The trigger of evolution=satan needs to be removed somehow, and going directly at it seems not to be working (see attack/counterattack). Creating a general sense of how much good science does in the natural world, and then introducing that evolution is just one tool used to do these neat things, is much less abrasive and less likely to be perceived as a threat.

    That said, who’s going to do it? It’s a big, big job. I do have an issue with people who say it’s the responsibility of each individual scientist to help the general public understand (sorry Chris, I know you’ve said something of the sort as well). That’s not what we’re good at. We’re scientists. We’re good at that. We shouldn’t have to take time and energy from our actual jobs to do PR on why our jobs should exist. I can’t think of other professions that are saddled with that kind of responsibility. What we really need is a cadre of science popularizers, some of whom are scientists with a gift and affinity for it, some of whom are professional PR types. The question then is who hires them and where do they work, which is where my assertion falls apart. Um, a special branch of the government? Each university and school district has employees that specifically push science? It just seems impossible.

  43. #43 Alejandro
    February 9, 2006

    GH,

    When I said “literalistic” I meant “accepting the whole of the Bible as literal truth” (or of the Koran or Torah or…) Both Catholicism and many mainstream branches of Protestantism aren’t literalistic by these standards. In particular, they read Genesis as allegorical.

    Maybe you mean that any Christian must accept as literal at least some parts of the Bible, like moral teachings and also some facts about Jesus (at minimum, the Resurrection). But as it is very unlikely that science will ever find concrete evidence conflicting with these beliefs, it need not be a point of conflict.

  44. #44 Small Town Biology Prof
    February 9, 2006

    I teach biology at a small, semi-religious liberal arts college in the Midwest. About half of the freshman biology majors are young-earth creationists. This is entirely because of ignorance about biology, and because of a belief that they must choose between evolution and faith.

    If I took Dr. Myers’ approach, emphasizing materialism and (alleged) intellectual consistency, any chance of getting these kids to learn evolutionary biology would be lost.

    What I’ve done instead is helped with Campus Crusade for Christ events, read the Bible with my creationist students, and prayed with them. And in class, I am very clear that there are no scientific alternatives to evolution.

    And you know what? This works. In very short order our creationist freshmen have grown into sophomores who have no problems with evolutionary biology.

    I’ve been told by creationist freshmen how desperately afraid they are of losing their faith. What I show them is that, contrary to what they’ve been told by small town pastors, they don’t have to choose between science and God. If I took Dr. Myers’ advice–and I know this, because some of my fellow professors have–these students would run away and never look back.

    I agree that the reconciliation approach doesn’t appear intellectually consistent. I agree that traditionally faithful scientists are a minority of scientists overall. I agree Mr. Mooney’s approach won’t win any formal debates. But it will win the only debate that matters, which is the one inside the heads of 18-year olds in this, a predominantly Christian country.

    As an empiricist, I do not understand why Dr. Myers is so eager to reject a methodology that works.

    (Note: I am a huge fan of Dr. Myers’ work and have made handouts of some of his blog entries for my classes, because he does such a fantastic job of explaining new discoveries in biology. But even a genius is wrong sometimes, and Dr. Myers is wrong about this.)

  45. #45 FishEpid
    February 9, 2006

    Other than on their own initiative, where and how do even people with science degrees, undergraduate or graduate, learn the fundamentals of why science is done the way it is, particularly how the process evolved and why? Newton, Bacon and the Royal Society. Consider course requirements for undergraduate science degrees. How many if any include a required upper division class covering the history of science that is taught by an academic historian with expertise in the area? I’m betting few. The same for the philosophy of science and the philosophers of science. Kant, Kuhn, Popper, Feyerabend. What can the scientific method do and what cant it? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What are the weaknesses in the human observation and reasoning processes? Without that solid grounding, how well equipped is a person to be defender of science, particularly for responding to knowledgeable opponents? Yet it seems to me that is what anyone who is trained in science (especially anyone teaching science) should be equipped to be and should be a goal of science degree requirements.

  46. #46 Scott Church
    February 10, 2006

    All,
    If I may interject here…
    I have been a “born-again” evangelical for over 30 years now. I came to my faith in Christ at the age of 15 through the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ–a hallmark of the more conservative end of evangelicalism. I also have a lifelong background in the sciences. Speaking as a scientist, and a Christian, I’ve found this discussion to be thought provoking and in many ways helpful. But I think that nearly all of it misses the point. Unless I’ve missed something (entirely possible) we seem to be focused on,
    1) Christianity (evangelical doctrine, “blind faith”) vs. Science (reason, atheism, agnosticism).
    2) Whether “Christianity” and “Science” can accommodate each other in a rational worldview.
    3) Whether or not ID vs. evolution is a “political” debate or not.
    4) Whether or not this controversy would benefit from having Christian advocates who are scientists (God forbid) in the public arena.
    With all due respect for the opinions voiced here, these are all red herrings and wasting time on them is counterproductive in at least two respects;
    a) They divert badly needed attention away from the real issues.
    b) Arguing them tacitly, and uncritically, concedes a conservative fundamentalist worldview–we agree to play ball on their court.
    Politics, public appeal, who’s rational and who isn’t…. this is quicksand. These fights are no more winnable in the long run than fights over abortion and “family values”. To deal this issue once and for all–at least as far as public policy is concerned–we must come back to one basic fact of life: The best defense there is against a bad idea is a clear demonstration of something better. If we want one we must dispense with silly stereotypes, unwinnable side-arguments (on both sides of the fence) and questions of public appeal and short-term political concerns. The key is to stick to the facts on all fronts. This mat seem self-evident, but I’m amazed at how seldom it happens. To keep my comments somewhat readable, I’ll share my thoughts on this in separate posts.

  47. #47 Scott Church
    February 10, 2006

    Fact No. 1: Christianity and Science do not need to “leave room” for each other. They’re complementary worldviews–not alternate ones.
    By analogy we might ask why Gulliver was shipwrecked. Was it because his ship encountered a tropical storm that it was structurally unable to withstand, or because Swift wanted this to happen to develop his story as he intended? Either, both… whatever. Once we understand that Swift was the author–the Creator if you would–of the universe in which his plot unfolds, including all of its natural laws (many of which bear little resemblance to ours), you understand that both are entirely self-contained, complementary explanations that do not “compete” with each other. As a Christian, I would no more pit my faith against science on any issue than I would pit it against a belief that the Seahawks are going to win next year’s superbowl. It’s a meaningless comparison.
    Yes, I know… many Christian scholars and church leaders have for centuries defended scientifically bogus ideas in the name of Biblical doctrine. But this is irrelevant. As often as not, this was done for reasons that were scientifically valid at the time. During the 19th century for instance many men of science and faith accepted flood geology, but not because of the Bible only. It’s too easy to forget these days that prior to Hutton, Lyell, and Darwin, the case for uniformitarian geology was on much shakier ground and evolution (at least in its modern form) was unheard of. As for the legions of fundamentalists who have clung to flood geology, ID, and other nonsense since, in virtually every case they’ve done so for reasons that are no more defensible Biblically than they are scientifically and their ignorance has nothing to do with the soundness of essential Christianity (which, I might add, can be demonstrated from well established principles of historical text criticism and hermeneutics of the sort that would be applied to any ancient document, without bringing science vs. faith into the discussion at all). I might just as well argue that the discipline of astrophysics is irrational and unscientific and point to Immanuel Velikovsky or a line-up of bad physics students as “proof”.
    The assumption that the Bible addresses scientific questions, and that “godless” science is a threat to Christian faith is a core fundamentalist position. Whenever we argue science vs. religion, we’re essentially conceding this assumption to them without challenging it. This is fatal.

  48. #48 Scott Church
    February 10, 2006

    Fact No. 2: Christianity is not synonymous with the Religious Right.
    Throughout this and many other posts here there’s a recurring theme of “Christian and/or evangelical is Religious Right”. Even a few minutes worth of fact checking proves this to be nonsense. There are some 40 million professing evangelicals in the United States today, but these are a subset of a much larger global Christian community that spans a wide range of beliefs and traditions, most of which bear little resemblance to Focus on the Family. Evangelicals alone span a wide range of beliefs from conservative to liberal, scientific to unscientific, and more, of which the Religious Right is only one part. I’M an evangelical, and I’ve spent the last third of a century worshipping and fellowshipping with folks who never miss Focus on the Family and are ardent creationists and ID proponents. I became a Christian through Campu Crusade for Christ (a conservative evangelical stronghold). I’ve even been to Promise Keepers. It’s a safe bet that I know this community far better than most visitors to this blog. Yet I believe passionately that ID is obscurantist horses**t, and the Religious Right is the single biggest intellectual, spiritual and political threat in existence today to America and the world–more so even than international terrorism.
    Despite this, many folks still lump people like me in with the Religious Right simply because I’m “born again”. Not that I take it personally mind you, but this level of stereotyping can’t possibly help matters–especially when we’re discussing whether or not to bring in “Christian scientists” as spokespersons in the ID debate. In controversies as loaded as this, it’s crucial to avoid inflammatory generalizations.

  49. #49 Scott Church
    February 10, 2006

    Fact No. 3: Christian faith is not “blind”, nor atheism or agnosticism rational, by default. Either one can be rational or irrational.
    Throughout this and many other posts here there seems to be an unquestioned belief that religious faith is synonymous with believing in God without evidence, or in spite of it. Christian faith is nothing of the sort, and from what I’ve seen neither is any other faith tradition. Throughout the Old and New Testaments faith is never believing something without proof–it’s trusting in someone without relenting. There’s a difference. Throughout the ages, most Christians didn’t concern themselves with the philosophical question of God’s existence. Either it didn’t present an issue for them, or they dealt with it and then forgot about it. The cutting edge of faith was always relational–God’s grace has brought me safe thus far, and His grace will lead me home. The idea that faith is belief without proof is historical baggage appended to Christian doctrine, first from various Greek philosophies, and much later from the Enlightenment. By necessity I’m generalizing, but the overriding point remains. Religion vs. Reason is a red herring. Gnawing on that bone might make some folks with an axe to grind feel better, but it does little to clarify matters of science and policy, and it does damn little to win the sympathies of the general public.
    As for atheism and agnosticism being somehow more rational than theism, I’ve seen little evidence of this. The first and most fundamental principle of critical thinking is get a good dataset. No matter how good the analysis is, if the data is flawed, the conclusions will be flawed. Period. It follows that any serious investigator who truly wanted to put Christianity to the test (or any religion for that matter) would stick to its actual doctrinal content, and would seek out the best information they could find from its most credible representatives.
    In the 30 years plus that I’ve been a Christian I’ve met literally thousands of agnostics and atheists with whom I’ve had the opportunity to share my own faith and learn of their beliefs (none of these encounters were “proselytizing” sessions–the large majority of them benefited my beliefs as much as theirs, if not more). Yet as valuable as those encounters were for me (and I hope, for them as well), I have yet to meet a single one who had made any such effort. In virtually every case, their beliefs were based entirely on their experience of ignorant and/or evil people who used “Christian” beliefs to justify their actions, or some entirely abstract philosophical exercise regarding “proof” of God’s existence that carefully avoided any direct experience of their own (pretty much the only thing Christianity or any other major religion bothers to speak to), and that invariably included at least one straw-man that even 10 minutes of fact-checking would have refuted.
    I never cease to be amazed at how many people I encounter who confidently declare to me that belief in God is “unscientific” and “irrational”… only to find out that their entire view of what Christianity even is was obtained by avoiding anything even remotely like Biblical text criticism or a study of first century history, steering carefully around people like Jesus, Mother Teresa, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and many others, and basing virtually all their conclusions on the likes of James Dobson, Tim LaHaye, Pat Robertson, and a host of other illiterate, intolerant, psalm-singing idiots. I might as well try to learn about Islam by studying the beliefs and behavior of people who fly jet airliners into buildings–which by the way, is exactly what the Religious Right does.
    I did my Masters work in physics at the University of Washington in the 80’s. As a science student, if I had been this sloppy with my data and analysis my thesis defense committee would have flunked me with malice, and I would’ve deserved it. Yet to those who wish to pit science against “faith” in discussions about ID and public policy, this somehow passes for “reason”.

  50. #50 Scott Church
    February 10, 2006

    Fact No. 4: Politics aside, the real issue here is not that ID violates separation of church and state. It?s that on scientific grounds ID is bad science, and religious grounds, it’s bad religion.
    ID is not new. It’s a rehash of the same sort of teleological arguments creationists have been making for decades. At its core it boils down to probabilistic arguments regarding the origin of biological complexity, natural selection, and genetic mutation, which are used in conjunction with the claim that evolution is by definition “upward”. The probabilistic arguments today are no different than those I was shown in the 70’s when I was an undergraduate. They’re all based on bad mathematics and a near complete misunderstanding of basic probability theory (not to mention of course, the usual blunders regarding what evolution actually is). It’s straightforward to refute all of this… If anyone would actually bother to do so in the public arena.
    “Those liberals and scientists are all godless, arrogant elitists who want to tell me what to believe in my schools…”
    “Those Christians are all irrational, unscientific fanatics who want to return to the Dark Ages and use government to force their religion and morality on me…”
    Regardless of one’s beliefs, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that this is a pissing contest that no one can win, even in principle. These arguments only feed each other and get everyone to circle the wagons in a war of never-ending value judgments. Yet we waste endless amounts of time, money, printed copy, and energy on one form or another of this when the whole ID platform could be taken down in a single afternoon’s worth of lectures on science and religion with time enough left over afterwards to go out for pizza and drinks.
    Yes, I know. I’m not naive enough to think that putting the science and Biblical exegesis on the table will immediately change every mind in the Bible Belt or communities that are hostile to religion. But it doesn’t have to. Sooner or later careful attention to facts will win out. Galileo did not win the astrophysics war by going at it with the Inquisition over who was rational and moral, and who wasn’t. He did it by patiently making his evidence available, and by staying clear and coherent in his own Catholic faith without allowing it to be colored by extraneous things (despite his forced recantation). We must stay focused and do likewise by dispensing with inflammatory, value laden boondoggles and sticking to the facts–treat bad science as bad science, and bad religion as bad religion. All else is striving after wind.

  51. #51 M. Besso
    February 11, 2006

    The Bayesian perspective might be useful to consider here: an individual’s acceptance of the truthfulness of a proposition is a function of the phenomenon that one observes directly or is informed about by others, the degree to which he accepts those observations are true and false, and the inferences he makes from them based on those weightings.

    Ironically, Mr. Mooney is arguing the best way to make an evidence-base argument for evolution is to leverage the devout’s inherent (but unconfirmed) trust in a co-religionist.

    If his goal is limited to obtaining public support for the evolutionarily-derived activities of rationalists, Mr. Mooney’s approach seems to me to be the only one that is practical.

    But if the goal is to increase the incidence of evidence-based thinking in our culture, his approach merely substitutes acceptance of one hypothesis as a matter of faith ( a belief in god) for another (a belief in evolution).

  52. #52 cpurrin1
    February 17, 2006

    I would encourage science supporters (and defenders) to think of ways to change _children’s_ views on the supernatural and on whether Gods meddle (or have meddled) with planetary motion, lightning, life, etc. Sure, some adults can change their opinion, but the numbers are just not there to really make it worthwhile. We need to get more scientists and educators involved in writing books for elementary school children. Or video games. Or fun lesson plans for elementary school teachers. Indoctination of kids against a reality-based reality is probably complete by 5th grade (for most religions), so any hope of breaking the cycle must start before that. Books, etc., aimed at adults are just wasting our time (though I enjoy reading them, of course). Especially wasteful are books that propose that science is compatible with the supernatural, as long as you squint really hard…that’s not helping it all. Stop that, definitely stop that.

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