It’s another one of those long traveling days for me today. I’m on my way to Oregon (I’m at the airport already, so don’t worry about any more accidents!), so I may be a bit quiet for a while. Which means I should put something here to keep everyone in a busy uproar for a while.
My job is done, and Jerry Coyne has done the dirty work for me. He has put up a long post criticizing the accommodationist stance of several pro-evolution organizations, particularly the NCSE.
Among professional organizations that defend the teaching of evolution, perhaps the biggest offender in endorsing the harmony of science and faith is The National Center for Science Education. Although one of their officers told me that their official position on faith was only that “we will not criticize religions,” a perusal of their website shows that this is untrue. Not only does the NCSE not criticize religion, but it cuddles up to it, kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.
In the rest of this post I’d like to explore the ways that, I think, the NCSE has made accommodationism not only its philosophy, but its official philosophy. This, along with their endorsement and affiliation with supernaturalist scientists, philosophers, and theologians, inevitably corrupts their mission.
Let me first affirm that I enormously admire the work of the NCSE and of its director, Eugenie Scott and its president, Kevin Padian. They have worked tirelessly to keep evolution in the schools and creationism out, most visibly in the Dover trial. But they’re also active at school-board hearings and other venues throughout the country, as well as providing extensive resources for the rest of us in the battle for Darwin. They are the good guys.
I give it ten enthusiastic thumbs up, not just for the deserved criticism but also for the praise given to the NCSE’s efforts. As Coyne explains, they are trying to have it both ways, arguing that science is a secular enterprise, but at the same time leaning over backwards to incorporate theological arguments, an act of political pragmatism that compromises their mission. It’s a failed strategy that is leading us down a dangerous path — I already feel that there is an unfortunate atmosphere that favors scientists with religious leanings over the more sensible majority.
He also includes a marvelous quote from Charles Darwin. As I’ve said many times, Darwin was not an atheist, but an agnostic, and that he refused to engage in conflict with religion…a sentiment that I think is fair and a personal choice, and one that I think the NCSE wants to follow as well (which I would think is also a reasonable strategy). However, by favoring theism as much as they have, they have broken away from the spirit of that plan.
I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition ‘of new powers and attributes and forces,’ or of any ‘principle of improvement, except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that I required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.
Note that what Darwin is rejecting in that statement is what we now call theistic evolution.
I freely admit to being anti-religious myself, and I would agree that an organization trying to represent all of science and promoting science education does not have to be on the same page with me (and maybe even ought not to be), but the NCSE, NAS, and AAAS have all been erring in the opposite direction, jumping merrily into bed with every evangelical god-botherer who blows them a kiss. If they are going to snub the raging new atheists in the name of religious neutrality, they should be similarly divorcing themselves from Christian apologetics.
Richard Dawkins has weighed in…and asks whether we should take the gloves off in dealing with the accommodationist position. Too late! They’re off!
Many people seem to be misinterpreting Coyne’s article — it actually makes much the same point I have in talks over the last year. The science classroom must remain secular — that is, it is not a place to endorse atheism or theism, or for those conflicts to take place. We should be teaching about science and science only, and let the implications of that science on culture be discussed freely outside. Organizations like the NCSE and the NAS and AAAS are supposed to be defenders of that secularism. Nobody is asking them to promote atheism. What we’re objecting to is that they have gone too far in mollycoddling theistic views, and have falsely represented science as being congenial to religious interpretations, to the point where godless explanations are being actively excluded.
I know they have a very narrow path they have to walk to be diplomatic and try to gather popular support for science education. The point is that they are wobbling off the tightrope to court the faithful — and the science they are trying to encourage is looking less and less secular.