Pharyngula

Jerry Coyne has made a strong observation, and is also hinting at an alternative, about the way the AAAS panders to religion. Once again, they’re having a session at the national meeting in February dedicated to the accommodationist view, with a one-sided slate of speakers all preaching about the compatibility of science with superstition. We’re all getting a little tired of this, I think; it’s the same old story where a bunch of credulous apologists get to trample freely all over science in the name of putting up a façade of simpering friendship with religion, all in the name, they say, of political expediency.

Coyne is peeved about several things: the dishonesty of the evangelical position (no, the Trinity is not supported in any way by science), the blatant bias of these discussions that are presented as if they are an open-minded way of handling the issues when they only offer one side, and the unrepresentative nature of these panels that completely ignore with the purpose of implicitly rejecting the views of a very large bloc of American scientists. It’s freakin’ obvious that the AAAS is pandering to evangelical Christianity, and that minority views that are actually in opposition to science are being presented as reasonable compromises. Here’s what Coyne says and suggests:

What irks me about all this are two things. The first is the complete omission of contrasting anti-accommodationist views. There is a huge subset of AAAS members who don?t feel that science and faith are in harmony–indeed, that they are in dire conflict. Those views never get represented at these meetings. You will never see a AAAS symposium on ?The incompatibility of science and faith,? with scientist-speakers like Richard Dawkins or Victor Stenger. (What a lovely thing that would be!). The AAAS chooses to present only one view, as if it represented a majority of its members. What about the many of us who feel that the best thing for science–and humanity as a whole–is not respectful dialogue with evangelical Christians, but the eradication of evangelical Christianity?

I agree that a realistic symposium at the AAAS that didn’t try to whitewash Christianity into a friend of science and reason would be wonderful — I’d want to go. Like him, I doubt that it would happen, in particular because it would be misrepresented by the accommodationists. It’s already happening; if you look at the comments there, you’ll find Nick Matzke mangling the idea. He’s obsessed with the last sentence I quoted above, and apparently believes that such a symposium would consist of ringleaders of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy plotting how to destroy Christians. The session topics would be something like this:

  1. Why all religions are evil and must be eradicated

  2. Christians: Should they be burnt at the stake, or merely imprisoned for life?

  3. Ignition temperatures and incineration requirements for human bodies

  4. Closing hymn of praise to Richard Dawkins

I don’t think Nick Matzke can even imagine what a group of secularists would find useful at AAAS — he’s projecting quite a bit, and presuming that such a session would be as one-sided and blinkered as these sessions the evangelical Christians are running. They wouldn’t. I’m as antagonistic to religion as Coyne is, maybe more so (hey, there’s another session possibility: “Atheists Roast Christianity,” where we all vie with each other to insult religion the most), but unlike what the Matzkes of the world assume, we are actually aware of the political situation.

If I were in charge of organizing such a beast, here’s what I’d look for. I’d want to have an honest religionist or philosopher/historian of religion there to give a talk on key doctrinal conflicts: what are they? How do modern Christians and Muslims and Jews resolve them? They are there, of course: there are major points like teleology in the universe and mind-body dualism that are unsupported or even contradicted by science. He wouldn’t have to endorse or oppose any of those points, but simply, clearly, explain where the conflicts lie.

I’d want someone to discuss secular approaches to school and public education. These do NOT involve teaching atheism in the schools. I’m a big fat noisy atheist myself, but when I get into the classroom to teach one of those controversial topics like evolution, my atheism is not an issue, and I don’t tell the students they have to abandon their gods to be a scientist. What the attendees at AAAS do not need is someone telling them how wonderful Christianity is; what would be useful is someone explaining how to teach honest, evidence-based science without compromising their principles, no matter what they are.

I’d want someone with political and legal expertise to discuss what the law actually says about science education. The perfect person would be someone like Barry Lynn, or Sean Faircloth, or Eddie Tabash — a person who could lay out exactly what kind of political tack scientists should take with legislators to keep the taint of religious bias out of support for science.

Actually, the atheist-run version of such a session would be what a science organization should want: instead of some half-assed stab at rapprochement with clearly unscientific, irrational, traditional metaphysics, and instead of the tribal war council the accommodationists imagine, it would be a rational discussion of how secular scientists (which would include religious scientists who are committed to keeping their beliefs out of the lab and classroom) can get their jobs done in a crazily religious country. As long as these pious zealots are left in charge, though, that’s not what we’re getting.

I can go to atheist meetings to get my rah-rah on for godlessness; people like Leshner, the organizer of the currently planned come-to-Jebus meeting, can go to church and get their idiot-ology affirmed there. An AAAS symposium ought to be actually accomplishing something for all of the members of the organization, not just the atheists and especially not just the deluded apologists under loyalty oaths who want to Christianize science.