In 1922, John Dewey, pragmatist philosopher and champion of Progressive education, wrote an article in The New Republic entitled “The American Intellectual Frontier.” The subject was William Jennings Bryan’s attack on evolution that would later culminate in the Scopes trial. The argument that Dewey made was not what you would think, however. Though he was most definitely part of the the Northeastern liberal establishment at the time, he did not dismiss Bryan’s attacks as indicative of rural ignorance.
Instead, he made the argument that while he disagreed with Bryan, liberals had to take him seriously because if they did not they were in danger of making liberalism high-brow. This would have the negative consequence of making liberalism a minority movement by definition and prevent the adoption of a their social program.
I want to talk about Dewey’s argument in detail because I think that it bears heavily on the current debate about evolution, atheism and religion. Specifically, I think that the current attempt to unify atheism and science is likely to make science high-brow. The likely consequence of this attempt, if successful, is to alienate the majority of the public from the scientific enterprise.
Since this is a long post, I have divided it into three parts. The first summarizes the current debate over “New Atheism.” The second discusses John Dewey’s argument in the “The American Intellectual Frontier.” The third applies his argument to the debate we are having today.
Atheism is once again on the march with the publication of several recent books such as Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great, and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion. Many of these books take religious people to task not only for their denial of scientific premises such as evolution but for their faith per se.
The response in the scientific community to the attacks on religion — you can speculate what the response in the religious community has been — has been relatively varied. Many (though not all) scientists are atheists, and this validation of their beliefs as legitimate has met widespread approval. On the other hand, some scientists and scientific communicators have taken the proponents of “New Atheism” — as the resurgence has been termed…although I don’t really see what is so new about it — to task on the grounds that by their vehemence in denouncing religion they are endangering public acceptance of science.
One such critic is our fellow ScienceBlogger Matt Nisbet, author of Framing Science, who argues that New Atheism is bound to fail because it alienates those it is trying to convert. Nisbet has written considerably on the importance of framing in scientific communication. For more information read his and Chris Mooney’s essays in Science
and in the Washington Post.)
Money quote from the Washington Post article:
We agree with Dawkins on evolution and admire his books, so we don’t enjoy singling him out. But he stands as a particularly stark example of scientists’ failure to explain hot-button issues, such as global warming and evolution, to a wary public.
Scientists excel at research; creating knowledge is their forte. But presenting this knowledge to the public is something else altogether. It’s here that scientists and their allies are stumbling in our information-overloaded society — even as scientific information itself is being yanked to center stage in high-profile debates.
Scientists have traditionally communicated with the rest of us by inundating the public with facts; but data dumps often don’t work. People generally make up their minds by studying more subtle, less rational factors. In 2000 Americans didn’t pore over explanations of President Bush’s policies; they asked whether he was the kind of guy they wanted to have a beer with.
So in today’s America, like it or not, those seeking a broader public acceptance of science must rethink their strategies for conveying knowledge. Especially on divisive issues, scientists should package their research to resonate with specific segments of the public. Data dumping — about, say, the technical details of embryology — is dull and off-putting to most people. And the Dawkins-inspired “science vs. religion” way of viewing things alienates those with strong religious convictions. Do scientists really have to portray their knowledge as a threat to the public’s beliefs? Can’t science and religion just get along? A “science and religion coexistence” message conveyed by church leaders or by scientists who have reconciled the two in their own lives might convince even many devout Christians that evolution is no real threat to faith.
We made a similar argument in a recent commentary article published by the journal Science. While many agreed with our perspective, some took a more critical tone. Indeed, those most piqued by our argument tended (like Dawkins) to be strong defenders of evolution who are also critical of religious belief.
Paul Zachary “PZ” Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, wrote on his blog, Pharyngula, that if he took our advice, “I’d end up giving fluff talks that play up economic advantages and how evolution contributes to medicine . . . and I’d never talk about mechanisms and evidence again. That sounds like a formula for disaster to me — it turns scientists into guys with suits who have opinions, and puts us in competition with lawyers and bureaucrats in the media.” Myers also accused us of appeasing religion.
Yet he misses the point. There will always be a small audience of science enthusiasts who have a deep interest in the “mechanisms and evidence” of evolution, just as there will always be an audience for criticism of religion. But these messages are unlikely to reach a wider public, and even if they do they will probably be ignored or, in the case of atheistic attacks on religion, backfire.
Michael Schermer published a recent column in SciAm where he echoes a similar point. Negativity doesn’t pay:
1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”
2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science.”
Just to summarize this debate how I see it, we can divide opinion into two opposing camps:
- The New Atheist Camp (for lack of a better term) asserts that science and atheism are one. Religion and science are not internally consistent. Any attempt to recognize religion within a scientific framework is appeasement of superstition and is by extension damaging to the scientific enterprise. We might as well publish statements we know to be lies in scientific journals.
- The Big Tent Scientists (again, for lack of a better term) assert that science and atheism are not synonymous. Some individuals may be religious themselves; some are atheists. They argue that given the choice between the acceptance of science and the eradication of superstitious belief, the acceptance of science is the more desirable and the more likely outcome. Further, they argue that widespread acceptance of science AND atheism is not likely, particularly given the means with which the New Atheist Camp has chosen to argue.
Feel free to amend my summary, but that is the debate as I see it.
John Dewey and the Liberalism-Evolution Debate in the 20s
John Dewey faced a similar issue in the 1920s. In this case, the issue was whether they could mobilize a majority around a liberal program or gain widespread acceptance of evolution. I say either/or because this was this issue as Dewey saw it. The majority of Americans at the time were deeply religious and very suspicious of evolution. Dewey wrote his essay “The American Intellectual Frontier” in TNR to lay out his case for why he felt that confronting the majority of Americans over the issue of religion might endanger the liberalism.
He begins by arguing that while the majority of the liberal establishment wants to dismiss Bryan, he feels that as a phenomena he is deserving of thorough analysis.
For Mr. Bryan is a typical democratic figure. There is no gainsaying that proposition. Economically and politically he has stood for and with the masses, not radically but “progressively.” The most ordinary justice to him demands that his usefulness in revolt against privilege and his role as a leader in the late progressive movement — late in every sense of the word, including deceased — be recognized.
Not only did his views correspond to those of a large percentage of the American public — he was not some fringe nut by contemporary standards — he was at the core of the Progressive movement at that time because he championed many of their causes.
Dewey sees America as divided into two groups. One, represented by Bryan is on the whole uninterested in science or only for what science could do for them:
What we call the middle classes are for the most part the church-going classes, those who have come under the Influence of evangelical Christianity. These persons form the backbone of philanthropic social interest, of social reform through political action, of pacifism, of popular education. They embody and express the spirit of kindly goodwill toward classes which are at an economic disadvantage and toward other nations, especially when the latter show any disposition toward a republican form of government. The “Middle West,” the prairie country, has been the centre of active social philanthropies and political progressivism because it is the chief home of this folk. Fairly well to do, enough so at least to be ambitious and to be sensitive to restrictions imposed by railway and financial corporations, believing in education and better opportunities for its own children, mildly interested In “culture,” it has formed the solid element in our diffuse national life and heterogeneous populations. It has been the element responsive to appeals for the square deal and more nearly equal opportunities for all, as it has understood equality of opportunity. It followed Lincoln in the abolition of slavery, and it followed Roosevelt In his denunciation of “bad” corporations and aggregations of wealth. It also followed Roosevelt or led him in its distinctions between “on the one hand and on the other hand.” It has been the middle in sense of the word and in every movement, every mean it has held things together and unity and stability of movement.
It has never had an interest in ideas as ideas, nor in science and art for what they may do in liberating and elevating the human spirit. Science and art as far as they refine and polish life, afford “culture,” mark stations on an upward social road and have direct useful social applications, yes: but as emancipations, as radical guides to life, no. There is nothing recondite or mysterious or sinister or adverse to a reputable estimate of human nature in the causes of this state of mind. (Emphasis mine.)
Dewey contrasts Middle America with the founders of this country and its intellectual elite:
The fathers of our country belonged to an intellectual aristocracy; they shared in the intellectual enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, in their beliefs and were men of the world, especially of the contemporary French world. Their free-thinking did not prevent their being leaders.
However, times have changed for politics. While the Framers did not have problems participating in government — indeed being an intellectual was sine qua non for participation, this is no longer the case. Democracy has risen, and now people of such a nature are shunned from intellectual life:
A generation later and it is doubtful if one of them could have been elected town selectman, much less become a powerful political figure. When Mr. Taft was a candidate for President, a professor of modern languages in a southern college dismissed from his position because he remarked to friend in private conversation that he did not think that the fact that Mr. Taft was a Unitarian necessarily disqualified him for service as President.
It is not without significance that Andrew Jackson, the first “church-going” President, was also the first political representative of the democratic frontier, the man who marks the change of the earlier aristocratic republic into a democratic republic. The dislike of privilege extended itself to fear of the highly educated and the expert. The tradition of higher education for the clergy was surrendered in the popular denominations. Religion was popularized, and thought, especially free thought which impinged adversely upon popular moral conceptions, became unpopular, too unpopular to consist with political success. (Emphasis mine.)
It is this movement — the movement towards democratized religion — which has culminated in people like Bryan:
Mr. Bryan can have at best only a temporary triumph, a succes d’estime, in his efforts to hold back biological inquiry and teaching. It is not in this particular field that he is significant. But his appeals and his endeavors are a symptom and a symbol of the forces which are most powerful in holding down the intellectual level of American life. He does not represent the frontier democracy of Jackson’s day. But he represents it toned down and cultivated as it exists in fairly prosperous villages and small towns that have inherited the fear of whatever threatens the security and order of a precariously attained civilization, along with pioneer impulses to neighborliness and decency.
Here Dewey gets to the crux of his argument. The liberal movement could, for the fact that he represents a democratized and unenlightened religious impulse, dismiss Bryan and the people he represents. But this would be throwing out the baby with the bath water because this culture of democratic religiosity is so entangled in what is quintessentially American:
The forces which are embodied in the present crusade would not be so dangerous were they not bound up with so much that is necessary and good. (Emphasis mine.)
Likewise he says earlier:
The churches performed an inestimable social function in frontier expansion. They were the rallying points not only of respectability but of decency and order in the midst of a rough and turbulent population. They were the representatives of social neighborliness and all the higher interests of the communities. The tradition persisted after the incoming of better schools, libraries, clubs, musical organizations and the other agencies of “culture.”
Intellectuals need to acknowledge this important social role before we attempt to destroy it. Further, they have to acknowledge that in our attempts to convert people to liberal principles, they are showing a sense of superiority in our ideas that violates those same principles:
We have been so taught to respect the beliefs of our neighbors that few will respect the beliefs of a neighbor when they depart from farms which have become associated with aspiration for a decent neighborly life. This is the illiberalism which is deep-rooted in our liberalism. (Emphasis mine.)
Finally, Dewey argues that they must accept the fact that there are limits to what middle America will accept. If they attempt to impose liberal principles from above without acknowledging the religious beliefs of the majority of people, they A) will not be successful and B) will only allow them to be led by people like Bryan who appeal to their emotions:
No account of the decay of the idealism of the progressive movement in politics or of the failure to develop an intelligent and enduring idealism out of the emotional fervor of the war, is adequate unless it reckons with this fixed limit to thought. No future liberal movement, when active liberalism revives, will be permanent unless it goes deep enough to affect it. Otherwise we shall have in the future what we have had in the past, revivalists like Bryan, Roosevelt and Wilson, movements which embody moral emotions rather than the insight and policy of intelligence.
Let me summarize, Dewey’s basic argument:
- Religiosity is part of the fabric of America. This religiosity is now democratic and emotional. However, it is still linked to traits which are American and are important.
- If liberals attempt to inflict their principles on middle America while at the same time denying this religiosity, the people who they are trying to convert will recognize that they are violating some of our their principles: those of tolerance towards free thought.
- They need to recognize that people are psychologically limited in what they are prepared to accept. People possess ideology.
- Any liberal movement that desires to be popular and long-lasting must take these factors into account. We cannot afford to be high-brow and exclusive.
- The consequences of being high-brow and exclusive are that others, people like Bryan, will be who middle America listens to. The price of stridency is that people look elsewhere for their ideas.
Considering that this essay was intended for an intellectual elite, Dewey is arguing for political realism. He says that basically you can either be high-brow and feel happy at your own internal consistency or you can actually win the majority of Americans over to your side and get the policies you want.
Applying Dewey to Atheism and Science
Dewey’s argument has incredible relevance to the conflict over science and religion. Many of the New Atheists have attempted to frame the issue such that if you accept science, you must be an atheist. They deny that scientists can be in any way religious, even though the majority of Americans are religious. In doing so, they also face a horrible likelihood of making science high-brow.
Let me frame the debate this way. As I see it we have two realistic choices:
- Choice #1: We link atheism and science. We frame atheism as scientific. We as far as we are able exclude the religious from the scientific enterprise.
The result of choice one is that the majority of Americans are going to associate science with a secular elite — i.e. science is not for the consumption of the general public. Science in this world is for only special people to understand. Science will in effect become a marker of social status rather than a general approach to understanding the world.
In fact, if we really wanted to run with Choice #1, we would make science more exclusive, not less. Why don’t we make say being liberal as a necessary criterion for being a scientist. Those conservatives aren’t rational anyway; they clearly don’t have what it takes. We could go so much further if we want to make science perceived as culturally associated with a Northeastern, secular, mostly liberal establishment. If you want to be high-brow, you might as well run with it.
The logical consequence of making science exclusive is to make those in favor of science a minority. And if we make those in favor of science a minority than we are endangering things that we care about. We are, for instance, drawing continuing scientific funding into question. Why would the public continue to fund what it perceives as counter-cultural and profoundly elitist minority?
- Choice #2: We dissociate atheism and science. We argue that atheism is a valid way to see the world, but that scientists can be religious as well. Further, we stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise for what are fundamentally small political differences. We emphasize the importance of science in terms of what it can provide for society, not in terms of metaphysical assertions about the world.
The result of Choice #2 is that we can mobilize the general public behind the scientific enterprise. This is in my opinion the only manner that we can guarantee funding science over the long-term.
Let me make clear that Choice #2 does not involve abandoning core scientific values such as verification, commitment to evidence, and argument on the basis of facts rather than interpersonal attacks. We still argue for evolution, for the reality of global warming, and for the utility of stem cell research. What we stop doing is stating that acceptance of science implies a set of political and philosophical values that are unequivocal and about which there can be no discussion.
Many people might respond to these choices: “Why not science and atheism? We can make people understand that the two are equivalent. We can move the general public to this understanding as well.”
Perhaps this is possible over the long-term, but I doubt with sincerity that it is likely over the short-term. Further, as Nisbet and Schermer have argued, alienating the majority with criticism is likely to extend the time that is necessary for acceptance.
Many people might respond to these choices: “Aren’t we selling out science? We are lying by saying that science and religion can be consistent. Religion is irrational, and science is rational. The two cannot be mixed.”
Listen, I am an atheist. I do not believe that religion and science are internally consistent. However, if there is one thing that I have learned about politics, it is that political discussions are not predicated on internal consistency. (Example: Prior to WW2, the American public was in favor of lend-lease, yet was not in favor of entering the war. These two propositions are mutually exclusive.) Whether or not, religion and science are internally consistent is largely beyond the point. The point is what we can reasonably expect the public to accept. The public is not going to accept both atheism and science over the short-term.
Further, embracing a big-tent approach will not prevent scientific or even atheistic values from taking over. While the majority of the American public is religious, the number of atheists is growing. New atheists will be created in the same way that new atheists have always been created: by a kid waking up in class one day and saying, “You know that invisible man business doesn’t make sense.” Science will be furthered for the same reason it has always been furthered: because it provides the only adequate explanation of reality. People can believe what they want, but in the end reality is the only yardstick.
Progress will be slow, but it will still happen eventually.
Scientists need to collectively get real. We need to decide what our priorities are. Our priority could be to make ourselves feel good about being smarter than everybody else. In that case, let’s just continue what we are doing. That will likely result in our funding being put into jeopardy and the delay of public acceptance of science for a generation. Or we could decide that science is big enough for everyone and that differences in belief will be settled in the end. We decide that in the end funding the scientific enterprise and conferring a much larger corpus of knowledge on the next generation is more important to us than getting our cultural way.
Dewey recognized the choice. We should too.
UPDATE: I have responded to several of the criticisms of this post here.