Attention conservation notice: A couple thousand words of reply to questions about why I think NCSE does what it does, delivered in my capacity as a random blogger not as an NCSE staffer. People who don’t care about accommodationism or about how I read the NCSE website should probably just go back to pondering diehard scientists.

In comments at Larry Moran’s blog, I noted what I regard as a serious error in his description of NCSE’s position about science and religion. He initially claimed “As you know, it’s the official position of the National Center for Science Education” that “science and religion are perfectly compatible.” I commented that is was simply wrong, and Larry has graciously agreed:

It would have been better if I had not used the word “official” since that is a stronger statement than I wished to make. It would be better to say that the public stance of NCSE is to be supportive of the accommodationist position in preference to the idea that science and religion are in conflict and in preference to the position that NCSE should not take a stance on this controversial issue.

I’m not even sure that’s right, if we take “the accommodationist position” to be that “science and religion are perfectly compatible,” terms which Moran uses interchangeably in his earlier post.

Let me emphasize that my blogging here is not done on NCSE time and I don’t base what I say here on private NCSE knowledge, just on things which are publicly available on the web, in public presentations by NCSE staff, etc. I don’t make NCSE policy on these matters, I wouldn’t want to, and I would want to be misunderstood. For these purposes, I’m just a blogger, like Larry.

I’ve commented before that “accommodationism” is an excessively vague term, and that vagueness causes real problems. Taking Larry’s definition at face value, though, I doubt that most people who are recognized as accommodationists would actually qualify. Most of us recognize that religion is not monolithic, and freely acknowledge that some ideas (e.g., many forms of young earth creationism) are not compatible with science. Thus, whatever compatibility might exist between science and religion is not “perfect.” To the specific question of NCSE’s supposed “accommodationism,” NCSE’s webpages are replete with situations where NCSE staff debunks a religious claim using scientific evidence. NCSE seems well aware that science is not perfectly compatible with all forms of religion, and also that proving some conflict does not prove that no form of religion* can possibly be compatible with science (the claim endorsed by most anti-accommodationists, as I understand it).

My position, one which has consistently been called “accommodationism” is that science and religion might be compatible, that I can’t know with any certainty whether it is or isn’t in part because it’s nearly impossible to generalize about all religions. I don’t know if that’s a definition that anyone else would accept, but it’s what I’ll use as a guidepost in the discussion to come.

Larry’s objection is that he sees NCSE as supporting the “accommodationist position” when it could either oppose it or remain neutral. Larry expresses concern that: “NCSE is taking up the issue rather than being neutral as I would prefer.” I tend to think Richard Hoppe did a good job addressing that broad point at Panda’s Thumb almost a year ago:

I want to separate NCSE from NAS and AAAS … The latter two are organizations of professional scientists, and it’s reasonable to expect them to focus solely on science advocacy in their public efforts.…

NCSE is not an association of scientists, but of an array of people with different professions and beliefs. Moreover, it is not a science advocacy group as such, but rather is a group that has as its goal the defense of the teaching of evolution in the public schools. And that defense is necessarily heavily political.

That means that its tactics are in part determined by those of the opposition, the creationists who would turn public school science classes into an opportunity to teach religiously-based creation stories. As a consequence, it has to take into account that opposition and its main arguments, so as to appropriately arm those “parents and concerned citizens.”

The creationist assault on public education has two main prongs. One is to attack, misrepresent, and distort the science…

The second main prong of the creationist assault is to equate evolution with atheism. That is a ubiquitous theme from the whole range of creationists, from Kent Hovind’s ravings to the Disco ‘Tute’s anti-naturalism Wedge document. I hear it, every one of us working with local and state boards of education hears it. It’s in the creationist mailers, it’s in their pamphlets, and it’s in their public statements to school boards.

And NCSE completely appropriately provides information to “parents and concerned citizens” about that issue. It completely appropriately points out that there are believers – self identified Christians – who accept that evolution has occurred (it’s a fact) and that the modern theory of evolution is the best available naturalistic explanation of that fact. Moreover, NCSE completely appropriately points to religious organizations that have stated that they accept that.

Hoppe’s point is that NCSE could not remain neutral toward religion and do its job. And he’s right. It might be possible for a scientific society to remain entirely silent on religion (though not necessarily if it takes public outreach seriously), but it isn’t possible to fight creationists without addressing religion. And that’s a big reason why it’s good to have a faith project: creationists make a lot of bad arguments about religion as well as about science, and a buncha scientists don’t necessarily have the knowledge to address those errors, nor do they have the contacts and credibility within the religious community to organize an effective religious opposition to creationism within theological, clerical, and faith communities.

A former faith project director at NCSE laid out some of what that project does in a 2002 article:

why would NCSE want to be involved in science and religion conversations? …

Perhaps the first reason is simply that many NCSE members are people who belong to communities of faith. They support the teaching of evolution; they disagree strongly with creationist attempts to substitute their spin on religion for science, yet they are themselves religious. NCSE is a membership organization, and a part of what we do is support our members in their advocacy for evolutionary science.…

The second reason is what we might unabashedly call good politics. Not all Christians are creationists, and many are not happy about the appropriation of the name “Christian” as synonymous with anti-evolutionist … Many moderate and liberal Christians, and yes, even some conservative Christians, are our allies in working to keep religion out of the science classroom. We simply cannot make common cause with Christians who stand for evolution if we use the categories “Christian” or “religious” for one narrow stripe of Christian tradition and activism.

She describes:

how tempting it is for both sides on a controversial issue to play to each other’s prejudices, hobby horses, and weaknesses in such a way as to keep the conflict going without getting anywhere.

Two significant ways to avoid such a situation caught my attention. Do not adopt a campaign mentality, but build a movement for the long haul – a strategy at which NCSE excels. Another involves finding those people in the middle who are more open to dialog than invested in being the perfect enemy. When it comes to supporting the teaching of evolution, those people are most likely to be found among people of faith who reject the claims of the religious right, but themselves make faith claims of a broader and more exploratory nature. Allying with such folks is good politics. There is no need to make perfect enemies.

She concludes with what I think is the strongest argument:

NCSE has been effective because we connect, encourage, and provide resources to people at the grassroots – dealing with real threats to the teaching of evolution in their communities. …it takes whole communities to do this, with activists from education, science, citizen groups, and religious congregations working together. Yet many religious congregations that want to be partners in our cause have not done the dialog work at the local level that can help them to argue for sound science teaching from a faith perspective. We cannot do that work for them, but we can point them toward resources that can help if, and only if, we are involved and informed about what is happening nationally and internationally in the conversation between religion and science.

I get the sense that there’s a lot about this that the anti-accommodationists disagree with. They are often disdainful of politics (which I find odd, but that’s another post), they clearly do want to make “the perfect enemy,” and their interest in building a broad coalition in defense of evolution specifically is unambiguously secondary to their interest in building a movement against religion. Which is their prerogative, but I don’t think it’s fair to try to force that agenda onto NCSE. They often state that they support NCSE to the extent that their goals align with NCSE’s, and it would be odd to expect NCSE to change its mission for their benefit when they would not change their mission for NCSE’s.

NCSE cannot, as I see it, be neutral toward religion, and cannot be expected to pass up genuine opportunities to advance its mission simply because it makes certain people squeamish about philosophy. Philosophy is all well and good, but as Feynman notes, as useful to practitioners as ornithology is to birds. Or as Karl Smith (quoted by Brad Delong) observes:

For philosophy, logical consistency is paramount. But, in science, empirical observation wins. I side with science.

It’s messy, imperfect, sometimes illogical, but by being constrained to the data at hand, it tends to actually be useful. NCSE’s approach, to my eye, is geared toward usefulness, not toward establishing some philosophical hegemony regarding the relationship between science and religion.

Larry notes several ways in which he feels NCSE has sought to establish a dogmatic approach to science and religion. The first is based on NCSE’s faith project director – Catholic theologian Peter Hess. (Larry snarkily asks: “Does NCSE have an Atheist Project Director?,” ignoring that the executive director is an atheist, and that she and other staff regularly address gatherings of nontheist groups.) NCSE’s website contains a version of an op-ed Hess wrote for the Washington Post in reply to a wrongheaded essay by Disco. ‘Tute boss John West. That essay appears on the NCSE site under Hess’s name, but Moran reads it to represent NCSE opinion writ large. As I expressed in comments at Larry’s, I find that idiosyncratic, as essays posted to a university’s website (say) are not presumed to represent the university’s views. NCSE is a quasi-academic entity, so the same rules would seem to apply.

In any event, Hess’s essay doesn’t actually endorse the perfect compatibility of science and religion (as noted above, it calls out belief in a young earth as one of several religious beliefs which conflict with science). Nor does he address the broader question of whether science is compatible with religion. He does say that evolution doesn’t make claims about whether God exists, which is obviously true. And he says that “evolution is compatible with theism, atheism, and agnosticism,” clarifying that the meaning of “compatible” adopted here is that you can accept both ideas without conflict. As evidence, he points to the observable fact that many people do just that.

Larry has his philosophical objections to that line of argument, but he’s using a different definition of “compatible.” Which he’s entitled to do, but he can’t insist that Hess was addressing a question he was not.

Larry also objects to an essay by Peter Hess titled “How Do I Read the Bible? Let Me Count The Ways.” Even if one disputes that the previous essay was clearly presented as Hess’s personal opinion (based on his theological training and extensive experience in the study of interactions between science and religion), it’s hard to claim that this essay is anything but Hess’s personal view based on its title. Larry has no stated objection to the content, just to the fact that the views of atheists aren’t given equal prominence.

Two points. First, the purpose of NCSE and its website is to provide resources to people in conflicts over teaching evolution. It doesn’t take any special knowledge from inside NCSE to know that few if any atheists write in asking for advice on reconciling evolution with their position on theism and religion. It’s not a question that comes up in such communities, so the resources on the NCSE website address those religious communities which have active conflicts over teaching evolution. This addresses a later question of Larry’s: “I don’t see an official NCSE webpage called ‘Resources for Atheists.’ I wonder why?” What resources would Larry and other non-theists suggest adding? Is there a conflict over evolution education among atheists that NCSE could provide guidance for? I’m not writing as an NCSE staffer, but I promise that an NCSE staffer will take suggestions seriously.

Second, NCSE’s Voices for Evolution has several pro-evolution statements by organizations of non-theists, the Science and Religion section’s bibliography lists several books about atheism, that section’s page on organizations which “engage in discussion of religion and science” includes a link to Naturalism.org as well as several groups which serve as neutral aggregators of such discussion, not to mention groups from Jewish and Islamic traditions. I hope that disabuses Larry of “the impression that NCSE was only supporting Christian accommodationist points of view.”

Larry objects also to a page describing the Clergy Letter Project, asking:

I wonder if there’s a link to similar petitions from scientists and philosophers who think that science and religion are in conflict? Perhaps Josh can point us to such a webpage that NCSE has put up for balance because otherwise one might get the impression that NCSE actually endorses the statement signed by all these theists.

I do not know of such a page on NCSE’s site, but then again, I don’t know of such a petition for NCSE to link to. If Larry knows of such a thing and thinks NCSE should link it, he knows how to reach me. But demanding that NCSE promote a petition which would not be helpful to NCSE’s mission and which doesn’t exist anyway is kinda problematic.

Larry objects to an essay by NCSE executive director Eugenie Scott, writing that it “doesn’t sound like a neutral position on accommodationism and it doesn’t sound like support for the idea that science and religion may be in conflict. It sounds like accommodationism.” The portions he quotes from simply consist of Genie listing off data from various surveys which have found that many scientists are religious. She is not, she does not encourage other scientists to become religious, but as a scientist, her interest is in the data, which show that the answer to the essay’s titular question – “Do Scientists Really Reject God?” – is “No.” This is that old is-ought distinction. And she and other NCSE staff regularly note conflicts between particular religious beliefs and science.

He also questions a speech by Genie in which he thinks she endorses some version of NOMA. I don’t think that’s quite right, but she’s certainly articulating a different philosophy from Larry’s. “I have argued that a clear distinction must be drawn,” she says, “between science as a way of knowing about the natural world and science as a foundation for philosophical views. One should be taught to our children in school, and the other can optionally be taught to our children at home.”

This strikes me as advocating neutrality toward religion, exactly the position Larry wants NCSE to take. He writes that it indicates that accommodationism is “the only position that your leaders advocate in public,” and “the only position that your website supports.” I don’t see it. Maybe I’m misreading the definition of “accommodationism,” but NCSE’s site and staff often note that incompatibilities exist between some religions and science, but also note (correctly) that many religious people find a form of compatibility with science (not necessarily defined in Larry’s sense). NCSE’s job is not to adjudicate philosophical disputes, but to provide resources to people in crises over the teaching of evolution, and the site is dedicated to providing the resources needed by activists and by citizens caught in the crossfire. It’s useful for people in the field to know about theologies that are friendly to evolution, and it is accurate to say that they exist.

And at the end of the day, it works. And that’s what science is about.


*Perhaps barring deism or Spinoza-ish theisms.

Comments

  1. #1 Deepak Shetty
    March 11, 2010

    Most of us recognize that religion is not monolithic, and freely acknowledge that some ideas (e.g., many forms of young earth creationism) are not compatible with science.

    Why do you take examples which are related to beliefs held by some religious people rather than some belief inherent to the religion?
    For e.g. is transubstantiation compatible with science?

  2. #2 Michael Fugate
    March 11, 2010

    “And that’s a big reason why it’s good to have a faith project: creationists make a lot of bad arguments about religion as well as about science, and a buncha scientists don’t necessarily have the knowledge to address those errors, nor do they have the contacts and credibility within the religious community to organize an effective religious opposition to creationism within theological, clerical, and faith communities.”

    As if any one knows whether arguments about religion are bad. When it comes to understanding religion why should I trust Peter Hess over Alvin Plantinga or William Lane Craig? Because one accepts evolution and the other two don’t – that’s the criterion we are using?

  3. #3 Online Degrees
    March 12, 2010

    well,Science education is the field concerned with sharing science content and process with individuals not traditionally considered part of the scientific community. The target individuals may be children, college students, or adults within the general public.

  4. #4 Jim
    March 12, 2010

    @#1
    Transubstantiation is a good example of what Josh is talking about. First, there is no monolithic christian belief on the subject; some sects believe it as dogma and some don’t. Second, it has absolutely nothing to do with teaching evolution.
    Why should NCSE care what a person’s view is on transubstantiation? Or the virgin birth? Or the resurrection? None of these has anything to do with teaching any area of science.
    Personnally I think accomodationism is a good thing. The US is a diverse nation. We have a long record of not applying religious litmus tests to our associations. We don’t apply religious tests to our jobs or our hobbies or the stores where we shop. Why must we apply them to our schools? If the goal is to teach evolution in public school, then anyone who supports that goal, regardless of religious belief, should be accepted as an ally.

  5. #5 scripto
    March 12, 2010

    “If the goal is to teach evolution in public school, then anyone who supports that goal, regardless of religious belief, should be accepted as an ally.”

    Amen to that. Why turn a political conflict with attainable goals into a pointless philosophical battle?

  6. #6 Deepak Shetty
    March 12, 2010

    @Jim

    First, there is no monolithic christian belief on the subject

    True. However if you are a Roman Catholic this is a belief that you MUST have per the Vatican. And if the Vatican cant define their rules , then who can?
    That’s different from saying all roman catholics actually believe it – which is what most Accomodationists argue for.

    In any case my point is that young earth creationism is easy to refute by any reasonable religious person as the Bible/Koran don’t actually specify the age of the earth. So either Josh must provide concrete examples of mainstream belief that contradict science, or state that he isn’t aware of any or that he hasn’t spent much time on these topics so he doesn’t know one way or another. Saying some beliefs do and some don’t is just hedging your bets to avoid offence.

  7. #7 Larry Moran
    March 12, 2010

    Amen to that. Why turn a political conflict with attainable goals into a pointless philosophical battle?

    Amen to that. I just don’t understand why the NCSE chooses to antagonize so many atheist scientists by promoting people like Ken Miller and pretending that science is compatible with his religion.

    It seems so unnecessary.

  8. #8 TB
    March 12, 2010

    Larry: I would guess that Ken Miller gets promoted in general because he now represents the moderate middle that out media obsesses about. And his successes in the courtroom and as an advocate.
    Not directed to Larry, but this is one of the reasons I think this long accomodationist argument isn’t about things like the NCSE or communication strategies like an Overton Window. It just shouldn’t be surprising someone like Miller would be seen as the reasonable middle when we have groups staking out territories on either side of the spectrum.
    That in itself isn’t intended as a criticism of outspoken atheists – I think atheists do need to speak up for their equal rights.
    But I do think all this is more about being tribal, about forming a group. It would be good to see them get beyond incursions against perceived and real enemies and see it develop into something more.

  9. #9 Anonymous
    March 12, 2010

    So, some people exploit criticisms of evolution to promote creationism and religion. So what? Some people exploit evolution to promote atheism. What in the hell is the difference?

    IMO William Jennnings Bryan said it best:

    If those who teach Darwinism and evolution, as applied to man, insist that they are neither agnostics nor atheists, but are merely interpreting the Bible differently from orthodox Christians, what right have they to ask that their interpretation be taught at public expense?

  10. #10 Deepak Shetty
    March 12, 2010

    @Jim
    A more detailed rebuttal

    Second, it has absolutely nothing to do with teaching evolution.

    But the problems with teaching evolution are symptoms not the root cause. Its silly to only focus on evolution. You already have climate change denialism attached to anti-evolution is it not?

    Why should NCSE care what a person’s view is on transubstantiation? Or the virgin birth? Or the resurrection? None of these has anything to do with teaching any area of science.

    The study of the natural world has everything to do with science. I merely want Josh to make a definitive statement
    on a more important(atleast to some sects) religious belief either for or against rather than a derived belief(the age of the earth).

    If people can be miraculously cured by say prayer wouldnt you want to know who/why/what conditions? Wouldnt you want to know whether this is true or anecdotal? If materials can change their form by reciting a few latin words over them would you want to know? The fact that there is no scientific study in this regard means that you and other accomadationists know that this is all nonsense but you prefer not concluding it to avoid religious offence.
    Also I directed this question to Josh(Not to NCSE) who as far as I know has studiously ignored it, to be answered in his personal capacity, because everything he says in this regard seems to be carefully phrased to avoid saying anything.

    Is Astrology compatible with science? Why should we disagree with people who believe in Astrology? Astrology is harmless(certainly fewer people have been harmed), believe it if you want. You want to wear a stone that gives you good luck, go ahead. Science should have no view in this regard right? What about pseudo-medicines and prayer to heal people? Should Science have a say here? What about climate change denials? Should Science have a say here?

    If the goal is to teach evolution in public school,

    Wrong , the goal is to teach science and the principles on which it is based.

    Personnally I think accomodationism is a good thing.

    The truth is better.

  11. #11 TB
    March 13, 2010

    @Deepak

    There are a lot of goals out there, but the NCSE is very clear about theirs. Their mission may evolve to include climate science because, as you correctly point out, it is becoming a tactic in the battle against evolution.
    But, as Josh has pointed out time and time again, while he personally has an atheist viewpoint, atheism is not a goal of the NCSE.
    Atheism is not science, nor is it science advocacy. And the truth is that atheism promotes a philosophical viewpoint that is not supported or negated by science. It is not scientific.
    But atheism is your goal, expanding that tribe is your goal.
    And that’s fine. The NCSE can function perfectly well without sharing that goal.

  12. #12 Michael Fugate
    March 13, 2010

    So I understand now – it is fine to tie evolution to theism, but not to atheism.

    Which of the following are acceptable views according to the NCSE:

    Humans
    1) share common ancestry with apes and evolved solely through natural processes such as natural selection and drift.
    2) share common ancestry with apes and evolved solely through natural processes such as natural selection and drift, but God created the universe.
    3) share common ancestry with apes and evolved solely through natural processes such as natural selection and drift, but God created life from nonlife.
    4) share common ancestry with apes, but God intervened during the process endowing humans with a soul.
    5) do not share common ancestry with apes. God created humans in their present form.

  13. #13 RBH
    March 13, 2010

    Larry wrote

    Amen to that. I just don’t understand why the NCSE chooses to antagonize so many atheist scientists by promoting people like Ken Miller and pretending that science is compatible with his religion.

    That’s precisely the reverse of the actual case. NCSE does not pretend that science is compatible with Ken Miller’s religion; NCSE points out (perfectly appropriately) that Ken Miller thinks/believes (or pretends, to use Larry’s tendentious word) that science is compatible with his beliefs.

    When I’m talking with–lobbying–theists at the state and local Board of Education levels on this issue (as I have done in one form or another for more than two decades), I do not “pretend” that science and, say, Ken Miller’s religious beliefs are compatible. I point out that Ken Miller believes that they are, and I refer believers to Miller’s books to learn why he believes that. On occasion I loan them my copies of the books (that has become a bit expensive, as sometimes they don’t come back). For evangelicals I use Francis Collins in the same role. It is a plain fact that Miller and Collins and other theists think that science and their religious beliefs are compatible in some fashion or other, and it is not advocating their view to point to that fact’s existence.

    I’m an atheist scientist, and I’m not offended by that tactical approach by NCSE. I myself don’t really see how Miller or Collins or Falk or whomever one wants to name among theistic evolutionists and evolutionary creationists reconcile the two, and some of their arguments (e.g., Collins’ ‘Moral Law’ argument) I find specious and have said so to them. I have read a whole lot of what they write in books and online in a (so far) vain attempt to understand it. But my inability to understand how they manage it in no way renders the fact of their existence antithetical to the specific mission of NCSE.

  14. #14 Deepak Shetty
    March 13, 2010

    @TB
    and I’ve never asked atheism to be a goal for NCSE. Science is the goal and like various people say Science is perfectly compatible with religious people so promotion of science != promotion of atheism.

    I’ve asked a specific question(to choose a more deeply held belief than YEC) to Josh in his personal capacity (Its clearly mentioned that his blog has his views not NCSE official position) merely because his name comes up on other bloggers I read and I do not yet have a sense whether Josh is worth following or not. I have no desire to read people who wont set forth their actual views to avoid offence.
    >But atheism is your goal, expanding that tribe is your
    >goal.
    Hilarious. I am agnostic (and anti-religion). I do not like seeing religion get a free pass for natural world claims that it makes and find it no different from astrology. I find it inconsistent that people would stand up against Astrology as incompatible with science or Homeopathy or whatever but keep quiet when religion makes similar claims. None of these have anything to do with any atheist philosophy. If religion makes a claim that being gay is against the natural order of things , should Science shut up to avoid offence?

    My position is that a faith based system is incompatible with an evidence based one, but that does not imply that an evidence based system is the best approach for all situations (I do not demand evidence that my wife is faithful to me for example).

  15. #15 TB
    March 13, 2010

    RBH: I keep thinking the question isn’t “Is religion compatible with science,” but “Is it compatible enough to be useful in defending science and science education?”

  16. #16 RBH
    March 13, 2010

    TB: No, the question is whether the people who believe that they’re compatible are useful in defending science and science education. The latter (defending science education) is at base a political battle in the U.S., NCSE’s venue, and abstractions don’t win political battles. It’s boots on the ground and in the election booths and on the school boards that win them.

  17. #17 Larry Moran
    March 14, 2010

    RBH says,

    No, the question is whether the people who believe that they’re compatible are useful in defending science and science education.

    The answer to that question is “yes.”

    Now let’s move on to another question. Are people who believe that science and religion are *incompatible* also useful in this fight? If so, do you think it’s helpful for prominent leaders of NCSE to make public statements about how “new atheists” are hurting the case? Do you think it’s reasonable for them to insist that science does not lead to atheism while ignoring the fact that many scientists are atheists and emphasizing the fact that many scientists are religious?

    I have been at lectures where people from NCSE have criticized Richard Dawkins and the “new atheists” and praised Ken Miller. That may, indeed, be an effective strategy in America. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that some people want to pretend that NCSE is not taking sides.

    That’s laughable.

  18. #18 TB
    March 14, 2010

    RBH: I could quibble with you regarding the wording, but that’s fine.

    Larry: Sure they can be just as useful. But as I pointed out, the goal of the NCSE is to defend science and science education, not advance atheism. The goal of the “new atheists” is to advance atheism.

    In those instances where the two goals conflict (such as in the idea that one has to give up religion in order to accept science) then they’re not especially useful. Unfortunately I can’t find the reference, but I recall reading that Dawkins didn’t think he’d be especially useful at the Dover trial because of the nature of the fight there. A fight where religious people stood up for science in the face of a hostile community element. I think he thought he’d be a distraction, but again I don’t have a reference for this so I could be wrong.

    The most useful thing would be to agree to disagree and stop the arguing. But while that might be useful to the mission of the NCSE, it might not be for the “new atheists” for whom the arguments are useful in defining their tribe. In other words, I think the issue you claim as paramount is a manufactured one – an attempt to move the NCSE closer to what atheists want instead of it being an inclusive organization. Neutrality in politics can also be seen as ceding ground to one interest or another and the NCSE is in the political arena.

    I wonder though if there are not parallels to some of the things that Obama pointed out to the Republicans earlier. The angry rhetoric and victimhood might be useful in forming a tribe, but it’s also constraining on it’s leaders. What happens when a PeeZee wants to move forward and accomplish something in the public arena with a Ken Miller?

  19. #19 J. J. Ramsey
    March 14, 2010

    TB: “I can’t find the reference, but I recall reading that Dawkins didn’t think he’d be especially useful at the Dover trial because of the nature of the fight there.”

    There’s something at the end of the section “The Neville Chamberlain School of Evolutionists” in the book The God Delusion where he says something pretty much to that effect, though he doesn’t mention Dover.

  20. #20 RBH
    March 14, 2010

    Larry asked several questions. Let me address them one at a time.

    Are people who believe that science and religion are *incompatible* also useful in this fight?

    I hope so–I’m one of them, at least with respect to the Abrahamic religions. I don’t know other religions well enough to address them except to reject claims of supernatural intervention. Dawkins is right: A world in which there is an intermittently interventionist supernatural agency would be a very different world from that we actually observe.

    If so, do you think it’s helpful for prominent leaders of NCSE to make public statements about how “new atheists” are hurting the case?

    No, in spite of the use of the assertive atheists (my preferred term) as boogymen by the creationists. For one thing, the assertive atheists have made the strong case that religious beliefs ought to be as vulnerable to reasoned analysis as, say, political beliefs, and that for theists to simply assert their religious beliefs as a defense for public actions is no longer sufficient. That case needs to be made as strongly as possible.

    Do you think it’s reasonable for them [NCSE] to insist that science does not lead to atheism while ignoring the fact that many scientists are atheists and emphasizing the fact that many scientists are religious?

    No. The honest claim is that science does not inevitably lead to unbelief (atheism or agnosticism). Averaged over disciplines, roughly 40% of scientists believe in a personal god, and even a non-trivial number of members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal God. As Neil deGrasse Tyson remarked (video, starting around 7:45) those are the interesting numbers.

  21. #21 Deepak Shetty
    March 14, 2010

    @TB
    You are assigning positions to people which you believe they have. None of the new atheists have ever stated that you need to give up religion to accept science. The complaint against NCSE has always been that they are not neutral on the topic of religion and science. Even if this complaint is unjustified, the complaint itself is regards to the neutrality of NCSE , not its failure to advance an atheist agenda)
    >the goal of the NCSE is to defend science and science education
    So long as the science doesn’t contradict some important teaching of religion? In which case it should just provide some scientist who holds both contradictory positions.

  22. #22 RBH
    March 14, 2010

    Oops. Forgot this from Larry:

    I have been at lectures where people from NCSE have criticized Richard Dawkins and the “new atheists” and praised Ken Miller. That may, indeed, be an effective strategy in America. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that some people want to pretend that NCSE is not taking sides.
    That’s laughable.

    To the extent that occurs I think it’s inappropriate. What I’ve written on this, both in the quotation Josh used in the OP and my comments here, are what I think NCSE’s policy is (or damned well ought to be). I have not myself heard the claim about Dawkins and the new atheists from “people from NCSE.” I’ve heard the claim made, but not from them speaking on behalf of NCSE. If NCSE staffers operating as NCSE staffers are making that claim they should quit forthwith because, as I suggested, in my view the assertive atheists are a net positive for our side. The appropriate tactic, in my opinion, is (when necessary) point to the fact of the existence of the Ken Millers of the world as evidence (data, remember?) that science, and specifically evolution, do not inevitably lead to atheism; it is neither necessary nor appropriate to simultaneously say ‘And Dawkins is full of it.’ He’s not.

  23. #23 RBH
    March 14, 2010

    And my responses to Larry will be out of order because the first had too many links and is being held for moderation.

  24. #24 TB
    March 14, 2010

    J.J. Ramsey: That could be it, although I though I read something about it as related specifically to Dover. Could have been third hand too, so I’m not claiming this is accurate.

    Deepak said “None of the new atheists have ever stated that you need to give up religion to accept science.”

    Sam Harris said Science must destroy religion. Coyne has said “Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.” Given enough time, I’m sure I could dig up people who consider themselves “new atheists” who have said exactly that you need to give up religion to accept science, because any religious notion means those people are somehow rejecting science.

    I appreciate you may have a more nuanced view, but, no,

  25. #25 TB
    March 14, 2010

    RBH: It’s also been expressed that while science doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief, the profession may attract those who are or tending to become unbelievers, and so while the survey results may be accurate, there may be more to them.

  26. #26 RBH
    March 14, 2010

    TB wrote

    RBH: It’s also been expressed that while science doesn’t necessarily lead to unbelief, the profession may attract those who are or tending to become unbelievers, and so while the survey results may be accurate, there may be more to them.

    Sure. The direction of the causal arrow is not at all clear. That makes my point about non-inevitability stronger.

  27. #27 Deepak Shetty
    March 15, 2010

    @TB
    Jerry Coyne quotes states God and evolution can’t be reconciled. Im not sure how you interpret that quote to mean give up religion to follow science. Sam Harris’s article is pretty nuanced if you bothered to read it instead of simply reading the title. In any case , you’d need to provide more than one example(I don’t count Coyne’s quote, it doesnt say what you think it means unless Intelligent design is a core belief of religion)is it not? The actual position new (and old) atheists have is that the more you understand or follow science, the more likely you are to give up religious beliefs.

  28. #28 TB
    March 15, 2010

    Deepak

    I disagree. Those two quotes were simply the quickest things I could find. In fact, Harris’ column is far more strident than simply the idea that someone has to give up religion in order to fully accept science, it’s a call for action to defeat religion- to relegate it to the same fringe area as UFOs and ghost stories. Coyne’s quote shows that he believes that there is no reconciliation between science and religion, the implication being that in order to accept science you need to abandon religion.

    I’m comfortable that I’m not misrepresenting the posts and comments I’ve read over the past few years. But, my laziness is no excuse so I did a quick search and came up with this:

    “Atheists do not claim they can solve all the problems of an irrational society. What they (we) claim is that one important step is to reduce irrationality and promote rationality. One big step in that direction is to eliminate religion.”

    That was, BTW, written by someone commenting on this very thread: Larry Moran.

    In case you wanted to try and parse what “rationality” means, later in that post Moran includes this quote: “The point is this: intellectual honesty is better (more enlightened, more useful, less dangerous, more in touch with reality, etc. ) than dogmatism. The degree to which science is committed to the former, and religion to the latter remains one of the most salient and appalling disparities to be found in human discourse.”

    http://sandwalk.blogspot.com/2006/12/more-from-appeaser.html

    Again, this may not be your view but that doesn’t mean it isn’t held by others.

  29. #29 Deepak Shetty
    March 15, 2010

    @TB
    a. Does an atheist want to see religious influence reduced in the public domain or eliminated – yes , most of the time.
    b. Does an atheist believe that the pursuit of science reduces the influence of religion or disproves some of religion- Yes , most of the time
    c. Does an atheist say you need to give up religion to follow science? No , most of the time. You have the cart before the horse. Following science may result in you giving up religion , but its not necessary (demonstrably so) and you don’t need to give up religion to be a good scientist (demonstrably so). Most *new* atheists accept that quite easily. For e.g. no one doubts that Ken Miller is a good scientist, they all only object to some of his views.

    The quotes you have all point to a. and b. whereas the argument you are trying to prove is point c. which I quote from your comment
    “(such as in the idea that one has to give up religion in order to accept science)”
    Thats something you made up , based on what you believe Harris et al think , not something they have actually said.

    I don’t like speaking for Harris or Coyne, but atleast in Coyne’s case he is referring clearly to evolution and the attempts to inject God into it (e.g. well God doesn’t interfere but he planned it all or well God started it all and created the first living cell and after that its all evolution or well God only interferes sometimes to push evolution, all of which clearly don’t work as theories and are useless as an explanation). It doesn’t even come close to a religion v/s science battle , unless creation is a core belief of your religion.
    In Harris case I see the call that science must enter into disciplines normally thought to be the domain of religion (e.g. questions on morality) and that the answers to it will remove some more influence of religion. However I grant you the example simply because of the title of the article.

  30. #30 TB
    March 15, 2010

    Deepak: My experience (with the quotes I’ve cited being a small sample) leads me to disagree with your analysis – and so my interpretation is going to remain different than yours.

  31. #31 Deepak Shetty
    March 15, 2010

    @TB
    fair enough. Ill leave the disagreement with , Experience is subjective. If you wish to make a claim as you did you should have some solid quotes to back up exactly what you said, not what you think they implied,not what you read between the lines, not what you think new atheists are up to – or atleast admit that your bias may prevent other reasonable interpretations.

  32. #32 TB
    March 15, 2010

    Deepak, my quotes and links are solid and the people I’ve pointed to can be used as a starting point for anyone so inclined to learn more. My conclusion from all I’ve read and heard is that they feel in order for a person to fully accept science they have to reject religion. They may be correct in that position – but that’s a different conversation.
    What I’m trying to tell you politely is that I’m not interested in getting into a trivial argument over how to parse language, especially with someone like you who fails to notice the quote and link I provided that specifically said: ” What they (we) claim is that one important step is to reduce irrationality and promote rationality. One big step in that direction is to eliminate religion.”

  33. #33 Deepak Shetty
    March 15, 2010

    @TB
    sigh. You believe it is some revelation that atheists would like to reduce/eliminate the influence of religion in the public sphere (there is some debate in the private sphere even among atheists). I’ve never even argued that this is not case.
    Your original claim was the giving up of religion to pursue science
    implying that atheists believe
    a. you cant do good science if your religious
    b.you probably should be disqualified from science if your religious.
    which are different claims.

    whether Religion is irrational or the deduction of irrationality by reduction of religion have no bearing on your original claim.

  34. #34 TB
    March 15, 2010

    My original claim is exactly what I said it was. Neither of your characterizations, Deepak, are accurate.

  35. #35 Deepak Shetty
    March 15, 2010

    @TB
    Alright then. New Atheists want you to give up religion in order to accept science because…?

  36. #36 TB
    March 16, 2010

    I’m sorry, Deepak, I’m not going to be able to give you a license for your pet fish Eric.

  37. #37 Deepak Shetty
    March 16, 2010

    @TB
    I don’t get that colloquial reference whatever it means.

  38. #38 J. J. Ramsey
    March 16, 2010
  39. #39 Deepak Shetty
    March 16, 2010

    Ah. I suppose you werent expecting the spanish inquisition.

    It isnt any great knowledge that atheists want reduction of religion or muslims would rather there be more muslims or christians there be more christians.

    You cant justify the *specific* claim you made and from other discussions Im pretty sure I know your motive.

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