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.
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.