The Politics of Science and Religion

Partly because Richard Dawkins has recently come out with a book strongly attacking religion, it seems there’s a political debate going on among nonbelievers interested in science-and-religion issues. Dawkins expresses disdain for the “Neville Chamberlain school” of defenders of evolution who take a liberal compatibilist view and deny any conflict between science and religion. By and large, however, nonbelieving scientists tend to shy away from being too public with views that suggest science (particularly evolutionary science) and strong Abrahamic theisms don’t sit well together.

I tend to agree with the majority here. Yes, Darwinian evolution is a major component of a comprehensively naturalistic view of the world; and yes, liberal religious affirmations of evolution either try to smuggle in some mistaken view about guided or progressive evolution or end up as an ignorable metaphysical gloss on the science. Nevertheless, the creation/evolution debate is very political in nature, and it seems bloody stupid to alienate liberal religious people in the struggle against fundamentalists. So I figure that even when organizations like the NCSE present liberal theological conventional wisdom as if it were the obvious truth about the nature of science, there’s no point in being overly critical. People involved in the daily running of such organizations, I think, must have a much better feel for the political landscape than I do, and I’ll defer to their collective judgment on what slogans are appropriate. If more nonbelieving scientists were to follow the flag Dawkins raises, that might court political disaster.

Nevertheless, I’m open to suggestions that I’m the one who is being stupid here. There is a hint of dishonesty in my position—in my books I argue that science and religion do not fit well (which is safe, since only a few thousand will read them), but I also support efforts to convince the public that theories like evolution do not present any problem to religion, at least non-fundamentalist religion. And this is based entirely on my judgment that the liberal compatibilists have a good eye for what’s politically sound—not on any real feeling for the public response. I also have some experience that might suggest otherwise: I see plenty of religious students who are not impressed with the way their science educators tend to play down any friction with religious beliefs, adopting standard rhetoric about separate spheres. Some, perhaps, are sensitive to the hint of dishonesty here. And this certainly does not make them more positive toward scientists—we end up looking more and more like an ideologically driven group who are evasive about issues that matter to them.

So I’ll be interested to see if more confrontational, Dawkins-style approaches make headway. For example, I recently ran across a very interesting book by Ardea Skybreak, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism. It’s a very accessible, non-textbook-like defense of evolution and attack on creationism. Unlike most such literature, however, this book does not shy away from attacking fundamentalist religion and politics. Now, because Skybreak’s nontheism comes across pretty strongly, and it’s not too difficult to figure out that her politics are pretty Marxist, I wasn’t sure about the book as I read through it. I’m more used to giving my students books that sweep any tension with religion under the carpet. Still, at least nothing in this book would make them think the author was holding back on issues important to them. Maybe this sort of approach will work better than the political cynicism I am drawn toward. I don’t know; it might be worth a try anyway.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Jeff

    I tend to fall on the other side of the issue. I do believe that liberal, moderate believers of religion help foster current and future fundamentalists. It all boils down to parents teaching their kids that faith (belief in something without evidence) is not only positive, but something you should base moral and political decisions on. And in every batch of those kids, there will be some that grow up and take it too far and give us the crazy world we’re living in today. Unless you have a religion based on logical thinking and experience in reality, religion and science are not compatible.


  • Alonzo Fyfe

    Liberal, moderate believers foster fundamentalism in the same way that moderate atheists foster communism and anti-religious bloodbaths like the French Revolution.

    Sorry, no.

    A person is morally responsible for what he believes. To say to a person, “Even though you do not believe X, I am going to condemn you, because somebody else who agrees with you on Y does believe X,” is an unfair and unjust imposition of blame.

    We do not accept it when people condemn us for views that other atheists have held. It is just as unfair to use the same trick on others.

  • Explicit Atheist

    While Alonzo Fyfe is correct, I still think we can and should criticize moderates for their endorsement of faith as a path to knowledge. To be fair, however, moderates do appear to tend to be somewhat skeptical of the utility of faith as a method of acquiring knowledge and that healthy
    skepticism is arguably why they are moderates. To the extent moderates openly express this skepticism they are arguably being helpful in challenging fundamentalism. Instead of saying religious moderates are paving the way for funamentalism maybe we should be encouraging moderates to be more outspoken in endorsing and promoting such skepticism. We should target our criticism to those moderates who don’t or won’t speak out for skepticism rather than to moderates en masse.

    It is wrong, however, for us atheists to shy away from claiming that faith is a vacuous method. We shouldn’t compromise our expression of our convictions just because some people take unjustifiable offensive. Our
    perspective has much merit and should be part of the debate. I think Dawkins and Harris are doing much good by giving atheism a higher profile. Atheism very much needs a higher profile in society and politics. Being loud probably does move us forward faster than hiding behind dishonest and condescending platitudes. But we can be honest and forthright and still be nuanced and pragmatic by making the effort to also emphasize whatever common ground we have with skeptical religionists.

  • Alonzo Fyfe

    My objections have nothing to do with criticism.

    If a person says something that one believes is mistaken, it is perfectly acceptable to say,

    “Are you nuts! What kind of idiot would every think something like that!”

    However, there is a difference between saying, “you’re wrong,” and “You’re guilty for those crimes done by those people over there who did things that you don’t approve of and that you even condemn.”

    The first comment is honest and fair (assuming that the evidence for error is honest and fair).

    The second comment is unfair, unjust, and bigoted. A person should be blamed only for the things that he does wrong.

    I refuse to accept any responsibility or blame for the wrong words and deeds of other atheists, and assert that it is unjust to charge me with their crimes.

    Fairness dictates that I apply the same standard to theists.

  • PK

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • PK

    Taner Edis says that scientists “end up looking more and more like an ideologically driven group who are evasive about issues that matter to them.” I think this is an important point, and I have some thoughts on why scientists might be evasive on this issue. Dawkins is a popularizer of science, which means he thinks laypeople ought to be taught science and he’s confident the teaching can succeed. Most scientists don’t try to popularize science, and one reason why, I think, is that most scientists are pessimistic about the ability of laypeople to understand science. There’s a statistic which I can’t vouch for and whose origin is unknown to me, that a large number of Americans don’t know the Earth goes around the Sun. That’s probably an urban legend, but the point is that a lot of laypeople have at least the equivalent of no satisfactory science education. So one reason why many scientists are evasive about fighting the culture war is their contempt for those who don’t go through the wringer to get a hard-won degree in science. Scientists who are disinterested in popularizing science may be elitists.

    The same thing may be going on in the case of some scientists’ disinclination to engage with creationists. When creationists challenge scientific (as opposed to philosophical) evolutionists to debate, sometimes the scientists refuse on the grounds that the rules are rigged against them or that they don’t want to give any credit to creationism. The claim is that creationists don’t deserve to be given equal treatment with evolutionists in a debate, and that the format of a formal debate gives viewers the false impression that creationists are worthy opponents who have 50 percent of the evidence on their side. I’m sure this is all correct, but I doubt it’s the real reason evolutionists hesitate to debate creationists. Again, I think there’s the average scientist’s contempt for the non-scientist, and thus both the evasiveness about the extent to which liberal religion is incompatible with science, and the disinterest in popularizing science in the first place.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    There are really only two ways that evolution is a threat to religion:

    (1) It clearly contradicts the creation stories of many religions, when they are taken literally.

    (2) It undercuts many of the arguments from design.

    The first point is fatal to fundamentalists but not to those who find ways either to take the stories not so literally or to put up with their errancy. The second point isn’t fatal to much of any religion on its own, but can only be a piece of evidence in a larger argument against religion.

    It may be disingenuous to say that evolution and Abrahamic religions are easy to reconcile, but it is certainly disingenuous to say that evolution is enough to refute the Abrahamic religions.

  • bpabbott

    J. J. Ramsey wrote: “There are really only two ways that evolution is a threat to religion:”

    You’ve raised a perspective of the conflict which I associate with science, but what of the perspective of science?

    While science’s objective manner of seeking out objective truth does run afoul of religion’s *revealed* truth of objective phenomena, this is not the crux of the problem … at least respecting the side of religion.

    In my opinion, the conflict over which method for seeking out truth is not as important, to organized religions, as who can lay a claim of authority over the method and its truth.

    Thus, I fear that what drives the conflict between religion and science is *not* the struggle over whose understanding is closest to the truth. Rather, the struggle is a real or percieved competition for influence of, and power over, the minds of men :-(

    Religion being led by human authorities who derive their livelihood from their claims of divinity is structurally different from science. The merits of science’s objective method in seeking truth are a threat to the livelihood of religious authorities who make their living as truth tellers of objective pheonomena.

    Thus, from the side of religion the motive for conflict is quite different. Ironically, it may well be that science has the more altruistic motives. Science seeks out the truth, while organized religion is defending its hold on the minds of men :-(

  • Malcolm

    Richard Dawkins is a very learned and lucid explicator of evolutionary biology. I could be wrong, of course, but it seems to me that Dawkins, by attacking religion directly, provokes and strengthens a wall-building reflex in Christian biblical literalists. People will give up beliefs when the beliefs become more trouble to maintain than to shed. I expect that an indirect approach would be more effective.

    “Fundamentlist”, it seems to me, describes anyone who requires very few steps between the input of data and the output of conclusions, or someone who, for all the steps between input and output (“What? You haven’t read Marx’s __Grundrisse__?”), has a very limited repertoire of output. There are fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist Marxists, fundamentalist libertarians, and even fundamentalist physicists and evolutionary biologists.

    Bertrand Russell wrote that religions, like wines, tend to mellow with age (epidemiologists say the same about diseases). Perhaps, paradoxically, materialists have the least to fear from oldest superstitions.

  • Ken

    Dawkins says what he believes and liberates like-minded personse who were reluctant to exprress their disbelief in gods. that is good. If his reasoned but blunt arguments cause the closed-minded to become defensive, that is bad. Bottom line: Say what you believe, engage in rational discourse and thereby contribute to the spread of thoughtful discourse.

  • Ken

    sorry for the typos in the previous post…

    and to Malcolm: “Perhaps, paradoxically, materialists have the least to fear from oldest superstitions.”

    I don’t know about that one. The Islamic faith seems a pretty old superstition to me. I do grant you that we don’t face much of a threat from Zeus worshippers these days.

  • ts

    Some day the heat death of the universe will occur — you can’t stop it. Some day you will die — you can’t stop it. What to do in the meantime? I strongly advocate honesty.