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.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University