The War Between Science and Religion

Accommodationists are alarmed that their position has been challenged by a recent flurry of best-selling books, widely read articles, and blogs. In Britain an open letter expressing this concern was signed by two Church of England bishops; a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain; a member of the Evangelical Alliance; Professor Lord Winston, a fertility pioneer; Professor Sir Martin Evans, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine; and others. The letter said, "We respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

Such solicitousness for the sensitivities of so-called religious moderates is not new. During the run-up to the Scopes trial, in 1925, the accommodationists of that era were similarly uneasy about Clarence Darrow's defending John T. Scopes because they felt that his openly expressed scorn for religious beliefs might alienate potential religious allies. But Darrow's performance in that trial is now viewed as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools. "Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours," H.L. Mencken wrote after Darrow's withering questioning of William Jennings Bryan.

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as "extreme," "uncivil," "rude," and responsible for setting a "bad tone." However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Mencken rightly deplored that undue deference to religious beliefs. He wrote in the immediate aftermath of the Scopes trial, "Even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights," but he "has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. . . .The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion."

Why have organizations like the National Academy of Sciences sided with the accommodationists even though there is no imperative to take a position? After all, it would be perfectly acceptable to simply advocate for good science and stay out of this particular fray.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

But political considerations should not be used to silence honest critical inquiry. Richard Dawkins has challenged the accommodationist strategy, calling it "a cowardly cop-out. I think it's an attempt to woo the sophisticated theological lobby and to get them into our camp and put the creationists into another camp. It's good politics. But it's intellectually disreputable."

Evolution, and science in general, will ultimately flourish or die on its scientific merits, not because of any political strategy. Good science is an invaluable tool in humanity's progress and survival, and it cannot be ignored or suppressed for long. The public may turn against this or that theory in the short run but will eventually have to accept evolution, just as it had to accept the Copernican heliocentric system.

It is strange that the phrase "respect for religion" has come to mean that religious beliefs should be exempt from the close scrutiny that other beliefs are subjected to. Such an attitude infantilizes religious believers, suggesting that their views cannot be defended and can be preserved only by silencing those who disagree.

Mencken said of Bryan's religious beliefs, "Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. . . . What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings."

While Mencken's use of the word "contempt" is perhaps too harsh, he makes a valid point: that no beliefs should be exempt from scrutiny simply because many people have held them for a long time. It is time to remove the veil that has protected religious beliefs for so long. After all, if we concede without argument that mainstream religious beliefs are compatible with science, how can we argue that witchcraft and astrology are not?

This article is republished with permission from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Mano Singham is director of the University Center for Innovation in Teaching and Education and an adjunct associate professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University. He is the author of God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolutionand Creationism in the Classroom (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). He also writes a blog, at http://blog.case.edu/singham.

6/7/2010 4:00:00 AM