Wednesday, June 17, 2009

On Faith and Science

 
Peter Hess is Faith Project Director at National Center for Science Education (NCSE). (I don't know if they have another director for people who don't rely on faith. Is there an Rationalism Project Director?) Hess was written an article in The Washington Post [On Faith].

It's a typical accommodationist article—full of unsubstantiated statements with no attempt whatsoever to come to grips with the main problem. The article maintains that science and religion are compatible without explaining what kind of religion you have to believe in to avoid conflict with science. Can you believe in miracles, the power of prayer, the existence of a soul, the importance of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and life after death without coming into conflict with science?

Joshua Rosenau likes the article by Hess. Josh has posted excerpts on his blog Thoughts from Kansas [NCSE's Peter Hess takes down Disco.'s John West]. Here's one of the excerpts that Josh posted.
Too often, debates over the public perception of evolution are dominated by the fringes, by fundamentalist Christians and others who reject basic science due to their literal reading of the Bible and by ardent atheists who reject religion because they've embraced metaphysical naturalism ― that nature is all that exists. But the silent majority ― that spans the spectrum from theism to atheism ― have no problem reconciling their religious beliefs with established sciences such as evolution, or with new sciences such as stem cell research. My work at the National Center for Science Education brings me into contact with voices across that spectrum and I've found that honest, open, and inclusive dialog is not only possible, but vital for our children's education, for the credibility of religious traditions, and for the continued role of the United States as a scientific and moral leader in our increasingly interconnected world.
There are several problems with the logic expressed here. I'm always suspicious of those who claim to represent the "silent majority" but in this case the claim makes no sense because I'm not convinced that this so-called "silent majority" in the USA actually exists. Is it true that a majority of Americans have "no problem reconciling their religious beliefs with established sciences"?

Now let's imagine a hypothetical situation where Peter Hess is writing an article for a Swedish newspaper, where a majority of citizens are non-religious and atheists could not be labeled a "fringe" group. Would his argument be any weaker because he can no longer claim to represent the "silent majority"? If the answer is "yes" then the argument has no meaning. It's just empty rhetoric. I hate arguments based on the appeal to popularity even if the appeal is merely implicit.

Like Peter Hess, I also value "honest, open and inclusive dialog." That's why I think it's important to debate the conflict between science and religion. If one is being open and honest than one will address the potential sources of conflict such as the existence of a personal god and whether humans have a purpose. It would be dishonest to avoid those issues—and the ones listed above—in order to try and makes religious people more comfortable. It would not be "inclusive" to dismiss atheists as a "fringe" group whose opinions don't count because they're not part of the "silent majority.".

If we really value the education of our children then lets talk about the existence of supernatural beings and let's hear a defense of their existence and not just rhetoric about how belief is the majority position in the USA. Let's hear about those religious traditions that are compatible with science and let's, at least, get rid of the ones that are clearly incompatible.

Finally, who appointed the USA as the "moral leader" of the world? Did I miss the vote?


22 comments :

  1. "...moral leader..."

    I'm an American, but that kind of talk pisses me off. It's just a throwaway phrase used to pander to the thoughtless flag-wavers.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Did I miss the vote? -

    Yes, but only because you are not (or so I hope!) a member of the Republican party. Remember, the Republican party is America: everyone else hates America, freedom, democracy, mom, apple pie, Superman, and turns God face away from our great nation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. It should be pointed out that Mr. Rosenau works for NCSE.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I wonder when exactly people stopped caring what's true and what's not and chose to worry what's politically correct or not instead. Or maybe they never cared what's true and what's not?

    We need to stop assessing the validity of positions based on where they fall in the spectrum of opinions. Whether someone's position on given subject is radical or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether it is true or not.

    It's a fallacy that should be obvious to everybody.

    And BTW, why does the Nation Center for SCIENCE Education has a FAITH Project? That's smells an awful lot like miseducation to me

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yes, the USA is a moral leader, and if you don't agree with that we'll fabricate a case for blowing you up, and torture you. "America, **** yeah!"

    ReplyDelete
  6. "dominated by the fringes, by ... ardent atheists who reject religion because they've embraced metaphysical naturalism ― that nature is all that exists. But the silent majority ― that spans the spectrum from theism to atheism


    Atheists who embrace metaphysical naturalism are a "fringe," and the multitude(?) of other atheists who have not accepted metaphysical naturalism are part of the majority?

    ReplyDelete
  7. What Josh really wrote: "a scientific and moral leader." What Larry wrote: "the moral leader."

    There is a big difference between the definite and indefinite article. At least in English.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Larry sez Peter: "dismiss[es] atheists as a 'fringe' group whose opinions don't count."

    By my reading, he referred to the subset of atheists who "reject religion because they've embraced metaphysical naturalism." There are lots of other reasons why people turn to atheism. Not all atheists reject religion, nor did a commitment to metaphysical naturalism lead them to atheism.

    Finally, nowhere does Peter say that any group's opinion(s) "don't count." He is arguing for inclusion of more voices, not for exclusion of any. Claiming otherwise is simply false; Peter explicitly includes atheists among those in the "silent majority."

    Similarly, Frank's correction is correct, though it was Peter, not me, who wrote that phrase. Whether or not the US is currently, or ever was a moral leader, it certainly seems a worthy goal.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Frank says,

    What Josh really wrote: "a scientific and moral leader." What Larry wrote: "the moral leader."

    There is a big difference between the definite and indefinite article. At least in English.


    What a relief to hear you say that.

    I wonder who the other scientific leaders are? It's unusual to hear an American admit that the USA is only one among many scientific leaders.

    I'm also curious about the other moral leaders. I wonder who they could be? Do you think it could be France or Sweden or Japan or Australia?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Josh Rosenau says,

    Not all atheists reject religion ...

    Tell me more about those atheists who accept religion. Can you give me an example?

    Finally, nowhere does Peter say that any group's opinion(s) "don't count." He is arguing for inclusion of more voices, not for exclusion of any. Claiming otherwise is simply false; ...

    Does the inclusiveness extend to Young Earth Creationists and Intelligent Design Creationists?

    Of course it doesn't. Some issues don't lend themselves to "inclusiveness." It's one of those buzzwords that's supposed to make you feel warm and fuzzy inside but it doesn't mean anything.

    Peter, and many of his friends, don't understand that one of the battles is between atheism and religion (rationalism vs superstition). How can you be "inclusive" in that battle? It doesn't make any sense.

    Are there any religious people who want to join the atheist side?

    ReplyDelete
  11. What makes you think Peter and others "don't understand that one of the battles is between atheism and religion"? I recognize that that's a battle people are fighting, it just isn't mine, personally, and it doesn't fall within NCSE's mandate.

    You ask if YEC and IDolators should be included in the discussion. I don't know any way to exclude them from this broad cultural discussion, short of convincing them they're wrong. They don't belong in science class, nor would theistic evolution. We teach science in science class. In a world religion class or a course dealing in the philosophy of science, it would be appropriate to survey this diversity of opinion.

    You ask that I "Tell me more about those atheists who accept religion." Setting aside nontheistic religions like Taoism or Buddhism, and groups like the Society for Ethical Culture (which seeks the community aspects of religion without theistic belief), Unitarian religion, which places no premium on theistic belief, and groups like the the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which practices non-theistic Judaism, there are plenty of atheists who see no problem with the existence of religion, though they personally have no interest in it, and object strenuously to any effort to impose it on others.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Finally, who appointed the USA as the "moral leader" of the world? Did I miss the vote?

    What, Prof. Moran is unaware of the fact that might makes right? End snark.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Larry asked: I wonder who the other scientific leaders are?

    Oh, I'd say, depending on field, there are a huge number in Europe, Australia, India, Japan, China, and Russia, for some. Canada, too. U.S. (distinct from "American" ;) scientific "leadership" has largely depended on its economic strength. As economic strength redistributes, so will scientific strength.

    I'm also curious about the other moral leaders.

    Besides your list, I'd give even more pride of place to South Africa for Mandela and Tutu. Dunno what to do with the Dalai Lama.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Josh Rosenau asks,

    What makes you think Peter and others "don't understand that one of the battles is between atheism and religion"?

    Because they rarely give any indication in their writings that they are even aware of the other battle?

    When they ask atheists to become accommodationists they act like the only battle going on is between people who accept evolution and those who don't.

    I'd like to see more understanding of the complexity of the issues. Peter Hess begins his article by condemning John West for saying that science and religion are mutually exclusive. According to Hess, "he is wrong." End of story.

    Hess then switches gears and talks mostly about whether *evolution* and religion are compatible. I'd like it better if people like Hess and his theist allies would concede that the "fringe" group of "ardent atheists" are mounting a serious challenge to all religions.

    A challenge, BTW, that is having considerable success in other countries. Richard Dawkins is British and he's hardly on the "fringe" in his own country.

    ReplyDelete
  15. I must admit that I quite like the sound of Josh Rosenua's measured and unruffled tone. We need a few cool heads around on all sides of the debate.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Frank says,

    Besides your list, I'd give even more pride of place to South Africa for Mandela and Tutu. Dunno what to do with the Dalai Lama.

    What about America? Who are the big names in American moral leadership that make the USA one of the moral leaders in the world?

    Imagine that we were to take a poll of the citizens in other countries. Would a majority agree with the claim that America is a moral leader in the world?

    ReplyDelete
  17. "they act like the only battle going on is between people who accept evolution and those who don't."

    NCSE's mission, the mission Peter's article is meant to serve, is to defend the teaching of evolution. The wars between theism and atheism are not his wars, and are not NCSE's wars. Why should he and NCSE in general not advocate for our issue?

    "I'd like it better if people like Hess and his theist allies would concede that the 'fringe' group of 'ardent atheists' are mounting a serious challenge to all religions."

    I think he did acknowledge that atheists occupy a vocal position in contraposition to that of fundamentalists, and atheists' rejection of theism is fairly definitional.

    Furthermore, I'd like it if John West's letter weren't an absurdly dishonest piece of tripe, but it was, and that's what Peter was responding to. How is your point germane to the topic Peter chose, or to West's piece (to which he was replying)?

    For what it's worth, I think Peter enjoys Dawkins' work, including his lines about the unpleasantness of the Old Testament God. I think you'd find him much to be a friend and an ally if you met him at a bar, or explored what he does and what he thinks.

    Your points in this last comment are surely valid, and one could certainly write a piece for On Faith based on those themes. Peter wrote a different piece, and it's hardly fair to criticize someone for not writing what you would have written.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Since religion is a major obstacle to accepting science for a large number of Americans, it doesn't seem unreasonable for the NCSE to have a division concentrating on that issue. We the faithless don't need such outreach.

    Perhaps the conflict between the militants and the accomodationists involves what is meant by "science". As a body of knowledge it does not pose a threat to suitably accommodating religions, and can thus be safely taught to children. As a way of thinking it does tend to be subversive of faith, but so far, unfortunately, it hasn't proven to be particularly contagious, at least in the U.S.

    I agree with Coyne that the NAS has no business asserting that science and religion are compatible, but the NCSE has a different mission, and needs to be able to state that the teachings of science and religion need not be in conflict.

    ReplyDelete
  19. Besides your list, I'd give even more pride of place to South Africa for Mandela and Tutu.

    I think Mandela retired a while ago. Does South Africa have a leader now who does not deny that HIV causes AIDS?

    ReplyDelete
  20. Larry said:
    Who are the big names in American moral leadership that make the USA one of the moral leaders in the world?

    Nations are not moral leaders. Nations are political organizations, and the morality of their policies, or lack thereof, is a product of a messy and amoral process. All nations, however, have individuals and groups who are moral leaders. Obviously this depends on one's definition of morality, but here are a few of my favorites from the U.S.:

    Environment: Denis Hayes, Aldo Leopold (dec), Rachel Carlson (dec), Al Gore
    Nonviolent political action: Martin Luther King (dec), Gene Sharp, Thomas Merton (dec),
    Politics: Jimmy Carter (after he left the Presidency), Saul Alinsky (dec), Leo Szilard (dec), Linus Pauling (dec)

    What's your list of Canadians, Larry?

    Bayesian Bouffant: Please check out Nelson Mandela's 46664 foundation to see what he says about HIV/AIDS:http://www.46664.com/News/what-does-nelson-mandela-say-about-hivaids-id=6301.aspx
    We should all be so retired at 91.

    Fortunately, Mbeki is out of office and Pres. Zumi endorses antiretroviral therapy.

    ReplyDelete
  21. "[B]ut the NCSE has a different mission, and needs to be able to state that the teachings of science and religion need not be in conflict."

    Oh, the teachings of science and the vast majority of religions are very much in conflict. In deistic religions the very miracles that identify the deity are of course events that have no natural scientific explanation, the more inexplicable the better.

    There are many in the general population, and a lesser proportion among scientists, who can accommodate the conflicting teachings within their personal belief systems ("Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself...," as Whitman wrote.)

    Should NCSE be saying anything at all to these folks about whether it is a good or bad thing to hold such self-contradictory beliefs? Personally, I'd say no - they ought to leave it alone.

    ReplyDelete
  22. Hi,

    We have just added your latest post "Sandwalk: On Faith and Science" to our Directory of Science . You can check the inclusion of the post here . We are delighted to invite you to submit all your future posts to the directory and get a huge base of visitors to your website.


    Warm Regards

    Scienz.info Team

    http://www.scienz.info

    ReplyDelete