The Truth Still Matters

By Sean Carroll | January 19, 2010 12:57 pm

Over at the Intersection, Chris Mooney is concerned that we haven’t had a science/religion tiff in what, days? So he wants to offer a defense of organizations like the National Center for Science Education, who choose to promote science by downplaying any conflicts between science and religion. For example, the NCSE sponsors a Faith Project, where you can be reassured that scientists aren’t nearly as godless as the newspapers would have you believe.

In the real world, scientists have different stances toward religion. Some of us think that science and religion are (for conventional definitions of science and religion) incompatible. Others find them perfectly consistent with each other. (It’s worth pointing out that “X is true” and “People exist who believe X is true” are not actually the same statement, despite what Chad and Chris and others would have you believe. I’ve tried to emphasize that distinction over and over, to little avail.)

In response to this situation, we uncompromising atheists have a typically strident and trouble-making idea: organizations that bill themselves as “centers for science education” and “associations for science” and “academies of science” should not take stances on matters of religion. Outlandish, I know. But we think that organizations dedicated to science should not wander off into theology, even with the best of intentions. Stick with talking about science, and everyone should be happy.

But they’re not happy; Chris and others (Josh Rosenau at Thoughts from Kansas is a thoughtful example) think that the NCSE can be more effective if it proactively tries to convince people that science and religion need not be incompatible. As an argument toward this conclusion, Chris attempts to horrify us by offering the following hypothetical conversation between a religious believer and an NCSE representative:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: As a policy, we only talk about science and to not take any stance on religion. So we couldn’t comment on that.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: All we can really tell you is that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology, and universally accepted within the scientific community.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: ….

To which I can only reply … um, yeah? That doesn’t seem very bad at all to me. Do we seriously want representatives of the NCSE saying “No, the claim that accepting evolution is the road to damnation is based on a misreading of Scripture and is pretty bad theology. If we go back to Saint Augustine, we see that the Church has a long tradition of…” Gag me with a spoon, as I understand the kids say these days.

Of course, we could also imagine something like this:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I’m afraid of what my pastor says–that accepting it is the road to damnation.

NCSE: Oh, don’t worry. There’s no such thing as “damnation,” your pastor has just been misleading you.

Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me.

NCSE: Well, that will happen. Prolonged exposure to scientific ways of thinking can lead people to abandon their religious beliefs. But don’t worry, you’ll be happier and have a more accurate view of how the universe works if that’s what happens.

Religious believer: And I’m worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we’re all nothing but matter in motion?

NCSE: That would be great! Because that’s what we are. But it’s not as depressing as you make it out to be; correctly understanding how the world works is the first step toward making the most out of life.

How awesome would that be? I don’t actually advocate this kind of dialogue in this particular context — as I just said, I think science organizations should simply steer clear. But these answers have a considerable benefit, in that I think they’re “true.”

That’s the major point. Advocacy and educational organizations have the goal of supporting science and education the best way they can, but there are limits. For example, they should stick to the truth. I tried to make this point in my post about politicians and critics — some people have as their primary goal advocating for some sort of cause, whereas others are simply devoted to the truth. But an organization advocating for science needs to take both into consideration.

And there are some scientists — quite a few of us, actually — who straightforwardly believe that science and religion are incompatible. There are absolutely those who disagree, no doubt about that. But establishing the truth is a prior question to performing honest and effective advocacy, not one we can simply brush under the rug when it’s inconvenient or doesn’t make for the best sales pitch. Which is why it’s worth going over these tiresome science/religion debates over and over, even in the face of repeated blatant misrepresentation of one’s views. If science and religion are truly incompatible, then it would be dishonest and irresponsible to pretend otherwise, even if doing so would soothe a few worried souls. And if you want to argue that science and religion are actually compatible (not just that there exist people who think so), by all means make that argument — it’s a worthy discussion to have. But it’s simply wrong to take the stance that it doesn’t matter whether science and religion are compatible, we still need to pretend they are so as not to hurt people’s feelings. That’s not being honest.

I have no problem with the NCSE or any other organization pointing out that there exist scientists who are religious. That’s an uncontroversial statement of fact. But I have a big problem with them making statements about whether religious belief puts you into conflict with science (or vice-versa), or setting up “Faith Projects,” or generally taking politically advantageous sides on issues that aren’t strictly scientific. And explaining to people where their pastors went wrong when talking about damnation? No way.

Right now there is not a strong consensus within the scientific community about what the truth actually is vis-a-vis science and religion; I have my views, but sadly they’re not universally shared. So the strategy for the NCSE and other organizations should be obvious: just stay away. Stick to talking about science. Yes, that’s a strategy that may lose some potential converts (as it were). So be it! The reason why this battle is worth fighting in the first place is that we’re dedicated to promulgating the truth, not just to winning a few political skirmishes for their own sakes. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? (Mt. 16:26.)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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