Rockin' the Science-Religion Relationship

By Chris Mooney | April 30, 2009 9:02 am

After my last post–yes, I knew it would draw a lot of comment–I think it is perhaps necessary to follow up with some more thoughts on how I, an “atheist reconciliationist,” view the science-religion relationship. It’s a subject on which (let’s face it) there is much emotion and polemicism, but not nearly enough tolerance, calm discussion, or meeting of minds.

The first point to emphasize is that I don’t much care to comment on how people reconcile science and religion in their personal lives, and do not presume to judge whether this behavior is “rational.” Frankly, I don’t think any of us is so peerlessly rational that we ought to be sitting in judgment on others. To me, it’s enough to say that such “reconciliation” happens all the time, and I know and respect many people who are religious and yet fully accepting of evolution. They’re intelligent people (sometimes brilliant), they’re civil people (sometimes wonderful), and I’m glad they’re both in my life and on my side.

To me, then, the point about religion to remember today is that while many of its manifestations may remain in conflict with science (e.g., various fundamentalisms), others have matured into a form that does not require any contradiction of scientific knowledge. Take a man like John Haught, the Georgetown University Catholic theologian and prominent defender of evolution, who argues that had a camera been present at the scene of Christ’s rising from the dead, it would have recorded nothing. “We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable?” Haught has commented.

To me, if a guy like Haught wants to defend evolution, great–and I don’t care about the rest.  Would I myself believe in the Resurrection, or anything else for that matter, without any evidence that could be verified? No. I’m not constitutionally capable of making such a leap. Still, what Haught believes doesn’t hurt me, is none of my business, and he’s a powerful ally to have in defense of evolution.

Perhaps an analogy helps. I’m sure that, much like Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA principle, some will be inclined to poke holes in it (which won’t be hard to do), rather than recognizing a hopeful (if un-achieved) prescription for how science and religion ought to interrelate so that both can get along and coexist. Still, let’s try it out for a test run, recognizing that analogies aren’t perfect, but can still perhaps help our thinking.

Try, then, to think of the development of scientific knowledge as a long and quite wonderful piece of music. Let’s say, to simplify, that each new confirmed discovery represents a note, each new field a progression. Perhaps each movement from one note to the next represents our understanding of a “cause” in nature.

In this musical movement, science provides the bass line and the overarching theme–the song that we should all have in our heads. But then on top of that, it is possible to have one or many solos, belief-centered improvisations atop the theme that do not conflict with it. One type of solo would be atheism or agnosticism, but there are a vast myriad of creative religious solos as well.

If you don’t like the concept of solos, meanwhile, consider another analogy that I believe Kenneth Miller uses somewhere or other–dances. Picture that we’re all at a dance together, and science is the D.J. But then, everybody gets to dance his or her own tune that’s consistent with it.

In this context, the problem with anti-evolutionists–both young-Earth creationists and also intelligent design proponents–is that they can’t face the music. They literally attack the underlying theme, and their “solos” create dissonance with it. Their dances, meanwhile, cause them to knock over the loud speakers.

As for some atheists, well, they don’t want anybody else to have a solo. And when they’re dancing, they bump into others. Some act like they think it’s a mosh pit.

For these two groups there is, in a very real sense, a science-religion conflict. And there’s no denying there are quite a lot of members of both groups in the world today. But that doesn’t make the conflict itself necessary: We might instead argue that it simply makes them bad listeners–or bad dancers–who have the potential to spoil the party  for everybody else.

In the end, however, the battles just aren’t worth it. Everybody needs the underlying theme (science), and everybody needs the solo or dance (meaning). And when we all get off the floor–without conflict–there are a host of issues we should be getting together to work on.

Comments (59)

  1. Jon

    Take a man like John Haught, the Georgetown University Catholic theologian and prominent defender of evolution, who argues that had a camera been present at the scene of Christ’s rising from the dead, it would have recorded nothing.

    This is an interesting way to put it. I keep thinking of Terry Eagleton’s criticism about relying on “vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” Does the conversation really have to contain so much “red meat” (to borrow a phrase from politics)? I still think this Alternet post from a couple years ago says just about everything there is to say.

  2. Chad

    Another interesting conclusion can be drawn from the symphony analogy. When the bass line changes, when the theme moves on to the next movement, the solos must adjust. The solos can’t just ignore the base line. Alfred North Whitehead wrote:

    “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles maybe be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development. This evolution of religion is in the main a disengagement of its own proper ideas from the adventitious notions which have crept into it by reason of the expression of its own ideas in terms of the imaginative picture of the world entertained in previous ages…..If the religion is a sound expression of truth, this modification will only exhibit more adequately the exact point which is of importance. This process is a gain…”

    The solos of religion can be a beautiful thing, but they can’t be stuck in the prelude. Thanks for the post!

  3. Erasmussimo

    I very much like your dance analogy. Let me add a small extension: it is possible for any person to accuse any other person of intruding on his own rights by dancing in an “incorrect” manner. They might claim that the heretical dancer is messing up their own timing, that the heretical dancer is taking up too much floor space, etc. And there might be some truth to such accusations. But the fact is, we can’t really sharply define how much floor space an individual has a right to, or how egregiously out of time that person is allowed to be, so we live and let live so long as people don’t go “too far”.

    The hard-line atheists and the hard-line fundamentalists want to hog the floor for themselves. They can’t have it. Tough noogies, folks; learn to play well with others.

  4. Gerrit

    Aren’t religious people the people who are terrible at singing/dancing, but just don’t know it?
    Ofcourse, that doesn’t mean they can’t sing or dance, as long as they’re not bumping in to anyone, but we can all agree they’re just not doing it right. We can sing/dance with them if we feel like it, for fun, but not if we want to win any competition.

  5. Ivan

    I agree with almost all, but I think Science people, and with this I mean scientists, engineers and anybody that uses science to understand the world, were too pasive during too much time. The world is filled with stupid new cures, spiritual theories, etc., and it was like nobody with some scientific formation said anything, afraid of hurting somebody’s feelings or afraid of being attacked by fanatics. Dawkings, PZ Meyers and many others filled that vacuum and their sometimes strident voices are a neccesity, because the world needs strident voices to placate other strident voices. It is not polite, but it is how the world works. We need our hardcore critics to tell the naked facts. We wouldn’t use the same tone with family or friends that believe in something we think is nonsense, because we don’t want to hurt them, but it is recomforting to hear from brilliant professionals that we have a point, and that when we have to take a decisition, like vaccinate our children or seek a doctor, we are in the rigth path.

  6. That’s a thoughtful piece and I do like the dance analogy. I am not telling other people what to believe but to me, someone who believes in evolution and at the same time sustains belief in a lot of religious facts that potentially can be probed and are not supported by natural laws and principles is engaging in a schizophrenic dance of compartmentalization, and I don’t say this with any disrespect whatsoever. It’s more or less a fact.

    It is a fascinating question for psychologists and neuroscientists how people can sustain two very different belief systems in the same brain, one where only the most rigorous skeptical standards of evidence are applied, and another where skepticism and questioning are positively suspended. Hopefully one day we will have answer to this question.

    As Carl Sagan put it, “I am not going to tell people what to believe in, but believing in something without evidence cannot be encouraged”

    I definitely think we need the support of moderate religious people who believe in evolution, but we also cannot willfully ignore a spade when it’s clearly one.

  7. Erasmussimo

    What business do any of us having telling somebody else whether they are dancing “correctly”? If somebody wants to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, that’s their own damn business and nobody has any justification to challenge them. If those people come over to me and try to tell me how to dance, I’ll tell them to buzz off, and I would expect them to respond in exactly the same way were I to do the reverse.

    So let’s be clear: the only significance of personal belief comes when we’re talking about politics. If Fred Fundamentalist wants to teach creationism in school, that’s his business. We have an election and we decide democratically what will be taught in school. If Arthur Atheist wants to eliminate all references to religion in public places, he’s welcome to his opinion but he needs to get the votes to pull it off.

    What I object to is the dogmatic belief that “We’re right, they’re wrong, and so things should go our way.” I happen to agree that we *are* right and they *are* wrong, but I reject the conclusion that we can bring that claim to bear in a democratic system. They’re just as certain that they’re right. Unless we want to settle this with guns, we’ll just have to work it out with them.

  8. My problem with religion – and anything which talks about the ‘supernatural’ – is that it assumes that some things are ‘unknowable’. (That’s what ‘supernatural’ means – consider that as soon as we have an explanation for something, e.g. lightning, it’s not supernatural anymore.) But as pithily expressed on Dr. Who – “To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable; only unexplained.”

    If we’re going with your analogy, D.J. Science changes up the music periodically, bringing out new ‘genres’ (paradigms or theories). People who confidently thought ‘the D.J. won’t go there’ (‘science could never explain X’) often end up dancing to the old tune, taking a long time to catch up, and bonking into other people. (E.g. the Catholic church and heliocentrism, creationists and evolution.)

    Not all the religious are this way – but a tendency to think that things are ‘unknowable’ and ‘Forever Beyond Human Ken’ is a major risk factor.

  9. Chad

    Curious Psi:

    I agree. Science has something to say about walking on water and people rising from the dead. Religion and science in this arena are not non-overlapping magesteria. I am Catholic, but except a fully natural explanation for everything that happens in this universe. Can I still be religious, much less Catholic, and believe that the resurrection and other miracles have scientific enlightenment style explanations? Jesus was in shallow water, people shared their bread and fish and that was the miracle, etc.? I will be starting my graduate work in the history and philosophy of science this fall, hopefully to help me answer these questions (or at least ask the right questions).

    The dance for people who are simultaneously scientific and religious is a complicated one filled with tension, doubt, and constant checking of one’s feet to make sure you are still keeping time. While we need to fight the good fight for science’s sake, we must still be patient with those who are learning to move their feet.

  10. Jon

    Dawkings, PZ Meyers and many others filled that vacuum and their sometimes strident voices are a neccesity, because the world needs strident voices to placate other strident voices.

    I agree with this. I think part of the problem is the lack of public intellectual voices period.

    This is from the academic paper I linked to yesterday, “Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency: A Republican Populism, (pdf)” which is about the rise of George W. Bush and what happened historically to make it come about:

    The political use of anti-intellectualism is not entirely the product of institutional structure, changing electoral demographics, plebiscitary politics, or American culture. It would be remiss to neglect the role intellectuals have played in this evolving drama. The professionalization and expansion of the academy has altered common opinions about intellectualism in the United States. Academics now engage in technical dialogues within their disciplines that have grown increasingly specialized and esoteric. This detachment has changed how Americans perceive intellectual life. Decades ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote for academic historians and the average citizen interested in history. Now that academic careers depend more on peer recognition and engagement with the literature of a specific discipline, the likelihood of widespread societal influence has diminished. By reinforcing the perception of a separated ivory tower elite, the disengagement of American intellectuals encourages political accusations of irrelevance.

    Public intellectuals like we used to have back in the day are now an endangered species. Maybe there’s getting to be a real demand for them again, though. It’s interesting that this book sold out after this 6 minute review on NPR recently.

  11. Jon

    Dawkings, PZ Meyers and many others filled that vacuum and their sometimes strident voices are a neccesity, because the world needs strident voices to placate other strident voices.

    I agree with this. I think part of the problem is the lack of public intellectual voices period.

    This is from the academic paper I linked to yesterday, “Anti-Intellectualism in the Modern Presidency: A Republican Populism, (pdf)” which is about the rise of George W. Bush and what happened historically to make it come about:

    The political use of anti-intellectualism is not entirely the product of institutional structure, changing electoral demographics, plebiscitary politics, or American culture. It would be remiss to neglect the role intellectuals have played in this evolving drama. The professionalization and expansion of the academy has altered common opinions about intellectualism in the United States. Academics now engage in technical dialogues within their disciplines that have grown increasingly specialized and esoteric. This detachment has changed how Americans perceive intellectual life. Decades ago, Richard Hofstadter wrote for academic historians and the average citizen interested in history. Now that academic careers depend more on peer recognition and engagement with the literature of a specific discipline, the likelihood of widespread societal influence has diminished. By reinforcing the perception of a separated ivory tower elite, the disengagement of American intellectuals encourages political accusations of irrelevance.

    Public intellectuals like we used to have back in the day are now an endangered species. Maybe there’s getting to be a real demand for them again, though. It’s interesting that this book sold out after this 6 minute review on NPR recently.

  12. Brast

    At its most basic, science is simply a hypothesis -> experiment -> observation -> interpretation cycle. Its intention is to understand the laws and mechanics that govern the universe. As you noted, religeon addresses the meaning of the universe. Conflicts exist when science tries to provide meaning to others and people use religeon to determine physical laws and mechanisms of the universe.

    I do not like the analogies in this article in they set up “science” as an underlying theme to which everyone must conform. The analogies set up science as its own religeon and one truth of the universe while everything else is just the flavor of individuals (as long as it does not disagree with science, anyone can believe what they want). Science is not a lifestyle or a belief, it is a set of experiments and observations. Do not take it farther than it really is. Likewise, if you take religeous beliefs and make conclusions that do not agree scientific observations, it requires some reflection on whether you took a religeon to perform science.

    I believe there is a God and He created the universe. What mechanisms did he use to do this? He left us clues to these mechanisms throughout the universe and we currently investigate these through the scientific method. The existance of God does not preclude the use of physical laws to carry out His design. And the existance of physical laws does not provide meaning, purpose, and hope to the lives of people.

  13. Aidan

    That’s actually quite a nice analogy. I tend to agree with Wavefunction as to how so many disparate thoughts can co-exist without some serious dissonance (fitting with the analogy well, of course).

    I think what people like Dawkins fail to understand (and causes them no small pains) is that people simply aren’t rational about a great many things in their lives, their core beliefs being one of them. Most people simply can’t rationally assess what they believe, they simply do. They could solve a math equation if prompted, or consider a syllogism, but to utilize hard logic on a thing as abstract as God, strikes many as just plain difficult, if not impossible. So for them there’s no reason to not believe in things that in terms of logical necessity, defy one another – they simply believe both.

  14. Lindsay

    The analogy works better than anything I’ve read or considered about this topic in a looooong time. I’m sure it’s been said before, but the debate/discussion has come to head for a number of reasons, and one of the biggest problems seems to be that fundamentalists on both sides refuse to budge when they could be more gracious. Our 24/7 media world only picks up sound-bytes from the likes of Dawkins or (insert equivalent-religious-fundie-of-choice here), so as the public faces of each side, their views are the ones we hear about most often. Trouble is, they’re badly misrepresenting what a majority of people actually believe. The stuff they say is conversation ending, not stimulating. No wonder people think religion and science are irreconcilable!

    If more people learned to play their parts with ease and grace, allowing for other soloists to harmonize with them or take over the line when they’re out of breath… if more people danced without flailing… well, frankly, I think the world would be a much better place. At least the debates would be fun again!

  15. …someone who believes in evolution and at the same time sustains belief in a lot of religious facts that potentially can be probed and are not supported by natural laws and principles is engaging in a schizophrenic dance of compartmentalization, and I don’t say this with any disrespect whatsoever. It’s more or less a fact.

    Why must you insist upon framing it in such a negative and disrespectful manner? If you don’t intend disrespect, why portray it that way?

    It doesn’t have to be a matter of compartmentalization and what you call “schizophrenia” (i.e. some form of insanity). It’s the ability to recognize that there are more forms of knowledge than scientific knowledge, and there are more forms of meaning than drawing conclusions that are based on scientifically verified and verifiable evidence. It doesn’t have to be compartmentalization and denial in part of one’s life, it’s simply having a broader perspective about what human thought is.

    And you do it too, even if you aren’t religious. I simply cannot believe that anybody, no matter how hardcore of an atheist, takes no meaning from anything other than purely scientific verified knowledge. Do you find some things pleasing? Do you love somebody? Do you admire the beauty of a flower or of a work of art? Do you get chills when listening to your favorite work of music? Do you have a sense of purpose in your life? Do you have goals, dreams, hopes? And, how many of those things are based on a rigorous application of the scientific method?

    I’m not saying all those things are the same as religion. I am saying, however, that when you assert that the only knowledge that there is, that the only things worth ascribing meaning to, are the things that can be scientifically verified, you are narrowing your field of view on what it means to be human an AWFUL lot. Even if you’re not religious, I seriously doubt you live your life as if there were nothing to humanity other than the highly complex quantum-clockwork automatons that, scientifically, we may well be. Even science itself isn’t always so reductionist, and can describe emergent properties that happen when you get to higher levels of complexity and in larger systems. (Where in the Standard Model of particle physics is viscosity? pressure?) And, even if we believe or suspect that somehow, in principle, science might be able to explain everything we do in our lives, we don’t really live our lives that way, any more than we talk about PdV work done by a gas with Feynman diagrams of each and every fundamental particle.

  16. “To the rational mind, nothing is inexplicable; only unexplained.”

    Incidentally, this was Einstein’s real greatest blunder. He went to his grave believing that Quantum Mechanics couldn’t be right, ultimately because it contained things that were inexplicable, unknowable. Now, of course, to state it that way is dangerous, because it invites all sorts of nonsense like “What the do we know?” However, before Quantum Mechanics, we had this idea of a true clockwork Universe, where, given perfect knowledge, you could make perfect predictions about the future. Quantum Mechanics threw a wrench in that. Now, it didn’t throw out predictions altogether. However, it turned perfect predictions about individual particle trajectories through spacetime into perfect predictions about the probabilities of particle paths. This is philosophically disturbing to many, including Einstein. There are experiments that have shown that Quantum Mechanics really works, and that there are no “hidden variables”– there really are some things that are fundamentally unknowable. E.g. if an electron has spin +1/2 X-direction, what will the spin be when I measure it in the Z-direction? Quantum mechanics tells us that we have a 50% chance of measuring +1/2 and 50% chance of measuring -1/2, and experiments have shown that that probabilistic prediction is perfect.

    We could probably get mired in a semantic argument here, but there is something inexplicable here. Why did *that* electron go to Z=+1/2 while the other one went to Z=-1/2? There is no answer. The answer is that it’s random.

  17. jake

    Rob Knop said: “And, how many of those things are based on a rigorous application of the scientific method?”

    But they could be, all of those things could be put to the test.

  18. Mark

    Dawkings, PZ Meyers and many others filled that vacuum and their sometimes strident voices are a neccesity, because the world needs strident voices to placate other strident voices.

    While I see the merit in what Dawkins, Meyers, and others have done, I do no agree that strident voices placate other strident voices. All too often, strident voices on both sides get ever louder in a spiraling escalation of polarization.

  19. Jon

    I agree it’s tricky, Mark. Controversy sells, gets attention, but it’s no substitute for actually thinking about what you’re arguing. Someone like Christopher Hitchens is just a professional polemicist, and he’s good at it, but he’s dead wrong half the time. But yet he keeps on as if he’s never made a mistake. A lot of times we need more light, less heat. I think that’s true with the “new atheists”…

  20. NewEnglandBob

    Chris, your analogy is idiotic nonsense. You have written several dumb articles recently. Keep it up and I and probably many others will not return.

  21. How refreshing to read your post. I was tempted to leap-frog right over the piece when I read the title. My stomach tightened up a bit. Post traumatic stress from years of reading visceral online debates on this topic? Thank you for your thoughtful approach. (I, too, like the dance analogy.)

  22. mk

    @Chris…

    This post is pretty much uncontroversial. Even Myers and Dawkins do not argue that religious people can and do understand and argue for evolution. And that they are welcome. Very nice of you to point out the obvious, though.

    But this all started with your post criticizing Jerry Coyne’s post about scientific organizations going too far to placate the religious. His bottom line in that post was not that these organizations should adopt a more atheistic stance, but that they should remain neutral.

    You called this “misguided”, “absurd and “naive”. Even Richard Hoppe , whom you cite in your piece has relized his error in this:

    “In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think – in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others – that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.

    So yeah, I was wrong to overstate my case. Sorry, folks.”

    Also, in your first post you said these words: “Is Coyne not himself making an explicitly philosophical move here, by saying that evolution must be understood in an exclusively naturalistic/materialistic way?”

    To which another commenter said:
    “Chris.
    Understanding any aspect of the natural world in an exclusively naturalistic/materialistic way is a process we like to call SCIENCE.
    Understanding it in a supernatural way is done by RELIGION.”

    You did not address any of this. And you don’t here. Here you are just restating something everyone already knows, that you want to get along better with religious folks. And that’s very nice. But at least be willing to admit that maybe you were wrong in some aspect of that original post. Don’t be so stubborn regarding this beef you have with PZ or Coyne or whomever… it isn’t very becoming of you.

  23. Rob Knopf, I am NOT trying to be disrespectful. I am just saying that a brain that accepts certain things without evidence and insists on evidence for others is at the very least a curious phenomenon. All our brains are this way to some extent; religion just adds to the curious discrepancy. When I said schizophrenic I certainly did not mean insane, I simply meant disconnected and in some ways contradictory.

    I think we all need to understand that the major purpose of Dawkins, Myers is not really to “convert” religious people. At least Dawkins has been saying this for a long time. The major purpose of the Dawkins book was to jolt atheists into being more bold.

    And I can answer your question about being in love, having dreams and especially about feeling a chill when listening to music since I play the piano. Sure, Beethoven’s 9th, Mahler’s 6th or Mozart’s 41st move me tremendously and in inexcplicable ways. But at NO time have I assumed that this effect can be explained by anything else other than the laws of physics and chemistry operating in my brain. Most importantly, that knowledge NEVER subtracts from the beauty of these pieces, it only adds a completely new layer of grandeur. The beauty of a flower is as accessible to me as it is to an artists but in addition I can also admire beauty at a different level, at the level of the molecules and atoms that compose the color and smell. There is a whole different degree of beauty in knowing that at the level of atoms the visible range of colors becomes meaningless.

    I don’t see how, if there’s a scientific explanation for something, it loses its beauty. In fact if anything it adds tremendously to it and shows us how much and how deeply we are connected to the rest of the cosmos. There is great humility in this view of life.

  24. I also want to note that people like postmodernists have made careers in applying strictly scientific concepts to the human world. The Uncertainty Principle and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem does not mean “everything is uncertain”. One talks about two strictly physical quantities, the other talks about strictly defined abstract formal systems.

    Quantum mechanics is indeed spectacularly correct and we have to accept its conclusion that there is knowledge fundamentally beyond our reach. However, this is a scientific statement. To attach to it trappings of philosophy, sociology and postmodernist hues can become deeply unscientific. One can of course find intrigue in doing it and find many interesting analogies, but read too much and one ends up writing “The Tao of Physics”, an interesting book but pretty much an unscientific one (Note that nobody is claiming that because something is not science it’s bad, but it’s still unscientific)

  25. Rob – QM isn’t ‘unknowable’ in the sense we’re talking about here. For example, it’s not so much that ‘you can’t know a particle’s position and velocity at the same time’ so much as ‘a simultaneously defined velocity and position for a particle doesn’t exist‘. It’s no fault not to know about something that doesn’t exist.

    QM is counterintuitive. It’s difficult to understand. It’s not fully understood. None of that means that it’s incomprehensible.

    How do you distinguish between something ‘currently unknown but comprehensible’ and something ‘forever unknowable’? From a practical perspective, the only way to tell is to try to understand it; if you succeed, then it was knowable. The problem is, if you fail, you can’t conclude that it’s unknowable. It might be… but it also might be the case that you just didn’t happen to figure out something knowable, and you or someone else might have better luck on a subsequent attempt.

    What does the concept of ‘unknowable’ add, in practice? If you decide that something is fundamentally incomprehensible, you will stop trying to understand it. Richard Feynman once joked that “You don’t understand Quantum Mechanics, you just get used to it,” but he never stopped trying to advance understanding of QM, despite how counterintuitive it is.

  26. Davo

    “We have an election and we decide democratically what will be taught in school”

    Erasmussimo, that’s absurd. Science cannot be a democratic process (although for reasons of pragmatism it often ends up that way) and subject to popular public opinion. Otherwise we would already be banning evolution in the country since most laypeople deny it or have doubts about it. I don’t care if 90% of the public thinks evolution is bunk and only scientists trust it through mountains of evidence. It’s still incorrect to oppose it in schools because it is true.

  27. Erasmussimo

    Davo, if you want to pay for the schools out of your own pocket, you’re welcome to call the shots. But we’re talking about public education funded by public taxes. Are you seriously claiming that scientists should have dictatorial powers in curricula?

  28. wow...

    Wow, that’s a lot of comments in the past couple hours. :)

    I really like the analogies. As a religious person who thinks evolution is very well proven, it’s nice not to be lumped in with the “religious nuts”. There *are* a lot of religious scientists — by some counts, 40% of American scientists.

    That being said, I think the unfortunate lumping of Creationism with ID is rather unfair, especially to the ID people. (Not all of them are subversive religious fanatics.) One atheist philosophers, for example, see great value in discussing issues like ID in science classes…. I think he makes some very good points on his blog:
    http://bradleymonton.wordpress.com/2009/04/21/positive-feedback-from-atheists/
    http://bradleymonton.wordpress.com/2009/03/29/hitchens-on-teaching-intelligent-design/

  29. mk

    @Erasmussimo…

    Is teaching 1+1=2 “dictatorial?” Is teaching that the earth orbits the sun–rather than vice versa–“dictatorial?”

  30. Erasmussimo

    mk, yes, teaching the truth is dictatorial if the people paying the bill don’t want the truth taught. The problem here lies in the perception of truth. You and I hold truth to be scientific, but there are citizens who hold that truth resides in the Bible. You and I think that they are wrong; they think that we are wrong. So, if you want to impose your version of truth on them, you’re going to have to use guns. I prefer democratic methods. Sure, they might not yield correct results, but at least we don’t end up killing each other.

  31. mk

    Oh god… you’re one of those. Nevermind.

  32. Erasmussimo

    Oh, I’m not merely “one” of “those”, I am a Third-Level High Priest of the Grand and Secret Order of “Those”. ;-)

  33. Davo

    According to your assessment then, teaching any kind of pseudoscience is not just ok, but it should be perceived as the truth if the majority of people think it makes sense. I wonder whatever happened to objective standards of truth and honesty. I guess creationism should be taught in science classes after all then since so many laypeople think it’s ok, and religious version of the Biblical “truth” should be respected as much as scientific truth.

  34. Erasmussimo

    Davo, our problem concerns politics, not science. How is a society to resolve a difference of opinion regarding policy? It’s not enough to simply insist “We’re right, you’re wrong” because the other side feels just as strongly the other way. You can insist until you’re blue in the face, but they’re going to insist just as long and loudly. So, how do you resolve the difference of opinion? With guns or with votes?

  35. Erasmussimo, that’s a good question, and of course education is one of the cardinal answers. But good education should teach skepticism, questioning and wonder at the natural world. Sadly such education even if it exists is often trumped by early religious indoctrination by parents. One of the messages that needs to be driven home is that it is very much possible to bring up a moral and kind atheist child. Often the child unfairly inherits his parents’ religion before he or she has a choice to decide.

    I shirk the side of both the accommodationists as well as the Dawkins group. Not because I think both of them are wrong but because both of them are right in a way. Different people need to be dealt with in a different manner. Yet there is some territory that can be ceded (to deists for instance) and other that simply cannot (to young earth creationists for instance). Both appeasement and blanket aggression are not going to work.

  36. Gerrit

    Davo said:

    “It’s not enough to simply insist “We’re right, you’re wrong” because the other side feels just as strongly the other way.”

    Aren”t you forgetting a little thing called evidence? Some people are pretty sure they’re Napoleon, that doesn’t mean we should let them run around conquering the world.

  37. Jon Winsor

    What Rob Knop said. I think you just have to appreciate that there are lots of premises you can you can operate with and not contradict empirical science. Again, I keep saying it, but a great essay to read is Isaiah Berlin’s *The Divorce Between the Sciences and the Humanities*.

  38. Jon Winsor

    Here’s a PDF of the full essay that I found online:

    http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/published_works/ac/divorce.pdf

  39. Davo

    I did not say that, it was Erasmus. I do agree with you. Evidence should be given a degree of importance.

  40. Erasmussimo

    Gerritt, you are making the same mistake that Davo and mk make: confusing your own thinking process with the political decision-making process. Yes, we should all take the evidence into account. We should all be rational and reasonable. But what do you, the rational person, do when other citizens refuse to be rational? Do you disenfranchise them because they aren’t rational? Are you proposing that we dump democracy for an aristocracy of intellectuals?

  41. Rick Ryals

    Speaking of rocking, Rob Knop is off his rocker and coming from a physicist, his statements through me for such a loop that I had to check to make sure that I hadn’t lost my mind.

    False statement number 1) Hidden variables have never been disproved. In fact, G ‘t hooft has the most recent version:

    Quantum Gravity as a Dissipative Deterministic System
    http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/9903084

    Determinism beneath Quantum Mechanics
    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0212095

    The mathematical basis for deterministic quantum mechanics
    http://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0604008

    2) Einstein might still be right for all Rob knows for certain, and hidden variables do not mean that QM is wrong.

    False factual statements like Knops are highly indicative of the kind of loose yet righteous thinking that permeates the field of theoretical physics these days, and this kind of weak minded approach would not have been tolerated 30 years ago when these string freaks first came on the scene.

  42. Rick Ryals

    “threw” me for a loop, I mean…

  43. E, I don’t think we are talking about politically disenfranchising people. But that does not mean that we keep on pushing the evidence and emphasizing that there are at least some things in the universe that are “right”.

    I think one way to do this is to appeal to the logic that even a lot of religious people use in their daily lives to deduce things. Einstein said that all of science is really a refinement of everyday thinking, and I think his point hits the nail on the head. Tell a religious person that his wife is cheating on him, and he will demand evidence to accept it, but tell him about the virgin birth and he will shirk evidence in a heartbeat.

    We need to convince the religious that science really is nothing more than a refinement and rigorous application of the logic and evidence-based thinking that all of us, religious and non-religious, use everyday in so many aspects of our daily life in the simplest ways.

  44. Sorry, I meant to say “that STILL means that we keep on pushing the evidence and emphasizing that there are at least some things in the universe that are ‘right’ “

  45. mk

    Oh that has got to be one of the better remarks of the day. Heh-heh… now teaching facts is disenfranchising people. Love it!

  46. Erasmussimo

    “We need to convince the religious that science ”

    Ah, the magic words: “need to convince”. That’s the way we solve political differences in a civilized nation. Of course, there will always be those who cannot be convinced, and we must respect their political rights even as we reject their thinking.

  47. Jon

    There’s the politics and there’s the epistemology. I think it helps to be aware of both, but they shouldn’t be treated the same.

    I think as you run into different epistemologies (an ivory tower word, that tends to live in ivory towers) you’re going to disagree with a lot of them, but you at least come to respect the difficulties of the questions, and you come to respect the merits of certain arguments you may disagree with. You can disagree, but not regard the people you disagree with as mouth breathers.

    Then there’s the politics, which is removed even from this. Some of the people you disagree with may well be mouth breathers. But you still have to win elections, hearts and minds, etc., to get what you want in a just society. Here’s a couple of my favorite blog posts that deal with this:

    http://tpmcafe.talkingpointsmemo.com/2008/05/27/overcoming_the_spite_vote/

    http://www.ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2008083311/wickedness-part-v

  48. That’s fine. Nobody here is saying that we should force people to listen to something against their will. If parents don’t want to send their children to schools because creationism is not taught as an alternative in science classes, it’s their decision. But we should not shirk from calling their decision foolish, misguided, insane or a combination thereof. And of course it does not mean we should teach creationism to “respect” the “diversity”. Respecting views that are clearly based on personal belief is not the same as giving equal time and credence to those views when it comes to serious public and education policy, and it certainly does not mean not calling a spade a spade. The “Be gentle” maxim has been adopted for years now, and it has only made the other side more shrill and demanding. We don’t need to choose the exact words of the Dawkins-Myers position, but we should still stand shoulder to shoulder with them and make it clear where we stand.

  49. Jon

    Yeah, when I said epistemologies, I meant ones you can defend. Creationism doesn’t make the cut.

  50. Jon

    The alarming thing is when the right tries hard selling things that wouldn’t be accepted in the academy through institutions that are based on ideology instead of real merit.

  51. Erasmussimo

    I heartily agree that we should make our case as best we can. But let us not allow anger or tribalism to compromise our effectiveness. Insults don’t work. Treating those who disagree with us as “the other” only makes them perceive us as “the other”.

  52. MartyM

    Brast says:
    _”At its most basic, science is simply a hypothesis -> experiment -> observation -> interpretation cycle. Its intention is to understand the laws and mechanics that govern the universe. As you noted, religeon addresses the meaning of the universe. Conflicts exist when science tries to provide meaning to others and people use religeon to determine physical laws and mechanisms of the universe.

    I do not like the analogies in this article in they set up “science” as an underlying theme to which everyone must conform. The analogies set up science as its own religeon and one truth of the universe while everything else is just the flavor of individuals (as long as it does not disagree with science, anyone can believe what they want). “_

    First of all, I think you have the method incorrect. The typical idea of the scientific method is to observe first. I think this flow is more common: observe -> hypothesis -> predict -> experiment. Your flow doesn’t make sense to me; i.e. how can you hypothesize before observing? And if by observing you mean the results of the experiment, then that’s what the interpretation step should represent.

    Second, in the sense of basic science, how is there _not_ only one truth that applies to everyone. Do people in Thailand adhere to different gravity, chemistry, or math? No. We all have to “conform” (given there really is no other option) to the “truth” of what science explains. This is not religion. I think the analogy is fairly good. While there is a key and tempo to the music, those who solo/dance in a different key/tempo are attempting to destroy the work of art, while those who don’t go on to create a masterpiece.

  53. Gerrit

    Sorry Davo, I was in a rush and copied the wrong name, I meant Erasmussimo of course.

  54. John Kwok

    Chris,

    I have heard, in the past few months, comments from the likes of Philip Kitcher, Ed Larson and Ronald Numbers, who contend that zealous militant atheists are being counterproductive by ridiculing those who are religiously devout, making it easier for creationists who insist that “belief in evolution EQUALS DENIAL OF GOD”. Most of them are themselves, like yourself, moderate atheists who believe it is possible to have some kind accomodation between faith and science.

    Just for the record, as far as I know, NCSE does not have an official position specifically in support of an “accomodation” between religion and science, contrary to what Coyne and Myers have contended.

    Regards,

    John

  55. Pi Guy

    MartyM says:
    “I think this flow is more common: observe -> hypothesis -> predict -> experiment. ”

    I totally agree. When I taught high school physics, I used to tell them that the *zero-th* step is “See some stuff.” and the *half-th* step is “See more stuff that reminds you of the stuff that you saw before.” Then, and only then, is a testable hypothesis – typically the first step in most cookie cutter scientific methods – formed.

    Overall, the issue here is this: is it reasonable to expect that we, the non-theist people who think evidence and rational thinking area good thing, are capable of making our case known without raising our voice? i dont’ believe that it’s possible at this point.

    Blessed are the meek? Well, then, there are a mess of unblessed loud-mouths on the side of the people of god. And it’s working for them as they clearly dominate the political and social landscape. Why should we think that standing up and meeting them with equal force is a bad thing? What evidence (uh, oh – am I allowed to use that word?) do we have that being passive and accommodating will make any dent in them at all?

  56. Jon

    Yes, sometimes it pays to be “meek” when you’re talking about things you don’t know much about:

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/god-talk/?em

    It can still be a productive conversation, but you can’t be surprised when people call you out for speaking outside of what you know…

  57. Jon

    I’m not saying I agree with everything Eagleton says, but he brings up questions that the New Atheists either don’t ask, or don’t think are that valuable.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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