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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Does the National Center for Science Education Deserve the Criticism It Receives?

By Michael De Dora
Recently while having dinner with a good friend, I touted that Eugenie Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, was rumored to be a speaker at an upcoming conference in New York City. My friend sighed, and lamented while repeating the name “Eugenie Scott …” as his voice trailed off. The ensuing conversation made clear to me that my friend did not have a favorable view of Scott and the NCSE and that he did not think the NCSE was helping the secular cause.
This is not uncommon in my experience. The NCSE — dedicated to promoting and defending the teaching of evolution in science curricula at the local, state, and national levels — is by its very nature controversial. One obvious source of opposition to its operations is hyper-religious Americans who reject evolutionary theory (but not the modern medical benefits derived from it, naturally!). But the NCSE also receives criticism from some secularists, like my friend. They charge that the organization too often promotes the idea that science and religion are compatible — in some instances by actively supporting liberal forms of religion. These two criticisms are in no way equal in merit. Evolutionary theory is on firm ground, and those who reject the science are simply wrong. But the second camp might have a point, and that is the topic of this essay.
This debate over NCSE’s handling of science and religion heated up recently after news that the NCSE is promoting an event that explicitly endorses liberal religion that accepts (most of) the findings of science. In response, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne charged that the NCSE has essentially become BioLogos, the Templeton Foundation-like outfit that tries to find, and spread word of, intellectual agreement between religion and science. I believe this bit of news also bothered my friend, along with a number of bloggers. This is not the first time Coyne or others have felt put off by the NCSE. So what gives?
It seems to me that the NCSE will always be in a tough spot. If they are truly interested in successfully defending science in classrooms nationwide, they will hardly be able to take a neutral approach to religion (even if that is in their stated mission). Some secularists are bothered by the NCSE working with religious groups that accept science, and by their active outreach to religious groups. Doesn’t promoting evolutionary acceptance to religious groups essentially equal promoting the compatibility of evolution and religion? Why reach out to religion? Yet, considering the NCSE’s enormous challenge, and their science-focused mission, they both must and can build wide support. As they note on their Web site:
“Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.”
Moreover, evolution acceptance is a major problem not in the faithless community, but in the faith-based one, so it seems understandable to direct attention there.
Still, reaching out to religious groups on evolution is categorically different from promoting or exclusively supporting liberal religion. It is one thing to work — under the assumption of (a flexible) neutrality — to form coalitions with, or educate, religious groups. It is quite another to actively encourage religious belief. This is stepping outside the bounds that reasonable secularists, willing to provide some wiggle room, might feel comfortable with. There is no rationale for the NCSE to do this. In fact, one could reasonably ask: if the NCSE is going to promote liberal religion and religionists, why not also promote pro-science atheism and atheists? As P.Z. Myers wrote in his more centered approach to the issue:
“The most glaring discrepancy in NCSE's current policy of so-called alliance-building is that atheists are left out; I presume their support is taken for granted. But I will note that some ditzy conference by Biologos-types gets front-page attention from the NCSE, while Richard Dawkins can tour the country giving talks on evolution (if anyone had been paying attention, they'd know that most of his talks are about science, not atheism) and be completely ignored. It's as if the biggest, most popular promoters of science in the world do not exist, simply because they aren't liberal Christians.”
Again, a large obstacle to the acceptance of evolution does stem from certain types of religious belief, and the NCSE should concentrate on that. But at the same time, why ignore pro-science atheists? To be sure, Myers is not calling for the NCSE to become an atheist organization. In fact, no one is. The NCSE should not promote either atheism or liberal religion. Rather, Myers is noting the unevenness with which the NCSE treats religion and non-religion.
Secularists like Myers have a reasonable case:
“As I've said before, said just above, am saying again, and will no doubt have to say a hundred times more, no one is asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization, and no one is saying that the NCSE shouldn't make strategic alliances with religious organizations. I'd put it in 72 point type if I thought it would help, but I doubt that anything will.” (emphasis in the original)
Working with religious groups on defending science in the classroom, or educating religious groups, is fine. But don’t promote or support religion, and then also ignore Richard Dawkins and others just because they are atheists. As Myers notes, the NCSE should openly work with everyone who shares the organization’s science-based mission — even if he or she is a public atheist — so long as the topic is science, not religion.
But while the NCSE deserves criticism, its secular detractors sometimes go too far. There are problems with the event that sparked this recent debate, but Coyne’s claim that the NSCE has become BioLogos is unfair. BioLogos and the NCSE are completely different organizations — in general mission and in their work — and I think secularists should clearly side with one over the other. Of course, I do not agree with the NCSE on every issue, but they are not even close to being BioLogos (yet).
Many secularists think the NCSE’s stated policy of neutrality itself is a sort of pro-religious stance. Yet a portion, or perhaps even the whole, of the NCSE’s stance on science’s inability to weigh in on religious claims stems from the position that science is empirical, evidence-based hypothesis forming and testing, and thus has epistemological limits. It can’t handle certain metaphysical and supernatural questions, though it can inform critical inquiry of some claims more than others. This is not a matter of promoting the compatibility of science and religion. It’s epistemic humility. Indeed, the NCSE does not say that religious belief is therefore reasonable (it doesn’t need to take the extra step; remember, it’s an organization dedicated to science). You might question Scott’s philosophy, but it would be disingenuous to charge that she is working for religious belief because she honestly (and I believe rightly) thinks science has epistemological limits.
This brings us back to the widespread sentiment in certain quarters that the NCSE is not really helping. I think that the NCSE is helping, but it is important to remember the NCSE is fighting one small battle within the larger war for rationality, reason, and science. The NCSE’s battle is a localized one, concentrating on science education. They are definitely helping there. The other battle is a much broader one, centered on irrationality and unreason wherever it is having influence. The NCSE plays a lesser, but still crucial, role there. This does not mean the NCSE should be sheltered from criticism. Critique is essential, and the NCSE should be listening.
But let’s also not try not to confuse the different scopes of our battles, or else we will lose the entire war. And let’s certainly not think that those who fight differently are automatically on the other side. It’s not true, and we can’t afford that.


  1. Michael, I think that the NCSE does fantastic work, and I agree that we are indebted to them for all that they have done to advocate for the teaching of science as it is. The school board of Kansas would surely not have corrected its policy on evolution had they not been there, and I am proud the way that they stood up to the Texans even in a loss that was predetermined.

    That being said, I agree with Coyne. They are in effect saying that science is not in conflict with certain religions (even though I believe that it is in conflict with all religions,) and I think in that they are endorsing those religions while denigrating others,
    Which they should not do.

    They should be neutral in regards to religion, tell people that science is as it is and that they need to figure out how to square the two but not with the assistance of the NCSE. I think that this assistance further confuses the issue for the people who are still trying to sort it all out.

  2. I worry that the NCSE will temper its criticisms of religious intrusions into science education to avoid offending its liberal religious allies. It should be about what the facts show whether or not the facts and inferences from those facts are compatible with particular religious perspectives.

    Although the NCSE may not be actively working for religious belief, I do find it a bit troubling that liberal religious sects can affiliate themselves with the NCSE and then use their loose affiliation to promote themselves as compatible with science.

  3. AtheistAttorney, are you posing some sort of trick question here? Because science does not explicitly rule out religious belief. It can't - epistemological limits, as discussed above. So why on Earth shouldn't liberal religious groups be able to say they are compatible with science, if they really are?

    And supporting the NCSE in furthering reality-based science education certainly seems like a good step for any religious organization.

  4. NCSE is not the only organization taking this tack. The Texas Freedom Network (TFN) does the same thing in order to battle creationism (and the far right in general) in Texas. Both foster religious views that support science, and neither directly affiliates with atheist organizations.

    I think it would be more productive to examine the necessity of this approach than to question the fairness of it. According to the latest Gallup Poll (http://bit.ly/fvC8qb), 40% of Americans are creationists and 38% accept some form of God-guided evolution. Only 16% accept evolution not guided by God.

    If you want to enlighten the public, do you take them from the bottom 40% straight to the top 16%? Or do you walk them through the middle understanding first? I think odds are far more in your favor if you work first to move the creationist-inclined camp first to the guided-evolution camp. It seems to me that if you do not do this, you are destined for failure. Since these organizations actually work to succeed, this is what they do. This is what they must do.

    I'm less sympathetic to the failure of these organizations to work more directly with atheist/agnostic organizations. However, I can rationalize this policy. These organizations work to reach people at the opposite ideological extreme. Were these organizations to have public affiliation and coordination with atheist groups, they would have more of a public relations problem with the religious camp than they already do. It would make it harder for them to do their job. I'm doubtful that the extra help gained by such alliances would sufficiently compensate.

    Consider for a moment whether an atheist organization would be willing to work with a group that affiliates and coordinates with the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis. These are organizations at the other extreme, organizations that creationists in that extreme find far more respectable. The tizzy atheists would throw is the same that many creationists would throw at NCSE's involvement with atheists.

    If we're going to achieve a rational America, we have to get their in small increments. I say we respect the increments that NCSE and like organizations pursue.

  5. On the other hand, I suspect that uproars like Coyne's and De Dora's help legitimatize NCSE for the religious, making NCSE more effective at its job. So keep at it! (Just don't withhold you're contributions!)

  6. In this blog, Massimo has emphasized the difference between science and philosophy. It's important, however, to note that both are part of the big picture of rationality: scientia. A group can devote itself specifically to science, but that doesn't mean they should be allowed to get away with claims that don't make rational sense, even if it takes a philosopher's eye to see that they don't make sense. Even if science and reason are not coextensive, science and philosophy blend into each other and have borderlands. The gray areas are becoming grayer all the time. The NCSE, or any other organization specifically devoted to science, must respond to philosophically-informed objections. In particular, the NCSE simply must not endorse these two claims:

    - Science and religion are not, generally, in conflict.
    - Acceptance of evolution does not generally work against religious faith.

    These claims are simply false. Whether we say that they're "scientific" or "philosophical," they are rational, and the NCSE must not make a business of spreading irrational ideas.

    The NCSE must avoid even making it seem like they endorse either of the above two positions. They may be a specifically scientific organization, but science is part of scientia, and it would be a shame if they betrayed scientia while they tried to get people to accept evolution.

  7. I used to work for NCSE but am in grad school now. Either way, blog comments are my own and not those of NCSE.

    Here were my basic replies to this line of argumentation when it made the rounds a few weeks ago via Coyne and PZ:

    Meh. Here's my comment in reply to RBH, it covers most of this. All I would add is:

    1. Neither this conference nor even BioLogos are specifically "promoting Christianity", at least not mainly. What they are doing, mainly, is promoting science to a Christian audience that often has problems with science. And bringing the Christians around to thinking of evolution like they think of chemistry or meteorology -- i.e., no big deal -- is crucial work, IMHO it's the most direct way to end this unnecessary battle over evolution once and for all. This is a longer discussion, but "let's get everyone to become atheists" is not a coherent or realistic strategy for improving science education, it's just an ideology and a rallying cry for the faithful (both atheist and theist).

    2. As was mentioned in the PT discussion, "evolution equates to atheism" is one of Eugenie Scott's three "pillars of creationism", i.e. one of the three absolute bedrock points of creationism that explain why people adopt creationism, why it's popular, why people fight evolution in person and in schools, and why this fight continues:


    And it's a false belief. Events that undermine this false belief = weakening creationism = worth promoting under NCSE's mission. Events that promote this false belief = helping creationism = not worth helping under NCSE's mission.

    (All IMHO, as some but apparently not all know I used to work at NCSE but do not now, and either way my comments on a blog would be my own and not officially those of NCSE.)

  8. Reply on RBH thread:
    Nick (Matzke) | December 1, 2010 9:49 PM | Edit

    He was in South America, he might be traveling. No reason to assume anything untoward, anyway, goodness knows I don’t keep up with the blog auto-emails from PT, and links or long posts or formatting code or a new user or whatever can shunt something to the owner-approval-required zone.

    That said, Coyne’s comments are off in several ways. (1) He quotes NCSE’s long-standing policy, but apparently doesn’t get it. NCSE has always worked with people with diverse religious positions towards the common goal of promoting evolution education. Coyne’s goal is promoting atheism. That’s fine, but it’s not NCSE’s goal – which is also fine: different organizations have different goals.

    (2) It just so happens that the people who currently most “need to get religion” when it comes to evolution are the religious people, particularly (in the U.S.) Christians (although New Age evolution weirdness is on the rise and in a few decades, who knows what the major problem will be). I agree that it makes raw political sense to work with people from across the religious spectrum, but even more important, in my view, is that (a) basically the main source of opposition to evolution is religious people who oppose evolution because they have the inaccurate idea that evolution = atheism, and (b) while informing people about just the science is necessary, it is not sufficient by itself, because the hugest block is emotional, fearful opposition to evolution. The science has no chance while the fear is there.

    (3) All that said, Coyne’s comments are inaccurate in another way, since the evolution problem is *really* not with “Christians” in general but with evangelicals. This conference NCSE linked to is substantially another liberal-moderate/mainline Christian affair, and there the evolution battle has long been won (mostly). Such events have limited impact over where it really needs to happen, in evangelical-land (although they have some).

    Ironically, BioLogos is the kind of organization that really *does* have a substantial chance of improving the situation amongst evangelicals, since it is by and for evangelicals. (Also ironically, the more BioLogos is attacked by atheists, the more cred it will have with evangelicals, so the Coynes of the world might end up helping out the accomodationists of the world in the end anyway!)

    So – NCSE isn’t becoming BioLogos, and neither is the conference that was announced, but it would probably be better if the conference that was announced was *more* like a BioLogos event!


    Posted by: nickmatzke.ncse Author Profile Page | December 5, 2010 8:37 PM

    PZ et al.,

    Basically, the whole argument we are having about this issue boils down to whether or not one agrees with this passage, *and* thinks that creationists should be opposed on their Standard Claim #2, or one thinks the creationists are right about this.

    Standard Creationist Claim 2: Evolution equates to atheism

    This claim is frequently used to imply that religious faith and acceptance of evolutionary science are incompatible. As has been shown again and again, it is fully possible to be religious and to accept the scientific evidence for evolution. Even so, this fear drives much of the opposition to evolution and is well-worth defusing, especially in local controversies. See the relevant section below for resources on this issue.

  9. One other post replying to the initial round:

    Posted by: nickmatzke.ncse Author Profile Page | December 6, 2010 2:43 AM

    Hi PZ -- it's too late at night to write a rebuttal to everything you've written in the comments, but please go back and have a look at it later. A lot of it is unfair and overwrought.

    Particularly since this all started over a mere NCSE post that basically said "FYI for those who are interested" about a meeting that included two of the expert witnesses for the plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller case (Kenneth Miller and Jack Haught) and various other well-known evolutionists who happen to be Christian and who (gasp!) want to talk about being both evolutionist and Christian at this meeting.

    Also, we are unlikely to be able to have a useful discussion about this if you are determined to construe what I am saying in the most simplistic way possible. E.g., with BioLogos -- can you bring yourself to admit any substantial differences between BioLogos and your typical evangelical organization? Ask yourself questions like:

    (a) Why was BioLogos founded?

    (b) Who do they primarily argue with and criticize?

    (c) Who is their primary intended audience?

    And, like I said before, and which you punted on, basically the fundamental questions that everyone involved in this argument has to decide on are:

    1. Is it true that one of the major reasons for the popularity and persistence and activism of creationism is the notion that accepting evolution means you have to give up your religion and become an atheist?

    1a. Is it true that this consideration is probably more important for most creationists or people on the fence than even the "scientific" arguments?

    2. Is this ubiquitous creationist claim correct?

    3. If it's not correct, should those concerned to promote evolution education (a) undermine this creationist claim, (b) be silent on it, or (c) encourage this creationist claim?

  10. Mistakes were made:

    I meant to say (in italics) that the two propositions were irrational, not that they were rational.

  11. It must be somewhat embarrassing to the NCSE when Francis Collins (by all accounts a poster boy for the compatibility of evolution and religion) claims that human morality (what he calls the Moral Law) is inscribed on our souls by God, and cannot be explained by evolution, either biological or cultural.

    Another problem is that evolutionary theory gets bogged down in teleology by way of God of the gaps assertions made by religious liberals.

    This just confuses people, leading them to think that evolution is (at least in part) goal-directed, when there is no evidence at all that it is.

  12. This recalls to mind the reason I rarely take the "science is compatible with religion" tack. When I do, it's usually just to point out that, for example, my atheism is not derived from or dependent on an acceptance of evolution.

    But really, I have to deal with the following:

    a) Evolution directly contradicts fairly basic fundamentalist ideas, as well as what a fairly large proportion of the population are told directly by religious leaders. Evolution, though clearly compatible with some conceptions of God, is also clearly and directly incompatible with the religious traditions followed by a large segment of American society.

    b) I have many many objections to religion, and science education, though it happens to be a subject I'm particularly interested in, strikes me as of moderate importance. In sort of a strict utility calculus sense, I'm not sure that it's appropriate to judge strategies like the NCSE's solely based on their big issue, without considering broader issues in society. Will acceptance of theistic evolution lead to religion becoming less fundamentalist in general, or will we see fundamentalism turn into fundamentalism minus creationism? I don't know. The latter case simply removes one weak point from an ideology which is still toxic.

    c) Assuming (as I think we all do to some degree) that promoting evolution requires reducing the number of fundamentalists generally, is it within the purview of a secular organization to tell those people where to go next? I can understand resisting evolution becoming a religion vs. atheism issue, but it's a bit different to point to liberal religious organizations to say "Those people have the right idea."

    On a personal level, I can say that pointing to some religious organization as being a viable alternative to atheism, just because I found them to be less wrong on some particular issue, would feel like a breach of personal integrity. It would be me, as an atheist, inserting myself into a theological conflict to say "Oh, those people are more right because they bother me less." It would be enabling people to keep a delusion that I don't think they should hold at all, using apologetics that I don't think add much of substance to the conversation. I'm not comfortable with being cynical in that way.

    Admittedly, I am not the NCSE, which is explicitly dedicated to this one issue and which has nothing explicitly atheist about it (except much of its membership). And it doesn't seem that unreasonable to simply mention supportive religious organizations. However, it seems like a fine line between doing so to show that "evolution and religion are not incompatible" and doing so to show that "Church X is more reasonable or rationally superior because they agree with us" or "Christianity is fine because it's compatible with evolution". The latter messages seem to be quite inappropriate for an ostensibly secular organization to spread, but inevitably it seems to be the message that is sent when fundamentalism is decried while liberal apologetics are portrayed as effective defenses.


  13. d) Evolution does, in fact, seem to contribute to many people's deconversions. I've heard several times from former creationists: "I thought, if they lied to me about that, what else were they lying to me about?" It's a bit peculiar that NCSE's strategy essentially requires them to act as if this never happens, instead focusing on all the case where people simply switch positions within Abrahamic religion. It does seem rather counterproductive that, if learning about evolution is a factor in leading someone away from God, that's implied to be an unreasonable proces or an expression of scientism in the NCSE's materials, as if they made the wrong choice by not instead moving towards liberal Christianity. At least, it is counterproductive from the point of view of someone who wants to see the total influence of religious doctrines reduced, as opposed to creationism only. This is obviously not a point of consideration for the NCSE, but it is very much salient from the perspective of an antitheist deciding whether or not to support the NCSE.

    Many of these reasons are also why I have little interest in saying that the Bible does not demand homophobia, despite being heavily invested in gay rights. I think there are several very strong cases in favor of treating gay people equally. I don't think it much helps my case to recruit a weaker position (liberal/metaphorical theology) to back up my stronger one. I figure that if the point can be made, people who want to hang on to Christianity will figure out how to reconcile the two themselves. It would be rather patronizing of me to try to glibly lead them through a process that deep down I don't think is even a reasonable one to go through.

  14. Charles Sullivan brings up another point which I forgot to mention. One of the most prevalent misconceptions about evolution is the sense of goal-directedness or destiny about it, as if organisms were guaranteed to always become more complex or generally competent or to take particular forms. I think that theistic evolution tends to multiply this sort of confusion, and leads to various types of sharpshooter fallacy, where something extra has to be posited to explain how a given organism could evolve despite appearing incredibly unlikely to occur through "chance alone". This may not be as severe as outright creationism, but it strikes me as more different in degree than in form.

  15. "Neither this conference nor even BioLogos are specifically "promoting Christianity", at least not mainly. What they are doing, mainly, is promoting science to a Christian audience that often has problems with science."

    Really? You have never visited Biologos, have you?

  16. @ Michael De Dora

    I'm happy to say that this post (and a few other recent posts) reverses a lot of the first impressions I had of your writing, in the positive direction. And I say this while still not agreeing on everything. Kudos! This was a constructive engagement.

    @ Nick

    My read of Michael's post is that it skillfully navigates a lot of the issues related to the original discussions you quote above. I'd be more interested in your reaction to Michael's current evaluation and new tack rather than rereading posts crafted before Michael's post. Maybe it is just me, but I think Michael's post in part tries to address concerns like yours, so it does seem a bit disjointed to just read them re-posted here.

  17. As an atheist I never tell anyone what their religion says. If some one tells me that their religion is compatible with evolution I see no reason to doubt it. I think this is also NCSE's position (although they never put it as bluntly as I just did.)

    As other commenters note, NCSE has a narrow focus. In spite of its name it isn't focussed on science education in general, or even on biology education in general. It is specifically focused on keeping evolution in education and creationism out.

    In doing that it sometimes adopts tactics that don't promote wider ideas such as "reason" or "secularism" that some of us, including me, think are more important than evolution. But as far as I'm concerned that is fine. As long as they don't take positions that I disagree with I'm willing to be a strong supporter.

    Why does NCSE seem more interested in religious people who accept evolution than in atheists? As Willie Sutton said: It's where the money is. It is an unfortunate fact that there are more of them than there are of us.

    I don't think promotion of an event by religious people who accept evolution is the same as promoting their religions beliefs any more than Dawkins' interview of a priest who accepts evolution ( http://richarddawkins.net/rdf_productions/george_coyne ) is the same as promoting catholicism.

  18. Sean: 'This may not be as severe as outright creationism, but it strikes me as more different in degree than in form. '

    Bingo! It's creationism, as God created the universe and set evolution in play for an end. After all is said and done, they still believe the universe and all in it was created for God's purpose. Theistic evolution requires a purpose and thus is not compatible with evolutionary theory.

  19. "[W]ith BioLogos -- can you bring yourself to admit any substantial differences between BioLogos and your typical evangelical organization? Ask yourself questions like:

    (a) Why was BioLogos founded?"

    If my state lowers the speed limit in all 60 mph areas to 50 mph as an environmental measure, how would the results differ from if my state instead did it as a safety measure?

    "1. Is it true that one of the major reasons for the popularity and persistence and activism of creationism is the notion that accepting evolution means you have to give up your religion and become an atheist?"

    No. It's not true, rendering 1a., 2., and 3. moot.

    Rather, they argue that to be logically consistent someone who believes in evolution can't also believe in the true Christian God and Jesus. In my experience, they admit as true the trivial fact that people can have incompatible beliefs and also admit that one can interpret the bible in an unreasonable, twisted, cherry-picking manner such that that interpretation is compatible with all of science. They deny that such an interpretation is reasonable and one intended by a unique god who authored the book.

    The only way to resolve the actual Christian objection is to describe both science and true religion in such a way that they do not conflict. Failing to describe either leaves room for conflict. Describing true religion in a way that is incompatible with certain (reasonable) expectations about what a god might have intended by writing his books as he allegedly did will undermine the synthesis.

    Christians generally have incorrect ideas about what the theory of evolution is based on and predicts, and their understanding of it conflicts with their personal religion. However, a true understanding of evolution would similarly conflict, which is why such misunderstandings were built up as a defense mechanism in the first place.

    Is it better for a science organization to simply present true facts about evolution, or to also describe how other religions are compatible with it while ignoring the irrationalities within and among those other systems? The NCSE clearly thinks the latter, as its website contains sacerdotal teachings from its religious community outreach director such as “The Bible reflects the specific pre-scientific world-view of the ancient Hebrew people,” and “Like color and shape, “creation” and “evolution” do not occupy competing categories, but are complementary ways of looking at the universe.”

    Others, such as P.Z. Myers, similarly think that religions are an obstacle to accepting truths about biology and think it worthwhile to try to change people's religions from fundamentalist Christianity (and others), but he seeks to replace it with atheism rather than a bastardized version of fundamentalist Christianity.

    In contrast, the public school system teaches science in neutrality, without regard for religion. No one argues it should do otherwise.

    How should atheists promote science with our limited resources? By preponderately supporting religiously neutral organizations, those who seek to replace fundamentalism with mushy Christianity (and Judaism, Islam, etc.), or those who seek to replace fundamentalism with atheism? Organizations supporting mushy liberal religion have the advantage of somewhat credibly being able to argue that converts to it have not abandoned their old faith. Organizations supporting atheism have the advantage of being able to argue for skepticism and the wisdom of generally limiting claims to the available evidence. Neutral organizations have the advantage of focusing entirely on science.

    I do not claim to know which approach should be most advanced, even if pretending not to care about reason and focusing narrowly on which best promotes acceptance of evolution. But I do know that supporting the NCSE does not constitute support for a religiously neutral organization.

  20. "Theistic evolution requires a purpose and thus is not compatible with evolutionary theory."

    Anything that happens is only justified as what "god intended" after the fact. All of the woo takes place post hoc, so it's really no different than any other true scientific theory with a non-functional axiom grafted on. It's like believing in the theory of gravity with the caveat that an eternal undetectable massless leprechaun could magically reduce the effect of gravity by half if he felt like it, but his nature is such that he will never choose to.

    How does belief in such a god corrupt one's understanding of the theory of evolution any more than it does all other theories? It has the same effect for them all: it's an unfounded assumption with no consequences, even theoretically.

  21. NickM Bravo, and good for you. " Evolution reduces to Atheism" may or may not be philosophically true, but politically and practically Eugenie is wise not to accept the premise. Not only because it gives succor to creationists, but because it's not a pragmatic position. When hardline atheists rail against religion and hint at some non-religious utopia, they seem about as pragmatic as "abstinence only" zealots. The religious instinct is clearly hard wired, like the sex drive. Religion most likely has strong survival value. To deny its importance is actually a non-evolutionary position. If the skeptic movement wants to be more than an outsider clique, then we must allow for human nature. Do you want to be purely right or do you want to be relevant?

  22. Brian #2,

    "The only way to resolve the actual Christian objection is to describe both science and true religion in such a way that they do not conflict. Failing to describe either leaves room for conflict."

    Bravo; you've succinctly described what I took forever to say. Religion and science may be compatible generally, but that's not necessarily relevant to a person who prefers fundamentalist Brand X theism to liberal Brand Y theism. Arguing for compatibility requires supporting the other over the one.

    "All of the woo takes place post hoc, so it's really no different than any other true scientific theory with a non-functional axiom grafted on."

    I'm not sure that this is necessarily so. There seems to be a continuous spectrum between theistic evolution and intelligent design, depending on the frequency and magnitude of the Creator's interventions. So you have people who just believe in evolution with the useless extra premise: "God did it." And you have people thinking that there was a moment when the Creator intervened to make humans special (and searching for evidence for that), or spinning their interpretation of evolution as essentially a very wasteful method of making humans (and thus misinterpreting probabilities and rates using the sharpshooter's fallacy, assuming that any given outcome is necessarily the most desirable or likely).

    Also, I'd say that, when Dembski and company try to disprove evolution, they do so largely by disproving a sort of "random destiny" straw man of it. That is, they assume that evolution has a certain product "in mind", and then see if it will happen to that target with random mutation. Not surprisingly, they always get the result: that evolution is impossible without a guiding intelligence (admittedly, even arguing against this straw man, Dembski occasionally cheats to get these results). Theistic evolution, insofar as at assumes that some outcomes, such as the arrival of human beings, are predestined or inevitable, and that a guiding intelligence already exists in that worldview, is uniquely vulnerable to such criticism. For this reason, at the most abstract level, I think theistic evolution could lead to different theoretical results that look more like ID (i.e. nigh impossible to make the math work out) than standard evolution.

    On a more empirical level, we have issues like the origin of morality, as mentioned by Charles Sullivan above, where theistic evolution allows believers to keep retracting their goalposts (and thus fitting Yahweh into smaller and more esoteric gaps). This simply squishes the controversy into a smaller box (though we can hope it loses some salience by doing so).

  23. @ Brian:

    "with the caveat that... [name your god]."

    There is no place for teleological explanations in evolution.

    In fact, the rather bad designs in human evolution (human birth canal, long-winding optical nerve, etc, etc) strongly support the position that there is no better explanation than evolution.

    Its appearance is what one should expect from random mutation accompanied by natural selection.

  24. So, um, what all of y'all are saying is that we should force people to choose between science and religion? Because, you know, that's exactly what they feel like they are forced to do - and they choose religion, overwhelmingly, and no matter what evidence you bring forth.

    I see no problem with promoting theistic evolution over out-and-out creationism, since theistic evolution at least is based on science. It's a step in the right direction. What you all propose here (with a few exceptions) is a sure fire way to completely and utterly lose this battle. I prefer results to principles, in this case.

  25. Gert,
    How do you know your method get results? This is the issue. You say the other method doesn't or won't work, but you no evidence to back it up.
    And don't tell me it is common sense because we know our senses are easily fooled.

  26. As a former theist, I accept that evolution is logically compatible with theism - but in a way that I find emotionally unsatisfying.

    In other words, the topic (as I see it) relates to theodicy, or the "problem of evil (or, alternately, suffering)" as it relates to God's purported goodness. One can (as many adherents do) argue that, whatever features of the world that we (with our puny mortal minds) judge to be flaws (e.g. disease, famine, war, and all the daily biological cruelties that add up to natural selection), these all, nonetheless, occur as part of God's greater divine plan for the world, which is, after all, "the best of all possible worlds."

    Mind you, not all theologians are satisfied with this narrative, but their commitment to some version of theism (say, a liberal one) proved to be much stronger than my own. They are welcome to it, and I am satisfied to count them as allies in the struggle against religious fundamentalists (as well as other common political enemies - some of whom are atheists) - even though we approach the matter from very different (metaphysical) perspectives.

  27. As far as the effect and tactics of the NCSE go, this is a nice and balanced essay. To be honest, as a non-American, I should perhaps not have too much of an opinion on the organization anyway.

    But oh dear, this discussion again. Once more: if you take together all of science, including neurobiology, evolutionary biology, archeology, geology, astrophysics, etc. etc. etc., what viable religion is still left out there beyond the epistemic limits of humble science?

    A god that is indistinguishable from being nonexistent. That's all, in its entirety. A god that looks as if it did not create anything, looks as if it does not intervene, looks as if it did not bestow souls upon us and looks as if it does not punish the wicked or reward the good. If you think anything more than that is still in the realm of possibility, you do not know enough about what colleagues in the aforementioned sciences have already worked out.

    Now you can get all nit-picky and say that it is not science per se that says: what looks like nonexistent should be assumed to be nonexistent, but it is the principle of parsimony, part of the philosophy toolbox instead. But as I argued before, a scientist uses parsimony all the time, for example when considering the evolutionary pathway ancestral ape -> bee -> cabbage -> human less likely than ancestral ape -> human. So I still fail to see how it is so non-humble and epistemic boundary overstepping to apply the same principle to what is essentially just another question about what happens in the universe around us.

    But even if we grant that science qua science could not reject this remaining indistinguishable from fantasy type religion, does it matter for the phrase "science is compatible with religion"? Only if we don't mean to say "science is compatible with religion as practiced by any significant number of people on this planet".

  28. Michael: I know that creationists like to make an equivalence between believing in evolution and being atheistic - that should tell you something right there. We're talking about people who do not want to be atheistic, who are only really so interested in science, and who will act based on that. In short, the vast majority of the population.

    These people do not want their whole entire world view upset, and would like their children taught what they feel is the right thing. If we can't get these folks thinking that evolution is not itself a tool of the devil, used by evil atheists to drive their children into depravity, we lose.

    You can't win hearts and minds if you've no idea how those hearts and minds work in the first place.

  29. Alex, I would agree that much of what passes for religious belief is indistinguishable from fantasy (in fact, I believe that it literally is fantasy). I would also agree that, when a particular fantasy is in obvious conflict with a particularly well-established scientific theory, the latter should trump the former. More importantly, I think many theists would agree, as well.

    But I don't think I would go so far as to say that science (in the sense that you describe, as parsimonious empirical investigation) - rules out (a priori) belief in all fantastic claims. After all, such an assertion would suggest to me that all claims are empirically testable at all times and places, or that no belief is valid unless it is empirically testable - neither of which strikes me as plausible (and, besides, I think all beliefs - even those based on empirical demonstration - should be tempered by humility; after all, facts can change).

    That said, I seem to recall that Eugenie Scott persuaded Massimo of the valid distinction between the methodological and metaphysical forms of naturalism. I suppose that I am persuaded of that validity, as well - notwithstanding my sense of a much stronger harmony between the two forms of naturalism than between, say, methodological naturalism and liberal theology. Presumably, liberal theists are more willing to tolerate that disharmony than I am, and that's a disparity that I've learned to tolerate: possibly because I find it so much easier to tolerate than the disparity between my worldview and those of the anti-science crowd (both old-timey or new-agey).

    Besides, I still harbor enough appreciation for religious experience (e.g. on an aesthetic level) that their choice is not entirely alien to me, although I am more comfortable with secular outlets for fantasy (e.g. the arts & humanties).

  30. Still no evidence. Why am I not surprised.

  31. jcm,

    As I wrote, this is all a end of year's "Best Of" repeat of arguments.

    Certainly not all claims are empirically testable, no doubt there. But the question is, does the majority or even just any element of the core knowledge claims of what we commonly define as religion constitute a type of knowledge that is substantially different from the questions we reasonably apply science to?

    To be more specific, is "I am an immortal soul commandeering a mortal body" a claim that neurobiology has to leave its hands off? If yes, how so? Is "we are all born as sinners" or "(my) religion (only) makes people more moral" completely impervious to empirical evaluation? Why should astrophysics not have anything to say about the claim that the universe was created by a superior intelligence? And what is left if we continue with this litany?

    Of course facts can change. If it turns out that the universe shows clear signs of being created, I will believe in the existence of some mysterious creators, be they gods or hyperadvanced alien intelligences from another universe (BTW: is there any practical difference?), just as I now disbelieve. Does not seem likely to happen at this point, though, considering how much we already know about it.

  32. Alex, I don't think religion constitutes a type of knowledge so much as an ideology or set of tenets, some of which are empirically testable (and thereby qualify as potential candidates for knowledge), and some of which are not; thus, the methodological/metaphysical distinction that I alluded to.

    Anecdotally, many liberal theists that I've read or conversed with over the years seem to accept this distinction as valid (whether or not they are aware of this precise terminology), and they show little or no sign of a desire to be at odds with the methodological side (i.e. science). Quite the contrary, they strongly desire to be at peace with it, even as they cling to their metaphysical doctrine, however mystical and non-parsimonious it is, relative to a science-based knowledge of the world.

    This might seem like compartmentalized thinking, and to some extent it is. In fact, that's a big reason why I abandoned theism. (It took me a little longer to abandon religious affiliation altogether.) Once I realized how committed I am to a scientific (and historical-critical) epistemology (e.g. how much these methods usually "clicked" for me), I found it stressful to continue entertaining theistic metaphysical beliefs. (I had already rejected belief in various traditional claims of miraculous, divine intervention.) Instead, I opted for a more economical doctrine; i.e. since it did not stray quite so far from the evidence.

    Still, I have to admit that there is a strongly subjective element in that decision, whose truth value is arguable, and that all metaphysical doctrines - including naturalism - are highly speculative. Of course, I still stand up for that decision (e.g. on the basis of plausibility), and even recommend it to my theist friends (e.g. as emotionally satisfying). But uncertainty nonetheless abounds in it, and science is insufficient to ward off all attacks on it.

  33. Michael, do you also get disappointed when people tell you the sky is blue without providing 'evidence'? All you need to do is look at any creationist screed, anywhere, and you will see them claiming, up front, that evolution requires atheism. They do that for a reason. Even a small amount of insight into the human psyche will tell you why: Because people do not want their world views turned upside down, and the best way to scare them away from thinking thoughts they're not used to is to make sure they believe it'll do just that. So they basically say evolution kills Jesus. And so do you. So, whose side are you on, again?

  34. "So they basically say evolution kills Jesus. And so do you. So, whose side are you on, again?"

    I know that you aren't talking to me, but I have to reiterate, you can have any private feelings you want about how reasonable it is to believe in Christianity and evolution together, and at the same time be critical of the NCSE releasing theological statements (the compatibility of evolution and "true" Christianity is itself a matter of religious doctrine, not science). I know you're frustrated, but this sort of tribal "If you're not with me, you're with the creationists." mentality strikes me as profoundly counterproductive.

  35. I can't tell the the parents in the local PTA that they have to choose between evolution or their faith. The NCSE can't do that either. The faithful masses will have to gain an understanding of what evolutionary biology is about if we are to win this battle to have high quality science education in this nation.

  36. Gert,
    Common sense, blah, blah, blah......
    Teaching evolution is as straightforward as saying the sky is blue? Really? Why are we having such a hard time making any headway in acceptance of evolution by the general population? Common sense tells us the earth is standing still. Common sense tells us species don't change.
    Before someone tells me or anyone else how to best teach biology, then he or she had better be able to back up their methods. You can't (teaching methods are not based on common sense, but experiment). And if you actually read the post, you would realize that even the most hardcore anti-accommodationist would not claim you have to become an atheist to accept evolution. I just want people like you and others who say Cpyne, Myers and Dawkins are wrong to provide some evidence that they are. Please do so before you tell others with much more experience in science and education how they should do their jobs.

  37. Michael, the first section you posted tells me you must have misread me. I didn't mean to say that teaching evolution is as simple as that the sky is blue. Teaching any-damn-thing is nowhere near that simple, as any teacher can tell you (I have enough teacher relatives to know that much).

    My point was against those in this very comment thread here, who keep going on and on about how anyone supporting anything but completely religion-less science is Doing It Wrong(tm). Well, I say, people are people. If we want leave to teach their kids evolution, we need to convince their parents that evolution is not equivalent to atheism. And the only way to do that is to get behind those who manage to mostly successfully meld religion and science!

    To do anything else may look like winning battles, but it will all but completely certainly lose the war.


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