June 24, 2009
The new atheists vs. the accommodationists
An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled 'accommodationists') who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.
While this debate has been going on for some time, the latest resurgence was triggered by Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book Why Evolution is True (which is on my reading list), who wrote a scathing review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.
In the accommodationist camp are people like biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Michael Ruse, journalist Andrew Brown, and chemist Francis Collins. (You can read my detailed nine-part review of Collins's appalling book The Language of God here.)
There have always been religious scientists who manage to find reasons to hold on to their faith in the face of the challenge posed by science. Michael Shermer puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." (Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), p. 283). More problematic is the accommodationist view taken by prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Science (NAS), which I will examine at a later date.
In the anti-accommodationist camp (sometimes referred to as the 'new atheists') are people like Richard Dawkins, biologist Jerry Coyne, biologist P. Z. Myers, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my sympathies lie entirely with this latter group. (Also see here and here.)
The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow's performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.
Andrew Brown, a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, sees an even greater danger:
Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.
In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna's ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism "superstitious nonsense" in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that:
the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion." School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.
That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.
But Brown and Ruse are wrong. The argument is not legally "fireproof" as I discuss at length in my book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, to appear later this year. It is not even a new argument. William Jennings Bryan was making it all the way back in 1922 in an essay published in The New York Times, where he said:
The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
The First Amendment has long been interpreted as requiring neutrality between religion and nonreligion, even before the 1963 Schempp case. Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education (that expanded the Establishment Clause to cover the actions of state and local governments), said "[The First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them."
The first case involving evolution to reach the US Supreme Court was the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas where the court ruled unanimously that prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools is unconstitutional. But Justice Black, while agreeing with the ruling, said in his concurring opinion that he disagreed with the reasoning that it was an Establishment Clause violation, and resurrected the concerns that Bryan had in 1922 and that seem to worry Ruse and Brown now.
A second question that arises for me is whether this Court's decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an "anti-religious" doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible's story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines?
But while this concern did not sway the majority in the Epperson case, the issue raised by Black was well and truly settled in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman when the Court promulgated what is now called the "Lemon test" that says that for any law to pass Establishment Clause constitutional muster, it must satisfy a three-pronged test:
First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the purpose prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the effect prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion" (the entanglement' prong).
In other words, to satisfy the Establishment Clause, the intent of the law must have a secular basis. In addition, simply because some law had the incidental effect of advancing or inhibiting religion did not automatically disqualify it. It also added a third criterion, requiring that the law must not result in the government getting too mixed up in the affairs of religion. Failure to meet any one prong would imply a violation of the Establishment Clause.
The guidelines set out in Lemon implies that even if a scientific theory like evolution undermines a religious belief, teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief does not violate the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause because teaching science has a clearly secular purpose, since the goal of teaching science is to advance scientific knowledge and not to undermine religion. If religion happens to be undermined because of teaching a particular scientific theory, that is an incidental, not primary, effect. By contrast, it would be unconstitutional to teach a theory whose only purpose or primary effect was to undermine or foster religion.
Since 1971, the 'Lemon test' has been the bedrock standard for measuring constitutionality under the Establishment Clause, with a few wrinkles added later. Teaching any theory that is well established scientifically would easily pass muster under its provisions, whatever its implications for religion.
The reason why creationists have not advanced this argument is not because they are not as smart as Ruse and Brown to have discovered this potent weapon. After all, the founder, godfather, and leading tactician of the intelligent design movement (Phillip Johnson) is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the whole intelligent design concept was invented to try and get around the Establishment Clause restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and other courts. Their lawyers must have told them that the Ruse/Brown argument is a sure loser.
POST SCRIPT: Biblical marriage
Those who oppose gay marriage like to say that it is against the Bible but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what a Biblically appropriate marriage consists of. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, makes it all clear.