Sunday, June 25, 2006


A rambling post for a Sunday afternoon

A very brief post by PZ Myers at The Pandas Thumb (PT) earlier today has generated more than 300 comments today. It turns out that most of them are trash (literally the sort of bickering that I recall from the playground at grade school), but the original post itself, and some of the comments, are worthwhile. Here's Myers' post (links removed):

In case anyone is interested, there is an interview and article with and about Ron Numbers, historian of science and author of The Creationists, available at the U of Wisconsin. He offers a fairly standard perspective on the creationism wars, one that is commonly expressed here…but I have to confess, I disliked it intensely, and think it represents much that is wrong in the usual conciliatory approach too many people favor.
(Yes! That is an invitation to argue!)

Those of you familiar with Myers will know that's he's generally disparaging of religion (for those of you who aren't familiar with him, visit his blog Pharyngula). Myers writes some of the best articles about biology in the blogosphere, but his hostility toward religion is off-putting for me. My understanding of Myers' position is that he's willing to work with theists, but he wants to be able to criticize their theism, which he regards as irrational (I hope I'm mischaracterizing his position). Here is a comment from the PT thread:

Comment #107858
Posted by PZ Myers on June 24, 2006 02:28 PM (e)
Lenny is part of the problem.
I think you should read more carefully what I wrote. In particular, that bit where I mention that accusing scientists of arrogance is absurd, when we’ve got plenty of theists spreading arrogance far and wide. I should have mentioned condescension, too — do you think I know nothing about religion? I was brought up in one, I live in a highly religious culture, I get religion chucked at me every single day. I’ve read religious books with far more critical thought than I see from most of the people who demand automatic respect for religion. I see religion day after day, I see people practicing their religion regularly, I get to share my mornings at the coffee shop with the men’s bible study group that meets there…and everyone tells me that none of that is religion.
It gets annoying. Religion, apparently, is some ineffable ideal that floats in a space of perfect perfection, unsmeared by grubby human hands, and no, no one gets to criticize it. It’s too pure. And if you do criticize it, you don’t know anything about it, because if you did, you wouldn’t complain.

Here are a couple of other interesting comments:

Comment #107914
Posted by vhutchison on June 24, 2006 05:27 PM (e)
I understand both sides of this argument, but I must agree with Lenny on one point. I respect the views on both sides. The battle with ID IS POLITICAL and attacks by scientists on persons of faith who do support evolution are a major impediment in the political process. In Oklahoma we have just escaped creationist legislation for the sixth year in a row. Without the hard work and support of mainline religious people and organizations such as the Interfith Alliances of Oklahoma City and Tulsa and Oklahoma Manistream Baptists, we likely would not have prevented state laws requiring some form of ID/creationism. Members of these groups were far more energetic and active in lobbying the legislature, writing letters, holding press conferences, etc., than were scientists. The attempt to place religious material in the Tulsa Zoo made the national news. The defeat of the proposal was due largely to the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance and an organization, Friends of Religion and Science, the Alliance organized.
The mainstream faith community made a valuable impact and we need these folks, even if we do not agree with their faiths. We may not like the political process, but that is where we will win or lose. The bottom line: as scientists we need all the assistance we can get. I guess that this is like the adage ‘Any enemy of my enemies is my friend’?
Those who have been actively engaged in the political process in other states generally agree, as do many of the national leaders of organizations supporting evolution. I have discussed the need for support from religious groups with these leaders (readers would recognize the names if I listed them). Several are atheists and readily say so, but recognize the value of support from faith-based individuals and organizations.

Comment #107918
Posted by Nick (Matzke) on June 24, 2006 05:41 PM (e)
Whoo hoo! A pointless thread on unresolvable metaphysical questions! Somehow, we usually manage to avoid these.
All I can say is, while (1) I have the utmost scientific respect for PZ Myers, and (2) he and other in-your-face atheists have every right as private citizens to freely promote their views on religion (just like everyone else), the fight with the creationists is primarily about whether or not to teach science in public school science classrooms. Creationists pretend their views on religion are scientific in order to get them into science classrooms. We don’t need the anti-creationists going and mixing their views on religion into their science. In fact, this is probably the surest path to disaster politically and in the courts. Anyone who wants to do this has the right to do it, but it ain’t helpful or particularly smart.
Having a natural explanation for the origin of species is logically no more threatening to, or helpful to, Christianity than having a natural explanation for the weather. IMHO.

I think both vhutchinson and Matzke are right. Politically it is a very bad idea to intertwine anticreationism with antitheism. The evolution/antievolution debate shouldn't be turned into a Christianity vs. atheism debate. I also think that it's not necessarily a good thing to do scientifically, with a few caveats. A religion that tries to base itself on science is unavoidably in conflict with science. For example, if a religion claims that it can detect the fingerprints of God in the Creation (and this is what the ID movement does), then those claims are subject to scientific testing and refutation. When those claims are refuted, that religion is refuted. For this reason I think it is just plain dangerous for people to try to frame Christianity in scientific terms. For example, if a person is taught that the geologic record is evidence of Noah's Flood then when that person is confronted with evidence that the geologic record is incompatible with Noah's Flood that evidence will also be evidence that their faith is wrong. Of course, the question then becomes "what should faith be based on?" I'll tell you right now that I don't have a 100% satisfactory answer for that. One of the aspects of Christianity that appeals to me is that a personal relationship with God is a major component of that religion. So I think that forming a personal relationship with God should be one of the main objectives of Christianity. The way to do that is trickier, and I don't have a good answer. I can see things like prayer, meditation, awe through the observation of nature, can play an important role, but the problem is that these concepts are really subjective. I can't think of a way to effectively describe the results of prayer, communion, etc., with others, and therefore I can't really fault them for not accepting my point of view. That's where I stand at the present. If anyone wants to leave any comments I'd appreciate them.

It's certainly a tough issue. I guess my thinking right now is to split things into private vs. public issues. You [that's a generic "you"] may believe anything you want, and you may congregate with like-minded people, and you may seek to persuade others to your point of view. But it's a different matter when it comes to public issues like education, public health, and so forth.

That's the best I can do for now. Nothing I'm typing seems quite right. Tough issue.
I think your division makes sense Jared. That's more or less an approach that I take with a lot of people I know - I don't agree with all of my friends and family on all issues, but for the most part we don't talk about them. That doesn't sound quite right - we don't ignore things, we just don't always bring them up. I have relatives who think the world of Kent Hovind. If they were to talk about Hovind with me, I'd certainly respond and vice versa. They're welcome to their private opinions. Part of me would actually like to sit down and talk with them about it, but I'm also not willing to create a rift in the family.
That's probably the case, in some form, for most families.

I didn't express it well, but I was thinking more on the level of public policy. The issue is really part of the broader debate over the role of religion in government and that leads right into the culture wars.

Science ought to be an area where people of diverse backgrounds can agree on the basic operations of the natural world. Those who choose to disbelieve a certain scientific concept for theological reasons should at least have the forthrightness to admit that such is the case, and not resort to distortion, ignorance, or dishonesty to enhance their position.

As for the guy on the street--people just don't understand science and the way conclusions are arrived at. Even with a B.S., as I entered graudate school I wondered how scientists could know some of the things they claimed to know. As you become involved in the process, you find out that lots of smart people have built up an incredible knowledge base and clever ways to address questions. It's hard to explain that to the guy on the street in anything but general terms. So I can respect people of good will who are skeptical of well established scientific findings because they just don't have the background. If I hadn't persued science, I might very well be one of them.
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