Hill Country Dilettante

Monday, July 13, 2009

Religion's Role in Science Advocacy by the NCSE, part 2

Continuing my previous theme, I have collected a series of examples demonstrating how NCSE sees its role in brokering the relationship between religion and science. In my previous post, I emphasized what I thought was good about NCSE's approach. Here, I focus on the many bad aspects of that approach.

In particular, I highlight the many instances in which I think that the NCSE's alliance of science, education and religion has crossed the boundary between advocating science education and advocating theological positions. I submit that the following examples demonstrate that NCSE is publicly committed to a role in supporting explicitly theological positions of one subset of believers that run contrary both to the convictions of other believers as well as to the views of non-believers. Emphasis and bracketed comments inside blockquotes are mine throughout.

More after the jump.

The first sign of trouble is pretty clear from the beginning. In particular, NCSE takes the position that its mission should include a discussion on how to read from religious documents:

Religious Perspectives

[...] Religious Studies and its sub-disciplines (e.g. history, biblical studies, ethics) raise a host of fascinating questions relevant to the discussion of science and religion, and to the teaching of evolution. For example, how are we to read creation stories from the many cultures of the world? How should we read different accounts of universal floods? What is the literary history of the Hebrew bible and its many different books?
Of course, this is all couched in the guise of humanities discourse (they are merely discussing history, right?), though NCSE ultimately exceeds this rather modest goal and addresses theological issues rather firmly. But first I'd like to reiterate that at the very beginning, NCSE not only argues that it should be actively involved in the history of religion (a rather broad purview for a science education advocacy organization), but also that it will offer at least a discussion of how to read holy books. Ultimately, I'll show that the NCSE offers far more than mere academic discussions. They actually offer prescriptions about how people ought to live with their faith. Actually, this is a charitable view. If the NCSE isn't offering prescriptions, then they are participating in deception, as they proffer only a biased subset of theology designed to mollify religious people. If this isn't genuinely held by the NCSE, then I think they should indicate as much. To do otherwise is disingenuous. But I get ahead of myself. I'll broach the topic of disingenuity later.
God and Evolution

[...] "Creation" is a philosophical concept: it is the belief that the universe depends for its existence upon something or some being outside itself. As a philosophical term "creation" is an empirically untestable belief that makes no claims about how or when the world came to be, or even whether creation was a determinate "act" or an event in time. [...]
And this:
God and Evolution (continued)

[...] Evolution makes no claims about God's existence or non-existence, any more than do other scientific theories such as gravitation, atomic structure, or plate tectonics. Just like gravity, the theory of evolution is compatible with theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Can I accept evolution as the most compelling explanation for biological diversity, and yet also accept the idea that God works through evolution? Certainly. [...]
Clearly, in the quotes above, NCSE (or more specifically Peter Hess) is clearly saying what a "proper" interpretation of creation passages in certain monotheisms should be. He of course cannot be ignorant of the fact that many Biblical literalists in the U.S. or Koranic literalists in Turkey would disagree strenuously with such an assessment. Not only that, the statement manages to make direct claims that contradict the views of some in the secular community as well when it asserts the compatibility of theism and the practice of science, a topic which is unequivocally disputed in many quarters. This is clearly a sign that NCSE wishes to promote one perspective that affirms the religious beliefs of some at the expense of rejecting the religious beliefs of others and against the wishes of others who wish NCSE would just stick to science and education.

Next up, we learn how to read the Bible. I wonder if one way of reading it is better than other ways? Let's see what Peter Hess has to say:
How Do I Read the Bible? Let Me Count the Ways

Opponents of evolution often claim that their opposition is based upon a lack of supporting scientific evidence. In reality, their objection stems from a more basic issue: how to read the bible and interpret the view of nature it projects. [Hess really nails it here. As evidenced by the unscientific rejection of evolution by biblical literalists, it is clear that it simply is not good to bring religious dogma into a science discussion. Was I wrong to criticize Peter Hess?] [...]

[Skipping a lot of history here, but please click and read.] [...]

In light of this history, how are we to read the Bible? Some people equate the Judeo-Christian scriptures with sacred texts from other religious traditions, reducing the Bible to the status of merely one collection of literature among many others. Others set aside the Bible as being spiritually different from other religious texts — the Islamic Qur'an, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the Mayan Popol Vuh, and others. Regardless of which attitude one takes, the Bible is not self-evident as to how it is to be interpreted. [Uhhh. O.K. What does this have to do with anything? I guess this is a fair point, irrelevant though it may be. So, we shouldn't interpret the Bible, or at least we shouldn't privilege some interpretations over others? But why do I get the sinking feeling that Peter will soon tell us how the Bible is to be interpreted?]

[Skipping a review of many theological positions in a historical context. Go ahead, read it, you know you want to.] [...]

Contrary to what biblical literalists argue, the Bible was not intended by its authors to teach us about science — which did not exist at the time the Hebrew oral traditions were set in writing as the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not teach us the literal truths that the earth is flat, or that a global flood once covered Mt. Everest, or that we inhabit a geocentric cosmos, or that the world was created as we now observe it in six solar days, or that species were specially created in their present form and have not changed since the days of creation.

Rather, the Bible can be read as a record of one particular people's developing moral relationship with the God in whom they placed their trust. As such, it enshrines timeless ideals about the integrity of creation and human responsibility within that creation. For biblical believers, part of that responsibility is using the gift of human rationality to discover the exciting story of how life ― including human life ― has developed on the earth. [Wow! What an amazing 180 degree turn! With a little historical hand-waving and rhetorical sleight of hand, we go from admonishing biblical literalists about what the appropriate theological stance ISN'T to what "proper" theological ideals and responsibilities ARE. Again I ask, why is NCSE delving into theology?]
I think it is clear by now that NCSE's religion section is full of theological prescriptions and pronouncements and clearly favors a particular perspective that manages to reject the perspectives of both religious and secular alike. Despite this pervasive problem, the NCSE does manage to include a few bright spots (see part 1). And it is with one additional such bright spot that I close this segment. I wish NCSE would commit to following the advice of professor and Quaker, Mike Salovesh, as he seems to have an insightful perspective:
Science Education, Scientists, and Faith


As a professor teaching science in a university classroom, I can try to make sure that what is taught and discussed there is relevant to a scientific approach to the universe. The standards of judgment I try to uphold are those that are fundamental to science. Other standards don't belong in a science classroom. The moral judgments that I base on my own religious convictions are among the other standards that have no place being taught in a science classroom. Taking time to support or to deny views that are not relevant to scientific judgment while trying to teach science is an inappropriate use of energy and resources; and it risks focusing students' attention away from the proper study of scientific subjects.
NCSE should indeed take Mike's admonishment to heart, as it applies equally as well to intelligent design as it does to liberal religious accommodationism as outlined above.


Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Religion's Role in Science Advocacy by the NCSE, part 1

In many cases, I find the use of religion in the advocacy of science distasteful, and my goal for this post is to further that perspective vis-à-vis NCSE's accommodationist stance regarding defense of science. However, before doing that, I would first like to point out a few ways in which the NCSE does an acceptable job in invoking religion in defense of science. I use the term "acceptable" not to damn NCSE with faint praise, but merely because I'm not enthusiastic about including religion in science discussions. However, I don't feel that NCSE needs to pretend religion doesn't exist, and I think that there is a minor role that mention of religion can play in NCSE's defense of evolution. And in light of the many other good things NCSE has done, I think it would be remiss to imply that NCSE hasn't also done a few things right in their approach to religion.

In particular, I would like to single out for praise, what I think is the appropriate paradigm for NCSE to follow, namely the section of their website called Denominational Views. In this section, NCSE concisely makes the factual statement that "most mainstream Christian denominations have made peace with evolutionary biology, and many have issued formal statements to that effect", and leaves it at that. Then, four external links are provided and the reader is encouraged to leave NCSE's site to read what those Christians who accept evolution have to say. In other words, NCSE passes off the responsibility for explaining theology to those whose mission is explicitly religion. And notably, in doing so, NCSE is not responsible for endorsing those views, as they are merely supporting a somewhat basic fact.

The second example, the blurb for The Clergy Letter Project, I endorse somewhat more equivocally. Included are two statements from two religions (Christianity and Judaism) that NCSE has decided to host. In the former, many unqualified statements are made that assert what are unarguably tenets of faith, and as such are irrelevant to science:

Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.
and also:
We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris.
Finally, they conclude by saying:

We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
Contrast those sentiments with the statement from the Rabbis:
The Bible is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us and for many others, though not everyone, in our society. It is, however, open to interpretation, with some taking the creation account and other content literally and some preferring a figurative understanding. It is possible to be inspired by the religious teachings of the Bible while not taking a literalist approach and while accepting the validity of science including the foundational concept of evolution. It is not the role of public schools to indoctrinate students with specific religious beliefs but rather to educate them in the established principles of science and in other subjects of general knowledge.
What is unique about this is how the Rabbis manage to address three issues simultaneously. The Rabbis:
  1. acknowledge that their faith is not accepted by many and refrain making statements about how their faith offers truths of any sort;
  2. point out that many believers interpret their holy texts literally and many do not, while emphasizing that many find it possible to practice religion and accept evolution simultaneously;
  3. conclude by rejecting religious indoctrination of any kind in public schooling.
I think that the Rabbis who drafted the section quoted on NCSE's site have concisely summarized what any science organization should be willing to say, and have done so without stepping beyond that. Contrast that with the Christian statement, which avoids mentioning unbelievers and literal-minded Christians, while simultaneously neglecting to explicitly reject religious indoctrination in public schools. Frustratingly, the Christian letter's rejection of anti-evolution curricula is couched in theological terms, being what they call an act of hubris because anti-evolution forces are trying to limit God!

It is this contrast between the Jewish and Christian statements which outlines what I consider to be important boundaries. If NCSE were to stay within the lines drawn by the Rabbis, I think they would be fulfilling their mission for all scientists admirably. But if they cross that line in the way that the Christians have done, then I think they have violated their scientific mission by descending into one-sided theology and disingenuous promotion of one perspective to the exclusion of all others. In the second part of this post, I will list a few other examples that cross this boundary from the Religion section on the NCSE's site.


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Accommodating Voices for Evolution

In the following post, I lay out the evidence that the NCSE presents an explicitly accommodationist perspective and in so doing endorses theological propositions. My evidence for this installment is derived from NCSE's Voices for Evolution section, which is an online publication of a book by the same name. In the words of NCSE:

Voices for Evolution is a project of the NCSE to collect the full diversity of organizations and perspectives in support of teaching evolution in the public schools. These statements represent the consensus view of the scientific community that evolution is well-supported, and that failing to teach it is a disservice to students.
Additionally, Voices for Evolution can obtained via free download and is also available for purchase (here and here).

One thing that troubles me about this project is that substantial parts of the "Religious Organizations" section explicitly pushes an accommodationist perspective in that many scientifically/theologically questionable statements are published by NCSE alongside many perfectly accurate statements regarding evolution. I wonder why the NCSE opted to allow the explicitly religiously doctrinal perspectives into a publication designed to defend evolution?

My hypothesis is that NCSE carefully chose the most evolution-friendly statements they could find, and included them whether or not they were interspersed with statements that are explicitly religious. In any event, NCSE is on the record as having endorsed quite a few statements which are decidedly peculiar for such an organization to endorse. In particular, NCSE has endorsed:
  1. the salience of affirming statements of faith in defense of evolution;
  2. one particular theological claim (the Bible should be read as accommodating evolution) over another competing theological claim (the Bible should be read as denying evolution).
To my mind, points 1 and 2 above are both bad form for a science organization. The first point is particularly troubling as it implies that NCSE permits and even encourages the use of religious thinking in defense of science. While I'm sympathetic to the goal of point 2, I still think it is unacceptable. What business does a science organization have in promoting one theological view over another?

I find these types of statements problematic, not because they contain religion, as I have no desire to spend significant amounts of my time confronting religious organizations. Nor do I have a problem with religious organizations carving exceptions for evolution in their theology, even if I find the manner in which those exceptions are carved out to be rather peculiar. In fact, I place the blame at the feet of the NCSE, who I think should not be in the business of promoting such statements. So, to the religious, relax, when the above statements appear in church letters, bulletins, or as parts of sermons or religious conferences, I have no beef. I singled out these statements only because they are promoted by the NCSE. I have enumerated those many problematic statements beneath the fold.

Before proceeding to the quotes, I first want to make it clear that these perspectives are articulated by the religious organizations they are ascribed to, and are not drafted by NCSE. However, I also want to suggest that the very presence of these statements on NCSE's site is an explicit endorsement of them by NCSE. If I encounter any site excerpting denial of evolution from religious authorities, I certainly ascribe that point of view to the owners of that site. Indeed, unless the NCSE explicitly rejects the theology in content hosted on its site, I am just as justified as construing such hosting an endorsement of that point of view.

Without further ado, here are the excerpts. Emphasis and comments in square brackets are mine.

188 Wisconsin Clergy

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark — convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rest. To reject this truth or to treat it as 'one theory among others' is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God's good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God's loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences

The universe is more mysterious than either science or religion can ever fully disclose, and the urgencies of humankind and the natural environment demand an honest interaction between the discoveries of nature, the empowerment afforded us by appropriate technology, the inherent value of the environment, and the demand that we commit ourselves to a future in which all species can flourish. We can no longer afford the stalemate of past centuries between theology and science, for this leaves nature Godless and religion worldless. When this happens, our culture, hungering after science for something to fill the void of its lost spiritual resources, is easy prey to New Age illusions wrapped in scientific-sounding language — the 'cosmic self-realization movement' and the 'wow of physics' — while our 'denatured' religion, attempting to correct social wrong and to provide meaning and support for life's journey, is incapable of making its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective because its cognitive claims are not credible. Nor can we allow science and religion to be seen as adversaries, for they will be locked in a conflict of mutual conquest, such as "creation science" which costs religion its credibility or a philosophical stance of "scientific materialism" which costs science its innocence....

Episcopal Bishop of Atlanta, Pastoral Letter


To begin with creation is a fact. The world exists. We exist. Evolution is a theory. As a theory, evolution expresses human response to the fact of creation, since existence raises questions: how did creation come to be, and why?

The question of why [ie religion] is the deeper one. It takes us into the realm of value and purpose. This urgent inquiry is expressed in human history through religion and statements of faith. Christians cherish the Bible as the source book of appropriating the point and purpose of life. We regard the Bible as the Word of God, His revelation of Himself, the meaning of His work and the place of humanity in it.

The question of how [ie science] is secondary, because human life has been lived heroically and to high purpose with the most primitive knowledge of the how of creation. Exploration of this secondary question is the work of science. Despite enormous scientific achievement, humanity continues to live with large uncertainty. Science, advancing on the question of how, will always raise as many questions as it answers. The stars of the exterior heavens beyond us and the subatomic structure of the interior deep beneath us beckon research as never before.

Religion and science are therefore distinguishable, but in some sense inseparable, because each is an enterprise, more or less, of every human being who asks why and how in dealing with existence. Religion and science interrelate as land and water, which are clearly not the same but need each other, since the land is the basin for all the waters of the earth and yet without the waters the land would be barren of the life inherent to its soil.


Episcopal Church, General Convention (2006)

Resolved, That the 75th General Convention affirm that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the ancient Creeds of the Church; and be it further,

Resolved, That the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith; and be it further

Resolved, That Episcopalians strongly encourage state legislatures and state and local boards of education to establish standards for science education based on the best available scientific knowledge as accepted by a consensus of the scientific community;


General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA)

The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA):

1. Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and The Reformed Confessions.
2. Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.
3. Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.
4. Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and science educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, communities, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable scientific knowledge.

Lexington Alliance of Religious Leaders

The following ministers and religious leaders are very much concerned with and opposed to the possibility of "Scientific Creationism" being taught in the science curriculum of Fayette County Schools.

As religious leaders we share a deep faith in the God who created heaven and earth and all that is in them, and take with utmost seriousness the Biblical witness to this God who is our Creator. However, we find no incompatibility between the God of creation and a theory of evolution which uses universally verifiable data to explain the probable process by which life developed into its present form.


Roman Catholic Church (1981)

Cosmogony itself speaks to us of the origins of the universe and its makeup, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise but in order to state the correct relationship of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth, it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The sacred book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and makeup of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.It is therefore appropriate amidst this controversy for the United Church Board to work with members of the United Church of Christ and others to understand this issue from the perspective of our religious and educational traditions. We mean to assist persons to participate fearlessly in open inquiry, debate, and action concerning the goals of education; to understand the role of science, including an appropriate relationship between science and faith; to help develop consensus in public policy issues affecting the public school; and to support academic freedom at all levels of the educational experience.

United Church Board for Homeland Ministries


II. Affirmations

1) We testify to our belief that the historic Christian doctrine of the Creator God does not depend upon any particular account of the origins of life for its truth and validity. The effort of the creationists to change the book of Genesis into a scientific treatise dangerously obscures what we believe to be the theological purpose of Genesis, viz., to witness to the creation, meaning, and significance of the universe and of human existence under the governance of God. The assumption that the Bible contains scientific data about origins misreads a literature which emerged in a pre-scientific age.