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.

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