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.


perspicio said...

This is good stuff. I hope you find the inspiration to keep writing, and that you reach a wider audience.

J.J.E. said...

Thanks! I have thought about trying to write better better and more frequently... But currently, I'm actually not aiming for that audience because it is so much work. I'm a professional academic and would like to remain pseudo-anonymous. I'd rather just post occasional comments here when I can't fit my posts on other peoples' blogs.

Thanks for dropping by!