The dust settles (a little) at Panda’s Thumb

April 28, 2009 • 6:33 am

Over at Panda’s Thumb, Richard Hoppe has had second thoughts about his rather strong post attacking P. Z. Myers and myself for criticizing scientific organiations like the AAAS and NCSE for their accommodationist stance toward faith and science.  (See also P. Z.’s reply.)  Hoppe still asserts that the NCSE is acting appropriately when pointing out that many religious people and ministers see no conflict between the two magisteria:

That is, NCSE is not an association of scientists, but of an array of people with different professions and beliefs. Moreover, it is not a science advocacy group as such, but rather is a group that has as its goal the defense of the teaching of evolution in the public schools. And that defense is necessarily heavily political.

That means that its tactics are in part determined by those of the opposition, the creationists who would turn public school science classes into an opportunity to teach religiously-based creation stories. As a consequence, it has to take into account that opposition and its main arguments, so as to appropriately arm those “parents and concerned citizens.”

The creationist assault on public education has two main prongs. One is to attack, misrepresent, and distort the science, and NCSE has a wealth of resources for blunting that attack. To give but one example, it has an excellent counter to Jonathan Wells’ “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution.” The responses are brief, to the point, and effective: I’ve used them.

The second main prong of the creationist assault is to equate evolution with atheism. That is a ubiquitous theme from the whole range of creationists, from Kent Hovind’s ravings to the Disco ‘Tute’s anti-naturalism Wedge document. I hear it, every one of us working with local and state boards of education hears it. It’s in the creationist mailers, it’s in their pamphlets, and it’s in their public statements to school boards.

And NCSE completely appropriately provides information to “parents and concerned citizens” about that issue. It completely appropriately points out that there are believers – self identified Christians – who accept that evolution has occurred (it’s a fact) and that the modern theory of evolution is the best available naturalistic explanation of that fact. Moreover, NCSE completely appropriately points to religious organizations that have stated that they accept that.

One cannot argue that pointing to the existence of people and organizations that contradict a main prong of the creationist attack on public school education constitutes an “endorsement.” It’s merely pointing to a fact. This is what NCSE says about it in the introduction to its Science and Religion section:

Can I both accept what science teaches and engage in religious belief and practice? This is a complex issue, but theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, yes.

That’s true, a plain fact, and useful for folks in the field to be able to support via the religious organizations and individuals identified by NCSE.

Agreed, but it’s also a plain fact that many “theologians, clergy, and members of many religious traditions have concluded that the answer is, unequivocally, NO.”  But you won’t find this “plain fact” anywhere in the NCSE’s literature.  And although evolution doesn’t lead straight to atheism for everybody, we ALL know that many people have lost their faith after studying evolutionary biology. And there are good reasons for this.  It is simply disingenuous, in my opinion, to pretend that this isn’t true.  I get emails from people every day telling me how they lost their faith after studying evolution (and it doesn’t bother them).  What a breath of fresh air it would be to have somebody admit this hidden truth!

Anyway, Hoppe, after rumination, decides that P. Z. and I were right on one issue:

NOMA is a mistake

Coyne is right in one respect, and I withdraw my wholesale rejection of his argument. I think (writing now as a Life Member) that NCSE has recently made a mistake in going beyond simply pointing to individuals and organizations who have somehow reconciled their science and religious beliefs to counter the creationist equation of evolution with atheism. In the essays by Peter M. J. Hess that apparently are the basis of the NCSE Faith Project, there is an endorsement of a particular view of the relationship, an adaptation of Gould’s Nonoverlapping magisteria with a dose of complementarian thinking. Hess writes

Theologians from many traditions hold that science and religion occupy different spheres of knowledge. Science asks questions such as “What is it?” “How does it happen?” “By what processes?” In contrast, religion asks questions such as “What is life’s meaning?” “What is my purpose?” “Is the world of value?” These are complementary       rather than conflicting perspectives.

And later, in a linked section titled “God and Religion,” he writes

The question “Do you believe in creation or evolution?” has the same problem. Like color and shape, “creation” and “evolution” do not occupy competing categories, but are complementary ways of looking at the universe.

And later in that same section:

Can I accept evolution as the most compelling explanation for biological diversity, and yet also accept the idea that God works through evolution? Certainly.

Hess has here argued for a complementarian view of the relation between religious belief and evolution that is very similar to Gould’s NOMA, which is also a view that is clearly visible in the writings of people like Denis Lamoureax, a self-identified evangelical Christian and “evolutionary creationist.” Lamoureax writes

In understanding origins, evolutionary creation proposes a mutually exclusive yet complementary relationship between science and Scripture. This position asserts that God reveals through both nature and the Bible, and it respects the limits and differences of each revelation. Science discovers how the Creator made the world, while    Scripture offers the ultimate meaning of the creation. Together these revelations from God’s Works and Words complement each other in providing a complete view of origins.

NOMA redux.

In its Faith Project, then, I think that NCSE has gone beyond its remit and past where it can be effective. I now think – in agreement with Coyne, PZ, and others – that it should back off from describing particular ways of reconciling science and religion. Pointing to religious people and organizations who have made their peace with science and evolution is appropriate, but going past that to describing particular ways of making that peace is a mistake. NCSE ought not wade into theological swamps.

So yeah, I was wrong to overstate my case. Sorry, folks. 🙂

Well, Mr. Hoppe, you are a gentleman and a scholar.  Thanks for the clarification.

My view on the NCSE, AAAS, and NAS remains the same:  leave all religion, atheism, and issues of compatibility out of it (except to show how the facts of evolution are incompatible with creationism).  When dealing with issues of compatibility, this simple statement should suffice:

If you want to know how to reconcile the fact of evolution with your religious faith (or the faith of others), please consult your minister, rabbi, or spiritual counselor.

22 thoughts on “The dust settles (a little) at Panda’s Thumb

  1. He took the wind out of my sails a bit, in that he evidently wrote it just as I was writing a very long comment on PZ’s thread, trying to nail some of this down. 🙂

    Oh well, it’s nice that he was prepared to think again. Many people would just have dug in stubbornly.

    1. Indeed, I think you have identified a critical distinguishing characteristic between Mr. Hoppe and the Framers (of Science, that is, not the US Constitution)

  2. I think the statement on how to reconcile one’s faith with evolution should be even less precise, because of the diversity of religious faiths. It should simply note that faith is a personal issue. The choice of consulting a religious authority is just one of many possible ways to do this. It’s a question that a scientific association can’t really help them with.

  3. To the objection that evolution leads to atheism, the proper response is “and if so, so what?” A belief in the truth of evolution may lead to all kinds of things, but what does any of that have to do with its truth (or lack thereof)? This epistemic patronization of religious objectors is, as PZ Meyers points out, fundamentally disrespectful (to the objectors). It ought to stop. By “epistemic patronization,” I mean this working assumption that it would not be enough for the objectors to be shown that evolution is true, and so we must find some other way of placating the poor rubes.

    I suppose someone will object that in fact it is not enough to show the truth of evolution to a religious objector in order to get that objector on board. (But has it been tried?) But if that is the case, then our social problems are far deeper than what goes on in biology classrooms– the problem instead is that we have a large population of people who do not appropriately value truth. Why the rest of us would care so deeply about getting along with actors this epistemically irresponsible, just for the sake of getting along, is beyond me.

    1. I thought so. But here at the University of Chicago we call EVERYONE “Mr.”, regardless of their degrees!

      1. Really? You

        ‘call EVERYONE “Mr.”, regardless of their degrees!’

        Even the women? I know, it was just a passing remark. But I thought it was surprising that no one else mentioned the omission.

  4. Jerry,

    I visit your blog each day, and I greatly admire your dedication and persistence. As an English prof, please permit me this one quibble. You’re too able a writer to indulge in this kind of ugly grammar faux pas. You write: “Over at Panda’s Thumb, Richard Hoppe has had second thoughts about his rather strong post attacking P. Z. Myers and myself for criticizing…

    “Myself” is a reflexive pronoun only. You want the objective: “me.”

    You will appreciate the following from Ted Rueter’s “English on the Chopping Block”:

    “Several months ago, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott asserted that homosexuality is a disease, like kleptomania. Defending the religious basis of Lott’s position, House Majority Leader Dick Armey commented, “Both myself and Senator Lott believe very strongly in the Bible.”

    Allen Quist, a Republican candidate for Governor of Minnesota in 1998, stood before a group of realtors and said, “Thank you for inviting myself to this forum.”

    What’s going on here? Does anyone know how to speak proper English anymore? Does anyone care about the decline of the language?

    This “myself” affectation even rears its ugly head on National Public Radio- that bastion of literacy. Ira Glass, host of “This American Life,” ends each show by stating, “This program was produced by Nancy Updike and myself.”

    I complained to Mr. Glass. He responded that while he knows the rules of grammar “and how they apply to this particular case,” the grammatically correct way “doesn’t sound like the way people normally talk.”

    The “everybody does it” defense–on NPR!”

    And this:

    Myself is often used in a way that makes usage writers bristle, particularly when someone is trying to be “extra correct”. Like the other reflexive pronouns, in prescriptive usage, myself should be used only when both the subject and object of the verb are the speaker, or as an emphatic pronoun (intensifier).

    * Standard (intensifying): I myself have seen instances of that type.
    * Standard (reflexive): I hurt myself. I did it to myself. I played by myself. I want to enjoy myself.
    * Non-standard: As for myself, I prefer the red. (Just use me here)
    * Non-standard: He is an American like myself. (Just use me)
    * Non-standard: He gave the paper to Jim and myself. (Just use me)
    * Non-standard: My wife and myself are not happy with all the development going on in town. (Just use I)


  5. The NCSE’s attempted outreach via its “Faith Project” looks (judging strictly from to have been turned into the Project’s director’s personal pulpit.

    I urge them to consider Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advisory Board with its media statements, speakers’ bureau, annual awards, interfaith prayer breakfast, and nationwide network of activists and supporters, as a more useful model.

  6. From Canada
    The faith that is the real opposition in intellect and organization and money is from evangelical protestantism. My faith.
    There is no problem with science and genesis.
    Somebody is right and somebody is wrong.
    Everybody just have plain old confidence in the facts and reasonings to determine what the truth.
    this is why schools should not be censored but instead be particapants in the mutual heritage of truth discovery and the contentions of mankind to that goal.
    Evolution folks show they don’t trust the people to come to the right answer.

  7. Just a quick response I guess.
    I’m not usually one for coming out in the open (I’m the lurker type), but here I go.

    I think that if you start pointing to the fact that many have lost their faith and have become atheist through studying evolution. That you need to be very very carefull with how you state that.

    The creationist movement isn’t targeting people who already know this fact, it’s targetting people that don’t and remember, one of their arguments is “evolution leads to atheism”, which is a statement that scares a lot lot lot of religious people.

    So such a statement, though fact, might just cause a divide, sure, it might convince some people, but in the long run, it will make scared Christians even more scared because the “evidence that creationists showed is now admitted”.

    It’s just not a good tactic to throw it out in the open like that, just as it isn’t a good tactic to embrace religion in the scientific issue in general.

  8. NCSE pretends that those who see a conflict between evolution and religion — whether they are bible-pounding holy-rolling fundies or godless blasphemous sacrilegious atheists, or something in-between — don’t even exist. Why in the hell should NCSE be considered to be an authority on the subject of the compatibility of evolution and religion?

  9. “Over at Panda’s Thumb, Richard Hoppe has had second thoughts about his rather strong post attacking P. Z. Myers and myself…”

    Please use “me” instead of “myself” in this context. If you don’t agree with me you won’t attack “myself”, you will attack “me”.

  10. The moderator suggests the statement “If you want to know how to reconcile the fact of evolution with your religious faith (or the faith of others), please consult your minister, rabbi, or spiritual counselor.” Particularly for Christianity, another resource is the excellent blog “An evangelical dialogue on evolution”. . This isn’t my blog, I just like it. 🙂

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