Rosenhouse vs. Mooney

June 6, 2009 • 6:03 am

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has responded to Mooney’s “part two” critique of my views on accommodationism.  It’s a superb analysis, and, as before, I couldn’t have written it better myself.  If you’ve been following these debates, this is required reading.

As I said yesterday, I’ll wait until Mooney finishes his posts before I reply in one final salvo.  But just a note or two in passing.

First, it’s refreshing to see someone who’s actually read what I had to say about accommodationism.  Mooney says he’s read my New Republic screed on this, but he doesn’t seem to have grasped it.  He gets my views on philosophical vs. methodological naturalism completely wrong; Rosenhouse gets them right.  Likewise, as I’ve said ad nauseum, not every form of faith is incompatible with science.  In my New Republic article, I claim that pure deism (which accepts a hands-off God who doesn’t intrude into the workings of the Universe) is absolutely compatible with science.  The problem is that hardly anybody is a pure deist.  It’s when you get into theistic faiths — those in which Gods tweaks the world from time to time — that we find the incompatibilities.  Rosenhouse understands this; Mooney apparently does not.

About court cases:  yes, judges can state that evolution is compatible with some faiths, but they needn’t accept this to ban the teaching of creationism.  Perhaps the most cogent legal decision ever levied against creationism was that of Judge William R. Overton in McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, the famous 1982 decision in which Overton threw out a “balanced treatment” law promoted by creationists.  As far as I can see, Overton says exactly nothing about accommodationism. His decision was made, as legal decisions have always been made in the last several decades, on the basis of the Lemon test of whether a law or statute violates the First Amendment.   As Overton notes, a law that threatens the Establishment Clause is constitutional only under the following conditions:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion …; finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.” [ Stone v. Graham, 449 U.S. at 40.]

This says nothing about whether religion and science have to be compatible before creationism is thrown out.  On the contrary:  if creationism violates the above statutes, it’s unconstititional, period.

By the way, the peroration of Overton’s decision still moves me every time I read it:

The application and content of First Amendment principles are not determined by public opinion polls or by a majority vote. Whether the proponents of Act 590 constitute the majority or the minority is quite irrelevant under a constitutional system of government. No group, no matter how large or small, may use the organs of government, of which the public schools are the most conspicuous and influential, to foist its religious beliefs on others.

The Court closes this opinion with a thought expressed eloquently by the great Justice Frankfurter:

We renew our conviction that “we have stake the very existence of our country on the faith that complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion.” Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. at 59. If nowhere else, in the relation between Church and State, “good fences make good neighbors.” [McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 232 (1948)]An injunction will be entered permanently prohibiting enforcement of Act 590.

Finally, in case you missed it, Joshua Slocum posted the following on both my site and Richard Dawkins’s.  It’s worth repeating here.

Posted June 5, 2009 at 8:55 pm

Cross-posted from Richard Dawkin’s site. For context, I’m responding to a commentor who noted that years of accomodationism simply haven’t worked, but robust confrontation of the positions of the religious is actually opening up the conversation.

I wrote:

All this nervous nellie simpering over people being “rude” or “confrontational” to the intellectually deluded (I’m talking to you, Ken Miller) reminds me of the years I spent listening to this same argument over gay rights:

“Well, see, some people, um, just can’t accept you, so, um, it’s so much better not to push them. I mean, if you’re deferent enough, they won’t feel threatened, and they won’t vote against you having equal rights. Just don’t be too flamboyant, mm’kay? And, really, don’t push your points too hard – even though you’re logically and ethically correct, they just can’t handle it, and they’ll shut down.

Isn’t it so much nicer just to get along quietly, and accept their largesse for allowing you to exist, without forcing them to be grown-ups who face the intellectual and moral consequences of their public pronouncements?”

Hell no it isn’t.

And you’re absolutely right, [commentor]: it’s *precisely* about short-term political expediency. Mooney knows that, and if he doesn’t, he’s fooling himself and compartmentalizing his views so he doesn’t have to face them. Maybe because it’s easier to get along with his friends on the accomodationist end of the spectrum, who make their bread and butter splitting the baby.

This whole issue is so baffling. How can so many very intelligent people (Mooney is among them, you can’t take that away from him) blithely go along acting as if there’s something so peculiar, so special, about American discourse that we cannot, ever, ever, ever, get over our special pleading for religion? Why do they think America, as a society, is incapable of moving on the way most of Europe has? Why are they so content with – so insistent on maintaining – the pessimistic view that America will always be burdened with this intellectual handicap?

One could say something similar about the civil rights movement of the sixties.  I was there, and clearly remember people telling activists not to make a lot of noise because it would be counterproductive, alienating those who were sympathetic.  Now accommodationists like Mooney tell us the same thing about religion. Bosh.  I am absolutely confident that some time in the distant future, we will put away our childish things and religion will disappear in America.  To those like Mooney who say that this is ridiculous, I point to Europe, where religion in all but the formal sense is almost gone.  Have a look at Society Without God, by Phil Zuckerman — a sociological study of how Denmark and Sweden have become almost atheistic countries, but retain their social conscience, morality, and many good things we don’t have in the US.

There have been so many cogent replies to Mooney — on this site, on Richard Dawkins’s site, on Mooney’s own site, and on Jason’s site — that I hardly need to reply personally.  It’s good to know there is a lot of clear thinking out there.

28 thoughts on “Rosenhouse vs. Mooney

  1. Thanks Jerry and thanks also to Joshua Slocum for his clear thinking and writing. His other posts are also excellent.

  2. As a high school science teacher, I often feel caught in the middle. I am an atheist, and believe that a thorough understanding eliminates all but the most insipid deism, as you point out. But as a public employee, I must be sensitive to the feelings, if not the beliefs, of my students.

    I am obliged to try to help the students to understand science, but I am getting tired of skirting what I see as silly, bronze age fairy tales, but I can’t really directly confront them either. Even telling students that I am an atheist could be considered abuse of my “privileged position.”

    In some respects, I feel that I understand what it must be like to be a closeted gay man.

  3. The problem is that hardly anybody is a pure deist.

    Another problem, perhaps more severe, is that pure deism doesn’t actually say anything more than atheism or naturalism.

  4. Mooney seems to think that the compatibility of science and religion is a non-debatable fact. Therefore he feels that scientists speaking against it are sort of quacks, who harm the reputation of their own profession.

    Could someone tell him that among scientists there are many opinions regarding this compatibility? I think this obvious diversity of opinions should also be enough to pacify the moderate christians fearing the “godlessness” of science.

    The term “religious scientist” is by no means an oxymoron, so why lie about a non-existent consensus regarding the compatibility of science and religion?

  5. A few things.

    Rosenhouse claims: –“Close to half of all Americans accept the young-Earth creationist view of things, if the public opinion polls are to be believed.”–

    Now, I’m not sure how he is defining young-Earth creationism here, but if it is the Biblical interpretation that is normally associated with YEC, that the Earth is from 6 to 10 thousand years old, then Rosenhouse is simply wrong. In fact, his claim is irresponsible, and I’m surprised Jerry didn’t call him out on it. Most of the problem lies in evolution by natural selection, especially where the human animal is concerned.

    Second, Jerry said: –“There have been so many cogent replies to Mooney — on this site, on Richard Dawkins’s site, on Mooney’s own site, and on Jason’s site “–

    There are indeed. I would offer however that I am seeing many of the same people mainly, sometimes cross posting, but at least with similar ideas. Not only that, but many of the same folks are posting repeatedly.

    Third, see post in link below from earlier today, it deals with the “supernatural” issue, and Jerry’s claim that “supernatural phenomena” are not completely beyond the realm of science”, along with the idea about science “studying the supernatural.”

    I think Mooney’s blog, part two, is fairly good. Rosenhouse seems to misrepresent the argument, obviously, and makes that false claim above, which is only used to bolster his argument.

    Jerry’s states: –“those in which Gods tweaks the world from time to time — that we find the incompatibilities. Rosenhouse understands this; Mooney apparently does not.”–

    The idea that Mooney doesn’t understand this is preposterous to claim. It is to not read past what is being argued, which is important when considering science.

    I think the point made by Mooney with regards to how much Barbara Forest has done for the defense of evolution is very well taken. I think Jerry makes a mistake in trying to stack up points on what has been done to stem creationism, even if we give the last 7 years since Steve Gould’s death, he would still outpace Jerry by several lapse (bad tactic Jerry, lets put you up against Kurtz, even Shermer, both have recently offered critiques).

    1. Such twisted ‘logic’. I also laugh at the idolatry of Gould and Shermer. Gould did much damage due to his unclear language and obfuscations and Shermer’s books are mediocre and partially self serving.

      1. NewEnglandBob

        -“I also laugh at the idolatry of Gould and Shermer. Gould did much damage due to his unclear language and obfuscations and Shermer’s books are mediocre and partially self serving.”-

        So ridiculous that it’s simply worth underlining.

      2. The problem with the surveys I think Rosenhouse may be using to make his claim, and why we see strange paradox’s in the answers, is because of how they’re asked.

        The ones that show high on the Young-Earth Creationism scale, that is that God created humans in their present form within 10,000 years, is because that answer is the ONLY one that always for humans being created in present form.

        This has been recognized again and again. Surveys on just the age of the earth run dramatically different.

        Here are the questions, as are asked in the surveys:

        1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,
        2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process,
        3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so?

        The problem people are having is allowing for human evolution, where they want to at least hold out humans are created in their present form. What we end up finding is that people will believe somewhere along the timescale humans were created.

        People still are not comfortable with the idea of humans developing from less advanced life forms, the god guiding or not is less important than what developing from less advanced life forms implies to people. Of course, this says nothing about the reasons, which is clearly do to religious beliefs in most cases.

        Of course we don’t see the “accomodationist” saying lets not talk about human evolution (or telling people to “shut up” about human evolution – someone like Miller’s view would be answered by 1, while leaning on 2), it is a different issue, Rosenhouse should recognize that, but it works to well as an argument.

  6. I was there, and clearly remember people telling activists not to make a lot of noise because it would be counterproductive, alienating those who were sympathetic.

    Yes, there was a lot of alienation, and actually, we’re still cleaning up the mess. See Rick Perlstein on this:

    As Perlstein says in this Firedoglake dialog, we need a more *mature* movement:

  7. I would like to add a personal note. I am getting increasingly frustrated by the attempt to connect the gay rights issues and approaches to these debates. Let me give you one example of why I think it’s a mistake. One of the first people I can remember making the “probability” argument for the (non)existence of God was the psychologist Albert Ellis. Like many of his colleagues before around 1975, Albert had held that homosexuality was a pathology that could be cured. In fact, in 1965 Ellis wrote a book titled: Homosexuality: Its Causes and Cure. Later, around the time the American Psychiatric Association reversed it stance, Ellis followed suite and revised his view in 1976.

    Why is this important, because we must be cautious about drawing correlations and drawing conclusions, especially on these matters.

    At the time Ellis was treating homosexuals to cure them, he was also forwarding fairly aggressively his “rational living” theories, which included Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy. In 1971, Ellis received the humanist of the year award, and there were some voices that were concerned.

    When I see the the efforts of the gay rights movement paralleled with these debates I can help but to think how unfortunate that is, both for the skeptical movement and a clear understanding with what was happening at the time gay rights was being fought for more aggressively.

    There are certainly areas of overlap, and we could also do this with other areas, such as the disabled, as well. One is how atheist are viewed to some extent, but not so much by the law, nor in other key areas. The Ellis example is from the U.S., but similar positions were held elsewhere and still are today, including with regards to law. Yes, religion has a good deal to do with this, but as is shown, it certainly was not all to the story. To paint the story as black and white as I do, is dishonest to a certain degree and does a disservice to those that have worked tirelessly over the years for gay rights, including many people of faith.

    1. I think you are muddying the water here (if I understand what you are saying, which I am not sure I do), by introducing the specifically religious hindrance/contribution to gay rights. That is not the argument being made; rather it is about the effect of activism in the struggle for gay rights. In the UK a Royal Commission reported on homosexual law reform in 1957 (The Wolfenden Report): it took 10 years for a change to be made, decriminilisation for acts in private by ‘consenting adults’ (ie 21+). In other words the crime remained on the statute books but the law agreed to look the other way, in very closely restricted circumstances. During this time the only group campaigning was the very middle-class and very respectful Campaign for Homosexual Equality. There is no doubt that it was the far more militant and publicly active groups (such as the Gay Liberation Front) that arose after 1967 in opposition to that mealy-mouthed law that actually obtained the virtually complete equality we have today. The same is true of the opposition to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘Clause 28’ an attempt to prevent affirmative action by local authorities. As I took part, got kicked and spat at in the streets, I feel we need to remember how these things work.

  8. Oh well, my last post shows what can happen when emotion starts filtering in to my comments. Embarrassingly so…

    An important correction (rewriting would probably be better):

    I wrote: “To paint the story as black and white as I do”

    I meant as I see done, not as “I do”.

  9. If the primary effect of teaching that evolution is true is that it inhibits theistic faiths because they are incompatible, then the teaching of evolution in public schools, other than in philosophy or comparative religion classes, is in serious Constitutional trouble. Certainly, you cannot assert that they are incompatible in public schools, though you can teach that there are people (including both theists and atheists) who believe they are incompatible and and others who believe they are not.

    1. So your first sentence means that if a truth emerges then it is unconstitutional? Total nonsense.

      There is no need to teach anything that people believe in. Science should be taught in science class. Theistic faiths should not be taught in public schools.

      1. “So your first sentence means that if a truth emerges then it is unconstitutional? Total nonsense.”

        No, it means that, even assuming that there was somehow a scientific result that science and religion are incompatible, it would still have to pass the primary effect test. That’s a legal term that can be roughly translated in this context as “the (intended) effect of teaching the particular subject.” A class in geology can teach the Earth is 4.5 billion years old because the primary effect is to convey the science of geology. On the other hand, a public school cannot teach that religions that hold to YEC are false. If a public school taught a class that picked out claims relating to YEC across multiple sciences and taught they were all false, even without mentioning YEC by name, that would probably be unconstitutional in that the primary effect of such a course would be to convey the message that religions holding to YEC are false. That would be the case irrespective of the fact that each scientific claim in the course is, by itself, correct.

        “There is no need to teach anything that people believe in.”

        The subject is going to come up because children in class are going to ask about it (sometimes after coaching by anti-science parents and ministers). The teachers can look lame by dodging the questions altogether; they can have a response that violates the 1st Amendment (and get in trouble); or they can have one that does not violate the Constitution. Simply saying that many religions and religious people believe that they don’t conflict is a Constitutional response. (Adding that many people do believe they conflict wouldn’t be a problem.)

        How effective a response is another matter.

  10. Jerry, I’m flattered that you highlighted my comment; thank you.

    Dave – it’s not all so complicated as you’re making it out to be. The connection between the gay rights struggle and the current push for broader acceptance of science and rationality is, as bric noted, one of tactics. I’m noting that the same phenomenon occurs over and over, in varied intellectual/civil rights debates: Those who are afraid of change tell us rabblerousers that we’re harming the discourse, and setting it back. In fact, the exact opposite is always true – the uncompromising and unapologetic open up space for people to have to debate issues they don’t want to. And as society moves on, we look back at the rabblerousers and wonder why we ever thought that what they were saying was so beyond the pale in the first place.

    Oh, and Dave, you wrote:

    There are indeed. I would offer however that I am seeing many of the same people mainly, sometimes cross posting, but at least with similar ideas. Not only that, but many of the same folks are posting repeatedly.

    That’s rich, coming from someone who goes on at considerable length, over and over, on this very blog. No one’s telling you to stop writing (even though some of us might feel that you drone on incessantly), so kindly get over yourself.

    1. Pardon? What the heck does that have to do with anything I said?

      Do you think I’m saying “shut up”?

      1. Yes, Dave, it did appear to me that you were at least implying that. Even if not, it just struck me as condescending and dismissive. But it’s also entirely possible I’m just being too touchy and too grumpy. I apologize.

      2. No, Joshua, you got it exactly right. He drones on incessantly, sometimes irrelevant and sometimes contradicting himself and often saying the same thing as others but taking far longer to say it.

  11. Oh, dear. I’m sorry I wrote what I did, Dave. I was obviously reading you wrong, and I feel badly about coming across so snotty. And also about mucking up the comments with it:(

    I’ll back away slowly. . ..

  12. Dave –

    When I introduced the “close to half” figure in my post I added the phrase, “if the public opinion polls are to be believed.” That was intended as an acknowledgment of the fact that public opinion polls are blunt instruments, especially on an issue as complex and nuanced as this. All that is needed for my argument is that the percentage of YEC’s be sufficiently large that it can not be dismissed as a fringe opinion, which is certainly the case.

    Furthermore, even if we interpret the 45 percent or so of Americans who consistently affirm their support for the statement, “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” to be some mix of YEC’s and OEC’s, you still have close to half the country holding religious beliefs that are directly contradicted by evolutionary science. I think that’s relevant to assessing Chris Mooney’s statement that evolution is religiously neutral, don’t you?

    1. I really hope that a simple poll question, “Approximately how old is the Earth? A) 4.5 billion years, B) 6,000 years” would give more encouraging results. For example, a long-running NSF survey has shown about 80% of respondents accept plate tectonics, that is: “The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.”

  13. is a purely deistic view actually compatible with science? If to observe is to intervene, as Heisenberg teaches us, a non interventionist god is also a non observant one. Is that a deist god?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *