sphagnum moss, dark water, and politics
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Face Inwards, Aim . . .and Fire!
A little while back Amanda wrote a very interesting post arguing that by aggressively pushing creationism into public/scientific spaces, fundamentalists set up the conditions for a backlash:
See, I think the reason that creationism (and pseudo-scientific variations) survives much at all is they really take advantage of most people’s polite unwilllingness to get overly confrontational about religious faith . . . In exchange for this, most religions keep to themselves. In ecological terms, you’d say that faith and reason simply don’t compete for the same resources—in this case, the church and the classroom would really be different environments. But by using this assumption that it’s impolite to belittle someone else’s faith, the fundies have tried to shoehorn their myths into the science classroom. Now in order to fight them off, it’s become important for freethinkers to aggressively attack this social nicety about not aggressively questioning faith, because basically we have to tear apart the competition’s armor in order to prevent them from competing with us for what’s ours—the classroom, etc.I've seen this general idea before - in a Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer piece by Jennifer Michael Hecht that seems to have dropped off the face of the internet - but this goes rather further in suggesting a specific mechanism. And while Jennifer, if I'm remembering right, basically suggested we should all join liberal religious institutions, for the social and spiritual benefits, Amanda sees these attacks on religion's "defense mechanism" as ultimately hurting mainstream churches, as folks who belonged mostly because that's what one does get persuaded into atheism.
Whether or not creationism has survived solely because folks have been too polite and tolerant, I'm rather doubtful, but the wider argument seems very pertinent. Early this week the New York Times reported on the Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival conference, calling it A Free-for-All on Science and Religion, where:
Somewhere along the way, a forum this month at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., which might have been one more polite dialogue between science and religion, began to resemble the founding convention for a political party built on a single plank: in a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as teller of the greatest story ever told.. Apparently there was much heated and contentious rhetoric, between Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Steven "long nightmare of religious belief" Weinberg saying things like
Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization.and folks like Francisco Ayala, Lawrence M. Krauss, Melvin J. Konner , and Neil Tyson arguing not only that
"People need to find meaning and purpose in life . . . I don’t think we want to take that away from them (Ayala) . . . Science does not make it impossible to believe in God . . .We should recognize that fact and live with it and stop being so pompous about it.(Krauss)but that folks like Harris and Dawkins
are remarkably apt mirror images of the extremists on the other side . . .and that you generate more fear and hatred of science (Konner), [that Dawkins'] methods . . .how articulately barbed you can be, end up simply being ineffective, when you have much more power of influence. (Tyson)Meanwhile some pro-science blogs were having their own tempest in a teapot, set off by an apparently joking remark (joking status affirmed here). Next thing you know, folks were making little lists of who was on which side or team - whether they're Dawkins-following evangelical atheists on a reckless crusade to destroy religion, risking the real goal of defending evolution and science education . . . or Neville Chamberlain appeasement-types happily compromising science for classroom peace-in-our-time. (Because we need more of that kind of thinking, right?) Meanwhile, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts and Mike Dunford of The Questionable Authority (among others) think all this is pretty absurd.
And I'd have to agree. It might be because I'm rereading A Politics of Virtue: Hinduism, sexuality, and countercolonial discourse in Fiji, by John D. Kelly, examining why, to quote the blurb:
In 1929 the Fiji Indian community, composed of ex-indentured laborers and their descendents, had united in an anticolonial boycott led by a Fiji Indian National Congress modeled by the Indian National Congress in India. But in the midst of this political crisis, the Fiji Indians began a debate among themselves about the sexual morality of women and gods. In this debate over virtue, the Fiji Congress dissolved and the community fractured into groups self-defined in religious terms: the Arya Samaj, The Fiji Muslim League, the Sanatan Dharm.And in my mind, this is about politics, and that's the ground where I think we should fight, whatever other battles or truces one might conduct. What's happened is that fundamentalists - or, to borrow a more specific term from Michelle Goldberg, Christian Nationalists - have been encroaching on public spaces (often ones they'd been evicted from, and rightfully so, decades or centuries earlier), causing a growing number of people - across the political spectrums, and much of the religious ones - to end up united in opposition.
The fight here is, I think, for secularism - for secular science, secular government, and a secular-friendly public square. Secularism's turned into a Scary Word for a lot of people, and I want to write about that sometime soon, but the simplest way I can think to describe it is this picture: a ring of rainbow-colored lights that overlap in the middle to produce a space of purest white. That middle bit's secularism. People of all beliefs can come together to learn and do science; there is no such thing as Jewish or Christian or atheist or Islamic or etc. science. (Science doesn't say there is no God: it simply goes along as if that issue is irrelevant, happily and productively assuming that, for the purpose at hand, it's working with natural phenomena and natural causes. Just like driving, or cooking, or construction, or warfare, or business, where God won't fix your distribution problems, or raise your souffle, or etc. I think history and daily life alike suggests this - methodological naturalism, to get all fancy - is a pretty good idea). And people of all beliefs can come together here [the U.S.] as citizens running (however distantly, and at cross-purposes) a democratic nation - not a Christian Nation, but a nation of Christians, and agnostics, and Jews, and Zoroastrians, and atheists, and Muslims, and Wiccans, and whatever. (Seems like a good way to run a free country.)
And I should note that there isn't a real equivalence in these culture wars: Dawkins and friends don't push for atheistic teacher-led 'prayers' in public school classrooms, or science teachers telling high school students that God doesn't exist, or etc. Anyway, though, let me just say - of course, whatever folks might do after the lab coat comes off is their business. But to paraphrase a famous line: It's religion and philosophy's job to tell us whether heaven exists (and how to get there if so); it's science's job to give some small child a telescope to peer through, and tell them look, look at all the beautiful stars!
I'm on that side.
See also Nick Matzke on how Neil deGrasse Tyson is the new Carl Sagan.
posted by Dan S. on 10:17 AM | | link
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