Generals who don't know the nature of war

Once again the issue of whether science and religion are ‘compatible’ has arisen in the science blogosphere. Jerry Coyne, seconded by PZ Myers, Russell Blackford, and Larry Moran among others, has written a critique of the “accommodationist” position taken by the National Center for Science Education, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Coyne characterizes those organizations’ positions as meaning that NCSE “cuddles up to [religion], kisses it, and tells it that everything will be all right.” John Wilkins, who AFAIK does not second Coyne’s motion, even has a multiple-choice question on the issue going. This post grew out of a comment I made there.

I think Coyne has made a surprisingly confused argument against a straw man, and I’ll outline why below.

First, let me make a couple of disclaimers. Recall the Panda’s Thumb policy regarding contributors (which is currently not visible for some reason). Basically, posts on Panda’s Thumb are the views of the post authors and not of some corporate “Panda’s Thumb.” We all differ on one or more issues, and we argue about them publicly and privately, sometimes with great vigor. This is one of those issues. What I post is from me, not other PT authors.

Second, I am an atheist. On the late (and by some, lamented) Internet Infidels Discussion Board where I was an administrator, my sig said I was 6.5 on the Dawkins scale on which Dawkins himself laid claim only to a 6. (I’m now consigliere to the administrators of The Secular Cafe.)

With that out of the way, I’ll first describe one plain fact: people exist who are both religious (Christian) believers and competent, even distinguished, scientists, in the sense of actually doing standard science in a context like a secular university or industrial laboratory and publishing in the peer reviewed scientific literature. Those people (excluding the presuppositionalists of the AIG, ICR, and Disco ‘Tute sort) do not in their scientific work invoke supernatural entities as causal or explanatory variables. If one reads their scientific papers one finds that they address genuine scientific issues without reference to angels, demons, gods, or intelligent designers. Their papers in Nature and Science and Cell are indistinguishable from the papers of scientists who are not religious believers. So it follows that individual scientists can make some sort of accommodation with their religious beliefs that does not impact their science. It is quite obviously the case that one can be both a religious person and a working and productive scientist: they exist and in at least some cases (Kenneth Miller, Francisco Ayala) flourish in a scientific environment.

The question is what Coyne is arguing against, and there he’s confused. Reading his post one actually sees that he’s making a false claim. Let me illustrate it by a representative quotation:

When a professional organization makes such strong statements about the compatibility of science and faith, and ignores or gives but a polite nod to the opposing view, that organization is endorsing a philosophy.

The “strong statements” are apparently such radical claims as this quoted by Coyne from the NAS:

Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith.

Many [religious denominations] have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible.

And then Coyne quotes this from NCSE:

In public discussions of evolution and creationism, we are sometimes told that we must choose between belief in creation and acceptance of the theory of evolution, between religion and science. But is this a fair demand? Must I choose only one or the other, or can I both believe in God and accept evolution? 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.

Coyne adds

You can’t get much more explicit than this. To those of us who hold contrary views, including the idea that religion is dangerous, this logic sounds like this:

We are sometimes told that we must choose between smoking two packs a day and pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Many cigarette companies, however, hold unequivocally that no such choice is necessary.

How on earth is it a “strong statement … endorsing a philosophy” to make existence claims that are so easily defended? Those denominational statements exist, just as individual scientists who are religious believers exist. Coyne is here tilting at a windmill of his own making. What “opposing view” is there – that those denominational statements and individual scientists don’t exist? Bah. NAS has not taken a “philosophical” position that I can see. (I pressed Francisco Ayala on this a few months ago. He mentioned that Steven Weinberg was on the drafting committee that wrote the statement. Weinberg is not particularly soft on religion.) The NAS statement points out two plain facts: some good scientists are believers and some denominations do not see a conflict between their version of Christianity and evolution. That Coyne believes that religion is dangerous (a sentiment that I largely share: it can be dangerous to self and society to listen to voices inside one’s head or to those whose only claim to authority is a private pipeline to one or another god) is irrelevant, a non sequitur. The question is whether people can both hold some sorts of religious beliefs and do good science, and as I noted above, that is a plain fact, and it is not endorsing a philosophical position to observe that they exist.

Then after a bit of diversionary fluff claiming that he “enormously admires” NCSE and its current leaders, Eugenie Scott and Kevin Padian, Coyne specifically attacks NCSE’s approach. He writes

The pro-religion stance of the NCSE is offensive and unnecessary – a form of misguided pragmatism.

Baloney. Pure unadulterated knee-deep baloney. First, of course, NCSE’s statements are not pro-religion; they are restatements of the facts I noted above: Some good scientists have religious beliefs, and some Christian denominations publicly aver that their theological views and science do not conflict. Now, they may be mistaken – Coyne would say they are – but that does not say anything about the existence of their claim.

So Coyne has constructed a straw man, that NCSE and NAS and AAAS endorse particular religious views, and rants against it. He is in this respect not all that different from Larry Caldwell and his wife, who brought suit against the University of California Museum of Paleontology’s and NCSE’s Understanding Evolution site because it claims, like NCSE, AAAS, and NAS, that science and religion can be compatible, again, a plain statement of fact: those people exist.

I’m one of the foot soldiers in this battle, a sergeant operating in a conservative rural county far from the ethereal heights of the University of Chicago. I’ve been at it (off and on, mostly on for the last 6 years) for more than 20 years. I published my first article on the political nature of the evolution/religion conflict in 1987. I am engaged at the local and state levels, the former on a weekly basis (search this blog on “Freshwater” for local stuff and see here for just one example of State BOE stuff). My political experience goes back to 1968, when I was a big city Democratic party ward officer. I have a hell of a lot better view of what’s pragmatically necessary and what is effective at the level of the local school board and the local church than Coyne can even imagine. Coyne (and Myers and Moran and Dawkins) are not engaged at that level on anything approaching a regular basis. They lead their congregations from high pulpits. They sit above the choir preaching a message that is disconnected from – indeed, sometimes antithetical to – the reality on the ground. They’re the generals who argued against air power, courtmartialed Billy Mitchell, and then watched ships sink at Pearl Harbor. Coyne wants to argue philosophy in a political war. That’s not a tactic, it’s a politically lethal red herring.

I value Coyne’s contributions to science and I like his book a whole lot – I bought it and I use its arguments and information where they’re appropriate. But he’s tactically ignorant and apparently doesn’t know the nature of the battle on the ground. Dueling OpEds in the NYTimes are not the venue in which this war will be won or lost. Political battles are not won by generals; they’re won by foot soldiers on the ground, often in spite of the diversions of the generals. The creationists know that approach; we scientists don’t, by and large. They know it’s a political war. We haven’t done so well at realizing that political wars are won one household, one school board, one church at a time. NCSE knows that, and knows what it takes on the ground. To win those battles we don’t need generals who are ignorant of the nature of the issues on the ground. We need advocates who are not hampered by generals who divert and hamper them with ill-advised philosophical and tactical sermons.

I did a 3-Sunday series of talks on religion, evolution, and morality in a local Protestant church recently. Had I walked in there and opened with “OK, folks, in order to understand and accept evolution as I’ll present it today, you have to deconvert” I’d have lost my (overflow) audience in the first five minutes. That would have robbed me of the opportunity to introduce religious people to the power and breadth of the theory and to describe the misconceptions that the fundamentalist Christians have been feeding children and adults in my community. And that’s a losing strategy, Jerry.