Unbunching My Panties (?)

I am one of those skeptics who get their panties in a bunch about religion. But, in the infamous words of Sheryl Crow, a change might do me good.

It’s hard to resist. When there is so much evidence that flatly contradicts literal “truths” of religion juxtaposed with condescension from zealots, most of whom have never studied any religion outside the one into which they happened to be born, my gut reaction is that it’s Critical Thinking vs. Magical Thinking, Evidence vs. Faith … Science vs. Religion. My logical fallacy (one of them, anyway) is that I think there exists a finite amount of logic that will make a believer come around. And so I keep investing, hoping to reach that end.

So, admittedly I’m agnostic and regardless of being told otherwise, I’ve always felt that religion was not only incompatible with science, but with critical thinking in general. I’ve heard many skeptics as well as scientists say that science and religion can peacefully co-exist, but deep down I’ve always wondered – how is that really possible when science says that (1) It’s not reasonable to accept something as true when no evidence is presented, and (2) It is reasonable to not accept something as true when evidence against it is provided and/or no evidence is provided over a long period of time. Both are true of religion, so how can science and religion truly be compatible? Can a person compartmentalize the facets of their lives so that they apply critical thinking in some areas and not others? Are the facets of our lives that are dominated by emotions and spirituality somehow exempt from proper examination?

My conclusion has been that those who thought science and religion could peacefully co-exist were scientists who just couldn’t let go of their religion (and were highly skilled at apology). After all, Michael Shermer explained this by saying, “Smart people are good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons”. So the October issue of Scientific American came as a slap in the face. Michael Shermer writes a column for Scientific American called Skeptic. In the October issue, he wrote a piece called Darwin On the Right (which parallels his book Why Darwin Matters), a request for Christian conservatives to accept Evolution. He offers six appeals, which are explained in greater detail in the article:

1. “Evolution fits well with good theology”
2. “Creationism is bad theology”
3. “Evolution explains original sin and the Christian model of human nature”
4. “Evolution explains family values”
5. “Evolution accounts for specific Christian moral precepts”
6. “Evolution explains conservative free-market economics”

(Scientific American, October 2006, p. 38)

I was both moved and humbled by this agnostic man whose research, writings, and views I have cherished, as he explained to me how Evolution is compatible with Creationism – as one theory instead of two. So I’ve been on my high-horse about the way religious activism is disrespecting science, destroying critical thinking skills, and damaging our future, while Michael Shermer is trying to build a bridge.

My first instinct was – wow, that’s smart. He understands that Christians will never acquiesce to the assertion that Creationism is false and Evolution is true. He proposes that the best way to bring Evolution, critical thinking, and science into the classroom and to the mainstream is to build a bridge between science and religion; to show how they are similar instead of different, not how one is right and the other is wrong. If this approach were successful, evolution would be taught in classrooms, teachers would explain that the theory neither confirms nor negates the existence of a creator, and that belief would become a personal choice. Sounds like a good compromise, no?

On the other hand, the approach indirectly (if not directly) condones religion, which, at the very least, requires a creative license with critical thinking, and at most, involves faith in the supernatural.  If we were to build this bridge, would it be for the right reasons? Or are we just acquiescing to the popularity of religion? And most importantly, if theists and skeptics agree to a mum-truce, are we in some way defaulting on our responsibility to teach critical thinking?

When it comes to science and religion, how much tolerance (on either side) is beneficial?

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  1. I know how could sound obscene the idea of science and religion coexisting peacefully.

    I really can't imagine such a thing.

    But life is compromises, so, if putting a bridge to the creationist could help to ease their struggle to put creationism in science classes …

    I don't know!

  2. If it is a bridge, at most it could only be a temporary one.

    I can see the need to reduce the friction between religion and science (especially since "moderate" religious people get far too offended whenever skeptics/atheists are lashing out at the irrational behavior from the fundies). But in the end, this may just serve as a way to get ALL religious people to think a little more critical, rational, scientifical. In a way, by moving the outer edge closer towards science, we're moving the middle closer as well.

    In the end, this is probably not a bad thing, although it will mean having to condone some religious insanity for a little while longer.

  3. Having just read the article referenced, I have to say I don't see it so much as reaching out toward religion, but rather a slightly less reactionary way of saying that the things religionists consider as being handed down to them by god, the bible or their religion are in fact the product of evolution.

    He's simply not including the last logical step, which would be "if these things can be explained by means other than the supernatural, what's the point in insisting on the existence of that supernatural?"

  4. I suppose the assumption is that the more reasonable ones will eventually make that last step themselves and that, ideally, the less reasonable ones will at least tone down the fuss they raise over teaching evolution.

    Frankly, I don't think it's a very good strategy, because people know condescension when they encounter it, and it tends to cheese them off.

    However, in combination with the less compromising strategies out there, it might have a positive effect in the long run. Consider it as exploiting Compulsive Centrist Disorder; between the two approaches, we can shift public discourse away from its current locus and to a position that's more friendly to atheists. Eventually, we can hope, we'll eventually reach a point where atheism is not considered evil and those who deny evolution are ridiculed and derided as backwards hicks instead of the current (although the tide is already changing) climate where they are by some miracle not immediately mocked by just about everybody — including other theists — whenever they pop up to spout off their quaint, ignorant beliefs.

    So think of it like this. Richard Dawkins is Magneto and Michael Shermer is Professor X, and this is one of those times when they set aside their difference to battle the common evil of Ignorance/the Mutant Registration Act.

  5. Wow. Joshua, I just LOVE that bit about Dawkins as Magneto. That is something I would pay a large amount of money to see.

    But the premise is correct as well. There needs to be a Dawkins, just as there needs to be a Magneto. Hopefully the shift towards a new 'center' is already underway. Any efforts that get people talking and debating rather than simply judging without examination are good efforts in my opinion, even when I wouldn't personally use the tactics. It's not about what's for my good, it's about how to help in ALL of our best interests, atheists and religites alike.

  6. I cannot believe Shermer has done this! If this is what we skeptics (and skepchicks) have to stoop to in order to make peace with "true believers" then we should just quit and go back into hiding. After reading the article, I was struck by several things: First, he recycles dangerous old social-darwinist stuff (evolution related to Christian morals, family values, Capitalism); Second, he tries to apply reason to Theology (most fundamentalists would say, "If the Bible says that God is a two-bit watchmaker, then God is a two-bit watchmaker", regardless of what is "reasonable".); Third, Evolution, at some level, "explains" everything in nature, but to apply it in the way he does to short-term cultural phenomena is wrong-headed and not helpful to our cause.

    If we are to find a way to resolve the science-vs-religion impasse, we have to do it without falling back on old, discredited concepts. Personally, I think it is hopeless – religion cannot be rationalized and reason cannot be bent to accomodate faith.

  7. Evolution does explain morality, which is not a short term cultural phenomena. Social-Darwinism was about explaining race and class.

    I suspect the basic problem with this article is the (stereotypical?) view "If religion already explains it, we don't need science too, and if science disagrees with any part of it, then science is wrong."

  8. Actually, the really big problem with Shermer's premise here is the naturalistic fallacy. Even if you could map one-to-one from the discoveries of evolutionary theory to political positions (it's not clear that you can), that doesn't make the resulting positions right or good. The evolution of morality tells us some interesting things about human nature (heck, it tells us that there is human nature, which is significant in itself), and that does discredit and rule out certain lines of thinking that depend on human nature being malleable in the short term (things like the New Soviet Man of Marxism-Leninism), but what it doesn't do is suggest one single policy or even narrow down the range of policies appreciably.

    So it's a bit silly, and I don't think anyone much will be convinced. If anything, there's hope that some of the sensible evolution-supporting theists out there can use arguments from the book as ammunition against their less-sensible churchmates, hopefully convincing the latter that evolution isn't so bad and maybe they should lay off. I still say that, coming directly from an atheist, most evolution deniers will write off these arguments as condescending and offensive.

  9. Sometimes you have to give a little to get a little. You can’t forcibly change people’s minds, and you can’t kill them, so what is left? You have to convince them. You could argue that in teaching critical thinking it’s unacceptable to allow anything less, that one must be critical and rational in all aspects. In my opinion, when you do this you’re making the critical thinking system irreducibly complex. You’re saying that only some critical thinking isn’t any better than none, and I don’t hold to that. Is it better to think critically about everything? Yes, of course, but that’s not always an option. We have to build upon the experiences and lessons of the past. Populations don’t just up and change their mind in that drastic of a way. You have to seed the ideas and let them grow, sometimes through generations, sometimes longer. This isn’t an easy course, and it certainly will not be a quick one. It will move forward through small changes here and there, transforming through a gradual progression until eventually enough people change and it becomes the norm.

    In reaching out to Christians and building that bridge, the seeds are being planted. We teach them to think critically about one thing, in the hopes that they apply it to others. And even if they don’t, it makes it easier for us to show them that it applies to other areas. I don’t think this approach condones religion, it doesn’t attempt to deny religion, but that is different. Religion whether right or wrong is a large part of humanity and it cannot be ignored or simply dismissed. Yes it would be nice if we could simply get rid of religion, but it’s simplistic to think that it can so easily be done. If we even can, in our current evolutionary state, get rid of religion it will be done gradually, progressively, by taking small steps, by first getting them to listen and then teaching.

  10. Phiend said, "Populations don’t just up and change their mind in that drastic of a way. You have to seed the ideas and let them grow, sometimes through generations, sometimes longer. This isn’t an easy course, and it certainly will not be a quick one. It will move forward through small changes here and there, transforming through a gradual progression until eventually enough people change and it becomes the norm."

    The holiday season is a perfect example of this. The pagans celebrated the winter solstice for years before Christmas became the new winter holiday. It was a political decision to make Jesus' birthday on December 25th – a decision made to ease pagans into accepting Christianity without losing their holiday festivities. As phiend points out, it starts out like this and over generations becomes the norm.

    Also, I want to say a few words in defense of Shermer's approach. The vibe I got from his article was one of respect, not condescension. My explanation of his article may have sounded condescending (though I didn't mean it too), but I felt a sense of genuine respect from Shermer and his article.

  11. Speaking from the perspective of a critically thinking theist, I will add my vote to the position put forth by Phiend. As with most contentious issues, there is usually a choice to be made between being "pure" and being "effective". If your true goal is to change people's mindsets, you are only going to be effective if you are willing to enter into a give-and-take dialogue with them. If you proceed from a position of absolutism (on ANY subject), you are unlikely to have much success. Dogmatic orthodoxy may allow you to feel pure and untainted, but it usually just ends up pissing off the people you might otherwise be able to reach.

    I have been asked to co-teach a class on Creationism vs. ID vs. Evolution next month at my church. Much as I would like to be able to tell the non-evolutionists that I think they are a bunch of scientifically illiterate morons, I know that would not be an effective way of getting them to "see the light". Instead, I will try to use a similar approach to that Shermer puts forth. Last time I did this, it seemed to be effective. First, though, I will have to lock horns with my co-teacher, a theologically conservative seminary intern!

  12. Good point Steve. I don't know if you're a student of Stephen Covey, but he makes the same point in his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. And he means seek to genuinely understand others and take their concerns into consideration when presenting your POV, as I believe Shermer is doing.

  13. sraiche,

    I was at Shermer's talk at Harvard back in October where he made many of the same points. I agree completely that his tone is in no way condescending. However, I simply feel that it will be received as such by its target audience. (Presumably, conservative Christians who oppose the teaching of evolution in school.)

    At least, that is, as delivered by Shermer himself, who is an atheist scientist and will be known to his audience as such. I think they're going to reject the argument as being a kind of dirty trick, because all along they've been told by others in their community — including authority figures such as their pastors — that evolution is against God and America and apple pie. Turning around and saying that, well, we'll agree to disagree on the God bit, but evolution is totally 100% about America and apple pie, is a bit suspicious. People will trust their own group over this outsider.

    On the other hand, theists who already support evolution could use these arguments to try to win over their peers, and that might gain some traction. But I don't think Shermer's book will have a direct effect on the target audience, and, in fact, there's evidence (I linked a book called Darwinian Conservatism above) that people over behind the enemy lines, so to speak, are already using this argument… and already meeting considerable opposition from others on the right and from, naturally, ID supporters.

    (Aside, this is interesting. The author of the aforementioned Darwinian Conservatism comments on Shermer's book.)

  14. The very first comment to the blog post I just linked, incidentally, shows why the strategy isn't exactly fool-proof. The argument goes, basically, "That's all well and good, but it doesn't enhance my Christianity, so why do I care about this evolution garbage?" That's the risk of telling people that evolution supports things they already accept anyway — why bother, then?

    It seems to me that those who hold on to creationism over evolution don't really care about the political consequences. They, like the third commenter on that post, are more interested in the spiritual consequences. To them, even if evolution supports their political ideology, it's still an empty idea that leaves them without this "greater purpose" so many are keen on.

    I think Dawkins' responses are actually better at addressing that angle by saying, well, God probably doesn't exist, and nobody agrees on what he would be like if he did, so really this so-called "greater purpose" that comes from God is in itself illusory anyway… but it doesn't matter, because we have freedom to choose our own purpose in life.

    And then there's the Sagan angle that uses evolution and cosmology to tie us in with billions of years of history and reveal our position as part of a grand web that ties us to the stars and the entire universe.

    Appealing to politics seems pretty weak in comparison.

  15. sraiche,

    I have not read Covey's work, but he must be very clever indeed if he agrees with me! (wink). As a scientist who is also a theist, I walk the minefield every day, on both sides of the fence. There are so many labels we use without even thinking about it (Democrat, Republican, Christian, Atheist, etc.) that carry along with them an ENORMOUS load of emotional baggage in people's minds. And the baggage is different for everyone! So the trickiest part in all of this is to choose your words carefully so as not to provoke an unintended reaction in your listener that causes them to reject your ideas out of hand. One wrong "trigger" word and BOOM!

    I supect that Joshua is right when he questions the value of Shermer's work to his target audience. I know from experience that when you are questioning someone's basic belief system, they first have to trust that you are not trying to hurt them. It almost ends up having to be limited to working on a few people at a time, due to the large commitment of time and energy neede to gain their trust. I have managed to open up a dialogue with a few fairly conservative types in my church, but it has taken a lot of work. It is my hope that by "tipping" a few of the people on the farther end of the spectrum, there may be others that will follow that maybe aren't as far out to begin with. Sort of like:

    "Boy, if he can convince Joe, then maybe he is worth listening to."

    I guess I should go and get a copy of Shermer's article! If they hear the words coming from me, they're a LOT more likely to listen. I'll trust that Shermer won't mind if I co-opt his ideas.

  16. Steve, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Shermer's article was written precisely for people like you, who are trying to explain to some of the "nutcases" why evolution is a proven fact, and why denying its truth is nothing more than childish sticking-fingers-in-ears behavior, but not getting any further for lack of good arguments.

    Perhaps it may be true that learning more about evolution and science may take away some of the religious wonder and awe and the sense of purpose, but I'm also sure that all things considered, these people will eventually realize it's better to not be seen as idiots any more by everyone else, rather than having that little bit of magic their blissful ignorance now gives them.

  17. Sure, but you'll be trading religious awe and wonder for scientific awe and wonder. Something they may not be comfortable with.

  18. exarch,

    You raise an interesting point about awe and wonder. Society in general seems to take a dim view of scientists' ability to see beauty in the world. Maybe religious belief is the basis for much of it, but I suspect it is simply a preference for not having to use one's brain. I have always found my scientific background (or mindset) to provide me with an even greater appreciation for the beauty of the world. The mathematical symmetires inherent in nature are an endless fascination for me. I can spend 5 minutes solid just looking at an interesting leaf. Seriously. This explains why my family has a tendency to walk on ahead when we are out hiking!

    Anyway, I think scientists have done an AWFUL job explaining this concept to non-scientists. Maybe it's because many of us are borderline autistic, and thus lacking in social skills. I don't know. But I do think that if we scientists made more of an effort to show our enthusiastic and raw appreciation of the beauty of the world around us, we might not be viewed with such suspicion. We need more people like Carl Sagan!

    They key is to remember to never take something away without giving something back. Take away Orion the Hunter, but give them the Orion Nebula. That sort of thing. I think that is the basis for much of the dislike/mistrust of atheists. Atheists have not, I would argue, done a very good job of building up a publicly seen positive world view. Not that they don't necessarily have one, just that it's not the perception. You are seen as people who only want to "take away" beauty, not give anything back. Time for a new marketing campaign!

  19. I think you're probably not too far off with all the scientists being borderline autistics.

    But when you turn that around, you might consider all the religious people to be borderline epileptic (or whatever brain-hiccup it is that gives them "visions"). So perhaps these two mental states are simply mutually exclusive? Maybe, having one "affliction" prevents you from (naturally) experiencing the other end of the spectrum, or even from comprehending their position?

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