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Dec 26 2007

Should scientists try to accommodate religion?

(I am taking a break from original posts due to the holidays and because of travel after that. Until I return, here are some old posts, updated and edited, for those who might have missed them the first time around. New posts should appear starting Monday, January 14, 2008.)

Within the scientific community, there are two groups, those who are religious and who hold to the minimal scientific requirement of methodological naturalism, and those who go beyond that and are also philosophical naturalists, and thus atheists/agnostics or more generally “shafars”. (For definitions of the two kinds of naturalism, see here).

As I have said earlier, as far as the scientific community goes, no one really cares whether their colleagues are religious or not when it comes to evaluating their science. But clearly this question matters when science spills into the political-religious arena, as is the case with the teaching of so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC).

Some well-known religious scientists are biologists Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, and Francisco Ayala. Since they are also opponents of IDC, they are frequently brought forward to counter IDC arguments since they embody counterevidence to IDC advocate charges that supporters of evolution are necessarily atheists.

Scientists who are also philosophical naturalists have generally not been prominent in the IDC debate, or have had their atheistic/agnostic views downplayed. This may be because of the political-religious climate in the US that has led to a strategy of not alienating those religious people who also oppose IDC. As Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, says: “Because it is taboo to criticize a person’s religious beliefs, political debate over questions of public policy (stem-cell research, the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia, obscenity and free speech, gay marriage, etc.) generally gets framed in terms appropriate to a theocracy.”

Harris argues that this is not a good strategy. “While understandable, I believe that such scruples are now misplaced. The Trojan Horse has passed the innermost gates of the city, and scary religious imbeciles are now spilling out.” As I said in the previous post, a general awareness that this is what is happening is sinking in. He goes on:

The issue is not, as ID advocates allege, whether science can “rule out” the existence of the biblical God. There are an infinite number of ludicrous ideas that science could not “rule out,” but which no sensible person would entertain. The issue is whether there is any good reason to believe the sorts of things that religious dogmatists believe – that God exists and takes an interest in the affairs of human beings; that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception (and, therefore, that blastocysts are the moral equivalents of persons); etc. There simply is no good reason to believe such things, and scientists should stop hiding their light under a bushel and make this emphatically obvious to everyone.”

Harris’ views have received enthusiastic support from Richard Dawkins, a prominent neo-Darwinian and atheist who has long criticized what he sees as the attempts by the late Stephen Jay Gould and others to accommodate religious sensibilities and downplay the irrationality of religious beliefs for fear of causing offense and creating an anti-science backlash. He thinks that tiptoeing around religious beliefs simply strengthens the hand of those who wish to undermine science.

As I said earlier, in pursuing scientific questions scientists do not care about the religious views of scientists. But when confronting the challenge of IDC and its young Earth adherents, should scientists who are philosophical naturalists stay out of the picture and leave it to only the religious methodological naturalists to combat IDC ideas, since the IDC people love to portray all scientists as atheists? Or should philosophical naturalists not feel hesitant to also challenge IDC, but from an atheistic position, and thus risk confusing the political struggle?

My personal view is that atheists should be fully involved and not keep quiet because of short term political needs.

POST SCRIPT: Another villager against Huckabee

Another Republican Villager (a former aide to Bush who calls himself a political conservative and evangelical Christian) suddenly discovers, in the light of Huckabee’s ascendancy, the virtues of the separation of church and state. He goes to comical lengths to explain why Bush’s playing of the Jesus card is good while Huckabee’s more forthright religiosity is bad.

Whiskey Fire shares my amusement at these contortions.

1 comment

  1. 1
    John

    Interesting piece, though I think too accomodating in itself.

    Scientists, when combatting any attacks, should remain scientists. Discussing, debating or defending science from anything other than a purely scientific, uncompromising view is no less dubious than mystics claiming support for their positions is to be found in quantum mechanics.

    I express this a bit more fully here:
    http://sineira.com/?cat=4

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