In which Andrew Brown gets everything completely wrong

Brown has posted a reply to my angry criticisms, and as is increasingly common among the accommodationists, he gets everything backwards, upside down, and inside out. Let’s start with the first paragraph.

PZ posted a tremendous rant about me and Michael Ruse last week, which concluded with a heartfelt exhortation to both of us to “fuck off” (his emphasis). The cause was a piece I did on the grauniad site about Ruse’s visit to a creation museum in which he experienced, for a moment, “a Kuhnian flash” that it might all be true. Never mind that this was a momentary feeling. It was unmistakable evidence of heresy, or commerce with the devil God which demanded anathematisation and commination, which it duly got.

No, I was not upset about some “heresy”. I was appalled at some awesome stupidity.

Imagine that Michael Ruse were to come to my house, or Jerry‘s house, or Richard‘s house, or Dan‘s house, and engage us in conversation. He might hear things that prompt him to disagree with us and even condemn our opinions. He’d be wrong, and we’d all argue back, but at least we’d understand what prompted the debate — we did!

He did not do that. Michael Ruse went to Ken Ham‘s house, twirled about among the exhibits showing dinosaurs with saddles, Noah’s ark being built to carry off members of every species on earth, exhortations to accept Biblical literalism, and accusations of malice and dishonesty against every sensible biologists, and what do he and Andrew Brown do? Why, blame the atheists, of course.

That is insane.

What the hell is wrong with Ruse? How can he stand among the lies, with little children being told abominable fabrications, and think then that the pressing problem is people who demand evidence for their beliefs? I was unimpressed with his momentary show of self-serving “open-mindedness”; but I was disgusted with his completely inappropriate neglect of a genuine problem to fling blame at the people who have consistently opposed every facet of that monument to ignorance.

And what the hell is wrong with Andrew Brown? Not only does he not blink an eye at that bizarre scapegoating, but now he buys in to Ruse’s strange argument that

the State may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion.” School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

His idea is that the atheists are political and legal liability, because the creationists are just going to turn that argument against evolution if there is even a faint whiff of atheist support for the science — we are poison that will taint science education, and so he considers us a big problem. That we actively state that understanding science erodes religious belief sets up that “hostility to religion” that will give creationism a victory.

Which, of course, is complete bullshit. Nobody gets to dictate what beliefs individuals have, whether it is a brand of Southern Baptist hellfire-and-brimstone fundamentalism or secular humanism, and people like Ruse will never get us to silence ourselves because of his belief in contamination by association. We do not tell teachers that they cannot go to church on Sunday because that will introduce religion into the classroom, we tell them that they can’t use the classroom to preach sermons. Nor can he now claim that because some of us atheists are loud and militant in the public square, that means we are promoting state-sponsored atheism.

I’ve given a talk on science and education a few times this past year. Let me show you the first slide I put up.


While that rather clear and unambiguous statement is on display, I explain with pedantic redundancy what it means to my audiences of (mostly) atheists: we can not go into our classrooms and advocate Christianity, Islam, Scientology, or whatever nonsense the teacher favors, but we also cannot advocate atheism. I spell it out in pragmatic terms: we cannot fight against sectarian religious belief in the classroom, because it will shut out some students, and it will particularly rebuff the students who need the science the most. Even fundies deserve a good science education.

Jerry Coyne has been just as clear on this point repeatedly.

Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE? Not at all. I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution.

None of us are saying that we need to proselytize godlessness in the classroom, or that we need NCSE or NAS to hinge their defense of evolution on making it hostile to religion. We’re saying the exact opposite. It’s getting a little tiresome to have to deal with people who ignore our plain speech to insist that we’re conspiring to violate the separation of church and state.

We do think science has an effect of encouraging students to question dogma, because by necessity all of science must be about inquiry into everything, but we also do not directly criticize religion in the context of our classes because we’re confident that we do not need to. If a religion contradicts reality, presenting reality is all it will take. However, it’s going to be even harder to teach science when clueless gobshites like Ruse are busy promoting an interpretation of the first amendment that means that if a religion teaches that the sky is green, teachers are not allowed to mention that the sky is blue in class for fear of endorsing an idea “hostile to religion”.

Furthermore, the root of our opposition to the accommodationist stance taken by these scientific organizations isn’t that it is insufficiently atheistic — do we need to say again that that is not what we’re aiming for? — but that they are promoting a specific sectarian religion instead. I don’t hold with theistic evolution myself, obviously, but neither do the fundies at Answers in Genesis, or Reasons to Believe, or any of the other creationist organizations. They can quite rightly point at what NCSE is doing, and it is saying that a certain narrow range of beliefs, in particular liberal Christian theology, are acceptable, but the Seventh Day Adventists, the Southern Baptists, the Wisconsin Synod of the Lutheran Church, the fundamentalist Muslims, and the atheists, etc., etc., etc., are all wrong. You can be a certain kind of Christian and have beliefs that do not directly conflict with evolution.

This kind of Christianity happens to be the majority view among those people who are pro-science and happen to be religious. Even among non-believers like Brown and Ruse there is a temptation to hope that more Christians will accept this less threatening position — that they will become apostate to their fundamentalist/evangelical faiths and become deists and Unitarians and progressive, liberal Catholics and Anglicans and Presbyterians and whatever (I confess, I wouldn’t mind that so much myself). But when we say that, we are endorsing a narrow range of religious belief. It’s surrendering to a comfortable accommodation with a majority, it’s pandering, and it’s also turning science education into a tool for promoting a particular kind of religion. Let’s not go down that road, please.

But Brown and Ruse want to go down that road. They see this as a strategy for silencing those harsh and obnoxious atheists, by inventing speculative scenarios in which atheists are the villains.

But the American courts have never been asked to decide whether science is the negation of religion: in fact the defenders of evolution and of science teaching in schools have gone to great lengths to ensure that the question was not asked. The “accommodationists” whom Coyne so despises, have been brought out in all the court cases so far to say that that evolution and Christianity, science and religion, are perfectly compatible. If the courts were asked to decide whether not whether ID was a religious doctrine, but whether evolution was a necessarily atheist one, and if they decided that Jerry Coyne and PZ and Dawkins and all the rest are right, then science teaching would become unconstitutional in American public schools. They would, in short, have fucked themselves.

If Michael Ruse’s version of the principle, that science must conform to religion to avoid appearing hostile to it, were to be validated by the courts, then yes, we would be well and truly fucked. What Ruse and Brown are proposing is granting religion even greater privileges, using the law to make opposing superstition outside the classroom grounds to limit what science may be taught inside it. The creationists would love it if Ruse’s interpretation of the law were true.

As for the prospect of the courts reading the documents from the NCSE and NAS and deciding that evolution was unconstitutional because it promotes atheism…fat chance. They hush up and ignore anyone who’s critical of faith. It’s more likely that the creationists could make a case that the NCSE and NAS are using the science classroom to promote liberal Catholicism.

For more detail on Ruse’s strange position, see Jason Rosenhouse.

Jerry Coyne has also replied to Brown.