The battle over NCSE

It’s still going on. Jerry Coyne repeated our common criticism that the NCSE spends too much effort promoting Christianity; then Richard Hoppe fires back, complaining that his comment was held in moderation (Coyne has been sick for a while, you know…I wish people would have more patience), and then repeating the common and misguided defense that NCSE is not an atheist organization. We know. We’ve both agreed on multiple occasions that the NCSE should not be an atheist organization. But still we get this same tiresome objection.

NCSE’s main remit is defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools. That defense is both legal (think Kitzmiller) and political (think the Dover PA school board election after that trial but before the verdict was in). One cannot win political battles without accepting alliances with groups with whom one does not agree on all aspects of all issues. To imagine otherwise is to live in dreamland.

Yes? Please look in a mirror, Richard!

As I’ve said before, said just above, am saying again, and will no doubt have to say a hundred times more, no one is asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization, and no one is saying that the NCSE shouldn’t make strategic alliances with religious organizations. I’d put it in 72 point type if I thought it would help, but I doubt that anything will.

The problem is that the NCSE is not neutral on atheism vs. religion, but has clearly taken a side in preferring one particularly fuzzy, liberal, soft version of Christianity as its ‘acceptable’ religious belief. I have a preference for it myself — it’s what I was brought up in, and I think the country would be in far better shape if there was more widespread support for a faith that quietly defers to science on material matters and supported progressive ethical values — but that does not justify exclusively endorsing it, especially since I think promoting atheism would have even better consequences for the nation. If the NCSE is to be respected as an honest broker, supporting only better science education, it can’t do so by this weird sectarian favoritism.

What raises hackles is that once again NCSE is caught promoting a cult event, a group of theologians and preachers gathering to babble incompetently about evolution. As usual, they’re being selective: Spong and Giberson and their ilk will always get a thumbs-up from the NCSE, but they don’t seem to appreciate that they are almost as great a minority as atheists, and that supporting this one slippery version of Christianity is not going to suddenly win over the majority to their side. The fact that most of the participants at this conference are generally nice people is not a reason to argue that they’re right.

Here’s what would make me content, and satisfy me that the NCSE was not turning into a religious organization. It’s only two things, and it does not involve sticking a knife in the back of any Christian groups, and none of it involves adding an atheist bias to the center.

  1. Demonstrate some rigor in who they’re going to promote. Right now, it looks like any religious group that announces that they’re OK with evolution, for any reason, gets the happy-clappy treatment from the NCSE. It doesn’t matter if what they’re doing is pushing teleology and a history of godly intervention — if they say their faith is compatible with evolution, no matter how much they distort the science, they get the thumbs-up. Have some standards; don’t allow your logo to be slapped on a gathering of theologians of the acceptable faith, unless there is going to be some critical thinking encouraged, and honest evaluation of the evidence.

  2. Be more equitable in distributing information. The most glaring discrepancy in NCSE’s current policy of so-called alliance-building is that atheists are left out; I presume their support is taken for granted. But I will note that some ditzy conference by Biologos-types gets front page attention from the NCSE, while Richard Dawkins can tour the country giving talks on evolution (if anyone had been paying attention, they’d know that most of his talks are about science, not atheism) and be completely ignored. It’s as if the biggest, most popular promoters of science in the world do not exist, simply because they aren’t liberal Christians.

    Why? Apparently because the alliances they are trying to build are with delicate bigots who will balk if the NCSE even occasionally acknowledges that atheists are sharing goals with them. It doesn’t help to pander to such fragile souls, especially if you’re going to turn around and use their sensitivity to accuse atheists of refusing to work alongside Christians on the issues of science education. We aren’t the ones threatening to abandon science education because Christians are involved in it, please notice; we aren’t the ones refusing to cooperate with religious people who want to better teaching in this country. Instead, we’re the boogey men the NCSE would like to hide in the closet.

Note that I agree that the principle in point #1 should also apply to #2. There are plenty of atheist conferences that address evolution, and many of them are using it to lead the cheer for atheism in the same way that Biologos uses it to promote Christianity. The NCSE is under no obligation to promote every atheist meeting. But I think if they’re going to push anything as aiding the cause of science education, it ought to be events that feature science and education. Right now, it’s science and education and friendly theology. That latter addition represents mission creep, and a growing bias towards promoting a version of religion.

Jerry is precisely right. NCSE is becoming Biologos, and Biologos is an openly and honestly sectarian organization that evangelizes for a specific version of Christianity. That makes NCSE the secretive and dishonest version of the same, and as a long-term supporter of the NCSE (and someone who never will support Biologos), I object. Get back on track with an honest neutrality on the conflict between science and religion, please.

And do I need to say it again? That doesn’t mean promoting atheism. I know what that looks like, and I do it myself all the time, and it’s not what anyone is asking the NCSE to do.