Fear of Nuance: Science, Religion, and “A Nation of Cowards,” Part II

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankFeb 26, 2008 11:15 PM


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I will be in Seattle next week doing some work and giving a few talks on the book, but before I left I thought it worthwhile to revisit issues raised by Attorney General Holder's now infamous “Nation of Cowards” speech. My post on the topic generated a lot of dialogue, some of it about science/religion and some of it about Holder’s topic—our limited ability to talk honestly about race in America. The New York Timesprinted an editorial by Stephen Carter a few days ago on the reaction to Holder’s speech. Its point is relevant for our own discussions of science and religion:

The speech itself was more than 2,300 words. The already infamous phrase occurred about 150 words in. Thus we are left with well over 2,000 unanalyzed words—that is, the context for the phrase. For too many critics, the context of Mr. Holder’s remarks…is quite beside the point.

The problem, as Carter rightly points out, is the endless tendency to simplify any and all arguments down to the part where we can get pissed off. The reaction to Holder’s speech left the body of his argument untouched—and that reaction was, as Carter, says, “plenty of sound bites, but nothing that moves us forward.” He goes further still:

This difficulty, however, is not limited to race. There are few issues of any importance that are not reduced, in public dialogue, to sloganeering and applause lines. Whether we argue over war or the economy, marriage or religion, abortion or guns, we reduce our ideas to just the right size for the adolescent tantrum of the bumper sticker.

And here the connection to the public debate about science v. religion becomes relevant. As a species, we face challenges that are entirely new, and for which we are entirely unprepared. From climate change to resource depletion, an avalanche of structural problems is bearing down on us that contain real threats to our justifiably cherished project of civilization. It is obvious that science needs to be part of the solution. It is not as obvious that the enormous burden of those solutions will not be acted on without science being placed into a wider context—which will include what we hold sacred (there is that word again) and what we take to be sacred. We will need to create new mythologies, new stories for what human being and human civilization mean, if we are to marshal the collective will and ride this wave to the other shore. A discussion about science and religion that "moves us forward" will have to be nuanced, for there are no simple answers here. Most importantly, the discussion will have to include how science fits into the full matrix of human values and aspirations. That means the dialogue will naturally wash up against themes that people see as "spiritual." If we cannot face difficult questions without the certainty that alternative perspectives are already wrong, then the much-needed work will never get done. If we cannot get past the bumper stickers, the court cases, the bus ads, then our capacity to rise to the challenge of recasting ourselves as a truly global species will be drained. And what happens then?

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

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