The Sciences

Civility and the New Atheists

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyMay 31, 2009 8:39 PM

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Yesterday at the Michigan State C.P. Snow conference, I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel with Barbara Forrest, a philosopher and author of the pioneering and immensely important book

Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design,

which exposed the true religious nature of the ID movement. Based on this work, Forrest played a critical role in defense of evolution as a witness in the Dover trial of 2005. At Michigan State, the "two cultures" issue that Forrest tackled was science vs religion, and I really enjoyed her take, as it dovetails so closely with my own view. So let me attempt to summarize her argument and why it resonated for me. Like Forrest, I'm not personally religious. Like Forrest, I believe that in a society of diverse faiths--one that is also comprised of many nontheists--public policy must be based upon secular arguments and facts we can all agree on. You can't base public policy on religion because it is impossible for the everyone in such a diverse society to agree about religion--period. This is the classic liberal argument for the separation of church and state. Forrest eloquently defended this view in the first half of her talk; but in the second, she also challenged the latest secularist to start a ruckus--Jerry Coyne, who I've criticized before. In a recent New Republic book review, Coyne took on Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, two scientists who reconcile science and religion in their own lives. Basically, Forrest's point was that while Coyne may be right that there's no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he's very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion? Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:

1. Etiquette. Or as Forrest put it, "be nice." Religion is a very private matter, and given that liberal religionists support church-state separation, we really have no business questioning their personal way of making meaning of the world. After all, they are not trying to force it on anybody else. 2. Diversity. There are so many religions out there, and so much variation even within particular sects or faiths. So why would we want to criticize liberal Christians, who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy, who are pro-evolution, when there are so many fundamentalists out there attacking science and trying to translate their beliefs into public policy? 3. Humility. Science can't prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?

Forrest therefore concluded her talk by saying that we need are "epistemological and civic humility"--providing the groundwork for "civic friendship." To which I can only say: Amen.

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