The Sciences

What Should Science Organizations Say About Religion? Answer: A Lot

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJan 19, 2010 7:58 PM


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After the last post concerning Chad Orzel's position on science and religion, I want to explore the central policy question here that seems to get everyone exercised, namely: What should the science/religion stance be for top science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, etc? Many "New Atheists" would argue that such organizations should stay silent on the question, and not lend credence to the view that science and religion can be compatible (even though they certainly can be for individual people, even if not in some grand philosophical way, as Orzel explains). Let me explain why I find the NA position to be exceedingly bad advice. If you're working in America today to promote the teaching or the public understanding of evolution, you are constantly going to be dealing with religious people--in various localities across the country; in regular queries through your website and by phone, and so on. Much of America is, after all, religious. And that's not all. Much of religious America has also been told, from various pulpits, by various friends, and by sundry New Atheists, that evolutionary science is incompatible with religion. This prevailing notion creates an incredible blockade preventing the acceptance of evolutionary science. For as we know from reams of polling data, in the United States, when you pit science against religion, science often loses. Aware of this context, groups like the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) take a stance likely to help some religious believers reject what they've been told from the pulpit, and move toward a more moderate stance on science and religion--in essence, from anti-science fundamentalism to middle-ground reconciliationism. To this end, NCSE states something factually true and indeed, undeniable: that not every religious person thinks science and religion are incompatible. The veracity of this statement is not really open to debate. The issue here is simply whether such people exist, and of that there's no doubt whatsoever. In this blunt factual sense, at least, science and religion are compatible--they are reconciled all the time by actual living, breathing human beings. You might take issue with the logical basis for such reconciliation in a particular mind, but you can't deny that it happens regularly. Moreover, if religion is the mental block that prevents a wider understanding and acceptance of evolution, then by seeking to remove that mental block, a group like NCSE is simply striving to be effective. Why should its hands be tied in this regard? They shouldn't. I mean, just picture the kind of conversations a representative of NCSE would have to have with a concerned religious believer if New Atheists were setting its policy:

Religious believer: I know you say that evolution is good science, but I'm afraid of what my pastor says--that accepting it is the road to damnation. NCSE: As a policy, we only talk about science and to not take any stance on religion. So we couldn't comment on that. Religious believer: I do have one friend who accepts evolution, but he stopped going to church too and that worries me. NCSE: All we can really tell you is that evolution is the bedrock of modern biology, and universally accepted within the scientific community. Religious believer: And I'm worried about my children. If I let them learn about evolution in school, will they come home one day and tell me that we're all nothing but matter in motion? NCSE: ....

You get the point, I think. To me, it is obvious that, far from enforcing an unnecessary purism, a group like NCSE should be encouraged to speak with religious believers in terms they can understand, and in a way that will help them accept evolutionary science. The same goes for other science organizations.

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