Sunday, February 26, 2006

My Sunday sermon

I don't like evangelism. I believe what I believe, you believe what you believe, and I think it's arrogant to suggest that you have all the answers that I need. That goes for atheists, it goes for theists. It's why I don't write about religion here. Whatever answers I think I have are mine, and may be wrong. Whatever answers other people think they have are theirs, and they should enjoy them. I blog about science and policy because whatever prior expectations I may have, I can test them and reject the bad. They aren't beliefs because I can test them and reject them. See Cheney takes aim at tax policy, sends truth to the hospital for an example. The statement that tax cuts will increase tax revenue has no empirical basis, and can best be classified as a religious claim.

There's been a minor thing brewing in the last week or so between PZ Myers, Chris Mooney, and originally Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett (and by now the rest of the blogosphere) about "hiding atheists away" in discussions of evolution, the framing issues involved in calling atheists "brights" and other tangentially related topics. It taps into the deeper issues of the connection between evolution and atheism, how that impacts the Great Creationism Wars, and on and on. Mike the Mad Biologist nails it:
I want to address the issue of whether atheism and theism should be involved at all. That's because atheism–and yes, theism too–has as much to do with evolutionary biology as feminism [or art history -TfK] does. That is to say, very little at all (note: my intent here is not to denigrate feminism [or art history -TfK]). …

While some might find it hard to reconcile a belief in any form of God with evolution or scientific materialism in general, evolutionary biology has no means to assess the validity of the 'God hypothesis.' Whether I believe in God or follow an organized religion seems to me to have nothing to with the theories of common descent or natural selection. On philosophical grounds, I don't think arguments over the existence of God should be introduced into the argument for evolution. It's just not germane.

an aside: I'm not a complete idiot; I realize the 'religious' right introduces religion into the debate to a far greater extent than the pro-science side. However, responding to that is an issue of tactics and framing, and is not what I'm discussing here. Personally, I don't think atheists should have to hide their beliefs. However, when explaining and defending evolution, getting into the 'God conflict' is not only bad tactically, but as I explained, simply not relevant. Tactically, the ability to shoot down the 'godless evolutionists' concept by proclaiming one's religious beliefs is, regrettably, a useful rhetorical device.
Interestingly, that aside is the point.

Science education policy should not be set on the basis of religious beliefs. There are evangelical Christians in Kansas Citizens for Science, there are evangelical evolutionary biologists, there are also atheists who study evolution and atheists who advocate for good science education. The issues are orthogonal. Science isn't religion and vice versa. We discussed this on Feb. 1.

That isn't to say that an evangelical Christian or an atheist shouldn't speak out about her religious beliefs or lack thereof. It just means that it's in everyone's interest to distinguish what we're talking about. When we're talking about evolution, we're talking about biology, and that means talking about science. Whether God does or does exist, is or isn't benevolent, shapes the universe or doesn't, all are simply immaterial to that conversation.

Evolution explains the proximate process by which the diversity of life came about. It may be that the Watchmaker set things up, or that a transcendent deity is persuading the tossed coin to land one way or the other now and then. I can't know that scientifically. Some people's faith tells them one thing, other people's faith or rejection of faith leads to a different conclusion. I don't weigh in on these issues because I don't know how discussing them can possibly lead to more light than heat.

If atheists make their atheism an issue in a discussion about evolution they're playing the same game religious authoritarians are, and making it easy for the authoritarians to push their religion. Evolution isn't a weapon to be wielded against religion, nor is religion a tool to be wielded against evolution, and the science class isn't where atheists and theists should have their squabbles.

Central Park
I've already shown time and again how IDC isn't scientific enough to be bad science, but it isn't religious enough to be bad theology, either. In choosing the science class to wage their battle over religion, IDolators have abandoned their faith in God and replaced it with faith that science is the ultimate arbiter.
Retired Episcopal priest Garret Keizer explains (I'll quote at length because I hate the LA Times' paywall):

According to this mind-set, if we can discover a big wooden boat on Mt. Ararat and carbon date it to the sixth millennium BC, then the story of the flood in Genesis might be "true." The authoritative shift is self-evident. It's not a matter of "what the Bible says," as authenticated by generations of shared cultural experience. It's a matter of what science says — or can be forced to say — about the Bible, as verified by a body of data. If you're a bit lost here as to whose mind-set I'm describing, that's my point.

For the advocates of intelligent design, the loveliness of nature is a second-class road to truth.…

Once you have made intelligence supreme, you have elevated science to the highest form of knowing. And with that move, the self-appointed champions of religious tradition paint themselves into the same corner that they would like to lead us out of. Using intelligent design as a buttress against scientific hegemony is… as outrageously self-defeating as murdering your parents and then pleading for leniency on the grounds that you're an orphan.

The irony extends from means to ends. The motivating force for many advocates of intelligent design, as for the advocates of school prayer who preceded them, is the perceived need for kids to have "some exposure" to religious ideas. If they don't get a taste of that stuff in school, they may never seek it elsewhere.

This is where the dismissal of intelligent design as "bad science" doesn't go far enough. It can also be dismissed as bad evangelism. The supporters of intelligent design betray a sadly compromised understanding of their own underlying mission. "The knowledge of the living God" is apparently not to be taught by lives of exemplary service but by fossil evidence.…

Finally, the supporters of intelligent design betray their own secularist assumptions through their insistence that Darwinian evolution be taught with the disclaimer that it is "only a theory." One would assume that, from the perspective of faith, a great deal is only a theory. To apply that label exclusively to evolution suggests otherwise. It suggests that we inhabit a world of ubiquitous certainty. No one could walk on water in such a world because the molecular density of water is (unlike evolution, apparently) beyond the theoretical. Of course, that is the view of science, and the only proper view of science. One is amazed, however, to find it promulgated in the cause of religion.

This is not to make light of a serious threat posed by the advocates of teaching intelligent design. I happen to share the fears of those who see a theocratic agenda at work in their campaign. At the same time, I can't help but be amused by the notion of the entire edifice of the Enlightenment crumbling beneath the assault of a "religious" crusade. The barbarians may be battering at the gates, but the gates are mostly their own.
I think he basically gets it right. If Evolution is "only a theory," then what is Intelligent Design? If ID is "only a theory," what is the Designer/God? If our science classes are forced to teach that God is "only a theory," what victory has religion won? Religion has been forced into the public schools – a victory for religious authoritarians – but the religion that made it through the gauntlet is so pallid and petty as to insult the true article.

This is an analogy I used in the KCFS forums. Imagine that some intelligent being wanted to design an ecosystem. This being takes plants from around the world and puts them together in ways that it finds aesthetic, shifting earth, moving rocks, creating ponds, relocating trees and plants.

The plants themselves grow naturally, by natural processes. The fact that an intelligence put them right there is immaterial to the natural process which explains their growth, the shape they take and the colors they display.

Does it diminish the work of Frederick Law Olmsted to refer to plant growth in Central Park as proceeding by a mindless natural processes?

Science can tell us about the natural processes by which plants grow, how their genes produce the aesthetic effect Olmsted was after. It can't explain why Olmsted chose a particular arrangement.

In 1000 years, will I be able to tell the difference between whether Olmsted designed Central Park or it was a just a little clearing left behind (assuming global warming doesn't flood New York)? Maybe not. Maybe people will just think that it's really nice the way Central Park just works. The "design" is not specified, it's not complex, it's just a little slice of nature in the midst of New York. Saying that doesn't make Olmsted disappear. He'd be proud to hear it.

Creationists see a need for a creator, and not just to believe in a creator, but to have evidence that the creator acted. And that's fine, but it isn't what science is capable of doing.

Some people don't see a need for a creator, and that's fine, too. Some don't need it, but want it.

Consider this though. Maybe a creator exists, maybe not. Does the creator you believe in stop existing because Stephen Hawking questions why a creator is needed, or because evolution lets Richard Dawkins be an intellectually fulfilled atheist? Or because Dawkins or Dennett finds evolution enough of an answer?

Of course not. If the creator exists, it makes no difference who believes it.