Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Identifying the problem

Dave Neiwert surveys some Good Christian hate:
Did you know that the theory of evolution was cooked up -- probably by Jews -- as part of a New World conspiracy to enslave mankind? No?

Well, the people agitating for teaching "creation science" in the schools at Dover, Pa., will tell you that if you talk to them long enough.
All you ever wanted to know about the broader agenda behind Kent "Dr. Dino" Hovind follows.

This is what worries gets me worked up. People promoting theocracy, or more broadly seeking to impose their theology on others, are the major force of evil in this world. Whether it's al Qaeda, the South Dakota legislature, the Lord's Resistance Army, or the Discovery Institute, groups are pushing an "all or nothing" strategy that will leave society in wreckage and destroy a lot of people's lives (or end them).

That's why I get nervous when I see smart people on my side edging towards that same pushiness. I got in a semi-tiff with PZ Myers a while back over where to draw that boundary, and now I have to take issue with Sean Carroll. He characterizes the two sides of that previous argument as follows:
If I may put words into their mouths, Chris [or TfK] is a strategist, looking for the most politically effective ways of fighting the battle currently before us, which is defending evolution in schools. PZ is playing the role of the intellectual, for whom strategy and tactics will always take a back seat to telling the truth. If it makes a few people uncomfortable, that’s their problem. This is why Richard Dawkins generates such emotional responses among people who are clearly on his side when it comes to the truth of evolution; intellectuals admire his fierce determination to call it as he sees it, while strategists cringe at his blatantly anti-religious rhetoric.
Almost. There is certainly a tactical aspect to reaching out to the religious community, that religious people can put other religious people at ease about religious implications more easily than atheists can (in general, counterexamples undoubtedly exist). And it's certainly true that Dr. Myers is telling the truth about what he thinks. The part that fails is the suggestion that, if I or Chris were telling the truth, we'd be out talking about atheism, too. The fact is, I get uncomfortable with anti-religious rhetoric when it feels like proselytizing for the same reason I get uncomfortable with religious rhetoric when it feels like proselytizing. I don't like people pushing religion (or anti-religion) on others. That's my truth.

Sean seems to see it differently, that the fight over evolution could be a step in some abstract battle against religion.

The fight over teaching evolution in public schools is a tiny skirmish in a much broader cultural conversation. (See? We don’t have to call it a “war.”) … increasingly, a lot of folks are wondering whether their supernatural beliefs are really warranted by the evidence, or whether they’re not just going along because that’s what everyone does. To young people wondering about the meaning of it all, it can be extremely powerful to hear someone say that it’s okay not to believe in God. Everyone always says that you will never talk someone out of their religious beliefs by lecturing about the scientific method; that’s certainly true for a wide range of people who are very confident in their positions, but there are also a huge number of people who are legitimately questioning what to believe. In the long run, the way to squelch the political effectiveness of the intelligent-design movement, the anti-abortion movement, the anti-gay-marriage movement, and so on, is to relegate them to insignificant minority positions within the populace, and one good way to do that is to undermine their supernatural foundations. It’s an extremely long-term project, to say the least, but one worth keeping in mind.
That's not the battle I want to fight. I have no beef with religion. I have plenty of problems with people who claim that religion justifies whatever, and who try to use the legislature or schools to promote their religious beliefs about whatever. I have no problem with people who want to chat about religion, though that's not what I want in science classes.

Evolution doesn't disprove God. Whatever theological implications individuals draw from evolution is their own business, but when they draw theistic conclusions from evolution – and creationists do this, too – they are going beyond science. There's nothing wrong with that, but it doesn't belong in science class.

I want evolution in science classes because evolution is too important a part of the biological sciences to mess around with. The abstract value at issue for me is honesty, not some position in a metaphysical war conversation. I don't care if future generations are more religious our less religious. It makes no difference to me. That's not why I'm fighting conversing.

Carroll links to a paper he wrote in which he makes the interesting claim that "Suggestions that science and religion are simply disjoint activities. generally rely on a re-definition of ''religion'' as something closer to ''moral philosophy.'" I do think they are fairly disjoint activities, and on consideration, I'm not sure that's entirely wrong for me. I don't care so much about whether there's a bearded guy beyond Jupiter, or an elephant headed deity in the Himalayas or just some unknowable Tao. There might be, and if so, great – maybe some modern religion actually got it right. And maybe what you see is what you get, and atheists are right.

In the end, what matters to me is morality. What I don't like about people who try to impose religion is that they stunt moral growth. They think that keeping people from having sex (immoral, in their view) justifies blocking an HPV vaccine that would prevent cervical cancer (they think the vaccine is immoral because safer sex is immoral). To me, moral actions come from an individual moral sense, or the whole thing doesn't matter. If someone is only being kept from having sex because they might get an STD, that isn't morality, it's fear. For some people, religion is a useful scaffolding for the construction of an individual moral sense. For other people, it's a barrier.

Morality isn't just a list of "thou shall not"s. Morality is what Huckleberry Finn found when he famously said "All right, then, I'll go to hell," preferring the morality he had developed through his own experiences to dogmatic teaching. He didn't find that through church and he didn't find it through empirical science. He found a deep and personal truth, and that's what religion is.

That's what I value, and that's what I want people to have. If they want to think about that in terms of a deity, super. If they want to figure out how their actions operate to treat others as a universe of ends unto themselves, rather than a universe of means, that's fine, too. I don't want others pushing their thoughts on theism on me, and I don't want to push my thoughts on theism on others.

I want to give people the truth. When there's something we aren't sure about, we can honestly leave that out of school rooms. But we are sure that evolution happens. We should teach that, and we should stand up for teaching that, because not teaching children the truth is dishonest and immoral.