Just say NO to the S & R “Debate”

So there was this “Darwin Festival” at Cambridge (UK) celebrating 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species.  At the event, there were, evidently, two Templeton Foundation funded sessions.  Daniel Dennett attended these sessions as a member of the audience. His report is here.  He introduced himself as “one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”  Dennett found the whole thing “wonderfully awful.”

The “battle” between “science” and “religion,” as Dennett, along with his comrades Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al., as well as their many detractors, would have it, is between two monolithic opponents.  These two mighty warriors can be described as either the cool truth of pure reason vs. the infantile superstitious opium of the sheep-like masses, or as the angels of Truth-with-a-capital-T, the Big Truth behind the veil of appearance vs. a crabbed yet hubristic anthropocentric understanding of the mere surfaces of things.  Depending on what side you are on.

It is never a fair fight in the battle between science and religion.  Not for the reason Dennett might say–“we have the truth and they are stupid” or “I can beat them with one lobe of my brain tied behind my back.” No.  It is not a fair fight because religious people are so nice.

Religious people are taught to turn the other cheek.  It is easy to make fun of the religious people because they’re so, well, prissy.  Pro-religion blogs are not peppered the F-word and the S-word and the Bull-S-word, as you will find in the Pharyngula science blog entries.  Religious people are just uncool.  And wimpy.  After all, it was the science people who invented the iPhone and weapons of mass destruction.  How cool and powerful is that?  Not to mention that religious people have a very ugly history.  Yet they are ashamed of it.  They feel pretty awful about slavery, slaughter, crusades, and the like. They are taught to repent of their sins, to seek to be transformed.  They are taught to take chastisement from enemies as if it came directly from God.  They forgive as they would be forgiven.

Religous people are very genteel…not very good fighters.

Not so the “Brights,” as some like to be called.  They are savage in their wit, brutal in their tactics, unforgiving in their quest for cosmic justice.  They are also quite cranky.  And not very polite.

Reading the Dennett blog and the hundred and fifty or so comments is like listening to a bunch of Mean Girls.  The blog entry is steeped in hostility, anger, mockery, arrogance, ignorance (Dennett just now heard the word “kenotic”?).  The contributions to the “discussion” in the comments section consist almost entirely of self-congratulatory me-too-isms, some “yeah,-what-he-said’s,” and some “No, they’re not stupid; they’re FUCKING stupid!”-type insights.  They sound like Homer Simpson, who, while lying on his couch in his underwear one Sunday morning, smoking a cigar while the rest of the neighborhood was at church, wonders, as he accidently sets fire to his house, burning it to the ground:  “Why is everyone stupid except me?”

But it all seems persuasive because of the mockery.  Mockery works.  Most commentors think Dan is very “funny” and love his “dry humor.”  These are just the kind of people who think putting dog shit in a paper bag, placing it at your front door, lighting it on fire, then ringing your doorbell is funny, too.  I think by “dry” they meant “sophomoric.”

Don’t get me wrong:  when it comes to being sophomoric, no one holds a candle to me…no matter how genteel I am.  I am simply pointing out that this “battle” is no battle at all but a piece of low-rent performance art.  And again, I’m all about low-rent performance art…so long as we remember that that’s what it is.  But religious people shy away from this sort of vulgar behavior because of their disciplined moral training.  So it is not boxer vs. boxer, but boxer vs. ballerina.  People who like seeing ballerinas beat up will get their jollies, I’m sure, but there is no doubt about the outcome.  It’s just a bloody show.

In many ways, this “battle” is similar to the political “battles” performed for a public audience by the Republicans and the Democrats.  Both sides claim truth and denounce their opponents’s views as mere wishful thinking nonsense or dangerous ideology.  It is a Manichean drama that insists our deciding which side we’re on is a matter of life and death.  In fact, though, this “battle” is no more than a tempest in a teapot designed (evolved into?) a means of making it seem like there is a lot at stake when the only real beneficiaries remain the same no matter what is decided.

The “battle” between science and religion is like that.  Nothing of any substance, of any real existential importance, is debated by either side in this battle–mainly because both sides think about existence and truth in exactly the same way.  I realize it is not always easy to see this–the same holds for our politics.  The two sides seem so far apart!  Atheist vs. theist.  Big government vs. small government.  How can these “views” (actually they are blindspots, not views) be the same?

Let’s take the second view first:  it assumes that government (as we more or less know it) is a reality and an obvious necessity.  Is it?

The first view:  both take the question of whether “there is” a “God” as important and answerable.  But is it?

Just as I would advise you not to take sides between Republicrat and Democan, so I would advise you not to take sides between the Dennett’s and the Dembski’s.  It is a false dilemma.  Forcing it is a ploy for political power by means of, again, low-rent performance art.

Now, when Dan isn’t engaged in wanton mockery, he actually does ask some good questions.  Although I am not one of the Four Horsemen, here among Dan’s questions is almost verbatim a question I asked at my very first “science-and-religion-conference” years ago and that I’ve been asking ever since.  Here’s Dan:

In the discussion period I couldn’t stand it any more and challenged the speakers: “I’m Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I’ve heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort–evolutionary theology–but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You’ve clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I’m missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren’t already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?” (Words to that effect)

Not all of Dan’s questions are unanswered (let alone unanswerable).  For instance, theology asks lots of questions that science and secular philosophy do not deal with.  Those questions are just the ones that make theology into its own “discipline.”  Science and secular philosophy don’t address this set of question because it’s not in their bailiwick.  And while I’m not big into shoulds and shouldn’ts, religion and secular philosophy shouldn’t pretend to be doing science.  And science is not philosophy, secular or otherwise.  Lots of interesting stuff happens at the borders, however, and to think of borders as timeless universals is a colossal mistake.  A little poaching now and then never hurt anybody (at least not permanently).  But in general there are many different ways of coming to terms with our experience and our reality.  Science, philosopy, and theology are pretty good ones (legitimate objections notwithstanding). All of us are free to think any given question or set of questions is not worth pursuing.  It’s still putatively a “free country.”  But these three “ways” are time-tested.

Dan is right, though, to demand of those who engage in the “science and religion dialogue” to articulate just what theology has to say to science qua science.  I’ve been in this game full time for almost 8 years, and I have never heard a good answer. Well, I think I do in fact know the answer:  the answer is nothing.  The way scientists work has nothing whatever to learn from religion or even philosophy.  It gets along just fine, thank you.  No Bible readings necessary.

But people with theological insights or sentiments or whatever you call it do have an interest in public policy and our common life together–just like scientists.  In general, the practice of science is to determine the “what” and, when it can, the “how.”  But it cannot determine the “why” (maybe no one can) and it has no privileged position on the “whether.”  No one has to accept the legitimacy of the principle:  We can; therefore, we ought.

I do want to acknowledge that Dan and Richard and Christopher and Sam almost never point at some specific”religious” thing without RIGHTLY calling that at which they point “bullshit” (or worse, dangerous).  Of course, they are making a highly selective inventory of the effects of religion upon which to comment.  In do doing, they, too, spew a lot of nonsense.  Defenders of religion, for instance, are chastised for trying to separate the idea or essence of a thing from the practices of those who claim allegiance to that idea.  Dan doesn’t want religious people to talk about religion without reference to history, practices, and institutions.  Very well.  But does “science” ever NOT come packaged in history, practices, and institutions?

So it would seem that if all Christians are to be held responsible for the crusades and Muslims for contemporary terrorism (and some were/are, btw), then all the Militant Atheists are responsible for the murders of 100 million or more people in the 20th century alone, many precisely for holding religious beliefs.  And the nuns over there at the convent did not invent DDT, Agent Organge, military drones, or nuclear bombs.  It wasn’t Pope or Patriarch who dreamed up Auschwitz, the Gulag, and Hiroshima.  No, (some of) you Brights did all that, for one reason or another.  But mainly because you–like your sworn enemies–think you have it all figured out.

I am pained to admit that I actually know some people who really do think Darwinian ideas are the work of the devil.  Seriously!  People who are gainfully employed, live in nice neighborhoods, and have A-student children at state universities.  I’d find that completely inexplicable, except that I know the explanation:  they have been spoon-fed ideology for purposes other than trying understand how the world works, come what may.  They have no interest in science, no interest in learning how things work.  When they deny Darwinian ideas they are not talking about science at all.  It is not a scientific claim they are making…not even a philosophical claim. But it is also not a theological claim.  It is a political claim, a “manufactured consent” for extraneous purposes not particularly linked to their own self-interest (although it is likely they’ve been taught to think so).

And when Dan and Richard get after religion, they are not making any scientific claims and they have no particularly relevant scientific agenda.  No sensible person will suffer abject ignorance gladly, and such anti-Darwinian inanity is nearly intolerable.  I also know that poor Richard clearly has his scars from the abuse he suffered in his youth at the hands of religious people.  Why wouldn’t he be after “religion” with any stick he can find to beat it with?  But none of this has anything much to do with what science is or does.

What about the question of funding research?  Some religious people do want to prevent certain kinds of research, say, embyronic stem cell research, that the neo-atheists endorse.  Is this, though, a matter of science?  Do scientists hold a morally privileged position in that debate?  Or again, the neo-athesists don’t want to be “at the teat” of the Templeton Foundation, for instance, because JTF “adulterates science.”  Well, you go, boys!  But where does the money come from for “legitimate” research?  Who funds “scientific” medical research?  Who funds “scientific” agricultural research?  Who funds “scientific” climatological research?  Who funds “scientific” materials research?  Who gets published and who gets tenured?  No ulterior motives at work in any of these issues, I’m sure!  When I say hands off science, I would mean ALL hands off–except that is impossible.  There is a method for articulating and testing hypotheses, for coming to learn about the material world.  That is one of the truly great achievements of human kind.  To allow religious ideology to diminish that is insupportable.  But the ethical and political questions are something else entirely.

Let me put it this way:  All you who think you have it all figured out scare the daylights out of me, both “science” defenders and “religion” defenders.  Call yourselves the “Elect” or the “Voice of Reason,” I don’t care. You are either fools or idolators…and potentially dangerous.

Just say No to the S&R debate.


For another opinion, see Robert Wright’s new NYT essay here. It begins:

THE “war” between science and religion is notable for the amount of civil disobedience on both sides. Most scientists and most religious believers refuse to be drafted into the fight. Whether out of a live-and-let-live philosophy, or a belief that religion and science are actually compatible, or a heartfelt indifference to the question, they’re choosing to sit this one out.

Still, the war continues, and it’s not just a sideshow. There are intensely motivated and vocal people on both sides making serious and conflicting claims.

There are atheists who go beyond declaring personal disbelief in God and insist that any form of god-talk, any notion of higher purpose, is incompatible with a scientific worldview. And there are religious believers who insist that evolution can’t fully account for the creation of human beings.

I bring good news! These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

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