Friday, February 7, 2014

The real war is between rationalism and superstition

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy watched the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. He decided that both of them are wrong because the debate was framed as a war between evolution and religion. Like a long list of accommodationists before him, Phil Plait thinks he has the answer in his post: The Creation of Debate.
I can’t stress this enough. The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion. This is why, I think, evolution is so vehemently opposed by so many in the United States. The attacks on the specifics of evolution—the claims about irreducibility of the eye, for example, or other such incorrect statements—are a symptom, not a cause. I can talk about how we know the Universe is old until the Universe is substantially older and not convince someone whose heels are dug in. But if we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.

That’s not to say I’ll stop talking about the science itself. That still needs to be discussed! But simply saying science is right and faith is wrong will never, ever fix the problem.

And this won’t be easy. As long as this discussion is framed as “science versus religion” there will never be a resolution. A religious person who doesn’t necessarily think the Bible is literal, but who is a very faithful Christian, will more likely be sympathetic to the Ken Hams than the Bill Nyes, as long as science is cast as an atheistic dogma. For example, on the Catholic Online website, the argument is made that both Ham and Nye are wrong, and casts science as an atheistic venture.

That must change for progress to be made.
This is the classic accommodationist position. Problem is, it's been tried and it doesn't work in the United States. And the reason it doesn't work is that Americans aren't that stupid. They realize that these debates really are about science vs. religion. They know that evolution is, in fact, antagonistic to religion.

Jerry Coyne points this out rather forcibly in his response to Phil Plait. Read Coyne's article: Debate postmortem II: Phil Plait goes all accommodationist. I'll get back to Jerry Coyne in a minute but first let me quote Phill Plait's "solution."
And who should do this? The answer to me is clear: Religious people who understand the reality of science. They have a huge advantage over someone who is not a believer. Because atheism is so reviled in America, someone with faith will have a much more sympathetic soapbox from which to speak to those who are more rigid in their beliefs.
It's possible that "religious people who understand the reality of science" is a very small group and it's even more possible that they will be opposed to science and evolution precisely because they DO understand the reality of science. Plait is probably thinking about Ken Miller and Francis Collins but it's not clear to me that they truly understand what science is telling us. Science is telling us that there's no need for god(s) in order to understand the world around us. Evolution tells us that life has no purpose.

What Phil Plait is saying is that the best people to defend evolution are those who think that there really is a creator god but he/she/it mostly used evolution as a method of creation. In other words, we atheists should rely on theistic evolution creationists to convince other creationists to adopt a somewhat different view of creationism! That probably means we should keep quiet unless we are willing to make the case for one version of supernaturalism. Why would we do that?

That may be acceptable to some people but it misses the point of the conflict as far as many atheists are concerned. Jerry Coyne said it best in response to the accommodationist views of Micheal Ruse some years ago. Coyne's letter, which appeared in Playboy after Ruse's article was published, said ...
[Ruse] fails to grasp the real nature of the conflict. It's not just about evolution versus creationism. To scientists like Dawkins and Wilson, the real war is between rationalism and superstition. [my emphasis, LAM] Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition. Creationism is just a symptom of what they see as the greater enemy: religion. While religion can exist without creationism, creationism cannot exist without religion.
This passage has been widely quoted and I wholeheartedly agree with Coyne's view.1

For many of us the real war is between rationalism and superstition and the battle over evolution is just a minor skirmish in that war. What this means is that New Atheists are not inclined to recruit people who believe in superstition in order to fight a war against superstition.

That may be acceptable to people like Phil Plait because they're not interested in fighting a war against all forms of superstition, including religion. Instead, they seem content to promote some forms of superstition over others. The accommodationists should not expect all atheists to agree with them and they should acknowledge the fact that many of us think science and religion are incompatible.2

1. There's some doubt about whether Coyne actually said this in his letter. I'm quoting a second-hand source: Dawkins in The God Delusion.

2. I'm not saying we are correct. I'm just saying that after all these years it's disappointing to see so many accommodationists who just don't get it.