Uncompromising

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liberalism and progressivism, Religion, science

An article in Newsweek about the struggle between evolution and creationism got me thinking about the recent post on religion and liberalism.

Day before yesterday I wrote about how liberalism seeks to promote domestic tranquility and individual freedom by drawing lines between the personal and the public. To quote John McGowan:

Here I just want to end by noting how “unnatural” liberalism seems. It involves self-abnegation, accepting the frustration of my will. It involves, as I will detail in my next post, compromise in almost every instance, and thus can seem akin to having no strong convictions, no principles. Yet its benefits are enormous; it provides, I am convinced, the only possible way humans can live in peace together in a pluralistic world. …

…Because liberalism aims to insure peace and prevent tyranny in pluralistic societies, it often works to establish zones of mutual indifference. Liberalism strives to place lots of individual actions outside the pale of politics, beyond interference from the state or other powers. And, culturally, it strives to promote tolerance, where tolerance is, at a minimum, indifference to the choices and actions of others and, at best, a recognition that diversity yields some social benefits….

… Except for what are generally weak claims for the benefits of diversity (weak not in the sense of being unconvincing, but weak in the sense that no very major social benefit is claimed and some costs are acknowledged), the liberal argument for non-political interference, for privacy and individual autonomy, is primarily negative. Conflict is the result of trying to tell people what to believe and what to do, so we are better off cultivating a talent for resisting our inclinations to insist that others see the world and run their lives the way I do.

Ironically, anti-liberal forces in America use the values of liberalism against liberalism. For example, creationism is argued to be an alternative view to evolution that is owed respect. Peter Slevin wrote in the Washington Post (March 14, 2005) (emphasis added):

Alabama and Georgia legislators recently introduced bills to allow teachers to challenge evolutionary theory in the classroom. Ohio, Minnesota, New Mexico and Ohio have approved new rules allowing that. And a school board member in a Tennessee county wants stickers pasted on textbooks that say evolution remains unproven. …

… Polls show that a large majority of Americans believe God alone created man or had a guiding hand. Advocates invoke the First Amendment and say the current campaigns are partly about respect for those beliefs.

It’s an academic freedom proposal. What we would like to foment is a civil discussion about science. That falls right down the middle of the fairway of American pluralism,” said the Discovery Institute’s Stephen C. Meyer, who believes evolution alone cannot explain life’s unfurling. “We are interested in seeing that spread state by state across the country.” …

…That approach appeals to Cindy Duckett, a Wichita mother who believes public school leaves many religious children feeling shut out. Teaching doubts about evolution, she said, is “more inclusive. I think the more options, the better.”

“If students only have one thing to consider, one option, that’s really more brainwashing,” said Duckett, who sent her children to Christian schools because of her frustration. Students should be exposed to the Big Bang, evolution, intelligent design “and, beyond that, any other belief that a kid in class has. It should all be okay.”

Fox — pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the Midwest, drawing 6,000 worshipers a week to his Wichita church — said the compromise is an important tactic. “The strategy this time is not to go for the whole enchilada. We’re trying to be a little more subtle,” he said. …

…”If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby,” [Southern Baptist minister Terry] Fox said. “If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die.”

See, science is supposed to “compromise” with religion, because to deny religion equal say with science violates the liberal values of “inclusiveness” and “freedom.” And the goal is to destroy liberalism. Of course, if the creationists had the authority they’d see to it that only their version of creation is taught in public schools, because they aren’t liberals.

Here’s the latest round in the evolution wars, by Sharon Begley in the current issue of Newsweek:

There may be some battlefields where the gospel’s “blessed are the peacemakers” holds true. But despite the work of a growing number of scholars and millions of dollars in foundation funding to find harmony between science and faith, evolution still isn’t one of them. Just ask biologist Richard Colling. A professor at Olivet Nazarene University in Illinois and a lifelong member of the evangelical Church of the Nazarene, Colling wrote a 2004 book called “Random Designer” because—as he said in a letter to students and colleagues this year—”I want you to know the truth that God is bigger, far more profound and vastly more creative than you may have known.” Moreover, he said, God “cares enough about creation to harness even the forces of [Darwinian] randomness.”

For all the good it’s done him, Colling might as well have thrown a book party for Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great”) and Richard Dawkins (“The God Delusion”). Anger over his work had been building for two years. When classes resumed in late August, things finally came to a head. Colling is prohibited from teaching the general biology class, a version of which he had taught since 1991, and college president John Bowling has banned professors from assigning his book. At least one local Nazarene church called for Colling to be fired and threatened to withhold financial support from the college. In a letter to Bowling, ministers in Caro, Mo., expressed “deep concern regarding the teaching of evolutionary theory as a scientifically proven fact,” calling it “a philosophy that is godless, contrary to scripture and scientifically unverifiable.” Irate parents, pastors and others complained to Bowling, while a meeting between church leaders and Colling “led to some tension and misunderstanding,” Bowling said in a letter to trustees. (Well, “misunderstanding” in the sense that the Noachian flood was a little puddle.) It’s a rude awakening to scientists who thought the Galilean gulf was closing.

So much for compromise.

Colling’s troubles come as more and more researchers are fighting the “godless” rap, emphasizing that evolution does not preclude a deity (though neither does it require one).

Science doesn’t have anything to apologize for. It’s the creationists and their “intelligent design” allies who dissemble and lie and misrepresent evolution and science in their war against liberalism.

I think it’s a mistake for science to attempt “compromise” with the religionists (and I doubt many scientists are thinking about doing so), because it wouldn’t be an honest compromise. Creationism/ID “theory” is not only based on lies; it has the intention of undermining science. Same thing for liberalism, which does not require giving in anti-liberal factions in the name of “inclusiveness.”

As John Holbo wrote, (h/t Dan S):

I would also like to request a moratorium on critiques of liberalism that consist entirely of a flourish for effect – with accompanying air of discovery – of the familiar consideration that liberalism is inconsistent with blanket, categorical tolerance of absolutely every possible act and attitude. That is, liberalism is incompatible, in practice, with any form of illiberalism that destroys liberalism. If something is inconsistent with liberalism, it is inconsistent with liberalism. Yes. Quite. We noticed.

Also, it might not be a half-bad idea to notice that liberalism is not incompatible with religion, merely with illiberal forms of religion. Just as liberalism is incompatible with illiberal forms of secularism.

Exactly. We should all print that on our T-shirts.

It is not “inclusive” to allow propagandists to hijack science classes. It is not “academic freedom” to lie to children to confuse them. Don’t forget that this controversy is not between religion and science. It’s between a faction of religious totalitarians and modern civilization. We do not have to tolerate them, compromise with them, or humor them. They must be utterly resisted in the public sphere. And this resistance is not a betrayal of liberal values, but a defense of liberal values.

Here is the line drawn between the personal and the public: That minority among the religious who find evolution incompatible with their beliefs are perfectly free to make up their own minds who and what to believe. They can disregard science, if they wish. They can do what Professor Richard Colling did and find their own middle ground. They can even build creationist “museums” with their own money. But they have no right to demand their views be respected as science, nor may they impose their views on children through public schools.

Science doesn’t owe anything to religion, or anyone else, except to be honest, ethical and diligent about the practice of science. However, neither does religion have to justify itself to science. But that’ll have to be the topic of another post.

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24 Comments

22 Comments

  1. erinyes  •  Sep 9, 2007 @9:32 am

    Maha, In the end it all boils down to magical thinking vs. critical thinking. For readers of this blog who are religious, I’m not being condescending or critical of your thoughts and beliefs, my target is the extreme end of the spectrum, the group that is so freaked out over God that they constantly fret over offending the divine and use that excuse to force their beliefs on the rest of us.
    My thought is that if there IS a divine being, being dissed by a pinche pendeho such as myself is of little or no threat to his greatness.

    As a child I attended Catholic school. I’ll not bash the good Sisters of Mercy, I got a great education from those ladies, and contrary to the reputation nuns have of being strict diciplinarians, they were always fair and compassionate….and dedicated teachers.
    But here’s the rub, my mother CHOSE to send me to that school. The Nuns were dedicated to teaching us what they called the 4 R’s,
    Reading, ‘Ritng, ‘Rithmetic, and Religion. We did, incidentally, learn about Darwin, and to my recollection, there was no debate over evolution vs creationism. According to what we were taught, God created the world, but it wasn’t 4 or 5 thousand years ago. If my mother disagreed with the school’s teachings, she had the FREEDOM to send me to a secular school.

    I think that many in the hard core religious camp subscribe to magical thinking, confusing synchronicity with divine intervention,and linking dreams ( which I think is the brain’s way of “defragging”) with the mystical. I realize this makes life a bit less exciting, just as not having a divine wizzard or genie looking over us and granting wishes and performing personal miracles is disappointing.
    In my opinion, the religious right is conducting a war against reality.
    One last thought, a religious woman I know recently asked me since I don’t believe in God, do I believe in heaven. I said no, I don’t believe in an afterlife. She was shocked that I was not uncomfortable with spending eternity without my loved ones. I told her that if there IS an afterlife, I’m sure that is would be far more infinite than hanging around with departed friends and relatives. That thought really freaked her out.

  2. Theophrastus Bombastus von Hoehenheim den Sidste  •  Sep 9, 2007 @10:36 am

    Excellent essay.

    I have participated since 1994 in the push back against the Creationist movement. Never have I read a piece that was more clear, more concise, and more specific.

    Thank you, from all of us.

  3. wmr  •  Sep 9, 2007 @11:23 am

    Yet when Dawkins pushes back against this, he gets criticized for not being up-to-date on his theology.

  4. Michael  •  Sep 9, 2007 @12:06 pm

    Interestingly enough (to me), I posed a question to my mother-who is a southern baptist Sunday school teacher and stereotypical southern housewife. I asked her if she ever considered, perhaps, god used the “big bang” to create the universe. She immediately dismissed that notion and emphatically said that is not the way it happened. But it is interesting to me how she could offer no other explanation. Now, I love my mother with all my heart, but she and I have never seen eye-to-eye on much of anything. My family as a whole are staunch fundamentalist republicans. I am on the opposite end of the spectrum. The thing that amazes me is the unwillingness to think outside what they are told in the churches. But, after 66 years of life I suppose my mother will not open her mind to concepts beyond the four walls of the church. However, I do continue to try from time to time.

    I am still waiting for an opportune moment to bring up the notion that is Adam and Eve were the first humans and they had two SONS, then would that not mean the SONS would have had to have had incestual offspring with their mother? And would that no also mean they would have had children with their daughters…so on…and so forth? Perhaps one day I will ask her and see the wheels of her mind churn (or burn as the case may be).

    By the way, thank so for a wonderful blog. I have only recently found you, but it is so refreshing to read others who thinks as I do.

    Take care and keep up the great work! May all minds reach for a better understanding of the world as make it a better place for ALL to live.

  5. Gordon  •  Sep 9, 2007 @12:10 pm

    Great post. This topic has so many facets, I’ll just pick up on one: the certainty these folks have that any advance in scientific understanding (the world is round, the earth goes round the sun, evolution…) inevitably lead to unhealthy world views. Look at Colling – his understanding of evolution didn’t undermine his religeous belief; in fact it appears to have enhanced it.

    These are people who have never gotten over their pre-school fears (when children frequently are afraid that thinking the “wrong” thoughts will make bad things happen). So if they accept evolution, the boogie-man will get them. (Of course, most children get over it because the temptation to think forbidden thoughts is just too compelling.)

  6. Sachem  •  Sep 9, 2007 @12:28 pm

    “Although I am a typical loner in daily life, my consciousness of belonging to the invisible community of those who strive for truth, beauty, and justice has preserved me from feeling isolated. The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious.

    It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness.

    In this sense I am religious. To me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that is there. ”

    Einstein

  7. maha  •  Sep 9, 2007 @12:50 pm

    Yet when Dawkins pushes back against this, he gets criticized for not being up-to-date on his theology.

    If Dawkins were to limit himself to pushing back against “this,” I wouldn’t have a problem with him. But he’s pushing back against me, too, just as forcefully as he is pushing back against “this.” And he’s pushing back against a lot of liberal, open-minded religious people as if they were the Salem Witch Burners. Forgive me if I don’t tolerate that.

  8. maha  •  Sep 9, 2007 @12:51 pm

    Sachem — what a great quote. Thank you.

  9. DoubleCinco  •  Sep 9, 2007 @1:15 pm

    IMO pre-moderns, moderns and post-moderns, (et al) are who they are through a combination of forces including the evolution of the consciousness of humanity-as-a-whole and the social contextual driving and restraining forces to development of individuals.

    If that be the case then at any one point in time we can only be who we are unless and until we are inclined to work on development through meditation and contemplation that allows us to function beyond the limitations of the mind made little me (my take on Ken Wilber and Eckert Tolle’s work).

    So I wish there was a way for us to grant the pre-moderns this reality of their consciousness development without taking them personally. Unfortunately in survival mode their behavior is necessarily extreme as fear, distress and outrage fuel their aggressiveness (true for all of us at one time or another).

    I know of no other way to deal with them as we are forced down to their levels of rebuke, discount and antagonism. What a pity for us all, although we are well served to strive to higher levels of functioning even if many times it is just out of grasp.

    Erinyes, I wonder how many readers of this blog saben pinche pendejo. I always qualified more for pinche cavrone–claro que si.

  10. We Are The 801  •  Sep 9, 2007 @1:28 pm

    Maha, Thank you for such a damn good post (again!).

  11. grannyeagle  •  Sep 9, 2007 @2:46 pm

    Michael’s comment in #4 is a perfect example that we should not worry about what is learned (or not learned) in childhood, school, church or wherever. When adults begin thinking and exploring on their own, they come up with their own ways of viewing the world.
    I also have come far from the beliefs of my childhood and I am still “evolving” much to my sister’s distress. The truth is that no human being on earth knows exactly how it all works. Methinks we are all in for a surprise when we discard the physical.

  12. Lynne  •  Sep 9, 2007 @4:31 pm

    I’m pretty much in favor of the teachings of Jesus, and was raised in a mainstream Christian church. I know that if there is a God, he/she/it doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of this garbage, and is, in fact, so far advanced in compared to us that God is virtually incomprehensible..

  13. beckya57  •  Sep 9, 2007 @7:09 pm

    This reminds me of the historian Debra Lipstadt’s excellent book, “Denying the Holocaust.” In it she recounts the invitations she frequently receives to “debate” representatives of “the other side,” i.e. Holocaust deniers. She always turned these invitations down on the grounds that “the other side” represented a counterfactual ideology, rather than an honest, scientific search for truth, and she wasn’t willing to give them credibility by appearing with them. She says she’s gotten a lot of criticism for being “close-minded” by taking this position, which of course is absurd, for all the reasons you cite.

  14. felicity  •  Sep 9, 2007 @8:01 pm

    I wonder if the religious-rights’ mission to include creationism in some school science curricula isn’t based so much on their religious beliefs as it is on their need to ‘count’. They’ve gained legitimacy in the political ring so why stop there. Just a thought.

    I question their motive. I have a hunch that they eventually hope to wipe out our continutional mandate to keep church and state separate and including religious teachings in public schools is just one step toward that end.

    Of course, science and religion have been at logger-heads before. In Galileo’s time, to combat what he had discovered the Church asserted that faith was more powerful than science because faith was believing in that which could not be proven. NOW THAT’S AN INTERESTING ARGUMENT.

  15. Marshall  •  Sep 9, 2007 @9:41 pm

    These are not just abstract arguments about belief systems, but have a direct effect on all of us. In Galileo’s time, Italy was the scientific powerhouse of Europe. The Catholic Church wrecked that, and the scientific revolution largely moved to the Protestant lands to the North, much to Italy’s detriment. Now, in our country, in our time, our scientific leadership is visibly slipping away. This is not likely to affect science much, but the consequences for the long term health of our country may be just as severe.

  16. Sachem  •  Sep 9, 2007 @10:04 pm

    Science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

    1939 address to Princeton Theological Seminary

    Einstein

  17. Swami  •  Sep 9, 2007 @11:16 pm

    The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

    Yeah, but he’s not talking about the every knee shall bow,and every tongue confess type religion. I think it’s a more liberal and generous application of the concept of religion.

  18. lucidity  •  Sep 10, 2007 @12:35 am

    Why can creationists like Richard Colling never get it through their thick skulls that natural selection is not a random process? Isn’t the word selection kind of a tip-off?

  19. Stella  •  Sep 10, 2007 @6:54 am

    I’m with Cindy Duckett in Wichita: “The more options, the better.” Doesn’t that mean teaching critical thinking? I’d like to see inclusion of different ideas of government as well as an examination of the work of school boards. Everybody has a different perspective on history, right?

  20. Ian  •  Sep 10, 2007 @11:23 am

    “the more options the more better” … sure, and every scientific option about evolution shoukld be taught in school. There’s plenty of controversy, plenty of options … there’s punctuated equilibrium, there’s phyletic gradualism, and so on.

    “Creation science”, however, to include that subset known as “Intelligent Design”, is not one of those options.

    It’d be like teaching in histiory class that the south actually WON the civil war in a stunning upset, merely because there’s a lot of people who wish it were so.

    -me

  21. Erin  •  Sep 10, 2007 @12:20 pm

    You know, I’m sure plenty of students (and probably their parents, too) also leave English class thinking Dickens was a hack but you don’t see a lot of whining about “academic freedom” in English classrooms when kids are made to read Great Expectations.

    For some reason, we’re supposed to roll over and let things that are not science be taught in science classrooms for the sake of “academic freedom.” It’s not about choice. School is not about choice, especially these days with NCLB and everyone having to teach to the tests. As it is, kids are free to leave English thinking Dickens was a hack, but can you imagine the uproar if a group of anti-Dickens people started campaigning and getting legislation passed that demanded that, instead of reading Dickens, students used English class time to do math problems?

  22. JoeBuddha  •  Sep 10, 2007 @4:46 pm

    Why not include Creationism in Science Class? We could also include Phlogistion Theory, Flat-Earth, Phrenology, and Spontaneous Generation. While we’re at it, why not confront the Germ Theory of Disease? Surely there’s a better explanation than invisible animals running around in our blood! Don’t these theories have every bit as much supporting evidence as Creationism?

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