Questionable Motives

April 29, 2011

Why is the NCSE wrong to accommodate creationism?

Russell Blackford quite reasonably points out that When it comes to science education, public school systems in the United States and other liberal democracies generally have the secular goal of teaching students well-established findings, those that are generally accepted by working scientists.

But this isn’t reasonable enough for the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) when it comes to evolutionary biology. Unlike its treatment of all other scientific topics, when it comes to evolution in public education, they feel we must deal more delicately with the religiously inclined. They feel we should be more respectful dealing with christians even though many hold different views about how creation has actually taken place. They feel it wise to avoid dealing with the fact that most of them are wrong, can be proven wrong, and should, at least implicitly, be demonstrated to be wrong. Holding to some form of creationism – it is merely a matter of degree and not kind between Young Earth Creationsim and theistic evolution – avoids the fact that nothing in biology makes sense in light of creationism.

If the Pooh Bahs over at the NCSE wish to respect the notion in policy that parts of the bible remain divinely written or inspired, then is a matter of honesty to admit that the organization, as Coyne argues, is taking itself out of the ambit of empiricism and reason. You’re making a purely subjective decision based on revelation.

This is why the issue is important for the integrity of science education as a whole and the National Center for Science Education in particular to realize that’s why science organizations that endorse some brands of theology, while decrying others, are making a serious mistake. As Jerry Coyne points out in his open letter to the NCSE (motivated by repeated negative articles posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education , let the science of evolution speak for itself.

When this policy is altered to accommodate the kind of theology that presumably (there is little evidence of efficacy) allows for some kind of wider public acceptance for some kind of evolution, then the NCSE is choosing to support a theology that is favourable and good to its aim. Note this is not done for geology and plate tectonics, vulcanism and geography in spite of providing strong evidence against the christian doctrine of a great Flood. No special allowance is made for those who believe the tenets of astrology in the curriculum for astronomy. Alchemists don’t get special consideration and accommodation in chemistry. The subject of physics is not enhanced by pretending that it doesn’t interfere with belief in immaterial things. Yet when it comes to creationism and evolutionary biology, suddenly the wise people at the NCSE think special consideration for christian religious beliefs is necessary and thus warranted. That’s bizarre and, I think, highly counter productive for an organization concerned about educating our youth about science. As Coyne quite rightly points out, who are they (the NCSE) to decide what is “good” theology? What they mean by “good”, of course, is not “theology that gives us a more accurate sense of the divine,” (as stated in their policy) but “theology that best comports with our desire to sell evolution to the public.”

And I think Coyne’s conclusion – supported directly as it is by such people as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and many other highly reputable scientists in evolutionary biology – is worth serious consideration because it raises an issue that I think many at the NCSE fail to understand:


First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

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December 26, 2010

How urgent is it to rationally scrutinize the claims of religion?

Filed under: belief,Criticism,Religion,Russell Blackford — tildeb @ 12:06 pm

This recent article by Russell Blackford (of Metamagician and the Hellfire Club fame) is causing a bit of a stir and well worth reading.

Religious teachings promise us a deeper understanding of reality, more meaningful lives, morally superior conduct, and such benefits as rightness with a Supreme Being or liberation from earthly attachments. One way or another, the world’s religions offer spiritual salvation, or something very like it. If any of their teachings are rationally warranted, it would be good to know which ones.

At the same time, however, religious teachings can be onerous in their demands; if they can’t deliver on what they promise, it would be just as well to know that. I take it, then, that there’s a strong case for rational scrutiny of religious teachings. Even if reason can take us only so far, it would be good to explore just how far.

But just how urgent a task is the rational scrutiny of religion? Is it really needed in a modern, and apparently secular, liberal democracy such as Australia? Isn’t Australian religiosity rather unobtrusive and undemanding? In that case, is there any need to engage in strong, publicly prominent criticism of religious teachings, the organisations that promote them, or the leaders of those organisations? Perhaps rational critiques of religion should be available in peer-reviewed philosophy journals – but no great effort should be made to debunk religion in popular books, magazine or newspaper articles, or media appearances.

I disagree. All too often, religious organisations and their representatives seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including how we die. At various times, the religious have opposed a vast range of activities and innovations: anaesthesia; abortion; contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; the teaching of robust scientific findings, such as those of evolutionary biology; and a wide range of essentially harmless sexual conduct involving consenting adults. Even in Australia, churches and sects frequently lobby for laws that restrict our freedoms.

As in other Western democracies, religious organisations in Australia are not always politically liberal or even moderate. On the contrary, recent years have seen the increasing influence of very large Pentecostal organisations, such as Hillsong and Catch the Fire Ministries, which pursue a political agenda little different from that of the Christian Right in America. Conservative Catholics, such as Cardinal George Pell, actively seek to influence political affairs. We have seen considerable activism from Australia’s religious lobbies, and successive governments have pandered blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

It’s not surprising that so many contributors to The Australian Book of Atheism (Scribe Publications; ed. Warren Bonnet) are appalled by the promotion of religion by the Howard and Rudd governments, with Julia Gillard now following suit.

Public scrutiny and criticism of religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various churches and sects agreed unequivocally to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons, judged by their own lights, to oppose such a strict secularism. Some churches and sects do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power.

They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. They may be sceptical about the danger that liberal-minded people see when adherents of competing worldviews jostle to impose them by means of political power. Some religious groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a day when their views will prevail over others.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising and totally justifiable that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be heeded, let alone translated into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power?

These questions are being asked more often, and so they should be. When they’re asked publicly, even with a touch of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Dr Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle and a contributor to The Australian Book of Atheism.

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