Over at Blag Hag, Jen McCreight blogs about a panel at the recent conference Evolution 2010. One panel, which was devoted to the subject of communicating science, apparently turned into a fest of accommodationism, with warnings to the audience not to offend the religious by suggesting any tension between religion and evolutionary theory.
Now, of course, there are religious positions - such as a strict deism, but also some liberal positions - that do not conflict with science, at least not in any direct way. While I would argue for more subtle forms of incompatibility even between some of these positions and science, it really depends on just what positions we're talking about.
But that's not the big problem in the US if you want to defend science. The big problem is that a very large proportion of the American population buys into fundamentalist positions that are plainly incompatible with science (i.e. the incompatibility does not go by way of any kind of contestable philosophical-scientific argument). E.g., these people believe in a literal creation about 6000 years ago, in the tower of Babel and Noah's flood as historical events, and so on. No matter how hard we try, we can't cover up that at least those positions are rendered untenable by science.
Anyway, Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson are already blogging about the issue, in response to Jen's post. Good for all of them. I just want to home in on one point, elaborating something I said in a comment at Ophelia's place. Even my Christian friends should be able to agree with this.
It arises from Jen's report that:
The reason why people feel compelled to do this [back away from critiques of religion] is because religion holds a special status in our society where it can't be criticized, even when it's blatantly wrong. This really came out in the second part of the symposium, which was by a woman from AAAS (I unfortunately missed her name). She said there's no use in including creationists or atheists in the discussion because we're extremists who won't change our minds.
This is sheer stupidity. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that there is some kind of spectrum of belief that runs from atheism to Christian (given the context) fundamentalism by way of various moderate and liberal religious positions. This is slightly odd because it's not at all clear what parameter is increasing or decreasing along the spectrum in the way that wavelength decreases as we go from red to violet. But let that pass - maybe we could think of it as a spectrum of decreasing trust in holy books or some such.
Granting that, then, occupying a position at the end of a spectrum of beliefs is completely orthogonal to occupying a position of greatest dogmatism about one's beliefs. In principle, the person in the middle of such a spectrum may turn out to be the most resistant to revising her position. I.e., a person who believes in God but denies biblical inerrancy may be every bit as dogmatically committed to her position as the person who believes in both and the person who denies both. She might be more so. After all, how many people who occupy such a position are really likely to become atheists when they hear the arguments for atheism? How many of them are really likely to embrace a position that the Bible is inerrant when they hear the arguments for that position?
Furthermore, even if this person is not dogmatically committed to her position but the other two (the atheist and the fundamentalist) are … so what? If I am open to changing my mind on some position that I hold, why does that make it less a good idea for me to talk to people with different but more strongly-held views? If I'm open to changing my mind, then presumably I am open to the idea that these other people have strong arguments that I ought to listen to. So why not hear the arguments? Why avoid dialogue?
As it happens, fundies do tend to be dogmatic. It's hard to get them to change their minds on anything. They'll perform extraordinary mental gymnastics to preserve their basic position, even though it is so plainly opposed to the core findings of modern science. But that degree of dogmatism has little or nothing to do with where they fall on the supposed spectrum of views. The dogmatism comes about partly because they have an integrated system of thought, and they are very resistant to giving up one part of it – the rest may then collapse! They tend to see themselves taking part in a narrative of history with more-or-less determinate dates for key events in humanity's relationship with God: the special creation of each individual kind of plant and animal; the fall of humanity from grace; the establishment of God's covenant with Abraham; the presentation of the Law to Moses; the sacrificial atonement for our sins when Jesus was crucified and resurrected; and an end time still to come, when Jesus will return in glory, leading up to a final apocalyptic war between good (God) and evil (Satan) in which good will prevail. If you remove any element from this, the whole structure is threatened.
By contrast, atheists, qua atheists, don’t commit to any integrated system of thought. Some atheists might, of course. Some may be committed to, say, a version of Marxism, and they may cling to this as dogmatically as any Christian fundamentalist clings to the Bible and the form of theology that I just sketched. But most atheists involved in the current religion/science debates are not like that: they have views that allow a lot of room for disagreements about the specifics. If they change their mind on one aspect, there's not likely to be a whole structure of thought that starts to totter. Thus, these sorts of atheists may be open to changing their minds on many things - including on just how pernicious or otherwise they think religion (or a certain kind of religion) is. They are most unlikely to resist well-established conclusions from the physical and biological sciences.
What about religious moderates and liberals? Some may not have closely-integrated thought systems, and so they may not feel that they must hang on to every point or else see their whole worldview come crashing down. But some may have such integrated systems of thought. There might well be some whose reason for maintaining religious belief at all depends on certain key ideas, and they might therefore be reluctant to give these up or even examine them critically.
Whether someone is locked in to an integrated system of thought that has little flexibility in its joints really does depend on what she actually thinks, rather than where she is on some spectrum of bible acceptance or scepticism. Yes, some atheists could have an emotional commitment to some total system of thought, and this might make them dogmatic, but that is not because they are (for example) less inclined than moderate or liberal Christians to take the Bible as authoritative.
I’m not suggesting that it’s only a matter of how integrated your system of thought might be. There may be other issues, such as just how emotionally invested you are in your system of thought and how much seems to be at stake. If you think that changing anything will put your spiritual salvation at risk, you may be more resistant to changing your thinking than if you merely fear discovering that you're wrong. Again, some atheists may be very heavily invested, emotionally, but so may some moderate and liberal believers. There's no reason to think that the latter are going to find it more easy to give up cherished ideas than anyone else. (Conversely, some atheists may not cherish atheism at all, but merely feel driven to it by logic and experience.)
There are many possibilities, but the idea that the people at the ends of the assumed spectrum must be more dogmatic than those in the middle is just wrong. If Christian fundamentalists are especially dogmatic it may be evidenced by their maintenance of a position in flagrant contradiction to science, and it may be caused by commitment to an integrated system of thought with little give, by their sense that the stakes are very high, and maybe by other factors (e.g. if they reached their position through childhood indoctrination). These factors may not apply so much to liberal and moderate Christians, but nor need they apply to atheists. Again, there is just no reason to think that the degree of someone's dogmatism will correlate directly with her distance from the centre of some alleged spectrum of viewpoints.
I feel that I'm labouring a point here. I'm spelling out something that should be obvious. But it looks like the above has to be said, coz someone has been around the corridors of the AAAS bopping people with the stupidity stick.