About Me

My photo
Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Jerry Coyne's open letter

In the comments on Jerry's post I expressed one minor reservation about this open letter (or rather, agreed with one expressed by my good friend Chris Lawson). That aside, I endorse the letter. I share Jerry's sentiments, and I feel strongly about this issue.

Like Jerry, I'm especially sick of the attacks on forthright atheists by people associated with the NCSE. I'm also appalled at the spectacle of the NCSE cozying up to non-literalist theologians and fairly clearly suggesting that biblical literalism is not only false (of course it is) but theologically false (a body such as the NCSE should not be making theological judgments).

It seems that a lot of people associated with the NCSE have lost the plot. The aim is not to support a specific theological or philosophical position (whether it's atheism or some kind of non-literalist theism or biblical literalism). The NCSE may certainly want to cooperate in court proceedings with theists who dislike biblical literalism. Often it is necessary to litigate against government efforts to promote biblical literalism through distortion of the science curriculum. But cooperating with someone in court proceedings does not mean that you have to endorse their wider position out of court.

The point has been reached where the NCSE is adopting a substantive position in philosophy of religion (something like NOMA) and a substantive position on Christian theology (something to the effect that biblical literalism is theologically wrong). That goes beyond its remit. Or if it considers that part of its remit, it should say so openly. It then has to understand that many people who applaud its main efforts cannot give it their unequivocal support.

FWIW, I don't think it makes sense for someone who is not actually a Christian to say which Christian position is theologically correct. The Christian holy books, traditions, and teachings are open to many interpretations. It's not our business to say which interpretation of them is "right" as an interpretation.

I do, however, think that NOMA and similar positions are clearly false. Religion has never been confined to issues of morality and "meaning" in life or to describing a supernatural world that is hermetically sealed off from the natural one. Some modern-day religious positions may be that watered down, but much religion has made stronger claims about the interaction of a supernatural order of things with the world that we perceive with our senses. Indeed, that is far more typical of what religion has said over the centuries.

The NCSE should not be taking positions one way or the other on any of this philosophical and theological stuff ... not unless it wants to lose a lot of support. People associated with it should certainly not be wasting everyone's time and energy by attacking Richard Dawkins.


Tom Clark said...

The position advocates of science should take is that, given the huge negative impact of false beliefs in an interconnected world (e.g., skepticism about global warming), it's cognitively irresponsible and unethical to be anything other than an empiricist when it comes to deciding matters of fact. Of course this is just what the NCSE and other mainstream U.S. science organizations won't do so long as their policy is not to annoy or alienate those who put stock in non-empirical claims to knowledge, for instance about the supernatural. But that's what's needed: a wide-open public debate about whether science and other empirical disciplines have any rivals when it comes to deciding what's the case - http://www.naturalism.org/epistemology.htm#rivals

Anonymous said...

A couple of months ago, Steve Newton from NCSE gave a lecture on creationism to a group of atheists in California. One of his major slides was about the "3 pillars of creationism." I don't remember the first two specifically (one pillar was something like "creationism is too science!"), and Steve did a good job of demolishing them both in the course of his talk. The third pillar was "incompatibility between evolution and religion" (creationists say they're incompatible, so if you believe in evolution, it leads you to atheism), and Newton didn't really address this in his talk.

So, in the Q&A, I raised that pillar and asked if NCSE took a position on the question of whether evolution and religion could be philosophically compatible, and the interesting thing is that he didn't want to answer that question. I mean, he could have said, "yes, we do, our position is that they are compatible" (that's certainly consistent with what a lot of their folks have said elsewhere), or "no, most religions are not philosophically compatible with the evidence of evolution", but he didn't come anywhere close to either: he said (my paraphrase, hope it's not too far off), "when I'm helping some mother whose child is being taught creationism in school, we just don't get into that."

I tried to press him in a follow-up, but he dodged again, and since I haven't yet earned the "stridency" badge that you get on the way to gnudom, I let it go.

That seems to indicate that they know it's a touchy issue. I'm a strong supporter, in general, of NCSE (Life member), and they do great things, but I think they'd make their own life simpler to simply say, "we don't take a theological position."


Bill said...

" It's not our business to say which interpretation of them is "right" as an interpretation."

Why not? Aren't most of us escapees from one or another of those various Christian (or other) interpretations of holy texts? And haven't we thought through possible interpretations more carefully than most of those who embrace the fantasy? And didn't we, as a result of thinking through their claims, reject all interpretations as bogus (even while recognizing that some are more dangerous than others)? Do we have to still be members of Club Delusion before we can make judgements about the interpretations? I agree with your points about NCSE, but I think I'm in a better position to evaluate interpretations than any of the presuppositionalist brethren who are working so hard to purge my college of all apostates and heretics -- in other words, of all disagree with their jot and tittles.

Russell Blackford said...

I'm not sure how there can be an objectively "correct" interpretation of something like a holy book, any more than there can be an objectively correct interpretation of Hamlet. Some interpretations are more plausible or fruitful than others, and in that sense can be "better" than others, some may more closely reflect the original intention than others, or may better reflect how a text would probably have been interpreted by recipients at the time it was written, or how it was interpreted traditionally, if those are the things we're trying to find out, and some can be fanciful or whatever. Those are all interesting questions, but which of them is the "theologically correct" meaning?

The idea that one interpretation is just plain "correct" seems to me to be incoherent unless you believe that there is some sort of meaning intended by God himself, or something of the kind.

Correctness of interpretation isn't an empirical matter. What counts as "correct" is always relative to a tacit or explicit interpretive schema, and I don't see how we can say from outside that one interpretive schema for dealing with a holy book or a literary text is somehow binding on everyone who might want to make use of it. Finding the theologically correct meaning of a religious text (as opposed to, say, the likely intention of the original author(s)) seems to me to be a wild goose chase.

Ken Pidcock said...

FWIW, I don't think it makes sense for someone who is not actually a Christian to say which Christian position is theologically correct.

Yeah, but the people making those judgments either are Christian (contributors to their Religious Community Outreach) or pointing to Christian authority. I'm not convinced that NCSE has really taken a position on compatibility of science and belief, even though they're happy to point to others who take such a position, seeing that as helpful to their mission.

What pisses people off, I think, is NCSE's faith-friendliness in the background of Josh Rosenau's and Nick Matzke's YNH attacks on new atheists. But should NCSE be held organizationally responsible for these? I'm not inclined to think they should be.

G Felis said...

Religion has never been confined to issues of morality and "meaning" in life or to describing a supernatural world that is hermetically sealed off from the natural one.

This is the territory that makes the atheists who try so very hard to discourage any sort of forthright criticism of religion so puzzling to me: Even when it DOES confine itself to morality and meaning, faith is inherently pernicious -- perhaps *especially* so, since moral reasoning is already such difficult intellectual terrain. As with empirical claims, faith is resorted to only in support of claims that are otherwise insupportable; if a claim can be plausibly supported on other grounds, one needs no faith to believe it.

So why give aid and succor and socially protected status to the biggest obstacle in the way of responsible moral reasoning? NOMA-like positions cede ground to religion exactly where religion does the MOST harm. Moral ignorance -- bigotry against homosexuals, oppression of women, profoundly anti-human stances about sexuality in general, rigid black & white thinking about complex moral issues -- is every bit as harmful as scientific ignorance, and in my opinion probably more harmful.

I know this is somewhat off-topic -- except that it isn't. The NCSE's advocacy of NOMA-type theological stances not only borrows the prestige of science to shore up the sociocultural wall that shields religion from criticism, it shields religion from criticism exactly where that criticism is most warranted: faith-based claims about morality and value. Because faith ignores justification -- in some sense, faith consists exactly and entirely in the denial that there is any need for justification (at least for some claims) -- faith undermines moral reasoning as surely and consistently as it undermines scientific reasoning.

The NCSE seems to have decided on a compromise strategy that not only acknowledges but even endorses the moral authority of religious traditions and institutions in order to persuade those religious traditions and institutions to support the authority of science in public education. In the end, all NOMA-like positions strike such a bargain, ceding the territory of morality to religion in return for religion ceding the territory of empirical reality to science -- but the NCSE has no right to strike any such bargain: Neither the NCSE's scientific remit nor the consensus of its supporters grants it any authority to advance particular theological positions or endorse religion's authority in any way. While I don't think this bargain is a particularly effective strategy for garnering support for science in public education, the strategy's effectiveness is irrelevant in the face of the strategy's total illegitimacy. When the NCSE and other scientific organizations endorse or support religious authority in any way -- and make no mistake, advocating a NOMA perspective *does* support religious authority -- they do not speak from scientific grounds and they do not speak with the unified support of scientists. So they need to just fucking cut it out already.

Michael Fugate said...

How much divine intervention in the evolution of life on earth can one hypothesize and still be counted as accepting evolution? It seems to me that these organizations in their rush to increase numbers have failed to clearly define what it is that people are supposed to accept. Do the Pope's recent comments qualify?

Ophelia Benson said...

Well said G.