Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Why Mooney is wrong about improving scientific literacy

Chris Mooney's argument is as follows:

For instance, if evolution is true, but also in some sense leads to or entails atheism (the Coyne/New Atheist view), then we are going to have a vastly harder time getting much of religious America ever to accept evolution.

I believe the central reason we have such massive problems with the teaching of evolution to be precisely this—millions of America believe, incorrectly, that they must give up their faith in order to learn about it or accept it. This misconception is highly prevalent, and is regularly reinforced in a number of ways: Through the media, by church leaders, by the New Atheists, and so on.

If this incorrect view could somehow be dislodged, then, we might also have a better chance of defusing tensions over the teaching of evolution, and thereby improving “scientific literacy” (a term we define in more detail in the book, but that I won’t get bogged down with here). Such are some of the premises that I’m working from….

It really is harder for religious America to accept evolution because evolution does in some sense lead towards atheism. There can be no doubt about this, Mr. Mooney's "if" equivocation regarding evolution favoring atheism is mistaken. We know why religionists don't devote much effort to disputing the theory of Quantum Chromodynamics. It is the theory of Evolution that directly challenges the central role for their gods in creating everything. Indeed, there is arguably no place left for gods outside of fiction and questionable speculation once we properly give evidence pride of place in determining what is factual, as Coyne and the New Atheists correctly argue.

Traditional religion is an all-encompassing (and therefore also fragile) world-view that people consider foundational and central to not only their own happiness but to world justice, peace and future utopia. Somewhat impolitely, we can accuse traditional religion of being a dogma. According to this closed minded religious world view, atheism is not just wrong, it is bad, and not just bad, it is evil. Evolution in particular, and science more generally, are therefore a threat to what is good, they are steps towards evil, whenever they contradict or just encourage doubts about the factual assertions of traditional religions.

Mooney's argument relies on scapegoating Coyne and the "New Atheists" as if they were responsible for this state of affairs. The conflict between religious faith and evolution exists in the real world such as it is because religions, including our most popular religions, make assertions about the world that conflict with the evidence. Accordingly, step one in a realistic approach to scientific literacy must be to accept the obvious reality that this conflict is intrinsic to traditional religious beliefs. Religionists may be mistaken about some things, such as their fear of atheism, but this conflict between their religion's factual assertions and evolution is not one of the things that they are mistaken about.

Denying the reality of conflict between traditional religion and scientific literacy and hoping that the conflict will resolve itself if we don't identify its source, as Mr. Mooney is doing, may be a good strategy for the Catholic church and various other religious institutions, but it is a poor strategy for resolving conflict. By what passes for intellectualism within the Catholic church and among liberal religionists, it suffices to just declare that theistic evolution is consistent with contingency because god is great and all the divine intervention that made the recent appearance of humans on earth inevitable is hidden beyond the veil of quantum uncertainty. This modern divine hiddenness is fundamentally inconsistent with the talking god of the bible who actively makes visible and instanteneous macro-scale changes to our environment and deploying the declaration that god is great as a catch-all resolution for any logical inconsistency is insufficient. For the rest of us, theists and atheists alike, the conflict between scientific literacy and religious faith is not a misconception of the media, church leaders, the New Atheists, and so on.

Mr. Mooney's strategy of denying that religious faith is 100% to blame for this conflict is a prescription for perpetuating the conflict between religion and scientific literacy. The justification for this denial appears to be that tackling the conflict more honestly and directly is too difficult. Mooney is insisting that everyone else should join him in refusing to blame religious faith because pretending that the conflict doesn't exist independently of the New Atheists is his idea of the best strategy for managing the conflict, because blaming faith in traditional religious dogma somehow isn't nice or civil, and because Catholics and liberal religionists mostly accept evolution even though that acceptance is compromised with various qualifications that are unsupported or even contradicted by evidence and arguably irrational. That is a defeatist strategy. Mr. Mooney shouldn't be surprised that his counsel of self-censorship will be rejected by people who have the gall to think worthwhile goals that are hard to achieve are still worthy of pursuing and that any strategy for overcoming conflict, to be effective, has to confront the real source of the conflict that it claims to be addressing. This is really a conflict about the role of evidence and how we determine what is true.

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