Friday, February 10, 2012

The Clergy Project's Evolution Weekend

By Mathew Goldstein

The goals of the Clergy Project's Evolution Weekend are to support the teaching of science in public schools and promote moderate religion. Yet the founder of the Clergy Project, Michael Zimmerman, indulges in superficial, false, negative caricatures of the "new atheists" that are irrelevant to, or at cross-purpose to, these goals.

In his Feb. 9 Huffington Post article, "Evolution Weekend: Protecting Both Religion and Science", he writes "These new atheists will attack the clergy who are participating in Evolution Weekend even though those very same clergy should be their biggest allies when it comes to combating the assault on science taking place in our public schools. But these new atheists can't see past their own biases and recognize that only a combined effort will protect science."

There is something odd and revealing about the words "should be" in the phrase "those very same clergy should be their biggest allies when it comes to combating the assault on science". Either we are allies, or we are not allies. If we agree then we are allies. We do agree here, therefore we are allies here. Why is the organizer of this project expressing doubt about this alliance? In the next sentence he asserts that the new atheists fail to "recognize only a combined effort will protect science". I have seen no evidence whatsoever that the new atheists oppose a combined effort to protect science. In fact, every new atheist I know of supports alliances with all people, including the people that we otherwise disagree with, to support all common goals. On what grounds is this incredible accusation otherwise being made? It is the pot calling the kettle black.

Now it is true, obviously, that new atheists and the clergy attending this Evolution Weekend have substantial differences on the question of religious faith. For example, Michael Zimmerman also says of the participants "they understand that a deeper understanding of the natural world will only enhance their faith. And they are not so insecure in their faith that they feel compelled to condemn all other belief as false and demand that everyone else be forced to accept their singular perspective." On the contrary, a deeper understanding of the natural world enhances atheism and being compelled to declare false those beliefs that are counter-evidenced is rational and proper. Furthermore, there is no proper basis for Zimmerman's correlating the "condemning" as false those beliefs that are counter-evidenced on the one hand with the "demanding" everyone else be "forced to" accept a singular perspective on the other hand. .

No one has any obligation to never criticize (a.k.a. "attack") other people's mistaken beliefs as a pre-condition to working together with those same people for a shared goal. Sincere differences over the proper role of faith (including the disagreement over whether faith is itself incompatible with a scientific approach), the direction of the evidence, proper epistemology, and the like, do not translate into substantial reasons for refusing to combine efforts to defend science education. New atheists, like all thoughtful people of good will, agree that people should be encouraged to adopt the better justified perspectives by argument and persuasion.

Michael Zimmerman also slanders the new atheists with this additional absurd accusation: 'Some of the attacks on participants in Evolution Weekend 2012 will also undoubtedly come from "new atheists" who like to lump all religious individuals in with fanatical fundamentalists. In their eyes, anyone who expresses religious sentiments to even the slightest degree is no different from a Biblical literalist.' We lump them together only as theists who believe with no supporting evidence, and despite substantial contrary evidence, in a parental deity that created the world and takes a special interest in human affairs. As anyone with eyes can see (or who reads Braille or hears or whatever the case may be), in all other respects theists are a very diverse group. Their beliefs are so diverse because theisms are a free-floating fiction lacking the anchor of empirical evidence that produces the voluntary international consensus seen among scientists. But by pointing out the differences between religion and science we atheists are failing to combine our efforts to "support science" under Zimmerman's theological re-definition and mis-definition of that concept.

If Michael Zimmerman was really as fully committed to a combined effort on behalf of "protecting science" as he self-declares himself to be then why is he restricting the discussion of strategies to defeat anti-evolution laws to religious congregations? He advocates for diversity and pluralism as a strength while excluding atheists and the non-religious from the discussion. This self-contradiction is blatant and damning. All these different religions have no single religious belief in common. He acknowledges that they are meeting to promote a secular goal that is shared with atheists and the non-religious. If the commitment of these clerics to pluralism is the basis for his proud claim that they "are not so insecure in their faith" then, again, why the exclusion of the non-religious and atheists? And how is blaming atheist's atheism for this decision by theists to exclude atheists ethical? This is akin to men excluding women from participating in group discussions while blaming the female voice.

But moderate religionists claim to be better than that. Unlike narrow-minded and exclusionary religious fundamentalists, they wouldn't play blame the victim games to avoid taking responsibility for their own self-centered intolerance, right? Science does not have to support, or even co-exist comfortably with, religious beliefs to be defensible or to merit being taught, learned, and actively supported. If scientific results conflict with, or otherwise undermine, religious beliefs then the loser is the religious beliefs, not the science. Anyone who doesn't recognize this doesn't really understand why science should be taught in the first place. Don't you agree Dr. Zimmerman?

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