This topic recently came up at Panda’s Thumb and I wanted to weigh in. Is it OK to be accommodating to religion, with regards to science? The British Center for Science Education has, as a spokesperson, a well regarded religious leader and was recently attacked by the Discovery Institute’s henchman, Casey Luskin. (Read the discussion here.)
The BCSE and the US equivalent, NCSE, are praiseworthy organizations. Further, within the context of this discussion, they both have very narrow goals. That is, the promotion of proper science education and the removal of pseudoscience and non-science (including religion) from the science classroom. For those goals, I think it is perfectly acceptable to recruit anyone who is willing to help. In this area, a well regarded religious leader can be a very useful addition.
Beyond that though, I think there needs to be a very clear line where being accommodating to religion is not acceptable practice. One of the regulars at PT says that religious claims are not supported by science. I totally agree. The use of science to support claims of miracles, prayer, faith healing, even the existence of a deity are not supported by science.
But, I have to take that one step further. Many claims made by the religious are refuted by modern science. The obvious examples are from the Bible. Putting a striped stick in front of mating goats will not change the coat color of the offspring. The ratio of the circumference of a circle to it’s diameter is not “3”. The Earth does not have four corners. I could go on and on.
In my mind, any time that we must accept something known to be false, then we can not, must not, accommodate the religious person in that instance. With regards to a single individual, it’s probably not an either-or situation. However, I can see there would be an area of concern if a religious leader is the spokesman for a secular, pro-science organization. That religious leader must turn off all thoughts of religion when speaking about science.
Most people (in my experience) have little problem doing this. Very few people believe that the Earth is flat or that the Sun orbits the Earth. But as soon as we start talking about biology, the science of life, things start to get ugly. The majority of religious people just cannot accept that they share a common ancestor with apes, in spite of the massive evidence that supports this. Many religious people deny that evolution occurs. Most have fundamental misconceptions about the science.
Unfortunately, this isn’t restricted to non-scientists. Even within the scientific community, many people deny evolution. I had to take over a historical geology course because the professor (a geophysicist) didn’t believe in evolution. Well, once you do a few weeks on plate tectonics, there’s not a lot left to historical geology. In my Historical Geology text, 10 out of 20 chapters deals directly with the evolution of life.
Now, there are people that I have no quarrel with. Ken Miller and Robert Bakker seem to be perfectly able to separate their religious beliefs from their science. I question the mental gymnastics that they need to do this, but I can accept it. My concern is that this is very, very rare. I know a lot of science teachers, educators, and educational specialists who are firmly against evolution.
Can a religious person make a good scientist, even an evolutionary biologist? Sure, Robert Bakker for example.
Is this common? Not in my experience.
Personally, I would prefer that religion not exist. I think it can be shown that religion does more harm than good and the good that it does can be equaled (if not bettered) by secular organizations.
I also think that if religious leaders are willing to support real science… in ALL particulars, then that’s great. I think that those people should speak out. But even those people have to find some area of science that they deny because it interferes with their religion. Even the concept of prayer has been thoroughly debunked by science.
If a religious leader (or person) is not willing to support real science… in ALL particulars, then they shouldn’t be getting involved. Maybe that person would be a great advocate for the space program or the Large Hadron Collider. However, if they start denying something (anything) after a advocating science, then their followers will be even more firmly support the anti-science position of that leader.
I do think that science has a perception problem. It’s hard. It’s tricky. It’s technical. It’s boring. It’s angry. It’s atheistic. It’s anti-religion. I think we do need more well-spoken promoters of real science. But science will never be a religion with it’s inherent ability to make people feel better about themselves and to forgive and cause guilt.
The more I think about it, the less sure I am that religion will ever totally disappear from the landscape. And with the current system where religion has a massive role even in secular learning, I doubt that it will go quietly into that good night.