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Science and Religion 2001: Introductory Thoughts


Kendrick Frazier

Volume 25.5, September / October 2001

Of all the “borderland” areas involving science, the interface between science and religion remains one of the most intriguing and troubling. Scientists, scholars, and laymen continue to ponder the personal and public issues revolving around science and religion. Nearly everyone somehow strives to come to terms both intellectually and emotionally with the array of rich issues involving personal belief on the one hand and commitment to science and reason on the other. Everyone resolves these issues and conflicts in a different way. The spectrum is broad. The issues complex.

At either end of the spectrum, to be sure, beholders have clarity. Evangelical and fundamentalist believers see a black-and-white world. They know the truth. All who do not see it their way are responsible for the world’s ills and therefore must be fought with every trick and tactic imaginable. Atheists are equally certain of the correctness of their nonbelief, and everyone else is deluded or at least a bit foolish. Most people are somewhere in between. Most people accommodate a complex system of multilevel, multidimensional, semi-compartmentalized beliefs and values.

That is true of many scientists and scientifically oriented people as well-although those involved in science probably do tend to have fewer adherents to blind belief and more who value and appreciate open-minded inquiry.

Many of the issues are private and personal. In the abstract, what you and I believe (or don't) are each our own business and no one else’s. Some of the issues are intellectual. Eminent theologians, great philosophers, Nobel laureate scientists have considered them in depth and shared their insights at length. But others have profound effects on the world-on society, on education, on public policy (and, unfortunately in some cultures where the conflicts have often gone to extremes, on life and limb).

The most troublesome example in the United States (which befuddles those elsewhere) is creationism. Creationists and their sympathizers would expunge from our schools even any mention of evolution - the central unifying idea of the biological sciences and one of the most beautiful and most powerfully explanatory concepts in the history of science. They do so in part because they mistakenly fear that evolution somehow undermines human values and dignity. Most of us may see that they are wrong about that, but at least we can see why they are so motivated.

Creationism and its latest spiffed-up manifestation, the “Intelligent Design” (ID) movement, have almost nothing to do with real science and real scientific controversies and everything to do with belief-laden personal and religious politics. But their promoters use scientific language and pretend they are presenting politicians, school board members, and the media valid alternative scientific views. All the while they denigrate every value that science holds dear. These values include unmitigated curiosity, a love of learning, a questioning attitude, an abhorrence of ideology and dogma, a commitment to open-minded inquiry, and an honest acknowledgment that all knowledge is tentative and open to revision (a subtle strength opponents portray and exploit as a serious weakness). Another essential value is a determination to let balanced assessments of facts and evidence guide policy judgments rather than using predetermined ideological views to decide which facts and evidence may be allowed to enter.

I was able to see creationist tactics at work first-hand earlier this year when leading ID proponent Phillip Johnson did a whirlwind speaking tour in New Mexico, where I live and work. Johnson is a UC Berkeley law professor, and as critics predicted before his appearances, he showed that he’s very clever at using rhetoric and tactics honed in the legal arena to argue a pretended case against evolution. He distorted, trivialized, and mischaracterized modern evolutionary science to a degree I found shameful. He presented a comic-book-like caricature of evolution that would be laughable if it were not so reprehensible. He bashed an entire broad field of vital science, and he was doing so not as an expert in biology or even in science but as a nonscientist author and ideologue.

But if you think this is clearly an instance where scientifically trained people are able to see through his techniques and realize the intellectual emptiness of the ID argument, you will be surprised. For I heard him at one of the nation’s foremost national scientific and engineering laboratories, a huge multiprogram government-funded laboratory that is advancing the frontiers of advanced technology daily, and the overwhelming sentiment of the audience of nearly 400 people there-virtually all scientists and engineers-was on his side. They ate it up. They laughed at his frequent jabs at “materialistic” science, as if their own engineering research was not based on the same science. It was astonishing in a way. In another sense I was not surprised at all.

A glimpse at some of the behind-the-scenes side issues surrounding his appearance shows just how complex and difficult the science and religion issue can be. His invitation to speak did not come from the national lab itself. The lab’s upper management was not even aware of his planned appearance until alerted a few weeks before his talk. He was invited by the lab’s Christians in the Workforce Networking Group, and most of the attendees were members of the group. The group had been officially sanctioned by the laboratory only as a result of legal action it pressed against the lab for such recognition. The group’s official status thus comes under the mandated equal employment opportunity/affirmative action (EEO/AA) part of the lab’s administrative operations, not anything to do with science. Furthermore, the group, despite its name, does not represent mainstream Christians at all, but a fundamentalist, evangelical wing. It requires a belief statement to join-ironic, given its EEO/AA home.

Once the lab’s management became aware of Johnson’s imminent appearance, it found itself in a diffi-cult position. Management didn't like having a person known for antiscience views speak at the lab, but it did not want to be accused of censorship and it did not want to create a controversy that would call attention to Johnson’s appearance. It decided to lay low and hope all would pass. Management did require the Christians in the Workforce Group to add a disclaimer to its official lab’s Web page. The disclaimer said the talk’s location in the lab’s main auditorium did not imply any laboratory or government agency “endorsement or approval of any of the concepts or ideas expressed.” (This disclaimer was not presented at the talk, however.) In the meantime, a quickly arranged talk by a pro-evolution scientist who some scientists had invited to counter the Johnson talk was canceled by management, on the grounds that that talk didn't have any official sanction-but mainly to avoid overt controversy. Johnson’s appearances at other, more public forums in the area got the public attention, and so the lay-low strategy, in a way, worked. But modern biology got roundly bashed at a national laboratory, without refutation.

This example is just a microcosm of how religiously motivated critics of evolution are making inroads in scientific and intellectual arenas. But it wouldn't have happened without a strongly sympathetic potential audience. The example shows that, in the United States at least, scientifically trained people themselves come from a broad spectrum of religious backgrounds, including fundamentalism, and quick generalizations are doomed to failure. If antievolution can be welcomed uncritically in a scientific setting, its acceptance is far easier among other parts of society. Leaders in politics (local to national), education, business, and media are no less diverse and no less vulnerable to distorted arguments against science, if the assertions fit preconceived viewpoints and well-formed mental templates.

The creationist cause continues to be pressed at all levels. In Kansas, where vigilant scientists and educators finally were able to overthrow a creationist takeover of the Kansas State Board of Education, word comes that creationist politicians and supporters are already gearing up to re-take control. At the national level, a comprehensive U.S. Senate education bill debated for six weeks had attached to it at the last minute a two-sentence amendment drafted by evolution opponents. The innocent-sounding amendment encourages teaching the “controversy” surrounding biological evolution. Its creationist origins are crystal clear: controversies surrounding no other areas of science are singled out. Amidst a flurry of other amendments, the Senate voted 91-8 in favor of the provision on the way to approving the entire education bill by the same margin. Again, a seemingly small inroad, but. . . .

Well, the creationist anti-evolution movement may be among the most pernicious manifestations of conflict between science and religion-or perhaps in this case between good science and bad religion-but related issues, controversies, and concerns are rampant. They always have been, and probably always will be. We're all human, and science and religion, despite their vast differences, are both very human enterprises.

This special expanded issue of the Skeptical Inquirer is devoted almost entirely to this turbulent interface between science and religion. It can be considered a continuation of our first special issue on the subject, “Science and Religion: Conflict or Conciliation?”, Vol. 23 No. 4, July/August 1999.

(These comments of mine are a continuation as well of my more detailed introduction to that issue; all the points I made there still pertain.) That issue provoked more positive reaction than any other in our history.

One reason I think it was so successful is that for the most part it combined a forthright defense of science’s highest values (in fact a whole bunch of such defenses) with a counseled respect for deeply held personal views. It forthrightly dealt with all conflicts, without personalizing issues in a way that offended sincere believers who also respect science. This is a difficult line to hew, but it can be done. At the same time, it presented a broad spectrum of views, all expressing legitimate scientific viewpoints, on issues of science and religion. Each author could argue points in whatever style and voice was desired, and that variety too seemed appreciated.

The same is true this time. And this time, as before, no consensus should be expected. Scientists and science-minded skeptics are located at many points along the spectrum of views. I hope the articles work as a prism to expand our perception of each of those viewpoints, bringing greater clarity and some greater appreciation of distinctions.

We hope you enjoy the articles. We invite you to share your own insights with us, and we promise to make room in future issues for at least selected samples of your reactions.

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Kendrick Frazier is editor of the Skeptical Inquirer and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is editor of several anthologies, including Science Under Siege: Defending Science, Exposing Pseudoscience.