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Splitters!

Robert Camp

January 12, 2007

Brian: “Brothers, brothers...We mustn't fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!

Insurgents: “The Judean People’s Front?!”

Brian: “No, no! The Romans!”

Insurgents: “Oh, yeah. Yeah.”

Everyone who recognizes the above lines from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian knows that this is part of a running gag about how a seemingly homogenous crowd can splinter and fragment at the slightest whiff of political opportunity and barest tug of predictable human nature.

In the movie there are several groups (including the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Campaign for a Free Galilee etc.), all of whom oppose the Roman occupation. But these groups seem to spend more time squabbling amongst each other than actually fighting the Romans.

And anyone who’s been following the currently roiling waters of anti-creationist discussion will apprehend the (painfully obvious) parallel immediately.

Touched off by Richard Dawkins controversial book, The God Delusion, in which Dawkins tries to encourage a skeptical view of religion and its place in society, the resulting arguments have led to a fission (accompanied by the expected release of energy) within the ‘defense of science’ community.

In one corner we have the People’s Front for the Defense of Science (PFDS). These freedom fighters believe that science cannot directly address questions of Faith and God and react strongly to the use of tactics that seem to confirm creationists’ fears about atheism underlying the scientific study of evolution. It is their conviction that maintaining a strict separation of science and religion, at least for the purposes of mounting a successful defense of evolutionary biology, is a strategy that will avoid the self-defeating outcome of turning fence-sitting theists into full-throated creationists.

In another corner we have the Science Defense Front (SDF). This doughty bunch of warriors believes that because religion is the basis for attacks on evolution it’s a mistake of appeasement to oppose only the scientific misunderstandings of creationists and not go to the root of the problem. They see this root (religion) as spreading tendrils of irrationality throughout much of society, thus leaving the ground fallow for the continued re-emergence of anti-science nonsense. They also feel that for too long religion has been treated with intellectual kid gloves. They have taken off the gloves.

Where do I come down? Well, for the answer to that let’s consider another scene from “Life of Brian,”

Reg: “Right. You're in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f**king Judean People’s Front.”

Stan: “Yeah, the Judean People’s Front.”

Reg: “Yeah. Splitters.”

Stan: “And the Popular Front of Judea.”

Reg: “Yeah. Splitters.”

Stan: “And the People’s Front of Judea.”

Reg: “Yea... what?”

Stan: “The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.”

Reg: “We're the People’s Front of Judea!”

Stan: “Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.”

Reg: “People’s Front!”

Francis: “Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?”

Reg: “He’s over there.” [points to a lone man]

Reg, Stan, Francis, Judith: “SPLITTER!”

For the moment, then, I’m going to call my position the Popular Front for Science Defense. Why? Because I think everyone else is wrong. Not irrevocably wrong, just wrongheaded enough that they’ve confused some of the issues.

Let me make it clear that I am not one of those fretful Pollyannas who orbit the fray begging those involved to just get along. I don’t see this disunity as an embarrassment (“Careful, Dear, the creationists are watching.”). I think it’s healthy and desirable to work this stuff out, especially in the open air where everyone can become familiar with, and incorporate into their own position, those arguments which will hopefully lead to a productive détente.

But getting back to being a splitter: What I do think is unfortunate is that these dust-ups have become nasty in some cases. And leaving aside the expected influence of ego jockeying I suspect what lies at the heart of this nastiness is the extrapolation from a legitimate argument to one that is misguided.

Here’s what I mean. Take the SDF for example. These guys are absolutely correct that religion lies at the core of creationism and many other kinds of contemporary irrationality. They believe religion is inherently irrational. And I agree with them. But the crucial fact of this particular matter is that people can hold an irrational belief yet not act irrationally. Yes, we all oppose creationists and other pseudo-science adherents, the compelling reason for this being that they seek to inflict their irrationality on others. But while we might all agree that a fundamental belief in a non-natural entity is indeed irrational, it is not at all clear that those who hold this belief, while still valuing and sustaining culturally rational behavior, can be fairly accused (as suggested by the SDF) of maintaining the ground for irrationality. Why? Because a good argument can be made that what these individuals say and do in acting rationally more than compensates for any irrational concepts they hold on faith and pass along to their children.

In other words to see only two intellectual positions in this discussion (religious and not) is to miss critical philosophical and (more importantly) behavioral nuances of worldview which exert considerable influence on the kind of society in which we live. And trying to understand and respect the nuanced approach of some religious individuals is in no way tantamount to arguing for the rationality of their beliefs, it’s just common sense. This is not appeasement; it is simple recognition that dismissal of the broad contribution of an individual based upon a narrowly defined criterion is a needlessly severe and ultimately self-defeating choice.

Now someone of the SDF persuasion might counter that the poll numbers suggest there are just not that many people (irrational core belief/rational behavior) of the kind I propose. This is possible. However, I would just observe that if one does indeed believe those numbers, it would seem obvious that our side cannot succeed without somehow engaging and convincing a great number of “them,” a fact which obliges care for how that engagement is handled.

As to the PFDS, well I think they really need to lose the attitude that suggests this debate can be strictly bounded and rhetorically directed. Yes, it is true that opposition to creationism need not, and should not (if it can be avoided) necessitate entanglement with discussion of atheism and religion. But it is seldom that the defender of science is the one who makes this an issue. Indeed, it is often an issue that cannot be avoided. There are places wherein evolutionary science conflicts with the particulars of dogma and it is perfectly reasonable to point out that if one’s Faith requires rejection of empirically established reality then one’s Faith is (at least on that point) a load of twaddle.

This brings us to what I see as the most salient point of The God Delusion. I concur with those who opine that the book falls short of establishing that God does not exist. But as I read it I took its most important message to be that we, rather than agreeing God is delusory, need to consider those effects that propagate from a believer’s acceptance of that “delusion.” In the final analysis it’s not important whether or not God really exists. What is important is the behavior of those who believe in him. And as Dawkins goes to great pains to point out, the behavior of those of Faith often leaves plenty to be desired.

What I’m saying, then, is that (contrary to the view often put forth by the PFDS) this is a discussion that must take place. These issues of Faith and religion are ones that must be confronted, not avoided, in the context of a defense of science. Just as it is a mistake for one side to ignore the relative merits of the behavior of those of Faith, it is also a mistake for the other side to ignore the clear relevance of irrational extrapolations of Faith to the debate over evolution.

Yes, it’s important to consider one’s words carefully. But too often those who wish to avoid antagonizing seem to really be arguing for sanitizing the dialogue. If you take Dawkins’ point that we need to cease treating religion as a special case, and I do, then you realize that the sensibilities of those who ascribe to irrationality are inevitably going to be bruised. Heck, some actively invite the bruising; it would be impolite not to accommodate them.

Even so, I believe that people are, for the most part, reasonable. Further, I believe that most religious individuals are functionally reasonable regardless of the irrationality of any particular personal article of Faith. As such I think it is logical to presume that a majority of them will recognize that the sometimes-harsh treatment of the implausible and insecure Faith of creationists is well deserved.

The PFDS might rejoin that it is a strawman argument to suggest that they are unwilling to face up to appropriate discussion of religion within the context of science. This is possible. I just wish they’d stop getting their panties in a knot every time someone introduces a “provocative” idea, e.g., the notion the teaching children religion is akin to child abuse. I don’t agree with this assertion but I do think it deserves more than chafed rejection. It may be overwrought, but it only seems incendiary because we are conditioned to give religion a wide intellectual berth.

Let me sum up by agreeing with those who hope we will someday live in a world that eschews irrationality (and I do include supernatural beliefs in that category). As we all (including Richard Dawkins) agree that science cannot disprove God, it seems logical to me that the best we can hope for in the current climate is to keep religion at arms length while trying to foster an environment that is conducive to progress. In service of this goal, I think we would all do well to recognize that historical change is often a two steps forward, one step back affair. We won’t be able to take any steps at all if we avoid open, perhaps even antagonistic examination of the issues. But by the same token, we’ll be able to gain more ground on the next forward steps if we don’t force a big reactionary backward step by shoving shallow and counterproductive accusations in the faces of those who try to behave ethically and think (for the most part) rationally.

It’s not that I am worried about anyone’s feelings. It’s just that I think it will be easier to take the next step forward if we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot...like some splitter.

Robert Camp

Robert Camp is a freelance writer living in San Juan Capistrano, California. A selection of his work can be found at the Nightlight Blog.