“Improving your reasoning.” Courses with names like this are now staples of philosophy departments, including mine. They include a bit of informal logic, discussion of common fallacies, exercises in reading a text and understanding it, and so forth. They are loved by students because they are not too demanding—no real mathematical expertise needed, as with symbolic logic—and they are often structured to satisfy various distribution requirements. Faculty like them because they are easy to teach. You don’t need much preparation for one of these, especially now that there are many excellent texts, with all sorts of exercises. Administrations like them because they fill the seats with warm bottoms and that after all is what education is all about.
If you are sensing that I am a little bit cynical you are right. But this column is in a way an apology, because I was wrong. Courses like this are really needed. This fact has been brought home to me very vividly by the responses to my recent piece on science, religion, and my constitutional worries. I pointed out that many important scientists—including my fellow Brainstormer, the distinguished evolutionist David Barash—argue that if you take science seriously then you really cannot take religion seriously. When I was a kid, many homes had on the wall a little model house with two front doors. In one stood a little man and in the other a little woman. When it rained, the little man came out; when it was fine, he vanished and the little woman came out. (I presume it was done with catgut or something like that.) These scientists regard religion and science like that. One or the other but not both.
I expressed the worry that this might get us into constitutional hot water, because the First Amendment has been interpreted as prohibiting the teaching of religion in state-supported public schools. If in fact science does promote atheism, what is to stop fundamentalists and others (like supporters of Intelligent Design Theory) from arguing that science is therefore in a sense as religious as anything promoted by them? Sauce for the Creationist goose should be sauce for the evolutionist gander.
Oh my goodness! Has this ever upset the little trogs all over the net! I have been called just about everything. I have also been completely misread, and this is why I am now all for “Improving your reasoning” courses! What I did not say was that science implies atheism. In fact, if you look at what I said—and what I have said elsewhere (which I will link but not mention in case I upset again another commentator who took great umbrage at my daring to mention books that I have written)—my absolutely central belief is that science does not imply atheism. Science and religion are independent, or (to use a term of the late Stephen Jay Gould) they are different Magisteria. What I said was that some people think that science and religion are mutually exclusive and that that worries me. I also said that if they are (mutually exclusive) then we will have to live with this, but I want to see some arguments for the case. And also, more importantly, I wanted someone more knowledgeable than I to ease my mind about the legal aspects of things.
So at the risk of being a bore, let me say again what is worrying me. I will try to keep it to words of one syllable but cannot promise. The constitution has been interpreted to say that you cannot teach religion in schools, in the sense that you cannot offer religious views in science classes as alternatives to science views. Separating science and religion is going to be messy at the best of times, and we all realize that a certain pragmatism is needed here. You cannot be so strict as to say “don’t teach anything that goes against someone’s religious views.” That would rule out geology in the face of people who believe in Noah’s flood. So the way that things have gone—in the Arkansas Creation Trial of 1981 (and I was a witness there so I know) and in the Dover Intelligent Design Trial of 2005—is to say that you can teach science but that the intent must be to teach science and not religion. In other words, the fact that someone, somewhere has held something in the name of religion is not enough to kick the alternative out of the schools. But what you cannot do—and this is the absolutely crucial point—is teach something that is really religion, even though you don’t mention God or whatever. Intelligent Designers don’t mention God in their “scientific” case, but we know (as they know) that this is a ruse, and that really they are pushing a religious agenda. That has been ruled constitutionally illicit.
Now this is my worry. I don’t think science, including evolution, is religious. I don’t think that David Barash, when he goes into the classroom, is really pushing a religious agenda. I really don’t. But, even though I have lifted my cynicism about philosophy courses, my cynicism about America and its legal system remains. Suppose somewhere down the road—let us say 2014 when Obama has been defeated and the Tea Party Revolution is successfully completed—a case is brought in some enlightened part of the country like Texas or Kansas. The Intelligent Design people (or people of this ilk) say: “Of course we have a religious agenda. We don’t deny this. But we don’t want to talk about it in schools, even if what we do talk about has implications. However, note that the evolutionists (and others) also have a religious agenda, one of humanistic atheism. As long as they don’t mention this in class, we are happy to have their stuff taught. But we are asking for equal treatment. Our opponents have a religious agenda, so you cannot kick us out because we have one too. Moreover, don’t think that we are simply talking about fringe figures. We are talking about leading members of the scientific community. Back in 2011, the man who was leading the charge against ‘accommodationists’—people who think that science and religion can be reconciled—was the man who had just been elected president of the leading society in America for professional evolutionists.”
With the right judge, in the right place, in the right climate, I am far from convinced that we evolutionists would get the same favorable judgment—evolution in, Creationism out—as we got in Arkansas or Dover. And given the present conservative makeup of the Supreme Court—something that has every indication of being around in 2014—I am far from convinced that the argument would fail with them too. Some of the justices (Antonin Scalia for one) are already on record as saying that they think things have gone too far.
So what am I saying? Let me repeat: I am not saying that science implies atheism. My own position is the very opposite. I am saying that some scientists think that it does. I am not saying that they should not say this and I am not asking them to shut up. If they are right (and if they are wrong), then so be it. I am saying however that we who love science have a responsibility. If you do think that science implies atheism, then offer some good arguments to that effect. Don’t just slag me off, satisfying though that may be. And then go on to show me why the worries that I have expressed in the last few paragraphs are misguided and unneeded. Remember, we are not just dealing with correct interpretations of the law, but with realities. If we were just dealing with the former, then Gore would have been elected president in 2000. Until the appearance of those arguments that speak to my worries, I shall continue to fear that we who love science are shooting ourselves in both feet.