Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mooney and Forrest: strategy or truth?

In Chris Mooney's second [short] post on the science-religion compatibility issue, he again focuses on strategy, and, in the very title of his essay, accuses Coyne [and by implication Dawkins, Dennett, Rosenhouse and others] of incivility, because he takes the view that even believers like Kenneth Miller and Karl Giberson, who are pro-evolution liberals, have problematic interpretations of evolution - necessarily problematic, in order to let Christian belief in. This despite the fact, as I would call it, that Coyne is not at all uncivil in his treatment of Miller and Giberson, he simply points out the flaws in their reasoning.

Mooney approves of the position of the philosopher Barbara Forrest, who directly challenged Coyne on the matter of strategy at a conference in Michigan. She criticized Coyne's approach from three perpectives. First, etiquette [be nice]; second, diversity [so many beliefs out there, wouldn't it be better to focus on the fundamentalists, or literalists, or primitivists?]; third, humility [we can't prove a negative, so why be arrogant?]. Essentially, Mooney's post simply draws our attention to Forrest's position, which he elaborates a little further. I hope he got it right because it needs to be criticized.

Apparently, in asking us to be nice, Forrest argues that religion is a very private matter. Presumably, in emphasising this, she's referring to people's sensitivities about their beliefs, and of course this is true enough in many cases, but it's also important to point out that religion, in its essence, is no more private than language is. We don't invent religion any more than we invent our own languages - we learn the language around us, and use it to relate to others. That's also what we do with religion, which has its rules and conventions and shared histories and public displays. It doesn't really make sense as a purely personal way of making sense of the world, because religious people learn about their gods from others, and they learn about the characteristics and the histories of those gods - they aren't simply free to invent the gods to suit their purposes. Their gods are public figures, and as such are open to public scrutiny, as are all their supernatural beliefs. And Forrest's claim, as reported by Mooney, that 'they're not trying to force [their religion] on anybody else' is quite doubtful. Few religious people think their religion is true only for themselves. In fact it would be quite weird if that were the case. Most would certainly find it incumbent on themselves to bring their children up in the same religion. After all, religion tells them something about the world, not just about themselves. In fact, I would argue that, far from religion being intensely personal, few people if any would hold religious views if others didn't have them too - I mean basically the same views.

On diversity, Forrest claims that of the range of believers, there are those 'who have not sacrificed scientific accuracy' in their views about evolution, and they should be seen as allies. I've already dealt with this issue, as have Coyne, Dawkins and others. This blanket claim ignores completely the arguments of Coyne and others, who have been at pains to point out that believers do sacrifice scientific accuracy to accommodate their religious convictions. And they go into detail on the whys and wherefores.

Finally, humility. Scientists don't know everything, and logic can't disprove negatives, so gods might exist, indeed it might just be true that the god of the Bible existed, and had a son somehow by a virgin who died for our sins and was resurrected and taken up to 'heaven'. Come on. It isn't arrogant to reject these beliefs or to mock them. They're absurd. And there are many good reasons why they're absurd. Why should we hold back in getting stuck into this kind of silliness? After all, we're interested, primarily, in discovering more and more of the truth about ourselves. I understand that many Americans are more immediately concerned about the spread of creationism and anti-sciencism in the US school system, and no doubt that's important - but the battle against religion itself, and not just its loopy fringes, will have to come. The truth will out. Why postpone the inevitable?

Mooney and Forrest appear to be odd types. They might well be incompatibilists at heart, but for strategic purposes they are accommodationists. Maybe it's a useful strategy from where they sit, but I don't see much use for it at all. Perhaps it's just that we're further along the road here in Oz.

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