From a Curriculum Standpoint, Is Science Religion?

My fellow blogger, the distinguished evolutionary biologist David Barash, has come out foursquare against NOMA.  This is the acronym invented by the late Stephen Jay Gould (in his Rocks of Ages), standing for Non Overlapping Magisteria.  Gould was arguing that science and religion speak to different things—different Magisteria—and so essentially cannot come into conflict.  In the theological trade this position is known as “neo-orthodoxy” (paying respect to the influence of Karl Barth) but, more generally, those who work on the interface between science and religion speak of “independence.”  This is a nod in the direction of physicist-theologian Ian Barbour, who distinguished four ways in which science and religion could interact—conflict (the New Atheists would fit here), dialogue (a Thomist into natural theology would fit here), integration (Teilhard de Chardin and the process theologians following Whitehead fit here), and independence (the most notable exponent was the liberal theologian Langdon Gilkey).

Independence (as I shall call it) has been the basic position used in the past half-century by those fighting Creationists and Intelligent Design Theorists and the like.  It was the official philosophy endorsed by the ACLU in Arkansas in 1981 fighting against a Creationism law (where I was an expert witness along with Gould) and also in the Dover ID trial five years ago.  It is the position of Eugenie Scott’s anti-Creationism organization, the National Center for Science Education.  It is also my position, as I argued in a recent book, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in an Age of Science, and in a series of blog posts earlier this year based on that book (March 14, March 21, April 4, May 3, and May 23) .  Basically, I argue that science is inherently metaphorical, that today’s science has at its core the metaphor of a machine, that metaphors rule certain questions out of court—not wrong, just not asked—and that it is legitimate for religious people to try to provide answers.  Religious answers not scientific answers, about ultimate origins and purposes, about morality, and perhaps also about consciousness.

Gould was not a believer and neither am I.  We both think that you can be an agnostic or atheist—I like the term skeptic.  We recognize that of course science and religion can conflict.  That was why we were in Arkansas.  But our argument—my argument, let me speak for myself—is that much that conflicts with science is not traditional religion but (in the case of Christianity certainly) stuff added on, mainly in the 19th century for social and political reasons.  (There is lots of historical material on this.  You could start with my The Evolution-Creation Struggle.)

As so often happens with these sorts of things, those closest to each other are often the greatest enemies.  Freud called it the “narcissism of small differences.” Members of Protestant sects are united on just about everything—justification by faith, hatred of the Pope, and so forth—and yet families are torn asunder over minute issues about infant baptism.  In the case of people like me, those who endorse the independence option, our fellow nonbelievers are scornful to an extent equaled only by their comments about Pope Benedict.  We are labeled “accommodationists” or “appeasers,” and reviled.  Just earlier this week I got flak for suggesting that perhaps St. Augustine on original sin was not the last word on the subject and that a more evolutionary friendly interpretation can be found in the second-century thinker Irenaeus of Lyon.

I am certainly not accusing David Barash of such venom.  Paradoxically, 30 years ago he and I were together the subjects of similar scornful attacks (by left-wingers including Gould) for suggesting that evolutionary biology might have something to say about social behavior, including that of humans.  However, he does agree that independence is not a real option.  He writes “the reality—at least in my not-so-humble opinion—is that anyone who claims to espouse both science and religion is being intellectually dishonest or else lazy, and is necessarily short-changing one perspective or the other.”

Now, because I have written so much elsewhere on the topic laying out my thinking, I don’t want to get into an argument here.  I have even tackled the issue that Barash raises about different religions making different claims.  (This is known in the trade as the problem of religious exclusiveness.)  I want rather to raise another issue, about tactics.  Barash and I are united in thinking that Creationism (and the rest) are religion, and that they should not be taught in the biology (or other science classes) of the nation—the publicly financed ones, that is.  That is why I am in the battle, although I could not say anything that I do unless I believed that it was right.  (That sounds preachy, but it’s not really.)

So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this.  Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false.  Is it then constitutional to teach science?

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion.  (Don’t get into arguments about wording.  That is how it has been interpreted.)   You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes.  That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover.  (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.)  But now ask yourself.  If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim?  And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t want science removed from schools.  I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution.  The independence position does not raise this issue, because it argues that science has no implications either way about religious claims.  You cannot argue for the independence position because of that, but it is a point in its favor.

I should add that when I raised this worry with Eugenie Scott, her response was that I am just plain “dumb.”  But while that may indeed be so, I am not sure that it is an argument.  And I would like to see an argument, either from those who subscribe to the conflict thesis or from anyone else.  Given the Supreme Court which we have, with its eager willingness to make up the laws as suits its right-wing agenda, given that some of its members (notably Scalia) are on record as thinking that a dose of religion in science classrooms would not be amiss, I cannot believe that something like this will not emerge from the Stygian Depths at some point in the future.  Just as soon as they have made abortion illegal and denied health care to the poor of the nation.

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