Thursday, 26 February 2009

On Reconciling Religion

Jerry Coyne has written an excellent piece on the struggles of reconciling religion and science, showing where those who do minimise one or the other. It's the nature of Dogma, it's the nature of a theist god, there has to be some point where the naturalistic explanation of the universe is altered in order for a theistic God to survive. But that's for those individuals to work out on their own, while Ken Miller actively promotes science and does a damn good job it's hard to see how a view like his can be harmful in society. It may indeed be of wanting a case of wanting the best of both worlds, but that's his problem. The heart of the problem is not in the reconciliation that people like Miller do, but the large portion of the community who reject science outright.

The battle for secular reasoning
So the most important conflict--the one ignored by Giberson and Miller--is not between religion and science. It is between religion and secular reason. Secular reason includes science, but also embraces moral and political philosophy, mathematics, logic, history, journalism, and social science--every area that requires us to have good reasons for what we believe.
It's amazing in this modern age when people invoke God for obviously man-made happenings. The financial crisis is a damn good example. The economy is a human construct, money is a human construct, the stock-market is a human construct, and the interactions that keep it all working are all actions of man. So when there's a collapse and people are praying to God to make it better, or claiming it's God punishing us, how could it possibly work? Of all the things that could have caused the financial crisis or all the ways it could be fixed, the last answer for either in any rational form should be God because it makes no sense whatsoever to invoke a deity for something obviously entirely the work of man.

Secular reasoning is obviously at odds with two memes that circulate today - the first is the meme of cultural relativism and the second is that the mind of the market. Now it would be absurd to think that both memes have no value whatsoever, indeed it would be hard to think how any meme at all could arise and propagate without filling a cultural niche. So in that I'm sympathetic to both concepts. As far as I can tell, cultural relativism is a nice way of keeping tolerance in a multicultural society. It almost feels like an inevitability in multiculturalism because without it there would be conflict. Likewise, no-one has time to fact check on every item under consideration so following the crowd could be overall beneficial. Unfortunately the usefulness of both these memes has little to do with the truth.

Dawkins once said "Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet and I'll show you a hypocrite." It should be obvious what Dawkins is going on about, that there are certain measurable and testable means by which an idea's worth can be determined. The computer each of you is reading this on works because the science behind it is demonstratively correct. The idea that popular means right is committing the logical fallacy of appeal to the population. Just because something is marketable, profitable, or bought by a lot of people does not make it any more or any less likely to be true. We buy under the belief that it works, not on the fact that it works. Those points are important to distinguish because no matter how popular something like homoeopathy becomes, it has no bearing whatsoever on the truth behind it.

So to Miller and Giberson, the focus of Jerry Coyne's piece. All the criticism and talk of incompatibility may be valid statements, and I'm in agreement with Jerry Coyne that secular reasoning and religion are incompatible. But in a predominantly religious society where the dichotomy is continually placed between God and evolution, it's people like Miller and Giberson who are able to at least try to bridge that gap. As Coyne observes:
Attempts to reconcile God and evolution keep rolling off the intellectual assembly line. It never stops, because the reconciliation never works.

Blame the atheists
One battle that will continue to be fought is the way in which evolution is presented in the public arena. It's understandable to an extent, given the recent New Scientist controversy with the "Darwin Was Wrong" cover, it seems that any statement that will confirm a creationist's preconceptions will hurt the cause of public acceptance of evolution. Now that creationists are holding the magazine cover as a gift from God, does this show that we really need to watch what we say in the evolution wars?

Quote mining is a huge part of evangelising creationism. There are still people quoting from The Origin Of Species in order to argue against evolution. Despite Gould being a massive figure in evolution, advocating and advancing the theory, creationists still quote-mine him talking on punctuated equilibrium as proof that evolution is fraudulent. This won't go away no matter how carefully scientists are in their words. So in this respect while a Dawkins soundbite saying that he's a darwinian or that evolution is incompatible with God would be misused, it would amount to nothing more than the same deceptive behavioural practices that have been part of any creationist movement.

So if the likes of Dawkins went away, would it actually do anything to subside the creationist movement? I would contend not for it's not the likes of Dawkins the creationists listen to. In terms of where they get the information, it's in the church, it's in their social circles, it's in the literature they read. Take Dawkins away and those factors still remain. Dawkins may provide a bit of fuel for an already burning fire, but he did not start the fire nor did he encouraging it to burn.

And this is where there's been a failure among the religious moderates, creationism is a solely religious endeavour so it's not now nor has it ever been the job of atheists to reconcile God with evolution. If an atheist says God and evolution are not reconcilable, why should that be more cause for ire than when a preacher says it? I would infer from this that there actually is an incompatibility; while some are able to reconcile the two, there are many who simply cannot. It would also show a failure on the count of moderates to show that the two ideas are reconcilable, and a failure on the count of moderates to get the message out.

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