Science and Religion 2004
With perfect timing, the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER’s excellent March/April special issue, “Science and Religion 2004: Turmoil and Tensions,” came out just as the Supreme Court was preparing to discuss the case of Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow about the use of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. I see the coincidence as significant, since the Newdow suit may indicate that atheists are increasingly willing to abandon the extreme tolerance they have traditionally adopted toward all forms of religionism.
The Dawkins-Dennett media campaign, recommending the use of the term Brights to designate religious unbelievers, may be considered another example of this welcome trend, but I am also in agreement with the criticism expressed by Chris Mooney in his article “Not Too ‘Bright’.” Yes, the campaign is both naive and counterproductive, but it adumbrates the realization that tolerating the intolerants is nor only intellectually disreputable but also ethically reprehensible.
Thus, whether or not it is constitutional to use “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, it is important to highlight how unethical it is to let religionist agendas infiltrate public schooling at any level. In fact, a media campaign simply promoting the use of the term religionism to describe all types of theological belief would encourage this understanding, and may turn out to be a step in the … bright direction.
While monitoring the ongoing science vs. religion debate, I’ve detected a hint of defensiveness, a whiff of guilt, within the sum of contributions from the scientific community, and this has produced some considerations I’d like to share.
Science vs. religion is a political battle fought mainly on the battlefield of journalism, a battle over who shall inform the masses on issues they deem critical. This battle is illusory. It is science that informs the masses on virtually all issues we deem critical. We may or may not pray for good crops, but we all use fertilizer, and when we break a leg, we go to the emergency room, not to church. It is our daily practical issues we deem most critical, and we consider spiritual issues at leisure. Science and religion are apples and oranges. Religion saves your unevidenced soul; sciences saves your ass.
Why then this debate? Religion has so far managed a masterful gambit of social politics by employing the time-honored strategy of achieving peer status with a superior foe by picking a fight with that foe. In the eyes of interested onlookers–the public–you will now seem a peer of your superior foe. Having pushed your way onto your opponent’s stage, your argument may now be heard, and science will struggle in a public war of words with an opponent enjoying thousands of years’ experience successfully selling to that same public a product to be taken solely on faith. For science, victory lies in its record.
By any accounting of discovery with resulting public benefit, the record of science beats that of religion hands down. Any sense of “battle” is illusory. The battle was decided long ago, and religion has been collectively backpedaling for centuries, fending off an endless series of scientific discoveries….
Science need defend nothing, and should simply stand on its exceptional record, all the while practicing a tolerant and dignifying patience as it publicizes that record. Science is not responsible for any damage to any creed caused by new discoveries.
Perhaps with a chuckle for the Darwinian irony, science may be seen as the newest species of cosmic inquiry, having just evolved from its antecedent religion, while religion stands in danger of eventual extinction due to its difficulties adapting in pace to a changing social environment.
Rocky Mount, North Carolina
This letter is prompted not by a specific article but by the general tenor of many recent articles, including the latest Science and Religion issue [March/April 2004]. Increasingly, the tone of the magazine seems to be out of touch with the important issues of the day. Surely, the critical issue today is the rise of religious fundamentalism. All fundamentalists, whether Christian, Islamic, Jewish, or Hindu, are aligned toward the common goal of eliminating rational thinking and free inquiry even as they fight each other. Against that background, stories about Bigfoot or haunted houses, which seemed important once, now appear merely quaint.
Even though the problem seems to be political, there are two important things that skeptics and the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER can do. In the first place, we must recognize that doublespeak is rapidly becoming, or has already become, the accepted mode of public discourse. Since such discourse creates our shared reality, its degradation is the most alarming development as regards the eventual prevalence of scientific reasoning. Thus skepticism must be applied to challenge instances of doublespeak by public figures.
Secondly, we must recognize that people of faith who seek to lead a moral life but not to impose their beliefs on others are needed allies against fundamentalism. (Who did not rejoice to hear President Carter’s statement against the creationists of his home state?) Philosophical positions that brand all religious people as ignorant or somehow lagging on the developmental curve of humanity are nor only arrogant but also serve to alienate the well-meaning faithful and perhaps push more of them into the arms of the fundamentalists. If we agree on how one should live, it seems trifling to disagree over why one should live that way. Rome is burning. Let us not fiddle.
The March/April issue of the SKEPTICAL INQUIRER provides a very interesting variety of articles on science and religion, although it runs a little heavy in tilting at theological windmills and busting the phantasmagoria of religion.
I found of particular interest Anthony Layng’s listing of the objective consequences of religion, both positive and negative. Also, I was impressed with the conclusion of Paul Kurtz’s article, “Skeptical Inquiry and Religion,” in which he urges the skeptical community to address the need for alternative systems to religious ethics. The article by Walter Isaacson on “Benjamin Franklin’s Enlightenment Deism” represents one man’s step in this direction.
It would be nice to have an issue of SI devoted to listing the positive social functions of religion in a secular society and the basis for a rational or scientific ethics.
David W. Briggs
This issue [March/April 2004], as most issues of SI, was interesting and worthwhile. I have been a subscriber since about 1983. I have been a weekly churchgoing Christian all my life (I’m now 65). I have appreciated SI for helping me understand how to think about various things rather than telling me what to think.
Regarding religion, I cannot give it up. One reason, I suppose, is that I very much appreciate living in a country which has religious freedom and cannot see its value if no one actually practices it. I think the multiplicity of religions is a strength rather than a weakness. Another reason falls in the area of Pascal’s Wager: In the game of life, it’s better to bet there is a God, since ill am wrong I’ve lost little, but if I’m right I’ve gained a great deal.
Lynn R. Heath
COPYRIGHT 2004 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
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