Over at Cosmic Variance, Sean’s been taking a beating over his negative comments on an atheist anti-Christmas sign. There’s no small irony in this, given that Sean is a vocal atheist. His sentiments, which basically boil down to “it’s good to promote atheism, but there’s no need to be a dick about it” strike me as perfectly unobjectionable, but as he’s learning first-hand, that’s not enough for a lot of people on the Internet.
The difference between an unjustly accused “accommodationist” like Sean and a real one like myself is here:
The problem with accommodationism isn’t that its adherents aren’t sufficiently macho or strident; it’s that they’re wrong. And when respected organizations like the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science go on record as claiming that science and religion are completely compatible, as if they were speaking for scientists, that’s unconscionable and should be stopped. They don’t have to go on at great length about how a scientific worldview undermines religious belief, even if it’s true; they can just choose not to say anything at all about religion. That’s not their job.
I agree with basically everything else that Sean says in his defense, but we part company here, for a very simple reason: what Sean says is factually untrue.
OK, fine, as a formal philosophical matter, I agree that it’s basically impossible to reconcile the religious worldview with the scientific worldview. Of course, as a formal philosophical matter, it’s kind of difficult to show that motion is possible.
We don’t live in a formal philosophical world, though, and the vast majority of humans are not philosophers (and that’s a good thing, because if we did, it would take forever to get to work in the morning). Humans in the real world happily accept all sorts of logical contradictions that would drive philosophers batty. And that includes accepting both science and religion at the same time.
So, in my view, it is not in any way an “unconscionable” political statement for professional scientific organizations to state that science and religion are compatible. It’s a statement of fact, an acknowledgment that in the real world, there are numerous examples of people who are both personally religious and successful, even prominent scientists. Guy Consolmagno, George Coyne, Bill Phillips, Francis Collins, and many more.
How do these people deal with the philosophical contradiction inherent in there beliefs? I have no idea. I don’t really care, either, any more than I care how philosophers resolve Zeno’s paradox. Religious scientists exist, and I can move from one side of the room to the other in finite time. End of debate, let’s talk about something that actually matters.
There is nothing unconscionable, in my view, in professional organizations stating publicly that these people exist. What would be unconscionable is the reverse– a public statement that science and religion can never be compatible amounts to a denial of the existence of the many men and women who find some way to reconcile science and religion in their own lives. I find that sort of rhetoric deeply insulting even on blogs, let alone from a professional organization.
I would be fine with Sean’s compromise position of having them say nothing, but as a political matter, I think it makes perfect sense for those organizations to make the statements they have. Science is frequently under attack from adherents of extreme religious sects who claim that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. Such zealots attempt to use this position to undermine the authority of science, and to cast doubt on essential and critically important scientific ideas that need public acceptance in order for us to solve pressing global problems. Taking the stand that science and religion are compatible– as they manifestly are, given the existence of religious scientists– is a way for professional organizations to fight back, politically. As such, I wholly support such statements.
And that’s what makes me a real “Neville Chamberlain atheist,” as opposed to a poseur like Sean.
(Apologies to Orac for paraphrasing his tagline, but I couldn’t resist.)