When the Council for Secular Humanism celebrated its thirtieth anniversary at last October’s gala conference in Los Angeles, one of the most-anticipated sessions was a panel discussion on freethinkers’ attitudes toward religion. Should secular humanists, atheists, agnostics, and others of our ilk approach religion from a presumption of confrontation—or one of accommodation?
New York Times religion reporter Mark Oppenheimer, who attended the panel, wrote that it “must have been organized by someone mischievous.”* (Modesty forbids disclosure.) Surely it brought together four of the movement’s best-known activists who represent the extreme poles of this controversy. Defending accommodation were Eugenie C. Scott, director of the National Council for Science Education and indubitably the country’s most tireless advocate for evolution education, and science journalist and Point of Inquiry host Chris Mooney. Defending confrontation were evolutionary biologist P Z Myers, America’s most outspokenly antireligious science blogger, and author and physicist Victor J. Stenger. Taking up the unenviable task of refereeing—pardon me, moderating—the proceedings was poet and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht. The panel concluded without violence, indicating that Hecht discharged her assignment with rare distinction.
Irony aside, these panelists from opposing camps aired their views with great decorum, to say nothing of wit. Yet as the session unfolded, I was struck that the panelists seldom articulated the degree to which their disagreement reflected not a dispute over strategy so much as a difference in agendas. Clearly Scott and Mooney attached top priority to the social goal of enhancing public acceptance for the teaching of evolution, while Myers and Stenger attached top priority to the pursuit of truth as they see it in matters of theology and philosophy. Given that division, both camps have right on their side.
If your goal is to see as many public school students as possible learn about evolution, then of course evolution should be defended in ways that pose minimal risk of derailing the discussion with futile theological digressions. But suppose you are principally concerned with rescuing your fellow men and women from the snares of what you consider a false and destructive supernatural worldview—or you believe that religious belief so hobbles the capacity to appreciate science that society can be made safer for science only by undermining faith, however long that might take. If either of those agendas drives you, then compromising with religion for the benefit of evolution education is intolerable when doing so might undermine the larger campaign against supernaturalism.
Readers will also be intrigued by Mooney’s suggestion, near the end of his essay, that seculars might forge peace with religious believers by focusing on the significant number of scientists who report deriving “spiritual” benefits from their commitment to science. Again, we face a question of agendas. My own agenda centers on improving the social standing of individuals who live without religion. In the framework of that agenda, is it helpful to claim heightened openness toward the spiritual, if not the religious, when many of our hearers will deduce from this that we must not take our naturalism very seriously if we so willingly confess what they will interpret as a belief in spirits?
I urge readers to take advantage of our letters column to express your own perspectives on all the issues raised within this feature section. We are pleased to present edited versions of the four presentations from a most illuminating panel discussion.
* Mark Oppenheimer, “Atheists Debate How Pushy to Be,” New York Times, October 15, 2010.