Science and Religion: Accommodationism or Confrontation?

Re “Science and Religion: Accommodation or Confrontation?” FI, June/July 2011: Both P Z Myers (“The Need for Confrontation”) and Victor Stenger (“Why Religion Must Be Confronted”) present cogent arguments for a principled response to creationists. Eugenie C. Scott (“The Need for Accommodation”) and Chris Mooney (“Toward Common Cause”), on the other hand, give us nothing but excuses for the accommodating attitudes that they support. This is not surprising, as accommodationism is intellectually untenable: indeed, the requirement that biologists and other scientists should avoid offending the exaggerated sensibilities of the religious is like asking astronomers to be very careful not to alienate those who believe in astrology. To say that it is possible to be both a theist and a scientist is simply a disingenuous way of saying that human beings are capable of maintaining cognitive dissonance, i.e., simultaneously holding two or more mutually contradictory sets of beliefs. Ironically, Mooney comes extremely close to hitting the nail on the head but then completely ignores the important lesson that he almost learned. He writes, “Creationists resist evolution because they believe that everyone will lose their morals if evolution is generally accepted.” Exactly! They reject evolution because they have been indoctrinated into believing that morals and ethics have a divine origin.

Accommodationists pander to the moral arrogance of believers by repeatedly reassuring them that they can have their faith and eat it too, that science will not turn them into nonbelievers. This approach implicitly validates the bigoted prejudice that there is something morally degenerate about having no religious beliefs.

David Rand
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Victor Stenger’s article contains an often-used statement that should no longer be employed without qualification, especially in articles criticizing scientists for being unduly tolerant of superstition-based scientific claims (such as, for example, supernatural origins of the universe): “Of course, everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs.” The overwhelming majority of people do not have their “own” beliefs; most people simply accept the beliefs imposed upon them by their families. When asked: “In what do you believe?,” most people should respond, “I was raised in a society that taught me to believe in a god and/or Jesus; so what I would believe—without having been so indoctrinated—has no way of being determined.”

It is a hard habit to break, but it needs to be broken nevertheless.

William Dusenberry
Broken Arrow, Oklahoma

In answering the question of what place confrontation and accommodation have in the discussion of science vs. religion, we need to keep in mind our overall goals. What do we hope to accomplish, and which tactic better serves our cause? I find it helpful to remember that “you cannot with reason convince a person out of a position that he or she did not use reason to get to in the first place” (source unknown). This being the case, what alternatives does it leave us? May I suggest: (1) do nothing, and let those who see science and religion as incompatible fight among themselves; (2) do not confront those who merely use their religion as a source of comfort without trying to impose it on others (what harm are they doing?); (3) do confront any efforts to promote religion in the public arena—schools, government.

Who cares that some believe in the supernatural? If it is a battle to prove who is right and who is wrong, it is useless and results only in further division. What about live and let live?

Frank Hay
Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina

The topic “Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation” was misconceived; hence, the discussion itself was meaningless or worse. The error lies in the misconception of religion as a monolithic entity when in fact it is tremendously complex. As posed, the question demands responses that are black and white, not allowing for shades of gray. A more nuanced and productive question would be, “Which aspects of religion should be accommodated and which should be confronted?” This encourages a really useful analysis of religion into its component parts and leads to distinguishing religious practices that are relatively benign from those that are harmful to society.

Does the editor really believe that science should confront the private exercise of spirituality? While we may wish that devout individuals were more enlightened or less irrational, as long as they do not seek to impose their views on the public they are not a major danger to society, and their right to believe (not necessarily their beliefs) should be respected. The politicization of theological dogma is a different matter. All of the discussants—while not explicitly mentioning theocracy—are in agreement on this. From a strategic standpoint, secularists will be more effective if we focus our efforts on confronting specific theocratic threats rather than nonspecific, ineffectual generalizations about religion. We also need to accommodate and work with those religious institutions and individuals who value freedom and oppose theocracy.

Walter R. Ehrhardt
Knoxville, Maryland

My introduction to Free Inquiry came in the form of a gift subscription from a friend some time ago. As a seventy-three-year-old grandmother who is a young humanist with minimal formal education, I had some concerns that the magazine would be a bit over my head. However, I have plunged ahead into what has become a great educational experience.

“Science and Religion: Confrontation or Accommodation?” is a must read. Being sometimes confrontational myself, as well as feeling strongly about the truth, I found PZ Myers’s article delightfully humorous as well as informative. I will continue to learn from Free Inquiry.

Carolyn P. Lawing
Walhalla, South Carolina



Secular Blues on Government Interfaith Programs

Throughout Tom Flynn’s editorial, “The Secular Blues” (FI, June/July 2011), I kept waiting for (though not expecting) a point where he would say something like, “Once when I was helping my community alongside a diverse group of believers and nonbelievers. . . .” But alas, as I’ve found in Harris, Hitchens, Dawkins, and others, there is hardened critique and intellectualism without relationship or pragmatic alternative. As a nontheist freethinker (who happens to be a former minister and, I confess, an “interfaith” chaplain), I directed a county emergency shelter for two winters. I worked beside hundreds of people of many faiths and those, like me, without supernatural credos. What connected us was a confluence of beliefs that met at basic (and yes, reasonable) compassion. Rather than merely labelled as interfaith, it was inter-let’s-do-something-about-people’s-suffering. In other words, our belief systems essentially evaporated while we were engaged in what one evangelical pastor called “the right thing to do.” We didn’t have the interest or the time to get hung up on theological games, let alone antifaith or antisecular warfare.

I heartily agree that semantics matter, and Flynn’s attention to definitions has merit and raises some fine debate points. But maybe President Barack Obama’s “initiative” should be taken for what it is: an attempt to bring people together to do something, anything, that fosters cooperation and collaboration in our FOX-ed up culture. Worth a try, don’t you think?

Chris Highland
San Rafael, California

Tom Flynn makes cogent objections to White House “Interfaith” service programs, but they do not include a balanced and long-term view of their essence and importance in present-day reality. For the very first time in our entire history and on the highest level, nonbelievers are named and fully recognized as of equal status and importance with all historic faiths, involving hundreds of millions in programs that deal with nonreligious services only.

Flynn objects to the titles of Obama’s “Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” and equates it with the George W. Bush’s “Faith-Based Initiative,” but if that were true, why add “Neighborhood Partnership”? What does and mean in this context if not a separate entity? It’s a start.

He condemns the Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge (again note the and) and cites the “inaugural announcement” that specifically states, “Interfaith service involves people from different religious and nonreligious backgrounds” (emphasis added). Not perfect but quite a start.

Flynn objects to the use of the term interfaith as coopting the nonbelievers, and transitionally it may seem to do so to some. It actually affords a truly unique, affirmative, and again historic opportunity for the nonreligious, and many more millions of spiritual but nonreligious (who have a faith and hope for a hereafter but realize it cannot be known or proved during any lifetime), to direct national and world attention to alternative and universal “faith in reasoned morality” and get out of the stagnant “antireligion” business forever.

John Tomasin, Esq.
West New York, New Jersey

Tom Flynn replies:

I applaud Chris Highland’s observation that “belief systems essentially evaporated” while engaging in “the right thing to do.” Exactly—so why continue the outdated exercise of positing a link between people’s life stances and their helping or giving behaviors? People generally don’t do good works because of what they believe about God; they are far more frequently motivated by what Paul Kurtz has called the “common moral decencies” that all humans share. The White House “interfaith service” initiative is harmful because it fails to recognize this. Instead, by affirming the malicious fiction that faith bears a relationship to service more powerful than other elements of character, it perpetuates the bigoted canard that believers are morally superior to nonbelievers.

In reply to John Tomasin, the Obama administration’s Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships seems only cosmetically renamed when we recall that President George W. Bush had named the same entity the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.



Plato and Suicide Cults

Stephen J. Gallagher’s article “Plato’s Ancient Error Leads to Modern Tragedy” (FI, June/July 2011) provides a thought-provoking comparison between Plato’s ideas and the behavior of the Heaven’s Gate members. Like Gallagher, I believe that Plato’s rejection of the body and reality is a dangerous ideology, and I do not support it. However, I think too much blame has been placed on the ancient Greek philosophers.

Gallagher compares the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate members to Socrates committing “suicide by jury.” The relevance of this connection is negated by the context of the situation. Neither Socrates nor Plato advocated suicide as a means to free the mind from the confinement of the body. Socrates was seventy years old when he died, a ripe old age for that time period. He could have died any day from natural causes anyway, and martyrdom served his cause better. Plato lived to eighty and likely died of natural causes. In contrast, most of the suicidal Heaven’s Gate members were in their forties, and one was only twenty-six years old. They had so much to live for. Socrates and Plato may have looked forward to death for release, but they lived to promote their teachings and to interact with others.

It is vital to recognize that ideas by themselves are not lethal. Socrates and Plato may have held views hostile to the body and to life, but that did not move them to lead their followers to mass suicide or to kill themselves halfway through their lives. Something else was going on psychologically with the Heaven’s Gate members that made them commit this horrific act. They are not the first people to hide behind religion because they could not face the reality of life, and they will not be the last.

Jennifer S. Brown
Odessa, Missouri

I am gratified whenever a bold thinker like Stephen Gallagher dares to question the wisdom of ancient philosophers who have been revered for centuries by Western civilization. What a pity that men like Plato created the concept of the human soul—and then convinced even the best minds that all souls are encased in bodies that are containers of lust and gluttony from which they must escape. And what a pity also that to this day, we still pay unrestrained homage to those dour men who—like practical jokers—poured vinegar into the punchbowl of life.

David Quintero
Monrovia, California



Progressive Taxation

As a retired economist, I fully agree with Philip Howard’s arguments in “The Case for Progressive Taxation,” (FI, June/July 2011). However, for economists going back to Paul Samuelson’s first text (1945), the main argument in favor of progressive taxes is based on the marginal benefits of the tax rate. For example, what does a millionaire give up when she spends $100 on, say, a new hat compared to what a family of four gives up spending $100 on new clothes? If the rich woman is taxed $120 and the poor family is taxed only $80, the real cost to the woman is far less than the family who may have to eat less or live in a colder house.

William B. Bennett
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma



On Humanism

Re “’Humanism? What’s That?’” by Lawrence Rifkin (FI, June/July 2011): if humanism is about “being good and being happy” (sans the supernatural) then it is a bit too prescriptive and pragmatic, and I’m in the wrong pew. “Good without God” sounds as if one should simply ignore the putative creator.

Humanism is trying to live as a loving god would have intended if, that is, such a Big-Guy-in-the-Sky existed. The “loving god” establishes a common vernacular; “trying” says I’m not a “know-it-all atheist” and have some humility; dismissing the “Big Guy” is heuristic but congenial. The statement is not comprehensive; it is not a secular bull; it is ambiguous and easily challenged, but it implies no evangelizing to “believe” as I do. It is, however, a concise gambit that may start a conversation (not a “dialogue”).

Jerry Bronk
San Francisco, California

Once again, Free Inquiry has reminded me of the reason I call myself an atheist rather than a secular humanist. On the inside front cover of the June/July edition is what is essentially an advertisement for secular humanism. The ad says that secular humanism incorporates a “consequentialist ethical system in which acts are judged not by their conformance to preselected norms but by their consequences for men and women in the world.” Many people (myself included) believe that animals have “rights” and that the environment, animals, and plants should be considered to be important by themselves, not just by how they affect humans. But I suspect that many secular humanists really do believe that acts should be judged based only on the consequences for humans. That is sad and wrong.

Michael Shaw
Reston, Virginia



Harold Camping’s Apocalypse

One of the features in the April/May Free Inquiry was “Harold Camping and the Second Stillborn Apocalypse” by Edmund D. Cohen, which discussed the evangelist’s prediction that the world would end on May 21, 2011. That did not come to pass. —Eds.

Once again an utter fool predicted the end of the earth, and once again nothing happened. The day after the failed rapture, many children across America went to church where they were told they had sinned and would spend an eternity in hell unless they repented. Sadly, few of us have the guts to stand up to protect those kids from such dangerous ideas. Nor will many of us stand up to the institutions that stand firmly against science when we make our own predictions. If we know disaster is forthcoming because of rigorous testing of hypotheses, peer reviews, and publishing of theories, what good does it do unless it is vigorously defended? That defense has to include confronting those who choose to believe rather than seek answers.

Keith Taylor
Chula Vista, California

May 21 has come and gone, and the end of the world did not come to pass. Rev. Harold Camping’s prophecy was wrong. Might we have expected otherwise?

I have just one question: Why is it that such a sanctimonious ass like Harold Camping is allowed to disrupt the lives of thousands with his demonstrably fraudulent claims? Shouldn’t this be against the lawful public interest? A business person could not make demonstrably fraudulent claims about a product or service.

If guaranteed rights in this society are to survive, people must abide by laws that protect the public interest. Harold Camping should either be prosecuted for con artistry or else picked up on a mental health warrant.

John L. Indo
Houston, Texas



History Lessons

Luis Granados (“Caroline vs. Smallpox,” FI, April/May 2011) may know a thing or two about smallpox, but his knowledge of the “English” Civil War is abysmal. He wrote that “a Calvinist rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell broke out against the moderate Stuart dynasty in the 1640s.” Cromwell was an ordinary member of Parliament but was not among the parliamentary leadership at the start of the Civil War. He emerged later, as a very successful army leader.

The Stuarts moderate? Moderate shmoderate! One of the principal causes of the war was Charles I’s firm belief in the absolutist notion of the divine right of kings and his insistence on trying to run the country without a parliament. Things came to a head when Charles tried unsuccessfully to arrest five members of Parliament—but they had been tipped off. Charles II spent a lot of time in exile in France, where he was influenced by the autocratic notions of King Louis XIV, described by Winston Churchill as “the curse and pest of Europe.” Charles was eventually offered the throne, with limited powers, but he was regularly scheming to become an absolute monarch with French help, after which part of the “deal” was that he would become a Catholic. His schemes failed, but he quietly converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. He was succeeded by his brother, the openly Catholic James II, who eventually provoked the English to ask William of Orange and his English wife, Mary, to replace James. William landed in England with a few Dutch troops, and James’s support largely evaporated: he fled though a year later he tried to retake the country by landing in largely Catholic Ireland. He failed, as did later “Jacobite” rebellions in 1715 and 1745.

Nigel Sinnott
Sunshine West, Victoria, Australia

Luis Granados replies:

There was a rebellion, and Cromwell wound up as its undisputed leader, whether or not he held that post from day one.

The overwhelming issue of Charles I’s day was the Thirty Years War, fought largely at the behest of competing God experts. Charles kept England out of that war, enraging the radical Puritans while saving thousands of English lives. This resulted in part from his Protestant father’s wisdom in securing him a Catholic bride. Persecution of the Catholic minority was relatively mild during Charles’s reign, and he helped push Church of England rituals toward a “High Church” hybrid of Catholicism and Protestantism. He was no democrat, but I’ll stand by my characterization of “moderate.”

Science and Religion: Accommodationism or Confrontation? Re “Science and Religion: Accommodation or Confrontation?” FI, June/July 2011: Both P Z Myers (“The Need for Confrontation”) and Victor Stenger (“Why Religion Must Be Confronted”) present cogent arguments for a principled response to creationists. Eugenie C. Scott (“The Need for Accommodation”) and Chris Mooney (“Toward Common Cause”), on …

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