Another round in the ongoing Neuatheismusstreit was touched off by an opinion piece in the L.A. Times by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, authors of the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. They write:
It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers–often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term–want to change the country’s science community in a lasting way. They’d have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.
Here are some responses up to now:
- PZ Myers (@ Pharyngula): here and here
- Jerry Coyne
- Jason Rosenhouse
- Greg Fish: here and here (pointing to a clever Onion-esque spoof of the Mooney & Kirshenbaum book)
My 2¢ (for now): In all the sound and fury posing this dispute as a conflict over political and cultural strategy, the question of curriculum is being neglected, even though the conflict is joined most pointedly in struggles over teaching natural science versus something else in science classes.
Without regard for political or cultural strategy, and simply as a matter of curriculum, students are not learning to understand the natural science disciplines such as biology, chemistry, or physics if they come away thinking that any of these sciences has anything at all to say, one way or another, about notions of the supernatural such as, for example, belief in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, or belief in the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Such beliefs are not even beliefs about the world that natural science investigates. The beliefs of Cardinal Schönborn and Pope Benedict concerning creation are on the same order: They are beliefs about metaphysical “substances” in the same sense as in “transubstantiation”–“substances” in a sense that makes no sense in the natural sciences, yielding no hypotheses or claims or propositions with any “sense” open to natural science confirmation or disconfirmation.
This is not because of any calculation about political or cultural strategy. This is just a matter of the difference between scientific and religious thinking. A student who does not understand this, does not know what science is; and to understand this, the student needs to understand that scientific thinking and investigation, per se, cannot make sense of things like “transubstantiation,” and have nothing to say about such things.
A biologist can say, “As a biologist, I don’t believe in the Immaculate Conception … I don’t understand why anybody would believe it … it makes no sense to me … in fact, it seems like a goofy idea to me.” But a biologist cannot rightly say, “the science of biology demonstrates that the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception [or the virgin birth of Jesus, for that matter, which is a different belief from the IC] cannot possibly be true.”
It’s fine for scientists to point out that religious beliefs do not make sense scientifically (indeed, scientifically literate religious believers would not claim that they do); and while scientists should condemn the pretenses and deceptions of ID proponents claiming that Intlligent Design is “scientific,” and combat attempts to deny scientific knowledge on the basis of religious authority, such combat and condemnation does not demand any condemnation or disparagement of religion, as such. In fact, the cause of defending science against pretenders may be confounded, if the profound difference between what science and religion are about becomes obscured.