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January 19, 2005

Do We Have to Be Quiet about Genesis
to Fight Creation-Science

Most reaction to my posts on evolution and the courts have focused on my condemning using the courts to fight creationism. But PZ Myers paid a bit more attention to the fact that I'm also urging belivers in evolution to argue more aggressively for the incompatibility of fundamentalist readings of genesis with the facts of evolution.

In fact, since secularists in court always have to emphasize that evolution has nothing to do with religion, they've had to soft pedal that point since they want to pretend for legal purposes that evolution is completely compatible with everyone's religious beliefs. No siree, judge, no problem at all.

But as PZ agrees:

They aren’t, they really aren’t [compatible]. Religion can make itself compatible by adopting a very abstract position, the idea of a largely non-interventionist, watchmaker god, but that isn’t the kind of religion that is causing us trouble, and it’s not the kind of religion our leaders and the public are imagining.
But PZ hits me with a tough question. How can I argue for more militant challenges to religious fundamentalism in public debate as a solution?

Or as he puts in it comments:

That, however, defies the consensus approach to fighting creationism, which tries to be conciliatory to the religious. That's going to be a very hard sell. Not only does the slightest sign of secular militancy seem to drive away people with even slightly religious sensibilities, it antagonizes many of the people fighting for good science. There is a distinct sense that the association of atheists with the cause of science is a liability.
Which just shows how wrong-headed the present struggle around evolution and secularism is, if a whole faith group, namely atheists, feel they have to hide their beliefs and not express them publicly. It's why we are ultimately losing on evolution, if folks don't feel they can publicly talk about issues at the heart of the whole matter.

So how can I argue for secularists, ie. atheists and fellow travelers, being more militant in expressing their beliefs? Won't that risk a backlash in the political sphere as much as using the courts? Well, first of all, I would argue that militancy should be done as respectfully as possible, without being shy about making the arguments necessary to the point.

But the obvious result will likely be some initial losses in reaction to more militant secular arguments, where evolution is either taken out of schoolrooms or ID gets put in.

And my answer is, So what? Having it in the classroom still hasn't stopped the majority of the population from not believing in evolution. Many secularists have become so fixated on a tactical goal--getting evolution into the classroom--that they have ignored the larger goal of actually convincing the population of its truth. If they accomplished the latter, getting evolution firmly into the classroom would be the natural result. And this is not going to happen if evolution's strongest advocates are so shy about discussing evolution and, yes, its implications for fundamentalist religious beliefs.

Many moderate religious folks who believe that Genesis is metaphorical won't be offended if that discussion is done respectfully. They may not agree with it all, but atheists need to demand the right, as a religious minority, to express their beliefs publicly. And some of those moderate religious folks may even see a vigorous public debate on these issues as an opportunity for aggressive recruiting versus the fundamentalists.

In many ways, I worry less that the use of the courts in the evolution fight has fueled a backlash by the religious right than that it has demobilized the secularists in the public debate, who cower and curb their arguments to fit an inoffensive narrative to please federal judges. In the long term, that vigorous public debate is far more necessary than short-term gains of getting evolution into classrooms, which is demonstrably NOT enough to end the hold of religious fundamentalist beliefs on the subject.

I think PZ's sense that people run away from secular arguments around evolution reflects the constrained debate tied to the courts. Everyone recognizes that as long as the courts are in play, you have to keep quiet on the religious implications of evolution to win.

But I'd rather be louder -- respectfully -- on the core issue and actually try to convince people of what we believe. That is the only long term strategy for the truth winning.

Update: More along these lines with a new post by PZ Myers and from Hank Fox.

Posted by Nathan at January 19, 2005 06:57 PM