Got this from Harry

Pure Pedantry : Why Pairing Science and Atheism is High-Brow

… and thought it was worth sharing. It’s a long article, but interesting, using the arguments made by John Dewey in the 1920s against too strident an opposition to the attack on evolution that would lead to the Scopes trial. I tend to agree with the authors in a couple of places, largely because it gets rather tiresome to be assumed to intellectually wanting if one happens to believe in something beyond the material world. Here are some notable bits:

Here Dewey gets to the crux of his argument. The liberal movement could, for the fact that he represents a democratized and unenlightened religious impulse, dismiss Bryan and the people he represents. But this would be throwing out the baby with the bath water because this culture of democratic religiosity is so entangled in what is quintessentially American:

The forces which are embodied in the present crusade would not be so dangerous were they not bound up with so much that is necessary and good. (Emphasis mine.)

Likewise he says earlier:

The churches performed an inestimable social function in frontier expansion. They were the rallying points not only of respectability but of decency and order in the midst of a rough and turbulent population. They were the representatives of social neighborliness and all the higher interests of the communities. The tradition persisted after the incoming of better schools, libraries, clubs, musical organizations and the other agencies of “culture.”

Intellectuals need to acknowledge this important social role before we attempt to destroy it. Further, they have to acknowledge that in our attempts to convert people to liberal principles, they are showing a sense of superiority in our ideas that violates those same principles:

We have been so taught to respect the beliefs of our neighbors that few will respect the beliefs of a neighbor when they depart from farms which have become associated with aspiration for a decent neighborly life. This is the illiberalism which is deep-rooted in our liberalism. (Emphasis mine.)

And again:

Let me frame the debate this way. As I see it we have two realistic choices:

  • Choice #1: We link atheism and science. We frame atheism as scientific. We as far as we are able exclude the religious from the scientific enterprise.
    The result of choice one is that the majority of Americans are going to associate science with a secular elite — i.e. science is not for the consumption of the general public. Science in this world is for only special people to understand. Science will in effect become a marker of social status rather than a general approach to understanding the world.

    In fact, if we really wanted to run with Choice #1, we would make science more exclusive, not less. Why don’t we make say being liberal as a necessary criterion for being a scientist. Those conservatives aren’t rational anyway; they clearly don’t have what it takes. We could go so much further if we want to make science perceived as culturally associated with a Northeastern, secular, mostly liberal establishment. If you want to be high-brow, you might as well run with it.

    The logical consequence of making science exclusive is to make those in favor of science a minority. And if we make those in favor of science a minority than we are endangering things that we care about. We are, for instance, drawing continuing scientific funding into question. Why would the public continue to fund what it perceives as counter-cultural and profoundly elitist minority?

  • Choice #2: We dissociate atheism and science. We argue that atheism is a valid way to see the world, but that scientists can be religious as well. Further, we stop excommunicating people from the scientific enterprise for what are fundamentally small political differences. We emphasize the importance of science in terms of what it can provide for society, not in terms of metaphysical assertions about the world.
    The result of Choice #2 is that we can mobilize the general public behind the scientific enterprise. This is in my opinion the only manner that we can guarantee funding science over the long-term.

    Let me make clear that Choice #2 does not involve abandoning core scientific values such as verification, commitment to evidence, and argument on the basis of facts rather than interpersonal attacks. We still argue for evolution, for the reality of global warming, and for the utility of stem cell research. What we stop doing is stating that acceptance of science implies a set of political and philosophical values that are unequivocal and about which there can be no discussion.


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