Monday, November 20, 2006

Re-Framing the ID Debate

The fight against the teaching of evolution has historically -- and successfully -- been framed as "Evolution leads to atheism, which leads to all sorts of moral failings, and so we shouldn't teach it." Alternative formulations of this same thesis are "Science is anti-religion", "Evolution is the same thing as atheism", or "Science vs. Religion". Ed Brayton recently discussed the need for a way to re-frame that debate, and I've been thinking it over for the last few days. I decided to write this post here after irritating Ed by accidentally derailing his thread into some sort of theism discussion. Oops.

Breaking the Chain

One way to change the debate is to take the component parts of the evolution=atheism=evil chain and try to disprove them one at a time. The idea is that if any side of the = sign is wrong, the whole thing collapses. And empirically, of course, the notion that atheism leads to immoral behavior is simply untrue, as a recent study by Gregory Paul of Creighton University concluded. And evolution, much less science in general, is hardly anti-religion, as the existence of millions of God-fearing scientists proves. You can see why this approach would be appealing to skeptics, scientists, and rationalists -- it's very mathematical and logical, and that feels good to people who deal with data all day. Unfortunately, I think it's both unwise and doomed to failure.

It's Not The Facts, It's the Frame

Framing public debates like this doesn't have a whole lot to do with facts and reason and evidence, which I think is one reason scientists are so bad at it. Frames are about feelings and gut-level intuition, touchstones to stereotypes and every-day experience. And the problem with trying to break the chain by disproving either end of the link is that you're essentially agreeing that the overall claim has some truth, validating their built-in feeling that atheism is bad and religion and science are always in conflict.

If you say that evolution doesn't really lead to or mean the same thing as atheism, you're implying that you endorse the second half of the equation -- atheism really does lead to evil. Conversely, if you try to break the chain at the other end by arguing that atheism doesn't lead to evil, then you're implying that the first part of the equation is true and that evolution really does equal atheism. Neither of those positions is good in a country where atheists are more reviled than terrorists. That's right, my lack of belief in your god is worse than Osama Bin Laden trying to blow up your babies. Go figure.

Sometimes They Really DO Conflict

Furthermore, the adversarial relationship between religion and science is pretty well established in the public consciousness, and trying to deny it makes you look like either a fool or a liar. Plus, it cannot be denied that historically, science really has proven dangerous to certain kinds of religious beliefs -- specifically, those that make testable assertions like "The earth is flat," or "The sun revolves around the Earth". It thus seems to me that any attempt to completely deny that science is ever antithetical to any sort of religious belief is doomed to failure and starts the entire debate off on the worst possible footing. (Well, maybe not the worst possible footing -- I imagine spitting in the other guy's face would be worse.)

A Better Way

That is why I would suggest the following approach. When someone claims that "Evolution leads to atheism, which leads to immorality and evil," resist the urge to engage either side of the equation. Say instead that "This isn't about science or evolution versus religion, it's about science versus BAD religion, like a flat earth or geocentrism." This approach has three benefits.

First, you're acknowledging what the listener already believes, that sometimes science really is dangerous to religion. But even while you're affirming that anxiety --
"Is science coming after MY religious beliefs?!" -- you're redirecting it by confining the conflict only to very big, obvious errors. It's a judo move, granting the other side's main fear tactic and then turning it about so that it's not so scary after all. It's not science versus ALL religion, which is silly on the face of it, but about science versus specific bad ideas that everyone knows aren't true.

Second, it allows the listener to understand that we're not talking about YOUR religion, but rather the kind of silly superstition of THOSE guys over there. You're disarming the fight or flight reflex the listener would naturally get if they thought you were trying to attack THEIR religion. You're implicitly getting the listener to feel like you're on their side, and what's at issue is not them or their beliefs but rather that of someone else.

Third, it avoids the entire issue of atheism, which frankly I think is so toxic while being simultaneously irrelevant that it's best gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. Focus, people, FOCUS!

Once you've set the overall frame of the debate in these terms, you can move on to talk about subjects like whether or not ID is science, specific claims about specific organisms, an old earth, etc., but you've changed the basic terms from all religion to only very narrow ideas, and from an attack on their beliefs to the other guy's.

Call It What It Is -- Intelligent Design Creationism

The final recommendation I'd have would be, at every opportunity, to use the term "Intelligent Design Creationism" instead of just "Intelligent Design". "Creationism" has a negative connotation in the public consciousness, left over from the Scopes Monkey Trial. Tying ID to it reinforces the notion that ID is simply traditional Creationism with all the testable parts removed and pretty much nails it down as non-scientific from the get-go.

Again, this is about re-framing the debate, getting it away from the notion that science is attacking religion, or that evolution inevitably leads to atheism. Narrowing the scope of the argument and defining the basic terms in as favorable a light as possible are basic rhetorical techniques that help you get past preconceived notions that essentially have you losing the debate before it begins.

As a final note, this entire discussion is aimed specifically at the attempt of ID Creationist advocates to get their religious beliefs taught as scientific fact in public schools. I don't mind if they want to advocate that approach in their private schools, or in a philosophy/history class, or at home, but it simply has no place at all in a science classroom.

5 comments:

Geopoet said...

Great posting, Jeff. There are so many of these erroneous equations out there that we waste time asking the more important questions. You are exactly right, I think, that there is in fact no conflict between evolution and religion for the exact reason that there is no conflict between faith and reason (Galileo actually said it best "..the two truths of faith and science can never contradict each other. Sacred Scripture and the natural world proceeding equally from the divine Word.." .) Truth does not contradict truth, and these different realms of truth are complementary, together showing us more of ourselves than either one alone could. This was spelled out so well in John Paul II's "Fides Et Ratio" encyclical.

Getting to the specific equation your raised, there is some erroneus premises on both sides of the aisle. On the religious side, there is a growing awareness that the truths of the Old Testament must be found in their historical and cultural context. Myth (in the proper sense of the term) was their science and explained the nature of God, the nature of humanity and our destiny, but it was not a science book since so little was known. As we gain more knowledge of the world and understand the ancients better, we gain a better understanding of the truth of the Word of God from a much deeper religious standpoint. However, there are many who are very literal in their understanding and make interpretations that are not necessarily in line with our knowledge of the universe. Thus they cannot reconcile evolution with religion. The Catholic Church, for example (from lessons learned), has emerged with a more comprehensive understanding of creation, reconciling the emerging theory of evolution with the mythical aspect of Genesis and our innate God-given drive toward some futuristic vision (Francis Collins supposedly wrote something on this).

On the scientific side, some are guilty of the same old fashioned "magic of religion vs. science" debate in which they see each of their scientific discoveries replacing boards under religion's foundation until, one day, there will be no need for religion. This is just as perverse as the literal fundamentalists since it assumes the entire realm of religion is based on superstitious beliefs rather than on an experience and relationship with a personal God (which is really what the Bible is all about).

Thus you will find there are both Christians and atheists who believe in the general theory of biological evolution; the Christians seeing it fitting in exactly with the marriage of natural law + reason + religion and the atheists seeing it as another interesting scientific area of study.

What is REALLY interesting to consider is that the literal fundamentalist Christians and the anti-religious atheists are actually sitting in the same closet that is called Certainty. It is this desire for certainty in the absence of reason, no matter what its source, that foments hatred and breaks down dialogue.

Later

Anonymous said...

Geopoet is a systematic theology GENIUS! Thanks for this commentary you guys.

rob in IN

Todd Sayre said...

Neither of those positions is good in a country where atheists are more reviled than terrorists. That's right, my lack of belief in your god is worse than Osama Bin Laden trying to blow up your babies. Go figure.

Atheists are probably scarier because, at least in their minds, they would have an easier time seeing the terrorist coming. The dark skin, the beard, the funny accent, the turban and whatnot.

But an atheist could look like anybody. If they're at least even a little media savvy they would probably know Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Dan Dennett. And they all look like such nice people.

That probably gets them thinking. What about the mailman? What about their child's teacher? What about a member of their own family? What if they're an atheist?!?!

Anonymous said...

"Say instead that "This isn't about science or evolution versus religion, it's about science versus BAD religion..."
I would like you to have added " BAD science versus religion.". A really good scientist should be open to all possible explanations. To dismiss with ,dare I say, emotion the possibility of a "Supreme Being" is a disservice to the passion of finding truth. If the term "God" is too unconfortable, use the word mystery. A truely supreme being who created everything can probably handle it.

Jeff Hebert said...

I would like you to have added " BAD science versus religion.". A really good scientist should be open to all possible explanations. To dismiss with ,dare I say, emotion the possibility of a "Supreme Being" is a disservice to the passion of finding truth. If the term "God" is too unconfortable, use the word mystery. A truely supreme being who created everything can probably handle it.

I am writing from the perspective of someone who believes that Intelligent Design Creationism does not belong in a science classroom, because it is not science. In that frame, your suggestion would be, not to put too fine a point on it, counter-productive. Saying "It's about BAD science" is nonsensical.

Philosophically speaking, it may well be the case that some supernatural intelligence, outside the bounds of natural law, is responsible in some way for some aspect of the universe, but by definition that is outside the reach of science. Science is a tool that measures and examines the natural world. Any supernatural entity is, therefore, not accessible to it. Note that this does not mean that it disproves the existence of such a supernatural being, it simply means that it is impossible for science to examine it since by definition, the tool of science can only deal with the natural world.

The specific claims of IDC (what few there are) are open to scientific analysis, of course -- whether or not it's possible for a bacterial flagella to evolve naturally, for instance -- and those have been thoroughly refuted. "God -- or some other intelligent designer -- did it" is not a scientific explanation. Intelligent Design Creationism represents an end to inquiry, not a beginning.