Find a public debate about the intersection of science and religion and you also can expect to find PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota Morris.
This month, Myers debated author Chris Mooney over questions of how far science should go to accommodate religion and whether those who champion science must oppose faith.
The debate, reported by Discover Magazine, came at a conference of the Council for Secular Humanism in Los Angeles. It continued in a special episode of Point of Inquiry, a podcast sponsored by the Center for Inquiry, where Mooney is one of three hosts.
It’s no surprise that Myers was unyielding. He has been associated with the movement called New Atheism in which authors such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens argue that many religious claims — including the virgin birth of Jesus — are scientific in nature and thus, like other hypotheses, can be tested and proven false.
“Talking about accommodating ourselves to others’ ideas is fine in a political and diplomatic sense, but there are core issues that we are not going compromise on,” he said. “Foremost, we think religion is false.”
But Myers allowed some room for framing certain relevant conversations.
“I’ve talked to fundamentalists, and often one big issue is they want to send their kids to college, they want them to succeed in this economy, and they feel really, really frightened by the fact that they’ll go off to college and be converted to godless atheists,” he said. “What I will say to them is I am not going to compromise. I am an atheist. But when I teach classes….I’m too busy teaching biology to talk about this other stuff.”
Mooney also is a self-described atheist and a critic of science illiteracy. He is the author of three books: The Republican War on Science, Storm World, and Unscientific America. But he differs considerably from Myers in that he argues for accommodation, or accepting a place for religious faith in scientific inquiry.
Religion is vastly diverse across America, Mooney argued. And many faiths allow varying degrees of compatibility with science.
“You will have actual Christians who, nevertheless, are supportive of the teaching of evolution, embryonic stem cell research and all of the rest,” he said. “There are Christian ministers who certainly have Christian beliefs [who] say evolution is good science and it’s OK to have this….What do we do with them?”
Myers gave no ground.
“We are setting up a kind of wall here — saying, OK, if you believe in a bunch of nonsense, but you allow this one little fragment to come through — if you are willing to tolerate evolution…we are going to say, ‘You are OK.’ That helps with the teaching of evolution, but it doesn’t help with the fundamental scientific illiteracy of the American public.”
Few scientists — even, few scientists who are atheists — are as blunt as Myers. And many highly respected scientists are devout Christians, Jews, Muslims and worshipers in other faiths.
But the tension between science and religion is a powerful force in American politics, government and culture.
Over many years in journalism, I’ve been a political reporter in Washington, D.C., and also a science writer covering stories around the world. I’ve run with the pack of reporters covering flare-ups over evolution, “intelligent design,” human embryonic stem cells, cloning and other issues where certain religious beliefs clash with scientific inquiry.
We journalists bear down on the debate of the day in all of its specific detail. But we don’t stand back as often as we should to report the larger web defined by the threads of this tension.
One reason is that critiquing someone’s faith generally is taboo. So most polite Americans and virtually all political leaders keep their views on these issues close to their vests.
Politicians take on certain faith-based beliefs tangentially — by taking a stance, for example, in favor of teaching sex education in the schools. But few would directly challenge the core of the religious faith that opposes such teaching.
We often wink, nod and speak in code — noting, for example, that Delaware’s GOP-endorsed senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has said she believes evolution is a myth. But few would stand up publicly to oppose the religious teachings that instruct a vast segment of America to agree with her.
And increasingly we are segmented into news and information pods where we can shut out any voices that threaten our views.
Myers and his New Atheist crowd would like their voices to penetrate your pods and rattle your beliefs. In a sense, they are political movement pushing to fill what they see as a vacuum in America.
Fat chance of that movement going very far in this country.
You can listen to the full Myers-Mooney debate here.