Let nothing be held hostage to dogma

accommodationismIt’s tempting to see the accommodationist vs.Gnu atheist debate as a debate about two questions. One is about of principles: if science and religion do conflict, would we have to tell the truth about that? The other is about priorities: is it more important to get evolution taught in public schools, or more important to encourage people to have a generally rational view of the world?

This way of framing things, if you’ll excuse the term, is unfavorable to the accommodationists insofar as Chris Mooney and Josh Rosenau wouldn’t want to admit to lacking principles or having narrow priorities. However, it’s very favorable to them in that it implicitly concedes their central claim–that if all you care about is teaching evolution, trying to accommodate religious believers is the smart tactic.

I’m convinced, though, that critics of accomodationists shouldn’t concede this. This is because of the obvious and too-rarely-stated risks in the accomodationist strategy. In particular, accomodationism risks letting science be held hostage to religious dogma.

Remember why the debate over accomodationism is happening. Mostly, its happening because huge numbers of people in the U.S. think that the Bible is inerrant, and the plain meaning of the text is that life on Earth was made by God in a few days, rather than evolving over millions of years.

Some believers buy into non-literal interpretations of that part of the Bible, but lots don’t, and they reject evolution because of it. Then they cause headaches for everyone else when they attack the teaching of evolution in schools.

Yes, some believers oppose evolution because they’re trying to salvage the design argument, and some feel uncomfortable with evolution even though they hesitate to say it’s incompatible with the Bible. Biblical inerrancy, though, is the original source of the evolution-creationism conflict.

This is what the accomodationism debate is about. It’s a debate about what to do about that problem, the problem of science being attacked by people who insist the authority of the Bible trumps everything.

Now suppose you aren’t real sure about Biblical interpretation, have defending evolution as your top priority, and don’t mind saying things you don’t believe if it will help your policy goals. Should you be an accomodationist? That is, should you avoid criticizing people’s religous beliefs, and tell them that in fact science is compatible with their religious beliefs–in this case, that evolution is compatible with the Bible?

Once the real question has been put clearly, I think it’s obvious that the accomodationist strategy could go badly wrong in at least two ways:

  1. You might just fail to convince people that evolution really is compatible with the Bible, so that those who started out rejecting evolution because it conflicts with the Bible will continue doing so.
  2. You might convince them on the one point of Biblical interpretation, but be unable to win the Bible interpretation argument on the next science vs. religion issue, or on moral issues like gay rights.

In both bad outcomes, the problem is that you got into an argument Biblical interpretation while not challenging the assumption that Biblical interpretation should matter. Yet the idea that it might be right to settle scientific or moral issues by arguing over Biblical interpretation is not only wrong, it’s one that has obvious potential to cause huge problems on a broad range of issues.

This makes it an idea that would be insane not to challenge, unless the prospects for challenging this idea were utterly hopeless. And they’re not hopeless. Biblical inerrancy is a doctrine that even many hard-core Evangelicals now shy away from defending in public. They look for small scraps of scientific evidence for their beliefs, rather than say (openly) that they will side with the Bible come what may

I’m also convinced that the number of people who accept Biblical inerrancy deep down is far smaller than the number who claim to. Few Evangelicals really think, for example, that the question of whether we should round up and execute gay men should be decided through careful Biblical interpretation.

Given those facts, people who care about science education should not be afraid to point out places where science contradicts the Bible. If you can convince someone that the Bible wrong is about just one thing, you’ve opened their mind to thinking the it could be wrong about a lot of other things.

To refuse to do that is to fight with one hand behind your back. It’s to let not just science, but also ethics, be held hostage to religious dogma.

And we must let nothing be held hostage to religious dogma.

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