The Great Divide

From an article by Shawn K. Stover, eSkeptic: September 24th, 2008

I submit that anti-religious rhetoric is counter-productive. It actually hampers science education. By setting up an “us verses them” environment, the New Atheists are forcing non-scientists — those with no training in hypothesis testing (and perhaps very little training in critical thinking) — into a false dilemma. Consequently, a concept like biological evolution, which may run counter to someone’s deeply held religious beliefs, will automatically be considered irrelevant to that person, and the individual will be unlikely to discard any misconceptions related to the concept. The individual will not [b]want[/b] to learn.
I completely agree.

If we look at atheism as being divided into two camps; confrontationists and accommodationists, then some days I find myself supporting the confrontationists (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al), other times I find myself supporting the accommodationists (Eugenie Scott, Shermer, and so on).

I submit that anti-religious rhetoric is counterproductive.
To a certain extent I agree with this. Science teachers should not start a class with "Good morning students, today we will be destroying creationism, please open [i]The God Delusion[/i] to chapter 1 and lets read aloud together". But what I do not agree with is if confrontation is raised by students (let's say that a student asks questions designed to be counterproductive to the lesson or if students arrange for a visit to the school by a creationist speaker or arrange some kind of extracurricular lessons which are advertised to students) that the science teacher is instructed to remain quiet and "leave well-enough alone" lest it cause the PTA members to choke on their tea biscuits.

Even if anti-religious sentiment is not force-fed to a religious individual, I think that even without the confrontation of that individual’s beliefs, the plugging-of-ears-and-much-lalala-ing would be the outcome anyway (although probably not in such an obvious way). Should any piece of evidence, presented even in a non-confrontational way, contradict the individual’s deeply-held beliefs then that person would sacrifice the knowledge to the satisfactory dulling effect of cognative dissonance. As it says in that same article…

Learning and understanding concepts are functions of how new knowledge fits in with preexisting knowledge and beliefs. Misconceptions often arise when individuals alter information to fit their preconceived ideas about a particular subject.

So I think that it is all about starting out with the ground rules, teaching the thinking tools required to make a better informed decision about which of two competing ideas can be seen as more reasonable - this has nothing to do with religious views, this is only about teaching Critical Reasoning. Should any confrontation arise at a later date then applying the reasoning skills as a group should make it easy to spot the irrationality of religion. If you wait until the horse has bolted (wait until a challenge is raised) to start with teaching these skills then it will appear as though the science teacher is inventing things just to refute religion.

Just to placate my raging inner confrontationist (who has apparently bound and gagged the inner accomodationist today), I’ll make a few final points deeply in confrontationist territory.

  • If we (the atheists) don’t confront, then the fundamentalist theists will not hesitate to spew forth logical fallacies.
  • I think the distinction is clear between the positions, it is the stated aim of The Richard Dawkins Foundation and Paul Kurtz’s Center For Inquiry to advance science and reason, not coexistence of science and non-reason. Promo video time.
  • Richard Dawkins talks at length to New Scientist about the recent stepping down of the Royal Society’s head because he (an ordained minister) advocated using creationism in the science class as a teaching tool (but was too vague about how it should be part of the curriculum - as a real challenge to modern evolutionary ideas or as a failed hypothesis). It is perhaps surprising that Dawkins was not one of the RS fellows asking for Michael Reiss to step down.
  • A key point (from the New Scientist article that I referenced) is so eloquently stated by Dawkins:

I agree with ArgumentumAdHominem. In my work I am often challenged by religious people / students. I try to stay clear of religion vs science but when challenged I do not go and hide. Always try to explain the scientific method, the concept of a circular argument, and the difference between a scientific theory and “just a theory”. Explain that I may not have the knowledge of some Theory but with a bit of research we can find it.
Then give them a way out by saying that you “must split you mind in two” - while doing science you don’t involve religion and in church you do not think scientifically.
If they then still come back at me it is they who are confrontational. I then ask them why they don’t belief in Baal, Zeus or some other god. Ask them to supply proofs for those and their own god. At this point you usually have to explain again what proof means.
Sometimes we agree to disagree but once or twice it ended badly.

Let’s turn the table on Stover’s argument and see what falls out:

I submit that anti-scientific rhetoric is counterproductive. It actually hampers religious instruction. By setting up an “us and them” environment, the Old Believers are forcing non-theologians — those with no training in exegesis (and perhaps very little training in rhetorical techniques) — into a false dilemma. Consequently, a concept like eternal life, which may run counter to someone’s rationally held evidence-based convictions, will automatically be considered irrelevant to that person, and the individual will be unlikely to discard any facts related to the concept. The individual will not [b]want[/b] to unlearn.

In this guise, it’s clearly a non-argument, and the only part of it to buy into is the first sentence.


Where is the confusion between science and religion ?

Religion is the science of using the fear of the unknown to control the uneducated.

I have read, probably, hundreds of blog posts on this, as it is currently a huge issue in the culture wars in the US.
There is debate about “framing”, and confrontation vs accomodation. I don’t believe any paradigm shift (if that is the correct thing to call it), occurs by accomodation. People must speak up to make change, and I want change. I still firmly support every person’s right to their belief, but you absolutely DO NOT have a right not to be offended by my views and what I may say about your beliefs.
Religion has been handled with kiddies gloves here and other places for far too long.
As far as classroom teaching is concerned, science teachers should teach science. If a student brings up religion, there are many ways to handle it I suppose, but I would simply state that religion is beyond the scope of science as we work with the scientific method, not faith.
I taught Biology for a short time back home, and I had one student who was deeply bothered by what we covered. I told him that this is what is required to pass (not in a cold way), so he must learn it. If he decided to discard everything I taught after the class because it clashed with his religion, I am not sure. It is his prerogative to do so, but I will say he got an A for the course.
Side note: The High School Biology standards here in South Africa are totally insufficient IMHO.

My tag line, footer? What ever it is called sums it up.

I agree, the difficulties inherent in the confrontationist position are brilliantly portrayed in this cartoon.