Friday, July 4, 2008

Open Letter to "The Reality Club" at Edge.org

Dear Reality Club,

I am an atheist and a naturalist. In other words, I do not try to limit our understanding with notions of incomprehensible entities.

Like you, I am deeply concerned with the state of science education today.

Like many of you, I think religion is best understood scientifically, as a natural phenomenon. As I will argue shortly, the idea of religion and science as non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) is a hindrance to a better understanding of humanity.

Unlike you, I have spoken out in favor of the recent Louisiana legislation which supports teachers who wish to take a critical approach to evolutionary theory in the public classroom. (Much to my surprise, my first article on the subject was heralded by the Discovery Institute. However, I am not surprised that they failed to link to my second article, which details my views on the role of religion in public education.)

My reasons for supporting the legislation are simple. Despite the questionable intentions of its designers, this bill is a call for critical thinking, objectivity and logic. Challenging such a call is not likely to improve science education in America. On the contrary, it will make science and scientists look bad, and will thus aggrandize the mistrust of our opponents.

This is a fight against ignorance, and you and I are on the same side.

Our opponents regard science as a religion. They do not understand or recognize the difference between knowledge and faith. To them, this is a religious war and we are guilty of censorship if we try to keep their ideas out of the classroom.

We all know that this legislation was designed to justify the presentation of Intelligent Design as a legitimate scientific alternative to Darwinian evolutionary theory. And we all know that Intelligent Design is decidedly not a legitimate alternative.

Rest assured that I am not in favor of propagating misinformation in America's schools. The problem is, misinformation is already being propagated in America's schools. If we are going to change things, we need a better strategy.

According to a recent Penn State study on Creationism and evolution in the public classroom, evolutionary theory is widely neglected in public education. The authors of the study conclude that fighting legislation in the courtroom will not bring about the desired results. Instead, they say, we need higher teacher standards.

They observed that teachers who have taken a course in evolutionary biology are more likely to give it the emphasis it deserves in the classroom. However, it is quite possible that teachers who already believe in evolution are more likely to take such a course. In other words, this could merely be a correlation, and requiring a course in evolutionary biology may not change much.

While improving teacher certification standards is surely a good idea, we need to do more. We need textbooks which make evolutionary theory a central, organizing principle in biology education. We also need to change our philosophical approach to science education.

The 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES) embraces the need for a well-rounded, relevant approach to science education, which includes critical thinking. It acknowledges the unifying role evolutionary theory has in the field of biology. Yet, it makes one mistake: It tries to respect NOMA.

The problem with NOMA is that it regards religion and science as involving distinct areas of life without offering any means of recognizing the distinction. Scientists cannot see the dividing line, because what is supposed to separate science and religion is not scientific. Similarly, religious knowledge cannot define the line. NOMA would thus have us believe in a line that cannot be observed by either of the forms of knowledge it champions. It is thus supposed to be taken as a matter of faith. The impotence of NOMA is hard to deny.

Religion is a very human, very tangible phenomenon, and we place the future of humanity at great risk if we do not teach our children to better understand it. Evolutionary theory is not the only relevant scientific area here, but it may be the most important.

To understand evolutionary theory, biology students must be taught about relevant issues. This means they must learn the historical and scientific significance of Darwin's work.

It was once widely believed that the earth was the center of the universe. Thanks to public education, we are all aware of that great error and remember Copernicus for helping us better understand our place in the cosmos.

Darwin should similarly be remembered for helping us overcome the misguided view that the appearance of design in human beings is the result of a designer.

The idea of an intelligence behind order and complexity has been perhaps the single most prevalent and influential concept throughout history, and remains dangerously influential even now, over a hundred years after the first publication of Darwin's Origin of Species.

Darwin's greatness is in helping us discover how the appearance of design—even such marvelous complexity as the human eye—can be created without any guiding intelligence. We owe it to our children to teach them this stunning fact. Yet, this requires allowing discussions of Intelligent Design in public science classrooms.

Intelligent Design is distinguishable from Creationism in one important respect: It does not invoke any notion of the supernatural. Scientific discussions of supernatural entities are impossible, because "the supernatural" is defined to be beyond scientific comprehension. The term "supernatural" is used specifically to safeguard ideas from scientific inquiry. This is why people who believe in the supernatural say it is a matter of faith, not reason.

We cannot meaningfully discuss the theoretical possibilities of supernatural entities. However, we can meaningfully discuss Intelligent Design.

It is theoretically possible for intelligent beings to guide the evolution of life on a well-suited planet. Indeed, human beings have helped guide evolutionary processes on earth for a great many years. So, the idea of an intelligence guiding evolution is not inherently unscientific.

If there had been an intelligence guiding the evolution of humanity on earth, we would theoretically be able to find evidence for it. So far, all of the available evidence—and it is quite a lot of evidence—shows that no such guidance has taken place. Every high school graduate should know this.

Furthermore, we must teach our students that the notion of an intelligent designer does not answer any ultimate questions about the meaning of life. Rather, if there had been an intelligent designer responsible for human evolution, it would remain yet one more event in need of an explanation.

Students must learn that, if there had been some intelligence guiding life on earth, we would be able to approach an understanding of that intelligence scientifically, and Darwin's theory of natural selection remains our best tool in that respect.

The conclusion here is apparent. The issue of Intelligent Design can and should be addressed in scientific terms, and has everything to do with a relevant and comprehensive education in biology.

Opposition to the Louisiana legislation is guided primarily by understandable fears.

First, we are afraid of subjecting our students to misinformation. Second, some of us are afraid of directly challenging religious faith. It could make students, teachers, and scientists vulnerable to criticism and even violence. Some of us want to keep a safe distance from religion, and not be accused of infringing on anyone's personal beliefs. NOMA is a handy tool in that respect.

These fears are justified, but they cannot replace our principles. Acting on the basis of emotions alone will ultimately favor immediate gratification, not long-term results.

We must accept that misinformation is an ongoing problem, and our children are going to remain at risk for a long time. Fighting this legislation is not going to change that.

We must also accept that we have no choice but to challenge religious faith.

Faith is unique in its reliance on the absence of evidence and reason. When scientific evidence and theory challenges religious faith, faith is often strengthened. Thus, subjecting religion to scientific criticism in public schools might inadvertently strengthen the irrational volatility of faith.

This is a danger that can only be solved with better education. The solution here is to educate people to better understand how faith works so they can learn to think critically about it when they are still young.

The battle between science and religion is traditionally drawn with atheists on one side and theists on the other. Agnostics and religious moderates are in the middle, hoping that each side will leave the other in peace and let belief remain a private matter.

Yet, the fight against ignorance is not drawn along those lines. The fact is, many theists and atheists are fighting against a common enemy: NOMA.

Supporters of ID want to see it (and other religiously motivated ideas) as part of a science education. They don't like NOMA because it prevents them from challenging the legitimacy of scientific theories. They think NOMA unfairly privileges science, which they say is just another religion.

Many atheists oppose NOMA because it prevents us from better understanding religion. We should not be forced to give religion any special protection against scientific scrutiny. Science and religion are similar in that they are both human enterprises; however, it is the former which strengthens our understanding of nature, and it is the latter that creates institutions and authority in the name of ignorance. This difference must be taught to our children.

Supporters of NOMA say that science is just one way of knowing, limited to what can be measured and observed. Yet, every realm of nature and human experience is potentially measurable and observable—if one were not, we would not be able to regard it as a facet of nature or experience. Science is thus not merely one way of knowing; rather, it is the formalization of all ways of knowing.

If we want to improve the quality of science education in America, we must overcome the philosophically untenable view of science as "just one way of knowing." We must establish an education system which does not protect religious belief, but rather gives it the critical, scientific attention it deserves.

Embracing the new Louisiana legislation might seem too dangerous, and opposing it surely satisfies the emotional need to do something, anything, to make a difference. Yet, opposing it ultimately does more harm than good.

Today, most high school graduates are unable to speak intelligently about the difference between science and religion, and they do not understand the full significance of our scientific achievements. Yet, they are afforded the right to vote and thereby shape public policy. This is the danger we are confronting, not just as a nation, but as a species.

We must focus on the true enemy here, which is neither critical thinking nor the introduction of discussions of Intelligent Design in schools. Rather, it is the unjustifiable view that says scientists must remain impotent as religion continues to cloud our children's minds.

I hope you will join me in helping better focus our attentions in the fight against ignorance. If we pay closer attention to how we choose our battles, maybe one day naturalism and atheism will be more widely respected for the intellectual integrity and honesty they define.

Respectfully yours,

Jason Streitfeld