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Angier vs. Wilson on Religion
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There's an interesting debate between science writer Natalie Angier and biologist and anthropologist David Sloan Wilson on the Edge website. Actually, it's not much of a debate. They're both atheists and very science minded, and they never really lock horns because they're looking at religion from different angles.

The distinction is between prescriptive and descriptive perspectives.

When you are in a prescriptive mode, you talk about the way things should be. You're making judgments about the quality of particular attributes of something. For example, if you think Major League Baseball should do away with the designated hitter completely, you're being prescriptive.

When you are in descriptive mode, you're not making any judgments about the merits of attributes. All you care about is accurately describing the thing at hand. So in the example above, you wouldn't want to claim that the use of the DH is good or bad, but you would care about making sure you correctly described the history of the DH and the details of its current usage.

And this is why there really isn't a debate at all. Angier is being prescriptive when she says things like:

I was very interested—and I also cover this in my article—in the different ways that scientists talk about certain things. They're willing to go on the attack when it comes to creationism or spoon-bending. But when it comes to the miracles of conventional don't touch that; we don't deal with it. And I'm considered rude and insulting, just willfully provocative to bring it up.

She's advocating a change in culture, and urging advocacy on the part of those that don't believe that religion and science are compatible.

Sloan, however, says things like this:

With apologies to Natalie, I think there's a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you're an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs.

He wants to talk about religion from a detached, objective perspective, not as a member of culture who has a stake in what his fellow citizens believe and how they act on those beliefs. He takes for granted, in that first sentence, that religions are obviously false. But then he goes on to argue that "as an evolutionist" all one should care about is how beliefs emerge and persist, not whether or not they are true.

And that's where I think he's wrong, and that Angier should have taken him to task. He's not some sort of alien observer, floating in a spaceship in the stratosphere, calmly observing the rest of humanity. If you were an anthropologist studying an Amazonian tribe, a more descriptive mode would be in order, since their beliefs would not really affect the course of your life. But in a democratic country, the beliefs of the majority of citizens have profound ramifications on actual policy, not just hot-button moral issues like stem cell research and abortion, but on issues across the ideological spectrum.

I think Sloan is being naive in wanting to detach himself from society, floating above it, taking notes on how things got to be that way and how they are. That's a luxury that cannot be afforded in a collective community where the beliefs of others bear directly on the laws and decisions of our society.

So I'm obviously more sympathetic to Angier's perspective, though I think should could have wrangled with Sloan quite a bit more effectively. And if you didn't click over to the actual debate, you should at least read this quotation from Clarence Darrow from 1927 that sums up Angier's prescriptive view nicely:

In face of the onslaught of the fundamentalists, some scientists are content to repeat over and over that they believe in evolution but that there is no conflict between science and religion. They only obscure the real issue. This statement may be true, but it depends entirely upon the definition of religion. If religion means the emotions of sympathy, charity, and humanity—which to some extent are part of every human structure—then this statement is no doubt true. If it means that great seers and prophets of the world from the earliest times have, almost without exception, emphasized these emotions, then the statement is true. The scientists, who repeat that there is no conflict, evidently define religion in some such way. If religion means that the earth, and man, were created in six days, measured by the morning and evening; that the sun was made on the fourth day; that the first woman was made from Adam's rib; that the sun stood still for Joshua; that the earth was completely drowned out by a flood; that the arc saved two of every kind of organic life gathered from all over the globe to start a new world; that all present life comes from animals that were saved from the arc; that each species is the result of a separate creation; that the human race was doomed to eternal torture because Eve was tempted by the serpent and man was tempted by Eve; that two or three thousand years later man was offered a chance for redemption by believing in an immaculate conception and a physical resurrection; if all this is part of religion, and it must be believed if one is religious, then the chances are that there are no scientists who will say that religion and science are in harmony. Why should not these scientists, who say that science and religion do not conflict, define in plain terms what they mean by religion? The time is past due for the scientists to speak in no uncertain terms: the fundamentalist does not quibble or dodge; he is using every means in his power to place the Bible and his interpretation of religion in the field of learning. The battle has been fought many times in the history of the world. Once more the combat is upon us, it cannot be won by quibbling and dodging. Science must openly and fairly meet the issue. The question to be determined is whether learning should be hampered and measured by dogma and creeds.

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