Thursday, November 19, 2009

Greatest Show on Earth

Joel, a former student, sends along his thoughts on a review in the New York Times of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. I thought it worth putting on our Main page rather than the Feedback page. Here's what he says:

The recent book review published by New York Times science reporter Nicholas Wade on Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth has received an unusual flood of attention. The basic premise of Wade's review is not to discredit evolution or even call the authority of its claims into question. Rather, a generous portion of the article affirms Dawkins' claims in an energetic and robust manner.

Wade's introductory comments place him squarely on Dawkins' side of the Evolution/Creationism debate saying, "It is a source of amazement and embarrassment that many Americans repudiate Darwin's theory and that some even espouse counter theories like creationism or intelligent design." He then goes on to praise Dawkins as a prolific writer who has devoted his latest book to demonstrating the explanatory power of evolutionary ideas while hammering the creationists at every turn.

So, where does the flood of criticism that the New York Times received in the past several weeks come from? Unfortunately for his own popularity, Wade went on to critique Dawkins' statement that evolution is fact and not simply a theory. This simple statement has brought philosophy professors, scientists, and even Daniel Dennett himself up in arms. In all reality Wade has barely ruffled the feathers of the contemporary biological claims of Darwinism.

If evolution really is such a bulletproof logical fact then why does it require such a determined defense? If Dennett is correct in proposing that such articles no more deserve space in the Times than the opinions of flat-earthers could not history reveal to us that they will bite the dust on their own?


The End of Secularism

I recently finished a fine book by a professor of political science named Hunter Baker who titles his work The End of Secularism. The problem Baker addresses is the largely successful attempt in the latter part of the 20th century to purge religious sentiments from the public square and to instill in our everyday life an assumption of, or bias toward, secularism.

The main argument in his book is that politics simply cannot be separated from religion, that the secularist alternative is neither neutral nor desirable, and that it will ultimately fail. Secularism should be seen not as the only reasonable occupant of the public square but rather as one competitor among others jockeying to be heard in the marketplace of ideas.

Secularism is not to be confused with the separation of church and state. The latter refers to institutional independence. The former refers to the separation of religion from public life. Separation of church and state is a good thing for everyone involved. The separation of religion from public life is not.

Baker argues persuasively that the courts have erred in seeing the First Amendment as a prohibition of religious expression in taxpayer subsidized spaces. The establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...") was not about religious freedom at all. It was about who had jurisdiction in church/state matters. The Founders were saying that the role of religion would be a matter for the several states to resolve each for themselves, and that the federal government had no business injecting itself into what was a state matter. Each state was to be free to develop its own relationship with religion in whatever way it chose without the federal government telling it what it could or couldn't do.

Of course, that's not how our courts have chosen to interpret the Amendment. They've ruled, in effect, that the First Amendment is a mandate for secularism, which actually privileges one religious view - secularism - above all others.

Baker traces the uneasy history of church state relations from the early Roman church to the present and attributes the rise of secularism in the West to three main 19th century developments: The emergence of German higher criticism, the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, and the schisms wrought by the Civil War and slavery in both the nation and the church. The clincher, though, was the Scopes Trial in 1926 and its aftermath. The trial was a humiliation of Christian fundamentalism and launched secularism on a trail of victories for the next sixty years that made it seem invincible.

Today, however, the picture is much different. Since the latter part of the 20th century secularism has come under intense scrutiny by "its own advocates, conservative Christians, other conservative religionists, and postmoderns." The critique of secularism includes the irony that secularists have absorbed as their own the values of our common Christian heritage even as they claim that secular thinking is actually the source of these values.

Baker spends several pages on Stanley Fish's critique of the secularist project and why it is doomed to fail. For example, "Bracketing off religion does not solve the problem of toleration. It just disadvantages one set of orthodoxies from interacting with the many secular orthodoxies roaming free in a liberal society." This is true. It also privileges the secularist orthodoxies by essentially insulating them from criticism by banning the opponents most likely to present the most powerful critiques - religious opponents - from the public square.

We must exclude religious reasons and motivations from our public discourse, the secularist argues, because we need to allow only viewpoints that are accessible to everyone and held by everyone in the public arena. The assumption, however, that secular viewpoints are somehow metaphysically neutral is a fraud. The secularist is no more disinterested than is the religious citizen and for him to claim that he should be allowed to judge what passes for legitimate discourse is like permitting a baseball pitcher the prerogative of calling the balls and strikes.

All public discourse reduces to two fundamental visions of reality. One maintains that the universe is the product of a rational, personal, and good creator and the other holds that everything is a result of chance and impersonal forces. The secularist wants to rule the former out of court and allow only the latter in the public square, but conveniently, the latter view happens to be his own. Postmodern thinkers like Fish have been particularly adept at pointing out the self-serving nature of the attempt to establish a monopoly for one's own view while maintaining the pretense of neutrality.

Baker makes the interesting observation that although secularism serves essentially the same role in the Democratic party that religion serves in the GOP, the media, though eager to report on the influence religion has among Republicans, rarely reports on the influence secularism has among Democrats. One never hears, for instance, how the Democrats have "shored up their base among the unchurched, atheists, and agnostics."

We're often reminded that schools must not teach religious values, but secularist values like environmental attitudes and fads, tolerance, opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia are all deemed perfectly legitimate topics for taxpayer-funded schools. In other words, taking Judeo-Christian religion out of the public square does not leave the square religion-free. Rather, it leaves secularism as the only religion to be allowed a voice in our public deliberations.

There's much more in Baker's relatively short (194 pages) book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in Church/State issues and the role of religion in public life.