[This is part of the final chapter. It is unfinished, but I have to move on to some other activities, so it may not be completed for a while. Also, the chapter on neuroscience and religion will take a while to work up. So expect one more section soon, and then nothing for a while.]
So, at this point we need to summarise. I wish I could have given you a simple and straightforward answer to the question Is religion able to accommodate science? but it has no simple or straightforward answer. I can, however, give you my conclusions:
When a religious opinion contradicts our best science about matters of fact and explanation, science wins. That is, science should be deferred to, especially in the secular sphere (in the wider community than the religious community that rejects the facts). If you do not defer to science in these cases, you cannot fairly claim to be interested in knowing about the way things really are.
When a religious opinion has no empirical consequences, then no amount of scientific reasoning can show it to be false or unacceptable, most especially when dealing with matters of value. Consequently, claims that science has shown God to be a failed hypothesis only work when God was intended to be an explanation of some particular aspect of the natural order. Since many if not most modern versions of religion no longer make that assertion, their version of their religion is not in danger from science, and it is simply wrong to assert otherwise. And moreover, scientific results can in no way affect the claim that the reason for the existence of the universe itself is the intent or action of a deity, since that cannot be tested. While there is no empirical evidence to suggest a deity is needed (that would be another book, not this one, so take my word for it here), neither can there be any empirical evidence against such a deity, so long as nothing about that deity changes the expectation of the way the empirical world will be from a scientific one.
Religion is not a single unitary phenomenon that can be blamed or praised all at once. Like any human institution it has degrees, varieties and loose and strong interconnections, and moral culpability does not transfer without loss from one part of a religion to another. To say otherwise is to blame very human being for every bad thing any human being has ever done, by parity of reasoning. Claims that “religion poisons everything” end up as vapid as “everything is affected by everything else”, and pay little to no attention to the actual research on the function and influence of religious ideas. I will stick with my own view that religion is a banner under which socioeconomic interests gather, and almost never the direct cause of institutional processes. However, religious ideas can and do affect the beliefs and actions of individuals, and that is enough to be worrying about. It pays not to oversell the problem if we want to deal with it effectively.
So the final issue is what the right strategy should be for pro-science advocates to deal with the actual, not the imagined, religious interference in science and science education. To resolve this, let’s consider some recent research on how people do or do not change their minds in a public debate.
How to change people’s minds
When Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones, entitled “Seven reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution”, he was simply reporting the arguments made by a range of cognitive scientists of religion and psychology that certain types of belief are more “natural” for human beings than belief in some of the more arcane or distant results of science. The argument has also been made by Robert McCauley in his recent book Why religion is natural and science is not (McCauley 2011). The argument runs like this: our evolved cognitive dispositions did not evolve to understand the truths of science, but instead to adapt to social agency. Religion, which is a cultural expression of our social dispositions and cognitive biases, is therefore something very natural for us as a species to adopt (given the many meanings of “religion”, this may be overstated). Science, on the other hand, deals with large numbers, long periods, the very large and the very small, and these are things we did not evolve to deal with.
The reaction of some bloggers, such as PZ Myers, whose blog Pharyngula is one of the most widely read new atheist blogs in the US, and Lawrence Moran, whose Sandwalk is a Canadian equivalent, was therefore rather surprising. Mooney was accused of “selling” accommodationism, and making out that atheists were somehow mutants. It was a great over-reaction, and had an obvious agenda behind it: to denigrate any hint that accommodation is a respectable strategy. Why is this? After all, a fact is a fact, and the fact that something like religion is in general a natural default mindset for human beings doesn’t therefore mean one must accommodate religion in science.
The reason has to do with longstanding opposition to strategies that are in some fashion conciliatory to religious believers. It is thought that this “tone” debate defangs opposition to religion in science, and makes critics seem shrill when in fact aggressive argument is called for. Often, parallels are drawn with minority rights movements like the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. And there is real substance to this. To be an atheist in modern America is matched only by the costs of being an atheist in Turkey or Indonesia in the modern industrial world: atheists are less well trusted than politicians, used car salesmen and rapists! This is not the case in most of the rest of the industrial world, however. Atheists are regularly elected as leaders or representatives in other countries, including my own, although there is a worrying trend towards public religiosity among the majority parties even in Australia.
This goes right back to the origins of religious toleration in the United States. In the famous “Letter Concerning Toleration” by the philosopher John Locke, offered to the American colonists as a defence of secular government, he basically exempted atheists from all civil rights, because
Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.
In other words, atheists can’t be trusted since they have nobody to swear their oaths by. This is one of those “If you don’t believe what I believe, there’s something wrong with you” moments. Nonbelievers aren’t fully human, and can’t be expected to be honest.
But in a secular society, where religious exceptionalism is not established as law of the land (which one could hope were every industrialised nation, although it isn’t the case), discussion between religious and areligious interests has to be carried out without the privilege either of religion or the unquestioned authority of science, and so the debate rages either as political warfare, or as civil debate. Neither approach works well in every case, but I aim to argue that civil debate is the right starting point.
 26 November 2013 <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/11/seven-evolutionary-reasons- people-deny-evolution>