Does the National Center for Science Education Deserve the Criticism It Receives?

December 28, 2010

Recently while having dinner with a good friend, I touted that Eugenie Scott, executive director at the National Center for Science Education, was rumored to be a speaker at an upcoming conference in New York City. My friend sighed, and lamented while repeating the name “Eugenie Scott …” as his voice trailed off. The ensuing conversation made clear to me that my friend did not have a favorable view of Scott and the NCSE and that he did not think the NCSE was helping the secular cause.

This is not uncommon in my experience. The NCSE — dedicated to promoting and defending the teaching of evolution in science curricula at the local, state, and national levels — is by its very nature controversial. One obvious source of opposition to its operations is hyper-religious Americans who reject evolutionary theory (but not the modern medical benefits derived from it, naturally!). But the NCSE also receives criticism from some secularists, like my friend. They charge that the organization too often promotes the idea that science and religion are compatible — in some instances by actively supporting liberal forms of religion. These two criticisms are in no way equal in merit. Evolutionary theory is on firm ground, and those who reject the science are simply wrong. But the second camp might have a point, and that is the topic of this essay.

This debate over NCSE’s handling of science and religion heated up recently after news that the NCSE is promoting an event that explicitly endorses liberal religion that accepts (most of) the findings of science. In response, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne charged that the NCSE has essentially become BioLogos, the Templeton Foundation-like outfit that tries to find, and spread word of, intellectual agreement between religion and science. I believe this bit of news also bothered my friend, along with a number of bloggers. This is not the first time Coyne or others have felt put off by the NCSE. So what gives?

It seems to me that the NCSE will always be in a tough spot. If they are truly interested in successfully defending science in classrooms nationwide, they will hardly be able to take a neutral approach to religion (even if that is in their stated mission). Some secularists are bothered by the NCSE working with religious groups that accept science, and by their active outreach to religious groups. Doesn’t promoting evolutionary acceptance to religious groups essentially equal promoting the compatibility of evolution and religion? Why reach out to religion? Yet, considering the NCSE’s enormous challenge, and their science-focused mission, they both must and can build wide support. As they note on their Web site :

“Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.”

Moreover, evolution acceptance is a major problem not in the faithless community, but in the faith-based one, so it seems understandable to direct attention there.

Still, reaching out to religious groups on evolution is categorically different from promoting or exclusively supporting liberal religion. It is one thing to work — under the assumption of (a flexible) neutrality — to form coalitions with, or educate, religious groups. It is quite another to actively encourage religious belief. This is stepping outside the bounds that reasonable secularists, willing to provide some wiggle room, might feel comfortable with. There is no rationale for the NCSE to do this. In fact, one could reasonably ask: if the NCSE is going to promote liberal religion and religionists, why not also promote pro-science atheism and atheists? As P.Z. Myers wrote in his more centered approach to the issue:

“The most glaring discrepancy in NCSE's current policy of so-called alliance-building is that atheists are left out; I presume their support is taken for granted. But I will note that some ditzy conference by Biologos-types gets front-page attention from the NCSE, while Richard Dawkins can tour the country giving talks on evolution (if anyone had been paying attention, they'd know that most of his talks are about science, not atheism) and be completely ignored. It's as if the biggest, most popular promoters of science in the world do not exist, simply because they aren't liberal Christians.”

Again, a large obstacle to the acceptance of evolution does stem from certain types of religious belief, and the NCSE should concentrate on that. But at the same time, why ignore pro-science atheists? To be sure, Myers is not calling for the NCSE to become an atheist organization. In fact, no one is. The NCSE should not promote either atheism or liberal religion. Rather, Myers is noting the unevenness with which the NCSE treats religion and non-religion.

Secularists like Myers have a reasonable case:

“As I've said before, said just above, am saying again, and will no doubt have to say a hundred times more, no one is asking the NCSE to become an atheist organization, and no one is saying that the NCSE shouldn't make strategic alliances with religious organizations. I'd put it in 72 point type if I thought it would help, but I doubt that anything will.” (emphasis in the original)

Working with religious groups on defending science in the classroom, or educating religious groups, is fine. But don’t promote or support religion, and then also ignore Richard Dawkins and others just because they are atheists. As Myers notes, the NCSE should openly work with everyone who shares the organization’s science-based mission — even if he or she is a public atheist — so long as the topic is science, not religion.

But while the NCSE deserves criticism, its secular detractors sometimes go too far. There are problems with the event that sparked this recent debate, but Coyne’s claim that the NSCE has become BioLogos is unfair. BioLogos and the NCSE are completely different organizations — in general mission and in their work — and I think secularists should clearly side with one over the other. Of course, I do not agree with the NCSE on every issue, but they are not even close to being BioLogos (yet).

Many secularists think the NCSE’s stated policy of neutrality itself is a sort of pro-religious stance. Yet a portion, or perhaps even the whole, of the NCSE’s stance on science’s inability to weigh in on religious claims stems from the position that science is empirical, evidence-based hypothesis forming and testing, and thus has epistemological limits. It can’t handle certain metaphysical and supernatural questions, though it can inform critical inquiry of some claims more than others. This is not a matter of promoting the compatibility of science and religion. It’s epistemic humility. Indeed, the NCSE does not say that religious belief is therefore reasonable (it doesn’t need to take the extra step; remember, it’s an organization dedicated to science). You might question Scott’s philosophy, but it would be disingenuous to charge that she is working for religious belief because she honestly (and I believe rightly) thinks science has epistemological limits.

This brings us back to the widespread sentiment in certain quarters that the NCSE is not really helping. I think that the NCSE is helping, but it is important to remember the NCSE is fighting one small battle within the larger war for rationality, reason, and science. The NCSE’s battle is a localized one, concentrating on science education. They are definitely helping there . The other battle is a much broader one, centered on irrationality and unreason wherever it is having influence. The NCSE plays a lesser, but still crucial, role there. This does not mean the NCSE should be sheltered from criticism. Critique is essential, and the NCSE should be listening.

But let’s also not try not to confuse the different scopes of our battles, or else we will lose the entire war. And let’s certainly not think that those who fight differently are automatically on the other side. It’s not true, and we can’t afford that.

Note: this essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking.


#1 jerrys on Tuesday December 28, 2010 at 5:59pm

A slightly edited copy of a comment I left on Rationally Speaking:

As an atheist I never tell anyone what their religion says. If some one tells me that their religion is compatible with evolution I see no reason to doubt it. I think this is also NCSE’s position (although they never put it as bluntly as I just did.)

NCSE has a narrow focus. In spite of its name it isn’t focussed on science education in general, or even on biology education in general. It is specifically focused on keeping evolution in education and creationism out.

In doing that it sometimes adopts tactics that don’t promote wider ideas such as “reason” or “secularism” that some of us, including me, think are more important than evolution. But as far as I’m concerned that is fine. As long as they don’t take positions that I disagree with I’m willing to be a strong supporter.

Why does NCSE seem more interested in religious people who accept evolution than in atheists? As Willie Sutton said: It’s where the money is. It is an unfortunate fact that there are more of them than there are of us.

I don’t think promotion of an event by religious people who accept evolution is the same as promoting their religions beliefs any more than Dawkins’ interview of a priest who accepts evolution ( ) is the same as promoting catholicism.

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