Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Why NCSE Should Be Involved in the Science-Religion Dialog

From time to time at NCSE, we hear questions from skeptical, agnostic, and atheistic members who wonder what we are doing getting involved with people of faith. Creationism in its several forms is, after all, largely motivated by religion. Many of the household names in evolutionary science are quite vocal about the death of religion as they see it, while others seem to see religion as tolerable as long as it is limited to private, individual faith or to informing moral and ethical decisions. So why would NCSE want to be involved in science and religion conversations?

Perhaps the first reason is simply that many NCSE members are people who belong to communities of faith. They support the teaching of evolution; they disagree strongly with creationist attempts to substitute their spin on religion for science, yet they are themselves religious. NCSE is a membership organization, and a part of what we do is support our members in their advocacy for evolutionary science. That means being where they are, and that is sometimes in the thoughtful dialogs between science and theology – the places not just where science and theology conflict and contrast but where they make contact with and confirm each other's assumptions and world views.

The second reason is what we might unabashedly call good politics. Not all Christians are creationists, and many are not happy about the appropriation of the name "Christian" as synonymous with anti-evolutionist – as well as with other reactionary and exclusivistic stances. Many Christians deplore equating "Christian" with the radical religious right and enemies of religious liberty. Many moderate and liberal Christians, and yes, even some conservative Christians, are our allies in working to keep religion out of the science classroom. We simply cannot make common cause with Christians who stand for evolution if we use the categories "Christian" or "religious" for one narrow stripe of Christian tradition and activism.

When working for Uni-tarian-Universalist Project Freedom of Religion in Southern California in the late 1990s, I did considerable reading and research on all the issues that were favorites of the religious right. Reading Perfect Enemies: The Religious Right, the Gay Movement and the Politics of the 1990s by Chris Bull and John Gallagher, I saw how easy it is to make perfect enemies – how tempting it is for both sides on a controversial issue to play to each other's prejudices, hobby horses, and weaknesses in such a way as to keep the conflict going without getting anywhere.

Two significant ways to avoid such a situation caught my attention. Do not adopt a campaign mentality, but build a movement for the long haul – a strategy at which NCSE excels. Another involves finding those people in the middle who are more open to dialog than invested in being the perfect enemy. When it comes to supporting the teaching of evolution, those people are most likely to be found among people of faith who reject the claims of the religious right, but themselves make faith claims of a broader and more exploratory nature. Allying with such folks is good politics. There is no need to make perfect enemies.

These are perhaps the major reasons, and the most obvious ones, that NCSE needs to be there in science and religion dialogs. But there are also softer reasons – reasons not just of obligation and expedience, but of values.

One I have already mentioned is the ethical connection. People of different faiths and no faith agree that the insights of both the biological sciences and of theological reflection are needed if the human community is to grapple effectively with issues in human genetics and the human impact on the rest of the life on our planet. While these issues are not primary to the mission of NCSE, the scientific literacy we support and advocate is partnered in public debate with theological and philosophical literacy. While actively working for better science teaching, free of religious restraints, we must also respect those exchanges in which we "deal with our deepest differences".

Finally, NCSE has been effective because we connect, encourage, and provide resources to people at the grassroots – dealing with real threats to the teaching of evolution in their communities. We recognize that it takes whole communities to do this, with activists from education, science, citizen groups, and religious congregations working together. Yet many religious congregations that want to be partners in our cause have not done the dialog work at the local level that can help them to argue for sound science teaching from a faith perspective. We cannot do that work for them, but we can point them toward resources that can help if, and only if, we are involved and informed about what is happening nationally and internationally in the conversation between religion and science.
By Phina Borgeson, Faith Network Director
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.