Religious Accommodation is a Political Issue

Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

Mooney and Kirshenbaum wordled

I’ve been sat on this post for a couple of weeks. One reason for not put­ting it up is I’ve been busy and this post might annoy a few people. Kicking off a dis­cus­sion and then ignor­ing it is impol­ite, so it has had to wait. Another reason is that it’s another post on whether (and how) aca­dem­ics should accom­mod­ate reli­gious beliefs. There’s been a lot of posts on this else­where because of Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s invective-sodden pub­li­city howl for their book Unscientific America. Mooney and Kirshenbaum believe that people should show respect for reli­gious beliefs, and any athe­ist who dis­agrees is engaged in acts of viol­ence. There’s a rich vein of irony to be found in the head­line of their recent LA Times piece. You may won­der if they’re on a cru­sade for respect for a spe­cific reli­gious tra­di­tion rather than all of them. There’s many people who’ve writ­ten many posts about flaws in Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s reas­on­ing. Many of them are good, but I’m not inter­ested in simply adding a ‘me too’. At best it’s bor­ing. At worst its cow­ardly mob-following — and boring.

Still it’s pos­sible there could be some­thing to debate. By nature I prefer to work with people than against them. I’d like to say it’s because I’m such a nice per­son but I’m prob­ably con­fus­ing lazi­ness with nice­ness. Life is easier if you don’t have to work against people. If accom­mod­a­tion of reli­gious beliefs works then that’s so much less work to do. So what would an acco­mod­a­tion­ist stance look like?

An answer can be found in a book chapter by Kyle S. Van Houtan and Stuart L. Pimm: “The Various Christian Ethics of Species Conservation”. It’s a dis­cus­sion of an attempt to use theo­logy to under­stand some of the more reality-proof Christian groups in an attempt to change policy on con­ser­va­tion. If you’re expect­ing a laugh-a-minute decon­struc­tion of the paper then you’re in for a dis­ap­point­ment. It opens with a quote from William Placher which argues mor­al­ity has very little to do with reli­gion. Whether or not you agree with them Van Houtan and Pimm are clearly on speak­ing terms with reality,

The prob­lem addressed by Van Houtan and Pimm is the res­ist­ance to envir­on­mental cam­paigns by fun­da­ment­al­ists. Fundamentalists identify one of the evils of sci­ence in gen­eral is the lack of a moral imper­at­ive. Whether or not you’d describe Christian fun­da­ment­al­ists as moral is irrel­ev­ant here. Their per­cep­tion of sci­ence is that it is, at best, a moral vacuum. This con­trasts with eco­lo­gists who see their work as hav­ing a strong moral base. The first dif­fi­culty iden­ti­fied by Van Houtan and Pimm is lan­guage. If you’re in a nar­row mind­set where only Christianity is moral then iden­ti­fi­ably unchris­tian lan­guage is clearly used to describe immoral activ­ity. It’s a small step from Evolution, which is obvi­ously the work of the Devil, to Ecology. This puts Ecology firmly on the side of the apes. If you believe in angels this is a dealbreaker.

…[E]thics in non­theo­lo­gical lan­guage will be worse than unat­tract­ive to Christians—such eth­ics will be inco­her­ent. Theological lan­guage is what gives Christian eth­ics intel­li­gib­il­ity. As a res­ult, cas­u­ally using “nature” or “biod­iversity” in place of “cre­ation” is incred­ibly sig­ni­fic­ant when con­sid­er­ing Christian envir­on­mental ethics.

Van Houtan and Pimm p119

This is clearly dead centre in Mooney and Kirshenbaum ter­rit­ory. We have a sci­en­tific­ally illit­er­ate audi­ence. We have a crisis for which there is clear sci­entific evid­ence; Van Houtan and Pimm would like to save up to a third of the planet’s spe­cies from extinc­tion in the next cen­tury. We also have lan­guage iden­ti­fied as a major factor in pre­vent­ing action. It would seem that sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion is urgently needed, but to whom? After a brief sur­vey which shows that the planet’s eco­sys­tem def­in­itely is in danger. Van Houtan and Pimm move on to tack­ling the Christians. They are clear that Christians are plural.

This is one of my bug­bears. It’s cer­tainly easy to rail against stu­pid Christians, but stu­pid­ity is not a require­ment for many Christian sects. The idea that Christians are mor­ons is not just a case of lazy fram­ing by non-Christians. It’s a polit­ical gam­bit by fun­da­ment­al­ists too. If I’m head evan­gel­ist for the Church of Christian Lunacy then I won’t cam­paign against the teach­ing of sci­ence because it’s Lunatic policy. I’ll say that the cam­paign against sci­ence is a Christian mat­ter. This is a subtle attempt to pull Catholics and Protestants into the fight on my side because there’s the implic­a­tion that if you don’t accept this Lunatic idea, you’re not really a Christian. It works because, as Van Houtan and Pimm make clear, there isn’t really lead­er­ship from the Churches on eco­logy. There are many dif­fer­ent pos­i­tions. To make things easier Van Houtan and Pimm neatly con­struct a four-fold typo­logy of eco­lo­gical positions.

  • Earthkeepers. These are the people who see stew­ard­ship of the planet as an imper­at­ive, based on their read­ing of the bible.
  • Skeptics. These people see no con­ser­va­tion crisis. This would include the Southern Baptist Church and Focus on Family. These are the people who see Ecology as junk science.
  • Prioritisers. These people do not value eco­lo­gical mat­ters as much as other con­cerns. For instance con­ser­va­tion is a good thing accord­ing to the Assemblies of God, but you don’t want to really push it too much, else you’ll end up with New Age Earth worshipping.
  • The Indifferent. The people who take no position.
Van Houtan and Pimm p129-131

This recog­ni­tion of the diversity of Christian pos­i­tions mat­ters if you’re look­ing for a pos­it­ive action:

Experience teaches that, when par­ti­cipants in two dif­fer­ent fields of know­ledge meet, they will have sym­met­rical views. For example, when eco­nom­ists meet eco­lo­gists, the former have a detailed draw­ing of the eco­nomy and a single, simple box for “eco­logy,” whereas eco­lo­gists have a detailed draw­ing of envir­on­mental pro­cesses and a single, simple box for “the eco­nomy.” This seems the case for reli­gion and the envir­on­ment. Those con­cerned with the prac­tical issues of pro­tect­ing the envir­on­ment are likely to see the mul­ti­fa­ceted prob­lems of their trade, but view reli­gion, eth­ics, and the church as single and mono­lithic. The reverse is also common.

Van Houtan and Pimm p131

This is a use­ful insight. Again I think it could sup­port the Mooney-Kirshenbaum pro­pos­i­tion that pub­lic Atheism harms Scientific com­mu­nic­a­tion because, if people like Richard Dawkins are the most prom­in­ent sci­ent­ists, the obvi­ous label on the Science box is ‘god­less’. We there­fore have a start­ing pos­i­tion for rebuild­ing sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion. What do Van Houtan and Pimm give use as tools for work­ing on that? I’ll dis­cuss this in full below.

Now I’ve dis­cussed that, the next obvi­ous ques­tion is why do Van Houtan and Pimm say so little about sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion given they’re talk­ing about eco­logy? The reason is that they’re aware of the audi­ence they’re talk­ing to. The issue, even for those who’d style them­selves as sci­entific scep­tics, is not sci­ence. It’s reli­gion and polit­ics. They really go to town on this dis­cuss­ing the links between right-wing polit­ical groups and the nut­tier Christian fac­tions. They cri­ti­cise the Cornwall Declaration and its reli­ance on tech­no­lo­gical fixes to vari­ous inconveniences:

Overexploitation is not a con­cern because the abil­ity to extract nat­ural resources increases with tech­no­lo­gical advances. One assumes that even biod­iversity loss can be mit­ig­ated through bio­tech­no­logy. If spe­cies drift close to extinc­tion, surely their pop­u­la­tions can be bolstered through Jurassic Park–like efforts… Are we to believe these argu­ments? More import­ant, is there a bib­lical cause to do so?

Van Houtan and Pimm p134 (My emphasis)

This makes sense within the frame where Van Houtan and Pimm are work­ing. As far as I’m con­cerned the defin­it­ive state­ment bib­lical state­ment on eco­logy is purely of his­tor­ical interest. The idea that I should care about it as a guide to mod­ern liv­ing makes my men­tal gears crunch. If I were a Christian like Pimm and – pre­sum­ably – Van Houtan, I would see things dif­fer­ently, as they make clear in their conclusion.

Certainly, there are paths of envir­on­mental eth­ics that are sec­u­lar, some of which are cer­tainly unfaith­ful to both the Hebrew and Christian por­tions of the Bible. For those of faith though the primary con­cern is not nature itself nor human­ity, but obed­i­ence to the scrip­tures. The remain­ing chal­lenge then, requires theo­lo­gians to teach the scrip­tures, eco­lo­gists to meas­ure the state of the envir­on­ment, and both to work in con­cert… We do not call for a bap­tiz­ing of sec­u­lar agendas—either lib­eral or conservative—but rather obed­i­ence to God’s word.

Van Houtan and Pimm p136-7

I think, as far as it tackles the prob­lem iden­ti­fied by Van Houtan and Pimm, their paper makes com­plete sense. This is about gal­van­ising mil­it­ant Christians and you don’t do that with sci­ence. It’s an approach brings eth­ical prob­lems of its own and a polit­ical cost. For example, Van Houtan and Pimm show the import­ance of the bib­lical char­ac­ter of the mes­sage in its deliv­ery — but who deliv­ers it? Could a young black woman deliver this mes­sage to a white pat­ri­archal church in Florida? That’s a par­tic­u­larly poin­ted ques­tion, but accom­mod­at­ing the prin­ciples of vari­ous churches means that you state argu­ments from per­sonal rev­el­a­tion or pre­ju­dice should replace argu­ments backed with evid­ence in pub­lic debate. Science is about evid­ence so while this approach might work polit­ic­ally by get­ting a res­ult, in the longer term it is anti­thet­ical to sci­ence com­mu­nic­a­tion. Mooney and Kirshenbaum’s policy of accom­mod­a­tion sinks.


It’s hard to be cer­tain because this example isn’t men­tioned in their book. This is a bit odd.

Stuart Pimm cer­tainly is men­tioned in Unscientific America. He’s thanked for his com­ments on the book. It’s pecu­liar that he didn’t think to men­tion that he’d been involved in the kind of reach­ing out to science-resistant people that Mooney and Kirshenbaum were after. It’s par­tic­u­larly odd because Pimm is a Professor of Ecology at Duke University. Sheril Kirshenbaum, I’m told, is a Marine Biologist at Duke University. I’m not sure what her mar­ine bio­lo­gical work there is, because the only men­tion of her research I found was a ref­er­ence to her Science of Kissing but it’s likely she would have come into con­tact with quite reg­u­larly Pimm as she’s lis­ted as being part of Pimm’s work­ing group.

One of the recur­ring cri­ti­cisms of Unscientific America is that it’s shal­low and super­fi­cial. I think the above is a case in point. I have some dif­fi­culties with Van Houtan and Pimm’s paper, I don’t think it tackles the polit­ical envir­on­ment of Christianity par­tic­u­larly well. As they men­tion, dis­cuss­ing the fund­ing of the far-right Christian groups, there are bit social and polit­ical factors behind this. I think there’s inter­play between reli­gious belief and polit­ical fund­ing. The impres­sion I get from Van Houtan and Pimm is closer to a Patron/Client rela­tion­ship. That’s not an entirely fair cri­ti­cism though. For a start it’s the old chest­nut “They didn’t write an entirely dif­fer­ent paper that I wanted them to write.” It’s also not the end of the con­ver­sa­tion. I think their ideas could be use­fully picked up and developed or applied to other con­texts. It lays out a pos­it­ive argu­ment which you can dis­cuss. Bruising their Religion, the com­par­able chapter in Unscientific America, in con­trast says much more about their per­sonal blog-warring than it does about reli­gion and sci­ence in the USA. Mooney and Kirshenbaum may, or may not, agree with Van Houtan and Pimm’s ana­lysis but it’s clearly a missed oppor­tun­ity that they didn’t think to men­tion it.

It’s also worth return­ing to the box. Not all Christians are stu­pid. Van Houtan and Pimm are very clear about that and talk about tak­ing their mes­sage to spe­cific Christian groups. They do not, as far as I read the chapter, argue that all the pub­lic should be treated like they’re in the remedial class. In the mean­time since I star­ted writ­ing this Mooney and Kirshenbaum have pub­lished an art­icle in the LA Times. Having pre­vi­ously cri­ti­cised Dawkins for being an athe­ist in the pub­lic sphere, they now cri­ti­cise him for being a sci­ent­ist in the pub­lic sphere. I know Christians who hate what Dawkins says, or at least what other people say Dawkins says. Nonetheless they have a keen interest in sci­ence and are per­fectly cap­able of cop­ing with Evolution and sci­ence in gen­eral without any pat­ron­ising allow­ances. Van Houtan and Pimm’s model has the soph­ist­ic­a­tion to leave room for them. I much prefer fol­low­ing a policy that states reli­gious people are not inher­ently more stu­pid than atheists.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

2 Responses

  1. August 26, 2009

    […] L. Pimm, a book that explains why fun­da­ment­al­ists are res­ist­ant to envir­on­mental cam­paigns. British archae­oastro­nomer Alun Salt reviews “The Various Christian Ethics of Species Conservation” by Kyle S. Van Houtan and […]

  2. August 26, 2009

    […] L. Pimm, a book that explains why fun­da­ment­al­ists are res­ist­ant to envir­on­mental cam­paigns. British archae­oastro­nomer Alun Salt reviews “The Various Christian Ethics of Species Conservation” by Kyle S. Van Houtan and […]