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The Precarious but Profound Middle Ground In The Struggle Between Religion and Science

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I recently criticized Jerry Coyne, standing in for the New Atheists, for having a simplistic view of religious people as people unable to abandon obsolete ideas and move into the modern world. The purpose of my piece was to defend religion -- particularly Christianity -- against such charges: "To insist that the authentically religious are defined by their inability to move out of the past is to create a straw man," was how I put it. In the writings of so many of the New Atheists, religious believers are reduced to a regiment of caricatured clones, marching in lock-step behind a pied piper from some previous century.

I acknowledged, of course, that there are indeed Christians who hold to ideas from the past, such as the long-disproved notion that the earth is just a few thousand years old. Many of them, in fact, do so with no understanding of why, oblivious to the progress of science on this or any other matter. Scientific illiteracy is no respecter of persons, though, as Chris Mooney has argued eloquently in Unscientific America, and even non-religious people have their own scientific disconnects.

Some of these Christians who prefer their planets young, like the Southern Baptist leader, Al Mohler, however, are not oblivious to the progress of science. Mohler is educated and does not hold this belief because of simple ignorance. He is well-read and informed on such things. But he's inclined, for widely accepted theological reasons, to get his science from the Bible. There are, of course, equally legitimate Christian leaders -- say Tim Keller or Joel Hunter -- who do not feel compelled by their faith to believe that the earth is a few thousand years old.

In making my argument with Coyne, I accept the label "accommodationist," a catch-all term -- intended to be derogatory -- for people who believe there is intellectually defensible space in between the opposing positions represented by Coyne and Mohler. Accommodationists include religious believers like Francis Collins and me, as well as non-believers like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse.

I have been wondering, especially in light of the recent, highly polarized mid-term elections, why "middle ground" of the sort that accommodationists are trying to stake out, is such a troubled bit of geography. From a purely logical point of view, Mohler could view me as "a welcome but theologically confused ally in the war on scientism." After all, he and I both agree that Coyne and the New Atheists go too far when they insist that science rules out religion. But instead, Mohler assaults my argument as "really interesting -- and really dangerous." (To be fair I did hyperbolize Mohler's position as "paddling about in intellectual backwaters," but I think he was less concerned about that unflattering image than he was about the point I was making.) In any event, both Mohler and I worship the same God and are trying to get more people to believe in that God.

On the other end of the spectrum, Coyne could view me as "a welcome partner in the cause of scientific literacy." After all, I am making efforts to persuade people who reject evolution to change their minds and accept it. Both Coyne and I are trying to get more people to believe in evolution. But, from where Coyne sits, I seem to be on the wrong team and am engaged in a "crazy and futile attempt to accommodate a faith that embraces science with the faith of people like Mohler."

Why is it that people on middle ground always seem to be on the "other" team, when this seems far from obvious? In the recent election, by analogy, why were moderate Republicans vilified for being too much like Democrats? Has everyone in the country decided that there is only "us" and "them," so that "not us" equals "them"? Whether we agree with people in the middle or not, is there not value in acknowledging those who can make connections between disparate points of view? Are we locked in a zero sum game where victory on one side automatically prescribes defeat on the other?

In a 1917 paper, Sigmund Freud coined the phrase "narcissism of small differences" to describe our tendency to react so strongly -- with aggression, vitriol, even hatred -- to those that resemble us the most. Family squabbles between people who love each other, for example, are far more vicious than quarrels between casual acquaintances.

In Freud's view, those with whom we have nothing in common cannot truly threaten us, for they are wholly "other." They can be rejected in toto, even destroyed in physical conflict. But those who share many but not all of our views do threaten us, precisely because they suggest that some of our beliefs might need correction. By these lights, Coyne and Mohler cannot be threatened by each other because they have nothing in common. But they can both be threatened by accommodationists on the middle ground, who share some, but not all, of their beliefs.

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