10/29/2006 06:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Science Education-- not Dawkins'-style attack-- Is the Cure for Fundamentalism

The ongoing debate over Richard Dawkins' anti-religion book, The God Delusion, and the role of faith in politics is to me a fascinating one-- one that I feel is missing an important voice.

Dawkins' critics argue that he is simply hostile to religion and that by putting fundamentalists and moderates in one category, he is profoundly misguided and driven by unreasoning hatred. His supporters say that his points follow logically from their premise.

Dawkins lumps all believers together because he thinks that accepting ideas like that of an all-powerful deity on faith is a dangerous proposition-- one that leads to uncritical acceptance of other irrational ideas ("the tooth fairy") and beliefs and that undermines the habit of critical thought.

His straight line from faith to fundamentalism is connected by the notion that if you buy the arguments of religious books like the Bible on authority, even if you pick and choose your practices and ignore those that seem wrong to you, you remain susceptible to ill-thought-out positions on things like standards of evidence for medical treatment.

After all, if anecdote and the words of authorities are good enough evidence for the existence of God, why shouldn't these be good enough evidence for the use of a drug or therapy?

Scientific principles show us why and how anecdotes are prone to all kinds of biases-- but Dawkins fears that believers will be unable to separate their religious thoughts about how to determine what is true from their considerations about how to determine what evidence should guide our decisions in policy and medicine.

I think that he's being overly simplistic about human reasoning. The history of science has long been intertwined with the history of religion-- and the religious beliefs of scientists (including those of Charles Darwin himself) did not stop them from making critical discoveries.

While in Darwin's case, his religious feelings diminished in light of his discoveries even as they contributed to the delay in his publication, they did not bar critical thought. In fact, many of the habits of critical thought that now belong to science developed first in conjunction with religious practices, such as the styles of argument developed by the Talmudists and in the Church.

It seems to me that human beings are complex and self-contradictory and able to maintain different standards of evidence for religious beliefs that give them comfort and beliefs about scientific practice. And besides, even if all religion were to die tomorrow, without other changes in human consciousness, there would still be lazy thought and the violent clashes between human social groups that are a legacy of our evolutionary history.

Dawkins is right, however, when he insists that all of us need to be informed about standards of evidence and need to subject our positions on actions that affect others to the most rigorous and critical analysis of which we are capable.

What we need most is better science education so that voters can learn to make the most rational choices possible about policy and medicine, not a most-certainly futile attempt to stamp out religion. Done properly-- emphasizing how science works and the way it weighs and rejects evidence-- this will undermine credulity and unquestioning certainty, wherever they may appear. Done properly, this will allow believers to take the positive moral creeds and ethical codes of the great religions and apply them without succoring the fundamentalist absolutism that can cause such harm.

As Darwin himself put it, "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that directly arguing against Christianity and theism produces hardly any effect on the public and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow[s] from the advance of science," [cited from here].