Pessin’s Paradox of the Preface

Sometimes I hear people in the blogosphere complain about philosophers and what we do.  This often comes from someone who is largely unfamiliar with philosophy, and you can see this because these people commonly express explicit philosophical positions while they are complaining about philosophy.  This suggests they just don’t get what philosophy is.  Sometimes I get annoyed at this and try to point out the mistake, but most of the time I let it slide recognizing that the person in question is just naive.  Sometimes, though, I read something from a philosopher, and I understand these people’s frustration.  After all, this is likely what they had in mind when they voiced their complaint.  Now is one of those times. 

Andrew Pessin, Chair of Philosophy at Connecticut College and author of The God Question, wrote an article for the Huffington Post a couple of days ago entitled “How to Be Certain Your Religion Is True and Still Get Along with Others.”  So, what’s Pessin’s big idea? 

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Yes, Pessin thinks the resolution to the world’s religious conflicts is to say you are certain about something, but then say you’re not certain at all.  He calls this the “Paradox of the Preface.” 

What’s this about?  Pessin thinks that someone can say that she is certain about something while simultaneously saying that, as a fallible human being, she is also certain she made a mistake somewhere in their reasoning.  Sounds like a contradiction, huh?  Pessin agrees.  He writes,

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.

Even so, he says we can recognize the contradiction while still being certain about both things.

Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something.  First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt.  If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term.  The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning.  Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error.  Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it.  So, even if Pessin means “certainty” as having no doubt when he talks about believing that one’s religious faith is fully correct and all others are wrong, he can’t mean certainty in the same way when talking about the fallibility of one’s reasoning.  But which use of the word does he have in mind when he talks about ‘certainty’?  There does not seem to be any way to tell.  Regardless, there is a big problem here.

Next, I just do not buy the idea that someone can be certain about something, like that God exists, while saying that he might be wrong.  That just means you are not certain!  In that case acknowledging some contradiction does not seem to be some brave honesty.  On the contrary, it seems wholly dishonest.  If you are certain, you would not think you had made an error.  If you are worried you made an error, and surely if you are certain of such, then you would not be certain of the assertion you are making in the first place.  The idea that you can be certain about both things really is a contradiction, and when you have contradictions that means at least one of the propositions in question is false.  It is as simple as that.  You do not get to brutely assert both as true and not look like either a liar or a fool.

There is a larger point to this whole nonsense, though.  Pessin is suggesting that affirming the paradox is supposed to somehow make people get along with each other, but he gives no indication of how this is supposed to work.  Indeed, there are lots of things about which I am not certain but which seem reasonable, so those are things upon which I act.  Even in those cases, lacking certainty, acknowledging the possibility that I am wrong does not prevent me from acting, and that seems to be the kind of thing for which Pessin is pushing.  He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along.  But why would he think this?  There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet.  Seriously, does Pessin think he is so smart that no one ever realized that there might be room for not-certainty in their beliefs before he wrote this?  Surely not.  And yet, here he is suggesting that such an admission will result in some kind of large-scale harmony between members of different faiths.  But, certainly, this has not happened yet, even though people recognize that they can make mistakes. 

Dude, what a dumbass.

Accepting contradictions is not a way to accomplish anything except confusion.  Being sloppy in your definitions only spreads confusion.  Confusion is not peace.  In fact, confusion is often the origin of conflict.  Pessin is the kind of philosopher who gives the rest of us a bad name.

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The Supreme Court Says the Cross Is Not about Christ

mojave-cross1 This is a subject on which I’ve meant to write twice before, didn’t have time, and then decided against writing on it as it seemed too late to do so.  But every time I decide not to write about this, some new twist occurs, giving me yet another opportunity to make a post on the subject.  Far be it from me to ignore such obvious signs.

There is a cross in the Mojave National Preserve that serves as a war memorial.  It was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  A decade ago a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, sued to have the cross removed on the charge that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Buono won the case, and the cross was ordered removed, so Congress decided to give the land to the VFW so as to avoid having to remove the cross.  A federal court ruled that such a transfer was clearly intended to sidestep the requirement to take down the cross, and, as such, was illegal.  The government appealed that case to the Supreme Court, and on April 28, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that that transfer was, in fact, legal (that ruling can be seen here).  The result of that ruling was that the cross got to stay.  However, on May 9, the cross was stolen by thieves.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, a cross appeared in the same spot just last Wednesday, May 19.  It is unclear whether this is the same cross that was removed or if it is a replica.  It is also relevant to point out that in 1999 the park service denied a request to allow a Buddhist memorial in the same area, and Easter services have been held at the memorial for the past 70 years.

That is a quick and dirty rundown on the background of the issue at hand.  What’s funny about the Supreme Court case is that, even though it was supposed to be about the legality of the transfer of the land by the federal government into the hands of a private organization for the purpose of avoiding following a mandate handed down from a federal court, most of the hearing centered on whether or not it was proper to have a religious symbol on land owned by the federal government, especially whether it was legal to have a symbol of only one religion while excluding others.  Looking at the First Amendment, it might appear that the obvious conclusion is that it is indeed illegal to have such a symbol erected on federal land.  Quoting an editorial from the New York Times:

On the merits, the appeals court was right that the cross must come down. By allowing a Christian cross, and not symbols of other faiths, on federal land, the government was favoring one religion over others. Also, Congress has designated the cross as a national memorial, which means that it continues to have official government endorsement.

It is curious, then, that the Supreme Court ruled to allow the cross to stay.  We can see the reasoning behind the majority opinion in this exchange between Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg (the pdf of the court transcript can be found here):

MR. ELIASBERG: … I think it would be very odd indeed for the VFW to feel that it was free to take down the cross and put up, for example, a statues of a soldier which would honor all of the people who fought for America in World War I, not just Christians, and say: Well, we were free to do that because even though there’s the sign that says, this cross is designated to honor all the —

JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that — is that —

MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that’s actually correct.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?

MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn’t say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that’s why the Jewish war veterans —

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.


MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my — the point of my — point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don’t feel honored by this cross. This cross can’t honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.

And that seems to aptly summarize the kind of debate that went on in the courthouse.  The result was that the Court decided to that it was appropriate and legal for the cross to stay.  From the New York Times:

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

This strikes me as simply bizarre, and I am not alone in this view.  Even other Justices agree.  From the same article:

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

And that’s the point I want to make here.  In order to render the cross legal, they had to render it largely impotent.  That is, the cross is no longer, for the majority of the Court, a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world so that Man might have communion with God and have the opportunity to be forgiven by His Grace, which is arguably the core belief of Christianity.  I mean, the whole point of the cross is that Christ died on it!  What Kennedy and the majority have done is say that this is not the meaning of the cross, that instead it is just something we stick on graves.  But can they really believe that?  Is that why churches have the cross in front of their buildings?  Is that why people wear crosses around their necks?  Also, why was the cross chosen as this symbol, and why aren’t crosses put on all graves rather than only on the graves of Christians?  And all of this ignores the earlier points that other religious symbols are not allowed, and Easter services are held at the foot of the cross, but, of course, those issues highlight just how weird the ruling is.  The absurdity of such a view is staggering.

What is remarkable about this ruling is that, in order to keep the cross, it had to be stripped of all its meaning, and that seems to defeat the purpose of having the cross erected in the first place.  Certainly, the reason the cross is a desired symbol is because of its religious symbolism.  Once that is removed, once that meaning is gone, there seems to be little reason to fight to keep the cross in place at all.  Why not just have a plaque or any other strictly secular symbol?  What does the cross matter once it no longer stands for Christ?

Lest there be any confusion, Christians conservatives have not taken this ruling to mean what the Justices say it means.  With titles like “Big Week for Religious Liberty!” on articles praising the ruling, it seems clear that many Christians take this ruling to be a sign that the Supreme Court has ruled that religious symbols on federal property is appropriate and legal.  But, again, that is not the sense one gets from reading the ruling and comments of the majority of the Court.  Rather, the cross has been deemed to not be religious!  It’s difficult to overstate the weight of that.  What the court has told Christians is that their symbol, the one they use to demonstrate their belief in their god’s sacrifice for them, is often not a symbol of any such thing.  Rather, it is something to stick on graves.  In specific, the cross in the Mojave Desert does not represent Christianity.  It is not, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs.” 

It seems that if any of these Christian conservatives were actually paying attention, they would not be celebrating.  Rather, they would be outraged.  I can’t help but think we should all be outraged at the kind of game that the majority of the Court is playing by saying that the most well-known symbol of the Christian faith is actually no such thing.

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Junk Science, Hypocrites, and Rentboys

I want to say something about the story of George Rekers, the Southern Baptist Minister and co-founder of the Family Research Council who was recently caught in the company of a male escort.  Stories about religious leaders who preach a standard of sexual purity which they themselves fail to practice abound.   But even in the world of Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard, the hypocrisy of George Rekers is a special case.   His hypocrisy is not merely farcical and outrageous, it is also a lesson about the dangers of junk science.  This is because for the past 25 years Rekers has been a figurehead of the conversion therapy movement which holds not only that homosexuality is caused by environmental influences (rather than genetic) but also that it can be cured.

I am not going to rant about how infuriating it is that the same guy who was called as an expert witness to defend bans on gay adoption in Arkansas and Florida was recently perusing in search of a 20 year-old with an eight-inch penis.  It may very well be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexual sex is wrong and that a homosexual lifestyle is harmful, and at the same time he can’t resist the urge to dial up a rent-boy on occasion.  It may also be the case that Rekers genuinely believes that homosexuality is caused by environmental factors such as family dynamics and early sexual experiences, which would mean some parents are responsible for raising their children to be homosexuals.  Of course, I think both of these positions are absurd*, but I can grant that Rekers might believe all of this stuff and still, at the same time, like to get his rocks off with young men.  If it it were only that Rekers were a weak Jimmy-Swaggart-type, preaching the virtues of one lifestyle while secretly indulging his dark side, I could be satisfied with a sigh of disgust and the vindication of knowing that his hypocrisy is now a public spectacle.

The problem is that Rekers is also a liar, and not just a liar about his own personal life.  Rekers is a liar because he is an officer and figurehead of NARTH, the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality a group which purports to offer “effective psychological care” for “individuals with unwanted homosexual attraction.”  To be fair, the group does not promise full homosexual-to-heterosexual conversion to every person seeking treatment, but it does promise that there are “positive alternatives to homosexuality,” either in the form of abstinence or in conversion, and it publishes numerous quasi-scientific articles arguing that homosexuality is a choice influenced by experience, while minimizing or entirely ignoring the overwhelming body of contrary data published and peer-reviewed by the American Psychological Association and other mainstream medical science authorities.

It may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is wrong, it may be the case that George Rekers thinks homosexuality is caused by bad parenting, and it may be the case that George Rekers thinks that homosexuality can be “cured” either through conversion therapy or the abstinence support offered by NARTH and its partner agencies.  But I just don’t see how it can be all three.  That is, I don’t see how it can be the case that George Rekers believes it’s bad to be gay, and believes he knows how to “fix” being gay (he has, in fact, profited by telling other people how to “fix” being gay), and yet he still chooses to hire male escorts for sexual romps.  I am certain that a psychologist could map a convoluted web of competing and contradictory desires and beliefs to describe how Rekers probably justified all of this to himself, but the explanation from the outside couldn’t be more simple or more clear:  Conversion therapy to “fix” homosexuality just doesn’t work.  Rekers’ organization can’t “fix” gay in other people.  They couldn’t even “fix” it in him.

Groups like NARTH and the Family Research Council and a whole host of other religiously-bent, political lobbying machines insult our intelligence by offering up dogma and ideology and calling it “science.”  When confronted with research that does not fit their political conclusions, they ignore it or condemn it as a part of a liberal, secular conspiracy.   It is a sad fact of contemporary American life that these groups maintain disproportionate political power by mimicking the language of non-partisan scientific authorities, and pretending to have legitimate scholarly intentions.  In the wake of this scandal, these groups have already begun to distance themselves from Rekers, and we should not let them.  However they may want to portray Rekers’ indiscretion as an isolated incident, it is a case-study in why the conversion therapy/ex-gay movement has failed.  We shouldn’t let them forget it.

*To be clear, I do not think it is absurd to acknowledge that sexual orientation may be the result of both environmental and genetic factors.  In fact, I think the bulk of the data strongly suggests this.  But the mere fact that environmental factors play a role in sexual orientation does not imply that parenting is the most significant (or even a significant) factor in sexual orientation, nor that later-life therapy can significantly alter a person’s orientation.  And, I feel compelled to add, even if it were the case that homosexuality was a choice, this in no way implies that a homosexual lifestyle is immoral nor that homosexual sex is wrong.

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Why Is This So Hard to Understand?

There is a gubernatorial race going on in Alabama right now.  I don’t live in Alabama, and likely you don’t either, so the race itself is of little consequence to me or most of you.  That said, there is something of which I think we should take note in terms of how the race is being run.  There are those who don’t like Bradley Byrne, who is running as a Republican in the election.  They do not think Byrne is conservative enough, and they offer up evidence of this in the video to the right.  The website of the group behind the video can be found at

First, let me say that I don’t care at all who becomes governor in Alabama, nor do I care about Byrne.  I only care about this issue as it highlights in a powerful way something that many want to deny.  This issue is not merely the fact that there is a vocal group out there who wants to destroy science education.  It is the further fact that this group recognizes that they are simply not the small minority that we are constantly told they are.  Were that the case, an ad such as this would have no power.  It only works if it finds traction with some large group of voters out there who share this anti-science sentiment.

The ad says that “Byrne supported the teaching of evolution, said evolution best explains the origin of life.”  At the end of that quote, the narrator’s voice goes up in pitch as if this were a question, suggesting that he thinks this is so incredible as to be absurd.  That’s right, this group is presenting an ad to sway voters away from Byrne by saying that he is a proponent of the apparently nutty idea that evolution explains the origin of species better than other explanations, and this is tied to his supposed claim that “parts of the Bible are…true and parts that are not.”  That is, Byrne’s endorsement of the teaching of evolution in the science classroom is seen by these people as a rejection of Christianity.

Of course, evolution does not actually explain the origins of life at all, regardless of what Byrne might have said, but I’ll be charitable here and suggest that he meant something like the origin of species instead.  Also, a point that might be noteworthy here is that, according the the website behind this very video, Byrne did not actually suggest that parts of the Bible were not true.  Rather, the word left out of the ellipses that matters is ‘literally’, and there is quite a big difference between saying that some parts of the Bible are literally true while others are not and saying that some parts of the Bible are true and some are not.  No believer, no matter how devout, can deny the former without looking like a complete fool.  After all, Jesus Christ was called the Lamb of God in the Bible, yet I seriously doubt anyone would claim that Christ was a literal lamb.  That’s just silly.  John 1:29, then, is clearly not meant to be taken literally, yet that has little to do with whether or not it is true nonetheless.  This shows that even fundamentalists think that some parts of the Bible are not literally true, so that in and of itself is no big issue.

That out of the way, the point here is that the anti-Byrne camp here is attempting to use Byrne’s apparent endorsement of the teaching of a radically successful scientific theory for the purpose of condemning him and showing him to be ungodly in the eyes of conservative Alabamians.  This would only work, though, if there already exists in the minds of these people a clear link between endorsing the teaching of evolution and abandoning Christianity.  And, of course, such a link does exist in their minds.  It is simply the case that a number of Christians believe that accepting evolutionary biology as a legitimate explanation of anything involves an explicit rejection of Christianity.  They believe it’s an either/or kind of situation, where, in this case, being pro-science is to be anti-God.

That’s the point that so many on the science side of the debate seem to miss, and it’s baffling to me that they miss it.  The tension between religion and science is not the result of a bunch of strident new atheists running around yelling that they hate the baby Jesus.  Rather, it is a result of these religious groups who are simply continuing the long tradition of rejecting science when it contradicts their favored interpretation of their holy text.  These people get to define what their religious beliefs are, not anyone else, and they say accepting science is rejecting their God.  And they are right.  They are right because their beliefs are theirs, so they get to say what they are.  The tension here is real, and it is real because of the religious folk, not a bunch of loud-mouthed atheists.

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“It Makes Me Happy” is not a Good Argument

No sooner do I post on the difference between principled and practical concerns than someone on my Twitter feed links to an article from Psychology Today that highlights the very issue at hand.  It must be a miracle. 

In a post entitled “When Belief in God is Rational,” Nathan Heflick suggests that the fear of death makes belief in God rational.  And this is where I facepalm.  Speaking of the solace that some people might gain from believing in God and an afterlife, Heflick writes, “Definitions of rationality vary. But I tend to think of rationality as being consistent. If death has such a sting, and if God gives people such comfort, then how is this irrational? It seems like a logical solution to the problem of death.”

If you’re left blinking in confusion at that quote, you’re not alone.  There’s so much wrong here that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  Let me just point out a few things before I hit the big point.  First, not just any god will get you a “solution to the problem of death.”  You need a god that offers some kind of afterlife, and not all gods do.  Further, you also need some way for things like us, people, to be able to have an afterlife, something like a soul.  This goes beyond a belief in some god, and it’s important to note that.  Also, most gods who lord over some kind of Heaven also have something like Hell.  That means there might not be much solace in believing in any such entity.  After all, you might go to Hell rather than Heaven, and that’s no fun for all eternity.  Further, you don’t technically need a god here at all.  If you’re just believing in something to get out of a fear of death, to get something like Heaven, why not drop the god-belief and just believe in Heaven alone?  I don’t see where a god helps with the issue.  Next, there is little reason to think that people who believe in this kind of stuff are actually rational in the sense of being consistent.  That is, it is quite likely that they are inconsistent in applying whatever standard for belief they have.  I can’t imagine that most people who believe in some god or Heaven typically accept things explicitly without good reason, on faith only, the way they do this special class of it-makes-me-happy beliefs.  Rather, I think it’s a good bet that they typically require some kind of evidence as a ground for their beliefs, and I further bet that the more fantastic some claim, the more evidence they require.  For example, if I were to tell most people that I had ET in my closet, they would demand something like seeing it before they would believe that such was, in fact, the case, and might very well demand more than that.  Most theists share this demand for evidence in general.  Clearly, then, there is little like consistency here, and if, as Heflick claims, consistency is the hallmark of rationality, these people are absolutely not rational.

All the above out of the way, let’s get to the meat of this claim, that it is rational to believe something that makes you happy.  That’s absurd.  Being as charitable as possible, Heflick is at best offering an argument that it is prudent, that it is practical, to believe in some god.  After all, even using Heflick’s definition of consistency as what makes a belief rational, what does comfort have to do with that at all?  What does happiness have to do with coherence?  Nothing.  What Heflick has done is mistake a practical concern for a principled one.  He has made exactly the kind of error about which I wrote in my last post.  It’s a goofy error, especially in the way Heflick makes the mistake.  No amount of good feeling will ever make an argument or belief rational or consistent.  Your feelings about something and the practical results of that belief simply have nothing to do with whether or not such is a rational belief to hold.

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The Principled Vs. the Practical

There is an issue that seems to get missed, or get in the way of, genuine dialogue both in the blogosphere and in real life.  This issue involves the distinction between principled points and practical points.  While practical concerns are certainly legitimate issues to be discussed, we must keep in mind that they are not the same thing as and do not affect the correctness and legitimacy of any particular position.

As a way of highlighting this concern, let’s look at the issue of accommodationism that has been repeatedly discussed here on this blog.  Accommodationism here refers to the attempt to reconcile scientific explanations with religious explanations, and it is a topic I have discussed at length.  One of the common arguments put forward by the accommodationists is that telling religious folk that there is a distinct tension between science and religion will only ostracize potential allies from those who are interested in pushing for greater scientific education and greater overall scientific literacy in our society in general.  That is, if it is the acknowledged position that science and religion are often in conflict, then, when push comes to shove, most people will choose their religion, and that leaves science out in the cold.

One clear case of such possible tension has to do with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools.  There is a very vocal group of religious fundamentalists, primarily Christians here in the U.S., who maintain that evolution is diametrically opposed to Scripture.  In such a case, as they take Scripture to be the Truth (note the capital ‘T’), evolution must clearly be false, and, as such, should not be taught.  Various means have been attempted by these groups to remove or diminish the teaching of evolution in the biology classroom, and all of these attempts put such people at odds with defenders of science who do not want religious concerns to corrupt the teaching of the best science available to us.

However, while this group of fundamentalists may be quite loud, they’re also a minority in most, though not all, areas of the country, and this prevents them from completely taking over school boards and other avenues of control in public education.  In order to be successful in such an attempt to wrest the power to decide what gets taught in the science classroom from genuine educators, they need the support of the majority of voters.  This majority also happens to be religious, though not of the fundamentalist persuasion.  That said, they do like to think of themselves as “people of faith.”  One way fundamentalists can build bridges to this majority is to show that the science is at odds with the religious teachings of even this religiously liberal majority.  A very easy way to achieve this would be to point out scientists and proponents of strong science education saying that there is, in fact, a definite tension between science and religion.  In this way it appears that the pro-science camp is saying religion is false, thus pushing the liberal majority into the waiting arms of the fundamentalist minority.  Science education comes out the loser, and it appears that a strong aspect of that loss is the result of the actions taken by those science advocates who suggested that religion and science are somehow at odds.

At least, that’s the story told by the accommodationists.  I think there is evidence that this just isn’t the problem we are often told it is, but that will have to wait for another post.  The important point to note here is that nothing in that story has anything to do with whether or not science and religion really are at opposed to each other in some way.  That is, the concern expressed by the accommodationist view in this story is entirely of a practical nature, and it has nothing to do with the principled concern of such a tension.  It is quite possible that it is true that such a tension exists while at the same time being true that the highlighting of such a tension would result in the advocates of science losing this battle.  So, from a practical standpoint it might well be a good idea to downplay or ignore a point that is, in principle, true.  But, again, that has absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not such is, in principle, true.

The kind of analysis given above, obviously, does not merely apply to the debate about accommodationism.  I only used that example as it so often seems that those with whom I disagree on the issue express concerns that completely miss the points that I and others make.  But there are issues that arise daily that result in exactly the same kind of error.  Anytime anyone points to the practical consequences of something, they are discussing something other than the principle issue, and such concerns have no bearing on the truth of that issue.  It is irrelevant to the accommodationist issue whether or not admitting such a tension would result in a net loss for science education.  It is irrelevant to the question of the existence of God whether or not life would be meaningless without God, whether or not morality would be possible without God, etc.  It is irrelevant to the issue of free will vs. determinism whether or not not having free will makes people sad.  It is irrelevant to the efficacy of homeopathy whether or not believing it to be efficacious makes someone happy.  And on and on. 

Principled concerns are not the same as practical concerns, and offering up the latter in a discussion about the former is as good as conceding the argument to your opponent.

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