Michael Reiss and the secularists’ loss of faith

I consider God to be a figment and faith in God to be an irresistible, irrational belief which comes uninvited like many other widely-held human beliefs. I definitely don’t think that faith is rubbish, or weak-minded, or self-delusional, but I have no tolerance for the intrusion of religion into science education (see for example Adnan Oktar managing to get Dawkins banned in Turkey and circulating glossy creationist text-books by his alias Harun Yahya, or the quietism of ministers about creationism in British schools).

For these reasons I am sympathetic to the dismay that many secularist Fellows of the Royal Society felt when Reverend Michael Reiss, the Director of Education, broached the idea of engaging with creationist students in the classroom.

But as far as I can tell, Reiss didn’t say anything untoward when he wrote that:

For example, the excellent book Science, Evolution, and Creationism published by the US National Academy of Sciences and Institute of Medicine, asserts: “The ideas offered by intelligent design creationists are not the products of scientific reasoning. Discussing these ideas in science classes would not be appropriate given their lack of scientific support.”

I agree with the first sentence but disagree with the second. Just because something lacks scientific support doesn’t seem to me a sufficient reason to omit it from a science lesson. When I was taught physics at school, and taught it extremely well in my view, what I remember finding so exciting was that we could discuss almost anything providing we were prepared to defend our thinking in a way that admitted objective evidence and logical argument.

So when teaching evolution, there is much to be said for allowing students to raise any doubts they have (hardly a revolutionary idea in science teaching) and doing one’s best to have a genuine discussion. The word ‘genuine’ doesn’t mean that creationism or intelligent design deserve equal time.

However, in certain classes, depending on the comfort of the teacher in dealing with such issues and the make-up of the student body, it can be appropriate to deal with the issue. If questions or issues about creationism and intelligent design arise during science lessons they can be used to illustrate a number of aspects of how science works.

Having said that, I don’t believe that such teaching is easy. Some students get very heated; others remain silent even if they disagree profoundly with what is said”

It’s basic outreach, isn’t it, not to rubbish students’ belief systems in a science class? And if science has become controversial, you can’t wish this away. I found Reiss pragmatic here. Nevertheless, he was pushed out of his post by beleaguered secularists who considered him a threat to science.

Harry Kroto argues rightly in The Guardian that:

Science is based solely on doubt-based, disinterested examination of the natural and physical world. It is entirely independent of personal belief. There is a very important, fundamental concomitant – that is to accept absolutely nothing whatsoever, for which there is no evidence, as having any fundamental validity. A lemma: one can of course have an infinite number of questions but only those questions that can be formulated in such a way that they can be subjected to detailed disinterested examination, and when so subjected reveal unequivocally and ubiquitously accepted data, may be significant.

The plethora of more-or-less incompatible religious concepts that mankind has invented from Creationism and intelligent design to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Mormonism, Scientology, Hinduism, Shinto, Shamanism etc, are all basically indistinguishable, from the freethinkers perspective. It really does not matter whether one believes a mystical entity created the universe 5,000 or 10,000 million years ago – both are equally irrational unsubstantiated claims of no fundamental validity.

I know that Kroto is right about science. I think most people would accept though that there is life outside scientific practice. Moreover, it seems to me that there would only be a case for extrapolating that Reiss is a threat to science and should lose the directorship – a post he already occupies – if it could be concretely demonstrated that Reiss was approaching science in a way which was not only philosophically but qualitatively and practically incompatible with the approach that Harry Kroto outlines above – in other words that he was ideologically perverting the course of science. But nobody is alleging this. Reiss’s scientific practice has not been impeached in any concrete way. Moreover Harry Kroto is tolerant of personally-held mystical beliefs:

“I do not have a particularly big problem with scientists who may have some personal mystical beliefs – for all I know the President of the Royal Society may be religious”

Rather, the concerns about Reiss are ad hominem:

However, I, and many of my Royal Society colleagues, do have a problem with an ordained minister as Director of Science Education – this is a totally different matter. An ordained minister must have accepted that there was a creator (presumably more intelligent than he is?) thus many of us (maybe 90% of FRSs) cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface. Reiss cannot have his religious cake in church and eat the scientific one in the classroom. This is where the intellectual integrity issue arises – and it is the crucial issue in the Reiss affair.”

Strange to say, based only on his ordination and refusal to smash creationism in his classroom, Kroto and the 90% of FRSs appear to have lost faith in Reiss.

Surely you’d expect scientists, if anyone, to judge a man this man on his acts rather than his identity.

There is certainly more to this than I have time to dig out.

Maybe Archbishop Cranmer sheds some light on this when he says:

“If the theory of evolution is so self-evident, it ought to have no problem standing up to a classroom discussion.”

This is infuriatingly obtuse. Faith cannot be scientifically challenged because faith and evidence are incompatible. The worry of the secularist scientists is that incontrovertible but, here, destructive religion-based values will leach into scientific ways of doing and thinking, as they are howling at the gates of policy-making about abortion, euthanasia and stem-cell research. They are worried about the enormous diversion of time implied by welcoming strongly-held evidence-free beliefs into a scientific forum. I agree with them. Some debates are stupid, futile, undermining and wasteful of time and energy.

So while I think that Reiss – who was not proposing such a debate – has been sacrificed to a panic, I think it is up to those who feel the same way to convince their secularist colleagues that the boundaries between faith and science are not as porous as people like Harry Kroto fear.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Reiss and the secularists’ loss of faith

  1. Oh bugger! You read something, it sticks, but you can’t remember where you read it. It must be age. Basically it goes like this:

    There wasn’t enough papyrus [or time] to write down the account of how things were created over 4 billion years so they cut it short to six days.

    And some think sound bytes are a modern construct!

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