Does Science Matter?
By JESSE TISCH
SECULARISM & SCIENCE IN THE 21ST CENTURY
Edited by Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar
212 pages. Institute for the Study of
Secularism in Society and Culture. $10.00
For insight into the
culture wars over science, secularism, and science education, look no further
than a remarkable new book, Secularism & Science in
the 21st Century (ISSSC, 2008).
Specifically, look at the index: There are listings for Darwin, Charles and
Coulter, Ann. Next to DNA and ecology is another listing: “dinosaurs,
co-existence of with humans.” And, thanks to alphabetical coincidence, Galileo
is a finger’s width from the International Flat Earth Society.
The odd juxtapositions suggest that when it comes to science, we’re a schizoid
nation, at once hostile to science, obsessed with it, and hugely dependent upon
it, in myriad ways. And also that we’re deeply polarized, with secular
progressives on one side of the Kulturkampf and religious conservatives on the
While reinforcing this perception, Secularism
& Science in the 21st Century also tackles the question of
where we’re headed. Divided into three sections—one on challenges to evolution,
one on pedagogy, and one on scientific literacy—it presents candid dispatches
from the frontlines of the science/religion debates. The
contributors—scientists and professors who teach science—deserve your attention
and, perhaps also, your sympathy.
Consider what they are collectively up against. Secularism & Science in the 21st Century surveys the
spectrum of challenges to science education, from stickers on science textbooks
to court challenges to evolution to the notorious “wedge” document, a
anti-science manifesto that rails against scientific materialism and vows to
instill “the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by
These challenges are summarized nicely, if briefly, by the contributors. Dr.
Daniel C. Blackburn, a biology professor at Trinity College who contributed to
the first section, looks at the Creationist movement and sees encroaching
theocracy, a “broad assault on rationality and secular institutions.” “All
individuals who value freedom of thought…theists and non-theists alike…have
every reason to resist this dangerous intrusion of religion into the public
sphere,” he writes.
In a similar (if slightly less alarmist) vein, Dr. Austin Dacey uses his own
term— “accomodationalism”—to describe a neutral, even conciliatory, stance by
scientists toward their detractors. This is misguided, he writes; scientists
who recuse themselves from these debates in the name of kindness or compromise
are doing themselves a disservice. Dr. Dacey, the author of The Secular Conscience, even sees merit
in the righteous stridency of atheists like Richard Dawkins: “[He] might be
successful at raising the consciousness of skeptics.”
The debate over science is hardly academic (nor is it new; see under: Scopes
trial.) “The conflict matters more now than it ever has before,” write the
volume’s editors, Dr. Ariela Keysar and Dr. Barry A. Kosmin. Because we live,
work, and vote in a “highly competitive and interconnected world”; and because
“science is a bigger prize today,” these arguments matter, the editors
The most provocative essay here—one that raises the simple but volatile
question, Does Science Matter?—is presented by Jeffrey Burkhardt, a professor
of Ethics and Policy Studies at the University of Florida. Burkhardt posits an
American Everyman, “Ralph the Barber” (think “Joe the Plumber,” but with
scissors). Because Ralph is made up, his life lends itself to quick exposition:
Ralph is a happy, solvent American, but he doesn’t know—or care—about science.
And why should he, Burkhardt asks. Ralph’s doctor, mechanic, and electrician
handle science matters for him the way a CPA handles taxes.
If scientific illiteracy isn’t an Achilles heel for people like “Ralph,” can
science educators—with their secular worldview, and their secular champions—defend
their profession? Can they make their case that scientific literacy matters?
Can that claim ever be made “objectively,” i.e., can it be divorced from the
interests—political, professional—of those making it?
Those are the questions raised, sometimes implicitly, in the introduction to
this excellent volume, and 11 papers later, you’ll have answers (if not a
consensus). The best case for scientific literacy may be the democratic one
that the editors make: that science literacy is necessary to be a good citizen.
This collection, with its field-level view of the culture wars, is a good place
Jesse Tisch is the
assistant editor of
Contemplate: The International Journal of Cultural Jewish Thought.
Dr. Barry A. Kosmin is Director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in
Society and Culture, and research professor in public policy and law at Trinity
College. He was a principal investigator of the 2001 American Religious
Identification Survey, and is co-author of One Nation Under God and of Religion
in a Free Market.
Ariela Keysar is Associate Director of the Institute for the Study of
Secularism in Society and Culture.
Keysar is a demographer, and is associate research professor in public
policy and law at Trinity College. She was study director of the 2001 American
Religious Identification Survey and is co-author of Religion in a Free