August 31, 2009

Heckler's Veto

If you subscribe to a religion that does not instruct you to disavow science and participation the real world, fine; you are not the target of this morning's rant. Take moral and social solace from your religion and go and harm no one with it. But if you believe in a religion that promotes ignorance and antiscience, then I'm aiming this post right at you. To decide if you should be offended at me or not, you need to take a careful look at what your religion actually teaches. I should warn you in advance that you may not like the result if you do.

Now then. Let's begin.

Can you spot the offensive religious reference in the T-shirt logo illustrated to the left? I, for one, cannot. But apparently one is there, because parents of students attending the Missouri high school in question complained and the school will no longer permit students to wear this T-shirt.

Here's the heckler's veto in raw form -- quoth a parent: "I was disappointed with the image on the shirt, ... I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school." Excuse me? You don't think science should be associated with a school? What would you say if I said I didn't want to see a high school associated with algebra? Algebra is, after all, the creation of foreign Muslims. As for "associating" evolution with the school, isn't evolution necessarily included in the the list of mandatory subjects for study in the science curriculum?

The principal's justification for giving in to the heckler's veto is "If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing."

Hear me now. The principal should censor the T-shirt illustrating Jesus on the cross, and should not censor the "evolution of the trumpet player" T-shirt. The reason is simple -- one is religious advocacy and the other is a reference to science. There is no equivalency between advocacy of science and advocacy of religion. They are different. The school is in the business of teaching science. The school is required to remain neutral about religion.

There is a pernicious notion that evolution is a religion. This is a deeply, deeply incorrect idea, propagated by people who should know better and bought into by people who should be intelligent enough to understand that they are being lied to, but who turn off their normally-acute critical thinking skills when a bizarre notion comes wrapped in the swaddling of their preferred religion. You will also notice that the only people who advance this idea are deeply religious themselves, and the vast bulk of them are Protestant Christians. Why do you suppose there aren't any Hindus pounding the tables about how evolution is a religion? The notion of evolution does not particularly offend Hindu theology.

Religion by definition involves the relationship of man to the supernatural; at minimum, it involves a search for the purpose of existence. There is nothing supernatural or religious about evolution. Religion, particularly the monotheistic religions descended from the patriarch Abraham, promote Manichean world views in which there is Truth and there are Lies, and nothing in between. They are about immutable, eternal truths which are found in their holy books. There are no immutable, eternal truths in science. Darwin's theory has undergone such substantial revision he would barely recognize it today -- which does not mean he was wrong, by the way. He was as right as the evidence available to him allowed him to be. He did not know about DNA and genetic sequencing; the modern synthetic theory does a much better job than Darwin's writings of explaining the phenomenon of evolution. Evolution specifically, and science generally, offer no answers to the questions about the reason we exist or the reason the universe exists. They offer no guidance on issues of morality -- just like your refrigerator does not offer such guidance and you'd be an idiot to ask your refrigerator for forgiveness of your sins. That's not what it's for.

The result of this politically-motivated bit of outright deception is the idea that there is any sort of equivalency between science and religion. To understand why, imagine if the T-shirt had illustrated an apple with a trumpet on it falling onto Isaac Newton's head, with the caption "The band has tremendous gravity" or something like that. Anyone who complained about that on religious grounds would immediately and universally be thought of as an ignorant buffoon. They would be mercilessly mocked, and eventually counseled to obtain rudimentary science education. They would complain that their religion was being ridiculed -- but if the religion inspired disbelief in gravity rather than evolution, almost no one would suggest that it was rude or impolite or even inappropriate to ridicule such a religion.

Yes, there is equivalence between the theory of evolution and the theory of gravity. They're both only theories. Both help us understand indisputably real phenomena. They've both been superseded by advances in scientific experiment and thought. But they are both science and they are both important for a person to learn and understand if they are going to navigate the world in a meaningful, intelligent way. And if someone who insists on worshiping a Bronze Age sky god claims that advocacy of either theory is incompatible with religion, well, it's religion that should lose that fight.

For the record, my perspective is as follows: science = good (saves lives, makes people smarter); religion = superstition (sometimes harmless, but sometimes inspires violence and keeps people ignorant). Also for the record, the parents who complained should not be subject to any kind of governmental sanction; the parents have freedom of speech to complain or be offended about whatever they like.

But the principal made a bad call by prohibiting the T-shirts. In doing so, he ceded to the idea of a heckler's veto, which itself is pernicious to the idea of free speech. In doing so, he advanced the idea that evolution is religion, which it is not. In doing so, he not only failed to remain neutral about religion, he has effectively advocated for religions that promote antiscience because he gave in to people who subscribe to a particular religion and thereby effectively delegated control of this issue to them. He has cast his school in particular and schools in Missouri generally into disrepute by choosing ignorance over science. And he cost his school and the band money by doing it.

Evolution is not religion. Get it right.

No comments: