Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life

Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life

by Michael S. Evans
Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life

Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life

by Michael S. Evans

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Why do religion and science often appear in conflict in America’s public sphere? In Seeking Good Debate, Michael S. Evans examines the results from the first-ever study to combine large-scale empirical analysis of some of our foremost religion and science debates with in-depth research into what Americans actually want in the public sphere. The surprising finding is that apparent conflicts involving religion and science reflect a more fundamental conflict between media elites and ordinary Americans over what is good debate. For elite representatives, good debate advances an agenda, but, as Evans shows, for many Americans it is defined by engagement and deliberation. This hidden conflict over what constitutes debate’s proper role diminishes the possibility for science and religion to be discussed meaningfully in public life. Challenging our understanding of science, religion, and conflict, Seeking Good Debate raises profound questions about the future of the public sphere and American democracy.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520285088
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/16/2016
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Michael S.Evans is a Neukom Fellow at the Neukom Institute for Computational Science, Dartmouth College. He received a PhD in sociology from the Science Studies Program, University of California, San Diego.

Read an Excerpt

Seeking Good Debate

Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life

By Michael S. Evans


Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96066-4


Rethinking Religion and Science

Is good public debate between religion and science possible? The dominant conflict narrative suggests that the answer is "no." Good debate is deliberative. Good debate happens when people and ideas are in productive engagement in public life. Good debate is not possible, the conflict narrative suggests, because religion and science will always be at war with each other.

Outrageous public statements reinforce the impression of conflict. Take, for example, debates over creationism, Intelligent Design (ID), and evolution. When the citizens of Dover, Pennsylvania, voted out their ID-supporting school board, televangelist Pat Robertson responded: "I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: If there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God; you just rejected him from your city. And don't wonder why he hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city." Likewise, biologist Richard Dawkins derides all who oppose evolution: "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

When public statements from religious leaders and scientists sound like the rantings of mad scientists and false prophets, it is easy to think that something about religion or science causes debate to go wrong. So we ask questions. The variety of these questions reflects the complexity of religion and science. Does faith conflict with reason? Is evolution a threat to biblical truth? Do scientists believe in God? Can prayer be evaluated through double-blind clinical studies? What grades do regular church attendees get in science courses? Do evangelicals know that the earth revolves around the sun, and not vice versa?

In asking these questions about religion and science, it is easy to forget that public debates involving science and religion are, first and foremost, public debates. By "public debates" I mean extended public conversations about important issues that occur primarily through mass media such as newspapers and television. Religion and science are not hermetically sealed in their own capsule. They are two out of many cultural institutions involved in the broader process of working out issues through public talk.

But what if public debate is itself the source of problems with religion-and-science debates? Religion and science may participate in public debate, but the whole point of public debate is to negotiate and manage the changing categories of social life. Public debate shapes what we can talk about, what we know about it, how we talk about it, and what we can do about it. In a fundamental sense, it is public debate that produces and reproduces religion and science in public life. Many people claim that religion and science cause problems for public debate. But it is just as possible that public debate causes problems for religion and science.

In the world of science and religion scholarship, few inhabitants write about religion and science as part of some larger process of American public life. This book's novel contribution to religion-and-science scholarship is that it appears to be about religion and science, but it is really a book about public debate. I agree with most other scholars that there are problems in American religion-and-science debate. But I think that the problems stem from how public debate works, rather than from the relationship between science and religion.

I structure the analysis around a well-known problem of public debate: representation. In theory, public debate is open to participation from anyone. But if everyone were to talk in public at once, the result would be cacophony, not debate. In practice, most significant and influential public debates occur in mass media, where elite actors define, present, and debate important issues before the widest possible audience. I call these elite actors "representatives." Representatives participate in public debate instead of, though not necessarily on behalf of, ordinary people. Representatives have unique power to influence our understanding of what is being debated, simply because they are the ones doing the talking in public.

Return for a moment to the quotes from Robertson and Dawkins. If this was a casual exchange between two somewhat inebriated bar patrons, quickly forgotten after a good night's rest, it would be unremarkable. But that is far from the case. Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins are highly visible representatives in public debate. Mass media outlets distribute their words to a wide audience. Robertson and Dawkins could be engaged in a rich, deliberative, and thoughtful conversation about human origins. Instead, they are slinging personal insults and channeling divine threats.

Thinking about representation as a problem for public religion-and-science debate generates very different kinds of questions than those generated by the conflict thesis. How does representation shape public debates? How do representatives attempt to intervene in public debates? How do ordinary people evaluate representatives as good or bad? What does it mean that, for example, Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins are seen as representatives of (respectively) religion and science? Do representatives of religion and science act differently than representatives from other domains of public life?

In what follows, I look at public debates about human origins, stem cell research, environmental policy, and the origins of homosexuality. I call these "religion and science" debates because they meet two conditions. First, these are all debates in which some people make claims based on religious authority. Second, they are also debates in which some people make claims based on scientific authority. This definition accounts for science and religion as parts of broader public debates, but avoids the all too common problem of selecting only those instances when religion and science already appear to be in conflict.

As with many controversial issues in American life, these religion-and-science debates ramify in complicated ways across the American cultural landscape. For example, arguments in debates about the origins of homosexuality also implicate hot-button political issues such as gay marriage, personal and professional issues such as the ethics of psychological treatment, and religious organizational issues such as the limits of congregational authority to resist denominational mandates against gay clergy. One social scientist with finite resources cannot possibly track all of the ramifications of these debates, or even identify and organize all of the possible data sources for a single debate. So this study is limited to a practical subset of what is available.

For information on debates and representatives, I constructed a data set containing thousands of articles from major national and regional newspapers in the United States within a ten year period, and analyzed these data using various forms of computer assistance. For questions about how ordinary people evaluate representatives, I interviewed sixty-two ordinary Americans across two different locations in the United States. Respondents varied in terms of religious background and affiliation and in terms of occupational commitments (e.g., scientific versus nonscientific job). While I briefly describe the various methods I used at appropriate points throughout the book, I have also included a detailed methodological appendix at the end of the book for reference. In all cases, respondents' names are pseudonymized to protect their identities.

I take a sociological approach to analysis in this book. This means that I focus on what actual people say and do, rather than on how abstract ideas based on scientific theory or theology fit together. It also means that I do not attempt to arbitrate the truth or ultimate significance of claims involving religion or science. Such an approach may initially seem strange to some readers. For example, the history of the relationship between religion and sociology suggests that some religious persons might see sociological analysis as an attempt to undermine the validity of religious beliefs. Similarly, the history of the relationship between the (other) sciences and sociology suggests that some science enthusiasts might see sociological analysis as an attempt to undermine the authority of science. So, to address potential concerns up front, let me begin by laying out the reasoning behind my analytical approach.


Both religion and science figure prominently in American public life. Most Americans claim some sort of religious affiliation. Most Americans agree that America is a "Christian nation." Religious participation remains vibrant. Religious discourse permeates public discussion in settings ranging from alcoholism recovery meetings to presidential speeches. At the same time, most Americans have significant interest in science and technology. People regularly debate American competitiveness in terms of scientific and engineering education. Public respect for scientists remains high, and "scientific citizenship" is a key part of American identity. To the extent that religion and science are important to Americans, it is no surprise to see that religion and science are part of public life. It would be surprising if they were not.

At the same time, there is little consensus about what counts as religion and what counts as science. "Religion" in public discourse refers sometimes to institutions, sometimes to ideas, sometimes to practices, sometimes to people, and sometimes to all of these at once. It is sometimes any reference to moral principles, sometimes Christianity or Islam, sometimes what happens in churches, sometimes Protestantism or Catholicism, sometimes clergy, sometimes any reference to supernatural forces, and sometimes just "faith." "Science" also refers sometimes to institutions; other times to ideas, practices, or people; and still other times to all of these at once. It is sometimes any use of the scientific method, sometimes what happens in big labs and universities, sometimes particle physics or biology, sometimes scientists, sometimes any reference to natural forces, and sometimes just "reason." In short, the categories "religion" and "science," like many categories invoked to describe society, are messy, incoherent, and inevitably, inherently incomplete. So discussions about science and religion range widely, from concerns about what they really are, to how they are related, to how religion and science operate and affect broader social concerns.


Despite this range of definitions and interests, however, it is possible to talk about three major perspectives on religion and science that recur in popular and scholarly literature. Following convention, I call these three perspectives conflict, complementarity, and complexity. I note here that there is substantial slippage in the relevant literature between the claim that there is one single "religion and science" debate (with many manifestations) and the claim that there are many debates involving religion and science.


For more than a century, the dominant perspective in religion and science has been the "conflict" or "warfare" perspective. First popularized by John William Draper in his book History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, the conflict thesis posits that science and religion are inherently contentious domains of human knowledge with mutually exclusive explanations for how the world works. In this view, religion and science are essential and enduring categories of human life, extending back into antiquity and likely projecting into any visible human future. Citing such examples as the trial of Galileo, the "prayer gauge" debate, and the Scopes trial, scholars and popular sources attribute particular instances of conflict to an overarching and inevitable conflict between religion and science. The usual conclusion of these analyses is that science provides the superior explanation for how the world works and is therefore winning, or will win, its battle with religion.

The conflict narrative imagines the world progressing toward total secular rationality. In this developmental view, societies become increasingly secularized as they become more modern. Religion, as a primitive or irrational vestige of less developed societies, will be slowly eradicated by science, the paradigmatic rational epistemology. Rationality will displace irrationality. The future is secular.

In the more benign version of the conflict narrative, the displacement of religion by science is an evolutionary process. Rationality eventually wins out with the better form of knowledge production. Science's superior method of truth will, in the end, prove more durable. We need only wait for religion to play itself out. Although it is unfortunate that some people are still primitive and irrational, we can be generally tolerant of belief pluralism until our better future comes along.

In the most extreme, normative version of the conflict perspective, currently motivating the production of popular best sellers such as The God Delusion and God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, there is no time to waste. If the better future is rational and secular, then religion is not simply a vestige of past irrationality but an inimical force hostile to human flourishing. Even though science may win in the end, it is immoral and dangerous to allow that process to play out by itself. Science must defeat religion to produce a better world. Anything less than the destruction of religion is a failure of humanity.

Despite the sometimes aggressive polemical language, conflict thesis proponents use "conflict" and "warfare" metaphorically. To the best of my knowledge, no respectable writer seriously advocates the genocide of religious people to advance the cause of science. Even if they did, science has no armies, and such systematic violence would be difficult to mobilize. What is meant by "conflict" or "warfare" is not physical violence between armed bands of theologians and scientists, but rather confrontation between different perspectives. Conflict takes place in the public square, not on the battlefield. Battles are fought with words, ideas, policy, and laws, not guns, bombs, and assassination. This may seem obvious. But the fact that any proposed relationship between religion and science plays out primarily in the public sphere is of crucial importance to the argument of this book.


In the past fifty years, many scholars have challenged both the epistemological and the historical bases of the conflict thesis. From an epistemological perspective, theologians and scientists offer an alternative perspective often called complementarity. Like the conflict perspective, complementarity sees science and religion as essentially distinct realms of human understanding. Science is concerned with knowledge of the natural world. Religion is concerned with meaning and moral order. But in the complementarity view, this difference does not necessarily mean conflict. While conflict is one possible outcome, it can be avoided.

Under the aegis of complementarity there are differing normative prescriptions for avoiding conflict. For example, the "nonoverlapping magisteria" (NOMA) or "two worlds" approach, advocated by Stephen Jay Gould and Pope John Paul II, suggests that religion and science should be kept completely separate so that conflict will not occur over areas of epistemological jurisdiction. This position resonates with debates over the separation of religion from politics. Science is assumed to be a universally accessible way of knowing about the world, so it serves as the legitimate basis for government. Religion, by contrast, is plural and local, so it must be excluded from public deliberation over policies and laws that affect everyone.


Excerpted from Seeking Good Debate by Michael S. Evans. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii

List of Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 Rethinking Religion and Science 1

2 Considering Conflict: Human Origins and Stem Cell Research 23

3 Potential Encounters: Origins of Homosexuality and Environmental Policy 41

4 Representatives and Good Debate 57

5 Ordinary Americans and Good Debate 75

6 Owning the Space: Religious Credibility in the Public Sphere 98

7 Religion and Bad Debate 110

8 Faceless Science: Scientific Credibility in the Public Sphere 130

9 Science and Bad Debate 150

10 The Future of Religion and Science in American Public Life 170

Methodological Appendix 187

Notes 199

References 213

Index 227

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