Is the War between Science and Religion Over?

Here’s one we missed: among the year-end top-ten lists was Paul Wallace’s list of “Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars” at Religion Dispatches.

Looking back at 2011, Wallace offered this cheering prediction:

“This year has marked, I believe, the beginning of the end of the war between science and religion. Creationism cannot last. The New Atheists are now getting old. And between these camps the middle ground continues to expand.”

Wallace’s article lists ten leading voices from the broad middle ground.  Included are evangelical scientist Karl Giberson and irenic atheist Chris Stedman.

We missed Wallace’s list at the time.  Looking back at the progress of 2012 so far, it doesn’t seem as if the culture wars have abated noticeably.  But perhaps we need to look more at trends than headlines.  As one of Wallace’s top-ten peacemakers, Rachel Held Evans, put it,

“My generation of evangelicals is ready to call a truce on the culture wars. It seems like our parents, our pastors, and the media won’t let us do that. We are ready to be done with the whole evolution-creation debate. We are ready to move on.”

The goal at ILYBYGTH has always been to promote a true and lasting peace in these culture wars, not merely an angry and demilitarized standoff.  A more profound and sympathetic understanding of Fundamentalist America among us outsiders could lead to a greater willingness to work together.  Or at least to an ability to understand what the other side is saying.

Was Wallace right?  Has 2012 produced a new crop of peace-makers?  It is not too difficult, after all, to stretch beyond Wallace’s list to point out other hopeful signs of a new generation of writers and activists willing to reach across the cultural trenches to work with the other side.  Just a few that have attracted wide notice lately:

Starting long before Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 invocation of the “culture-wars,” it has seemed that the boldest headlines have been made by those who attack their opponents relentlessly.  Perhaps we can see here a broadening of interest in the peaceable middle, those who want to speak civilly and productively with those on the opposite sides of these culture-war trenches.  One can always hope.

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Let’s Be Civil: Scott F. Aikin & Robert B. Talisse

We must be civil.  If we here at ILYBYGTH hope to understand Fundamentalist America from the outside, it is not optional.  The purpose of ILYBYGTH is to imagine the best reasons for conservative ideas on evolution, religion, education, etc.  Without civility, this turns into another useless and bitter witchhunt.

But what does it mean to be civil?  Philosophers Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse of Vanderbilt offer a compelling short definition of true civility.  In a piece on 3 Quarks Daily, the two philosophers argue for a more precise and healthy definition of civil argument.  “We now are able,” Aikin and Talisse say in part,

“[to] identify civility in argument with tendencies that enable the exchange of reasons among disputants. Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons.  This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views.  For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism.  In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of.  We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception,and Reciprocity.”

And they conclude:

“Thus we see that civility in argument is not a matter of being nice, calm, or even polite.  It instead has to do with being a sincere arguer.  Civility is consistent with sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality that would in other contexts be inappropriate.  But our model of civility also holds that name-calling, impoliteness, and hostility are to be avoided when they would obstruct or undermine properly run argument.”

For those of us who try to engage with those with whom we don’t agree or don’t even understand, this definition will help define the parameters of civil discourse.  It is a reminder that we must not abandon our own positions in order to respect the other.  Such wallpapering is not true civility, but rather only a stalling maneuver.  This definition also frees us to be angry, so long as we understand that anger is a feeling, not an argument or strategy.  True civility, in my opinion, is like parents arguing in that quiet time when a baby has just fallen asleep after a long stretch of midnight crying.  Both parents can be angry.  Both can point fingers and accuse the other of sloth.  But both parents also implicitly–automatically–keep their voices down to a hushed whisper.  Though they may have a ferocious argument, they both agree not to wake the baby.

Can people really do this?  There often does not seem to be any agreement to keep argument civil.  Culture warriors break this implicit code all the time, engaging in violence or accusing one another of inciting violence.

But there is hope.  Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that the “culture-wars” are not truly as vicious as they are made out to be.  Scholars such as Jonathan Haidt insist that there are moral positions on both sides of many hot-button issues.  And activists such as John Corvino and Maggie Gallagher have committed to talking civilly with one another, sometmes with “sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality.”

So let’s be civil.  When we disagree, let’s remember to try to understand the other side.  Let’s listen to one another.  Let’s give reasons that might make sense to the other side.  And let’s agree to be open to changing our ideas.  A tall order, but a necessary one.

In the News: To Wed or To Bed? Blankenhorn and the Gay-Marriage Debates

What is a family?  What is sex?  What role should government and church play in defining these issues?

For the last generation, these questions have become trench mortars in America’s continuing culture wars.  Recently, a leading anti-gay-marriage voice switched sides.  Writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, David Blankenhorn declared, “I have no stomach for what we often too glibly call ‘culture wars.'”  Yet Blankenhorn has played his role as culture warrior.  Most famously, as leader of the Institute for American Values and author of 2007’s The Future of Marriage, Blankenhorn testified in favor of California’s 2010 Proposition 8.  This measure, like similar measures in states across the nation, defined marriage as a bond between one man and one woman.

Why did Blankenhorn change his position?  In sum, as he explains in his op-ed piece, he had hoped a defense of traditional marriage would protect the rights of children.  Instead, the cultural wind has shifted.  The issue has become one of equity and fairness for homosexuals.  As such, Blankenhorn hopes to move the discussion about gay marriage toward one that focuses on the rights of children and the responsibilities of parenting.

Defenders of traditional marriage have not taken Blankenhorn’s defection lightly.  At Public Discourse, Maggie Gallagher articulates her reasons for disagreeing with Blankenhorn’s change of heart.  Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and a former colleague of Blankenhorn, insists that Blankenhorn goes too far in abandoning first principles about marriage.  “Marriage,” Gallagher argues,

“is the union of male and female, the way society tries to give a child the gift of his own mother and father in one family union. Gay marriage is part of the process of deinstitutionalizing marriage, removing it from a tight matrix of social norms designed to get this good for children; it is part of a larger process of reformulating marriage as a product of choice oriented toward the private goods of the people who choose it.”

At First Things, Matthew Schmitz takes Blankenhorn to task for ignoring the larger implications of the marriage debates.  Not only must gay marriage itself be fought against, Schmitz argues, but the fight must be kept up in order to maintain the rights of religious believers across the board.  After all, Schmitz insists, “As soon as we stop contending for the natural truth of marriage in the public square, certain people will try to strip us of the right to proclaim it anywhere.”

Similarly, Douglas Farrow accuses Blankenhorn of simply having lost his nerve.  “Regrettably,” Farrow notes,

“David has sought relief in a position that provides none. No one of sound mind supposes that same-sex marriage is being sought in order to bring sexual discipline to the homosexual culture (or the culture at large), or to enhance the institution of marriage and parenting. Whether it makes our stomachs churn or not, we must face the truth about the struggle that is under way and understand (as I have argued elsewhere) that no peace is to be had by capitulation.”

In all these debates, the culture-war divide in our understandings about marriage and sexuality becomes vividly clear.  As Blankenhorn notes in his op-ed piece, for many gay marriage supporters, the issue is simply one of human rights, of civil rights.  From this perspective, opponents of gay marriage look like nothing other than bigots and reactionaries, viciously clinging to outdated traditions in order to shore up untenable cultural vestiges.  For opponents of gay marriage, marriage is the bedrock of proper society.  Discussions about changing the nature of the marriage institution are harmful in themselves.  Furthermore, any erosion of traditional marriage will serve as the camel’s nose, spearheading the eventual abandonment of all sexual mores and traditional social bonds.  For historically minded conservatives, these frights are not mere fantasies.  Rather, the dissolution of traditional family and sexual norms has been the first step in the crumbling of every human civilization.  The fight against gay marriage, from this perspective, is nothing less than a fight for moral value itself.

With such a stark cultural divide, a public reversal from a leader such as Blankenhorn is truly remarkable.  He may say he has lost his stomach for culture-war battles, but I’m guessing Blankenhorn’s change of position will make him even more of a symbolic figure of great importance in these continuing marriage controversies.