Saturday, July 22, 2006

Labels as arguments

Yesterday I wrote about the discussion around the Kansas anti-science science standards going on at Ars Technica, a “PC enthusiast” website. It’s interesting the way these discussions about how biological evolution should be taught in public school classrooms almost invariably turn to religion.

The IDers (aka intelligent design creationists, IDers, IDiots, or Discovery Institutesee also) insist (bang fist on table) that intelligent design is science and is absolutely not (bang fist again) a way to get their religion into the science classroom. But just let them keep talking/writing and you will hear/see words like “atheist,” “bible,” "god,” and the ever-popular “anti-religion” or “anti-christian” creep into their arguments.

The discussion following the Ars Technica article (“Will the Kansas school board be intelligently redesigned?”) was no different – although it was a bit more subdued than many I have seen. And like many discussions (read: arguments) I have followed, it turned to how to define labels like “agnostic” and “atheist.”

So today I open the Saturday edition of The Oregonian and find that the front page of the Living section features an Ethics & Values article about how these labels are defined – and how they are used.

In “agnostic atheist humanist -- What do those words mean? Less -- and more -- than you think” reporter Nancy Haught quotes Courtney Campbell, head of the philosophy department at Oregon State University:

"What's happened in popular culture, is that the terms used to be descriptive, and now they are evaluative. That leads to some confusion, stereotyping and mislabeling."

And Haught notes:

That tendency to link -- or leap -- from atheism to questions of morality is evidence that many Americans are not using words such as atheist, agnostic or humanist in descriptive ways anymore.

"The terms come out of contexts that are value-laden," says Campbell, the OSU professor. "That's why they become very controversial."

When I first delved into this “debate” about evolution, I couldn’t understand why some people kept conflating this branch of science with religion. On a personal level, I still don’t understand, but I accept that for many people these “nonoverlapping magisteria” are not going to be reasoned apart. So, we can’t ignore the issue and we’d better figure out an effective way to discuss it.

Sidenote: My dad always warned me never to argue religion or politics. Since this “war” over evolution is a political (not a scientific) controversy, and we can’t extricate it from the religious world view of some of the combatants, I guess I’ll need to focus on how to keep the discussion from evolving to argument.

And, yes, I am aware that I inserted editorial comment into my labels for intelligent design proponents in the second paragraph above.


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