Compete or Cooperate? Endorse, Ignore, or Oppose?

A godless mathematics professor stands in front of the new Answers in Genesis Creation Museum in Kentucky. Inside are fantastic displays featuring prehistoric children playing happily alongside dinosaurs, Adam and Eve cavorting amongst well-positioned greenery, and a construction site where Noah and his sons are hard at work on the ark. Exactly what is this guy doing there?

The nontheistic community frequently disagrees about what kinds of issues are worth its time, money, and involvement; with whom to cooperate; and whether such cooperation will be productive or counter-productive. While a big-tent alliance in the freethought community generally produces more influence in the culture at large, it also gives less influence and control to each group or individual within the alliance. The reasons for a reluctance to work with other like-minded groups may include slight philosophical differences, turf protection, and personality conflicts.

One artificial barrier to cooperation has been what I call the “fixed-pie syndrome,” the false notion that the growth of a “rival” organization must be at the expense of others. In game theory terminology, poker is an example of a zero-sum game: one person’s gain is another person’s loss. However, collaboration among nontheistic organizations isn’t a zero-sum game. For every humanist or atheist in any of the organizations, there are likely 1,000 nontheists who have never heard that any organizations exist. Our players can cooperate in creating a bigger pie to the benefit of all, as many individuals who find out about one organization wind up joining several others.

In gastronomic terms, this results in quite a few people eating the same type of pie, which has also become bigger than the sum of its parts. This mix of cooperation and competition is known as coopetition. In cooperative games, players form coalitions and reach agreements, usually to create a bigger pie. Organizations can continue to promote themselves and compete a bit, with each group getting a bigger slice than it had before.

This has worked well with the Secular Coalition for America (SC A), which consists of eight diverse, national, nontheistic organizations. Through SC A Director Lori Lipman Brown, the first nontheistic lobbyist to Congress, secular voices are beginning to be heard and the publicity has benefited all of the organizations.

SCA’s mission is to increase the visibility and respectability of nontheistic viewpoints in the United States, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government as the best guarantee of freedom for all. The first goal of the coalition represents the interests of all nontheists, while the second goal incorporates the larger group of people who advocate separation of government from religion. SC A collaborates on issues of common interest with a number of organizations that aren’t nontheistic, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State. It also cooperates on select issues with explicitly theistic organizations, like the Interfaith Alliance and the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Working with such diverse groups provides the additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our unique perspective.

And yet, naturally, divisions exist within the humanist community. For instance, just about all humanists agreed with Michael Newdow that the two words “under God” should never have been added (during the McCarthy era) to the Pledge of Allegiance. But not all favored Newdow’s court challenge for its removal. Some thought it to be merely a symbolic issue that would alienate moderate religionists, while others feared that a Newdow victory would lead to an unwarranted constitutional amendment. A small minority of humanists even spoke publicly in opposition. I am pleased that the American Humanist Association (AHA) filed an amicus brief in support of Newdow’s Supreme Court case.

Another division among humanists is over the use of the “A-word.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell), Sam Harris (The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation), and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) are best-selling authors who deride religious belief and promote atheism. These authors have been called aggressive, arrogant, elitist, intolerant, mean-spirited, militant, and uppity—and not just by religious believers. Of course these same adjectives were variously applied to Jews, blacks, women, and gays when they criticized the dominant culture and asserted their right to be treated fairly. We may respectfully disagree with specific comments of the atheist authors, but let’s be cautious about joining the mainstream to cast stones. The media attention these atheist authors have earned has given all flavors of nontheism a forum they never had before. I say let’s make the most of it.

In all, the decision to participate in or ignore events initiated by other organizations can be controversial. Arguments in favor of participation include showing solidarity, increasing strength in numbers, and gaining media attention attention. Arguments opposed to it include lack of control and the danger of working with organizations or people who might be an embarrassment. A recent event in which some secular groups chose not to participate also divided the scientific community. The Answers in Genesis Creation Museum opened in Kentucky on May 28, 2007. That morning the Rally for Reason, endorsed by a number of organizations, was held outside the gates of the museum. AHA was one of the groups that opted to stay away, arguing that the rally would give added publicity to those who promote a literal interpretation of Genesis. The losing argument for participation was an opportunity to show support for science. I wish such support were unnecessary, but faith trumps science for most Americans.

I was invited to be the master of ceremonies at the Rally for Reason. What follows are my opening remarks:

As president of the Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella group of eight national nontheistic organizations, I am pleased to see theists and nontheists cooperating on an important issue. Today you will hear from scientists, educators, concerned parents and grandparents, as well as from secular and religious leaders. We are all working together for a more educated America.

As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I support the right of the Creation Museum to promote its views, just like I supported the right of the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie years ago. Which do I consider more dangerous? Surprisingly, it is the people who believe Genesis is a science book. I’m not particularly concerned about the American Nazi Party, despite losing relatives in the Holocaust, because almost no one takes them seriously anymore. A politician who would say he was a Nazi sympathizer, or that the Holocaust didn’t exist, would be drummed out of any political party.

On the other hand, three presidential candidates recently said in a nationally televised debate that they didn’t believe in evolution. Three men seeking to lead the last superpower on Earth reject the scientific consensus on cosmology, geology, and biology. How scary is that?

Ken Ham, who operates this museum, disagrees with people who call scientific creationism “bad” science. I disagree also, but for entirely different reasons. Creationism isn’t good enough to be considered bad science. Bad science uses the scientific method, but contains errors. Creationism isn’t science. In memory of Isaac Asimov, I have to say that creationism isn’t even sound enough to be considered good science fiction, though it most certainly is fiction.

Genesis, like Greek mythology, might deserve a place in a literature class or a mythology class, but not in a science class. For decades this country has had a failed war on drugs, and, in my opinion, is now engaged in a failed war in Iraq. However, what concerns me today is the war on science taking place inside the museum, a war being promoted in some of the highest levels of this administration. And such a war, if continued, will have a devastating effect on science education and the scientific advances of this country for years to come.

Outside this museum, people of reason accept the scientific evidence that the universe is billions of years old, that fossils are the remains of animals living hundreds of millions of years ago, and that life’s diversity is the result of evolution by natural selection. But inside this museum, they are teaching that the earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs frolicked with humans and all other species on an ark built by a 600-year-old man named Noah. The “science” book they rely upon was written 2,000-3,000 years ago in what the rest of us call a pre-scientific era.

That so many people might take this museum seriously is both sad and frightening. It shows that the United States is losing thousands of students not just to pseudo-science, but also to evangelical pseudo-science. People inside the museum may claim that the majority of Americans believe either that evolution shouldn’t be taught in public schools or that it should be taught along with so-called “Scientific Creationism.” But science isn’t democratic anymore than mathematics is democratic. As I tell my math students, even if everyone in the class believes a wrong thing, it is still a wrong thing. Creationism is an alternative to Zeus or Krishna, but not to Darwin. Creation science should no more be taught as an alternative to evolution than should the stork theory be taught as an alternative to sexual reproduction.

Museum Director Ken Ham and his followers have the free speech right to insist their creationist mythology is a viable theory or even fact. However, we have the free speech right and the obligation to truth to call a foolish idea “foolish.” Today, in a variety of ways, you will hear why such creationist ideas are both foolish and dangerous. And the arguments used by us will be backed by documented evidence, not by blind faith.

Conflicts between science and religion are as old as science itself. Fundamentalists 600 years ago found biblical justification to insist that our planet was flat; 400 years ago, they insisted that a stationary Earth was at the center of the universe; and 100 years ago, they tried to replace the number pi (which is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) with what they determined was the biblically justified whole number three [1 Kings 7:23]. I expect that even those inside the museum have cut and run from the geocentric battle of the Middle Ages for an Earth-centered universe. Future generations likely will look back in equal amazement at our twenty-first century “evolution battle.” The reason employed by today’s speakers will eventually prevail over the faith-based, scientifically illiterate forces. I can only hope we will succeed in a more timely fashion, and with less collateral damage, than occurred during the Dark and Middle Ages.

You’ll notice I used the inclusive “we” and “us” when addressing the crowd at the Rally for Reason. While some within the secular community may be engaged in a war of labels, I view “atheist” and “humanist” as two sides of the same coin. I am the same person, whether I talk about what I don’t believe (as an atheist) or what I do believe (as a humanist). Certainly words matter, but our special designations are sometimes nothing more than a matter of taste or comfort level.

Here is an interesting distinction between Christians and secularists: Christians have the same unifying word, but fight over theology; secularists have the same unifying theology, but fight over words. At least our wars are only verbal. Ronald Reagan wasn’t one of my favorite presidents, but he did unify his party with what he called the “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” I propose the following principle to help unify our movement: “Thou shalt not speak ill of anyone’s nontheistic label.”

So, what do you think? Compete or Cooperate? Endorse, Ignore, or Oppose?