Matheson: A Humanist’s Invitation to Peaceful Science

Stephen Matheson is a biologist and Editor-in-Chief of Cell Reports. As a former Christian turned atheist, and board member/past president of The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard, we asked him to explain why he is a part of Peaceful Science.

Does the world need another site for debates about creationism? No.

Does the world need more places to announce that “Darwinism” has been felled by using algebra and a paperback book by Richard Dawkins? Heavens no.

Does the world need more online forums for Christian apologists to wrangle over the meaning of ‘yom’? Please, no.

What about a place where scientists can answer questions from laypeople, about evolution and genetics and maybe even climate change? Yeah, maybe.

Or how about a place where people can hear about the ins and outs of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, evolutionary genetics, and how genetics can be reconciled with Ancient Near Eastern accounts of the beginning of the world? That’s not for me.

Peaceful Science is all of the things I listed above, only one of which is of slight interest to me. Still, I believe that Peaceful Science is uniquely interesting and valuable.

First, I want to clear up some confusion about the purpose and mission of Peaceful Science.  It is common for people on the forum to assume that we exist for the sole purpose of addressing science-faith interactions in the context of evolution, but they are mistaken. A look at the mission of the organization and at its leadership reveals something bigger, better, and different.

This confusion is understandable. Peaceful Science was founded by an evangelical scientist (the smart and kind Joshua Swamidass) who recently wrote a book that explores genetic and genealogical evidence for recent common ancestry of present-day humans. His book and its ideas are a big focus of the site. The discussion forum is decidedly not the only activity of the organization, but for now its focus is mostly on evolution and religion. 

Still, it is the larger mission that attracts me to Peaceful Science and why I think that more secular humanists like me should have a look. Two things stand out to me.

First, the overarching goal is to foster dialogue built on trust. In my opinion, that is a bigger and more challenging goal than any attempt to bridge genetics and Genesis. But especially in 2020, it is one of the most important endeavors that a human can undertake. Disagreement and distrust are vastly different things, and we should not need a shared religion to share mutual human respect. I take this to be a bedrock humanist commitment: what another human believes about gods or magic is immaterial to their value as a human and unrelated to whether they are worthy of trust and respect.

This mission of dialogue with trust is based on principles published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This is important, not so much because the principles are deep or revolutionary but because the AAAS is a reliable touchstone for scientists and especially for unbelievers. The principles weren’t dreamed up by Dr. Swamidass or paraphrased from an ancient text; they were hammered out by diverse experts who were focused on helping science serve society.

Second, Peaceful Science’s mission is explicitly humanistic: “…encouraging conversation around the grand question: what does it mean to be human?

This is an inspiring goal that should sell itself to any secular (or religious) humanist. I’m drawn to it, and I want to be a part of that grand conversation. 

Fellow unbelievers might still have some hesitation. Is this “dialogue” tainted by the ethos of evangelicalism? Will we be treated as projects? Is dialogue just a means to a religious end?

Well, I’ve been hanging around Peaceful Science for more than a year. At least on the forum, there’s no way to avoid hearing about the demise of “Darwinism” from overconfident non-biologists with scant knowledge of evolutionary theory. True, there are regular conversations devoted to “theology.” But Peaceful Science is much bigger, and dare I say better, than all that. I also find challenging and interesting conversations, and dialogues that change people’s minds. 

So, here I am, way outside any humanist or atheist “bubble.”  I hope more secular humanists will participate, because we are welcome here, and this is a chance to help conversation about the grand questions of life grow.

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Notable Replies

  1. Hi all, as you can see, the piece is not much of a commentary but an invitation to secular people to check out Peaceful Science and perhaps join the conversations. But I’m glad to answer questions.

  2. On Facebook, somewhat predictably, there are questions about the meaning of “humanist.” These are not aggressive questions, but perhaps puzzled. As you know “humanist” carries some negative connotations, because it can be used to exclude the religious. This is not what you mean, because you write,

    any secular (or religious) humanist

    I understand you to be saying that Peaceful Science is humanistic in that we are seeking the common good together. Is that what you mean? How would you explain the meaning?

  3. It’s true that the term is frequently assumed to exclude believers and belief, but I think that is unnecessary and why I think “secular humanist” is a useful phrase. There are Christian humanists and Muslim humanists and all kinds of humanists. Humanism is basically a set of beliefs and commitments centered on humans and their moral significance. It need not exclude belief. However, it does define its commitments separate from gods and the supernatural. I suppose a Christian humanist would affirm those commitments but then add God as their source. This is something I’m very comfortable with, but it’s fair to say that plenty of secular humanists would disagree with me. You will find my humanism best described in the first two entries on this page at the American Humanist Association.

    Yep! Compare for example this description of humanism (from the AHA page linked above) with the goals of Peaceful Science:

    Humanism is a rational philosophy informed by science, inspired by art, and motivated by compassion.

  4. @sfmatheson:

    Pretty impressive concluding paragraph!

  5. This is exactly right.

    So is this.

    Patience is one of our core values, and we practice it here on the forum all the time. Personally, I see value in even our harshest critics. To the frustration of some, I’ve erred in tolerating what seems bad faith actors, but I still want to exercise patience with all I can. Whether we like or or not, we live in the same society, and we need to find ways to bear with our differences, to understand them. In that act of understanding, we might all be changed.

    Honesty is another of our core values, and transparency is one way we practice it. One aspect of science that deeply influenced me is that we expect errors and have have clear standards for how to manage them with transparency. The honesty and transparency of the public record of science is sacrosanct and the sacred. We learn this early as scientists in training, as it is part of our culture to which all scientists are enculturated. It is also codified in rules and expectations like the COPE guidelines on publication ethics.

    For me, transparency isn’t nebulous ideal easily moldable into something else that, in fact, lacks transparency. Rather, it is the foundational culture of science, part of the scientific way of thinking, and it serves the common good.

    To illustrate what I mean by this, would it not be a better society if politicians followed the same standards of transparency as does science? I think it would.

    Would it not be a better society if on questions of race we were patient with one another? I think it would, immeasurably so.

    That better society, deeply connected to the culture of science, which we aim to practice here, is a better way, and it is what we aspire to bring forth here.

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