The line comes from an article written back in 2005 by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. In it, they describe the a teaching strategy one of them had:
One of us spent years as an Oxford tutor and it was his habit to choose controversial topics for the students' weekly essays. They were required to go to the library, read about both sides of an argument, give a fair account of both, and then come to a balanced judgment in their essay. The call for balance, by the way, was always tempered by the maxim, "When two opposite points of view are expressed with equal intensity, the truth does not necessarily lie exactly half way between. It is possible for one side simply to be wrong."
As a sort of professional intellectual, I find that idea exhilarating. For there to be a truth that we can discover one of these days, on some questions, if only we look for it! As an educator I find it scary because it reeks of a kind of academic totalitarianism - but still, I think there is some truth to the idea. (This doesn't mean it's always my job to decide where that mean lies.) And as a child of post-modernism it seems the impossible dream. I grew up in a world where not just beauty but pretty much everything - up to and including scientific facts - were in the eye of the beholder.
My students regularly express the same sentiment. I expected a certain degree of relativism on moral matters, perhaps even on politics, aesthetics, and other value-bound subjects. But even when it comes to facts, to science and history and the like, it seems that most of the people I encounter think they don't have a right to impose their view on the people around them. I'm hearing it all the time in politics, too. To cite two examples, Mississippi governor Haley Barbour recently was asked to denounce plans to honor KKK founder Nathan Bedford but refused because he "didn't go around denouncing people, and GOP leader John Boehner has refused to condemn the Birthers because he said "it's not my job to tell the American people how to think."
Now, maybe these politicians have their own reasons for making these statements. Maybe they are afraid of insulting certain segments of the population. Maybe they secretly agree with them. I am not privy to their thoughts; I simply do not know. But I think it's telling that this approach to political problems is more or less accepted as legitimate. The concept of a leader - someone who identifies where this country should be going and leads it in that direction - seems nonexistent. And you see this approach in science education as well. Consider the recent National Research Council survey that showed that in nearly two-thirds of classrooms, intelligent design is taught alongside evolution or the subject is simply not taught at all. Science educators in my country seem happy not to educate about science, but to leave it up to teenagers to decide which of two competing theories is right and which is wrong.
Which brings me back to my original point about relativism. I agree with Dawkins and Coyne: really, sometimes one side is simply wrong. I have a sort of grudging respect for what I have seen called young-earth scientists: people who think the scientific evidence has been misinterpreted and that the earth is really only 6,000 years old. I think they are wrong, of course, but at least they are taking a position and trying to put forth the best case they can for it. This is ow science progresses. We (by which I mean they, because I'm not a scientist!) identify facts and build theories around them and anyone else is free to dispute the veracity of the facts or their interpretation. But they are not free to simply ignore those facts and believe whatever they want so long as they aren't hurting anyone. At least not if they want to remain scientists.
I sincerely believe that evolution provides the best explanation for how our universe began and reached its current stage. I also sincerely believe that intelligent design is not a competing theory that needs to be taught in a science classroom - put bluntly, because intelligent design is not a science. It is a philosophy and not even a particularly good one at that, because contemporary IDers in my experience don't often put forward good arguments for why ID must be true - except that "the Bible tells me so." That's a shame, because I suspect there is good work still to be done. While I believe evolution provides the best explanation of how the universe came to be, I also genuinely believe that it does not explain why the universe came to be. As Elliot Stabler put it on Special Victims Unit, a cause isn't always an explanation.
Theology is capable of better than this. Philosophy certainly is. I was reminded of this fact by a recent blog post by Dr. Matt Rossano over at HuffPo, about the medieval view of neuroscience. Medieval natural philosophers - who would probably be labeled as scientists today, but the modern distinctions don't quite hold - faced a dilemma. Animals without souls (on the Christian view) were clearly capable of some kind of intellectual function. But the Scripture as understood at that time pointed out that in an afterlife people would also have those same intellectual functions. So were intellectual functions located in the soul, the body, or both? Our concept of mind (not to be confused with the brain) really goes back to this question. While it's not one that I find particularly interesting or important for its own sake, it is one that shows that once upon a time people brought the full force of their reason to think critically about both revealed and sensed truth. Because if revelation is at all true, then it can't contradict other truths. I really wish more of that kind of critical thought went on today!
The great irony is that religion and science share the same enemy: relativism. As I said I am not a scientist and so I feel ill-equipped to talk about the dangers facing science. But as for the dangers facing religion, I increasingly see this problem in liberal Christianity (the kind Glenn Beck famously railed against a few months back as "social justice" churches). In an effort to be more seeker-friendly, and as a reaction against fundamentalism, these churches tend to affirm that we have a right to our doubts. We do, of course, as a psychological state - but we need to be very careful how far we carry this idea. I cannot force you to believe something, and rightly so, but your inability or refusal to believe it doesn't change the truth of what you refuse to believe - always assuming it turns out to be true. For instance, when a church insists that homosexuality is immoral I have every right - indeed, an obligation - to take them to task on the Biblical evidence for this view. And when they insist that homosexuality is a choice, I have that same right and obligation to argue against that claim as well. Not because their view is hurtful (though it is), but because it is wrong.
The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that religion needs evolution to be taught in science classrooms: not as one option out of many, but as the best explanation. Like all theories evolution can be modified but it should not be denigrated to mere opinion or belief. Because Christians also know that, both within the church and beyond, sometimes one side is just plain wrong. This should be done with humility and kindness, to be sure, something many people (religious or otherwise) stumble over. "Safe spaces" to express your opinion are good, even necessary. But that cannot be the end of the story. Really, both science and religion are bigger than that.