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Political Liberalism and the Scientific Claims of Religion

Bellolio, Cristóbal; (2017) Political Liberalism and the Scientific Claims of Religion. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

Political liberalism is said to be neutral between what John Rawls called comprehensive doctrines. These doctrines are usually defined by their ethical and philosophical claims. However, how political liberalism should address factual disagreements in pluralistic societies is less clear. This is the broader question that this work aims to tackle. At a more specific level, the normative question is how liberal institutions should deal with factual claims put forward by religious traditions and communities. I take evolution vs. creationism as a case in point. While the former is a widely-accepted theory within scientific circles, the latter is advocated by religious groups in the US and elsewhere. The question is thus whether the liberal state can legitimately enlist its educational resources to teach Darwinism and exclude creationism as the true story about our origins. To this, creationists claim that (a) as Darwinism is a philosophically naturalistic doctrine, its exclusive teaching violates the promise of liberal neutrality to the detriment of non-naturalistic worldviews; and (b) liberal institutions – from courts of justice to educational boards and executive officials - are promoting a materialistic understanding of the scientific project by arbitrarily disallowing supernatural hypotheses. Accordingly, the best way to honour both metaphysical and epistemological fairness is to treat evolutionary theory and its foes in a balanced way within the framework of mandatory scientific education. Hence, the Creationist Claim (CC) is advanced as a logical implication of political liberalism’s purported impartiality. The first part of this thesis addresses three arguments that liberal theorists have articulated to dismiss CC: (i) Darwinian evolution is just a scientific theory, (ii) religion should not address matters of factuality, and (iii) science cannot handle supernatural hypotheses by definition. But these replies are unconvincing. I argue that Darwinism can be suitably presented as a partial worldview; that most religious narratives incorporate factual claims; and that theistic hypotheses should not be excluded from the purview of science under the disguise of a purely methodological naturalism. Nonetheless, this does not mean that creationism should be taught in the biology classroom. The second part of the thesis aims to provide a public justification for the exclusive teaching of Darwinian evolution. After distinguishing between two stages of liberal neutrality, I argue that the state is legitimated to adjudicate between competing factual claims through fair procedures, an adjudication that is indifferent to the naturalistic or supernaturalistic character of the hypotheses. Two justificatory strategies are then pursued. The first reconstructs the problem by mimicking the conditions of the Rawlsian Original Position, tracking the educational goods that every citizen under the veil of ignorance would sign up for. It concludes that a commitment to the aims of a broadly liberal education leads to the notion that every future citizen is entitled to an adequate degree of scientific literacy, which includes an understanding of the most fundamental idea in life sciences: evolution. The second appeals to Rawls’s suggestion that public reason encompasses the uncontroversial methods and conclusions of science. After addressing several possible objections, I conclude that scientific reasoning is a paradigmatic case of public reasoning, thus suitable for the aims of liberal public justification. Further, it offers a theory to think about scientific reasoning as an extension of everyday reasoning and common sense, a crucial assumption from which we can assert epistemic shared grounds. As a conclusion, this thesis argues that factual disagreements – such as the one that divides pluralistic societies over cosmic narratives - should be addressed by liberals within parameters of public justification, because this is the best way to show respect to all citizens. The scientific claims of religion might well be discarded, not because they are religious but because they fail to provide evidential support in a world in which scientific reasoning works as public epistemology.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: Political Liberalism and the Scientific Claims of Religion
Event: University College London
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > UCL SLASH
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10025061
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