Science v. Religion? An Evolutionary Biologist Promoting Public Acceptance for Evolutionary Theory with a Really Dumb Strategy

In thinking about biologist Jerry Coyne’s recent forays into the realms of PZ Myers-style religion bashing, I can’t help but wonder:

  • Unless something else is going on psychologically (such as a hatred of religion as such), should religion be the central target for an evolutionary biologist’s outrage?

I would say no, and offer two other much larger cultural phenomena for potential intellectual ire, of which religion (particularly fundamentalist religion) is but a symptom:

  1. the post literate society; and
  2. the conservative reaction to Modernism in general

In other words, isn’t religious fundamentalism, when it comes right down to it, a byproduct of a broader illiteracy problem and the reaction to Modernism? 

Put simply, a lot of Americans just don’t read all that much, and have never been taught critical thinking skills, and the America they remember from childhood (or imagine that they remember) is gone, and that’s scary to them. And so the snarky urban-dwelling evolutionary biologist who does not decouple science qua science from the Modernist project as a whole, and shows contempt for religion, is suddenly smack dab in the middle of the culture war, and reinforces to Red State “heartland” Americans that science is inimical to them. I think this is a strange strategy for generating a broader comfort with evolution as a scientific theory. Evangelical geneticist Francis Collins and Catholic biologist Ken Miller are bridges to the religious community that Coyne appears to want to burn down. Collins and Miller are trying to decouple science from the larger culture war, and Coyne wants it coupled and front and center (exactly as the far right does).

But when you treat science as more than science, and put this other thing on it—religion bashing and atheism—you are now no longer in the realm of science, and people know that. Drudge, for example, delights in posting the headlines of climate scientists who are overtly political or who indulge in unqualified generalizations or exaggerations. It undercuts science for conservatives and reinforces their prejudices about scientists and their motivations in certain areas of science. Perhaps Coyne hopes someday to generate a banner headline at the DrudgeReport. But if the DrudgeReport wants to stand you up front and center before a conservative audience and talk, what’s that tell you? You must be shooting yourself in the foot, right? Drudge wouldn’t be trying to make you look good, would he?

Coyne is not acknowledging his existential situation. He is an evolutionary biologist with a metaphysical commitment that exceeds the empirical (atheism). He is free to express that commitment, and I hope that he continues to do so. I, personally, find it highly informative. But it doesn’t follow that, in loudly proclaiming his contempt for religion, Coyne should harbor the illusion that he is actually advancing the public’s esteem for science or scientists. People know when you’ve said something beyond your area of expertise. And they know (at least in vague terms) when you’ve shifted from reason to passion.

Advancing the cause of atheism should not be confused with advancing the cause of science. Coyne imagines that a unified front of combative atheist scientists would, over time, reduce creationist beliefs in America. But to the contrary: I think it would simply reinforce broad conservative prejudices about the consequences of evolution to culture, and give the DrudgeReport bemused and alarmist weekly headlines to drive traffic to its site.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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15 Responses to Science v. Religion? An Evolutionary Biologist Promoting Public Acceptance for Evolutionary Theory with a Really Dumb Strategy

  1. Heuristics says:

    The really weird thing about the anti-religious scientists we have been seeing for the past decade is that we actually have a science that directly has within it’s domain the study of the impact of religion on society (of which science is a part). We call that science Sociology or Sociology of Religion. So why have we not seen any PZ Myerian sociologists highlighting the evils that religion is inflicting upon science? Well, because the sociologists have been looking into that very interesting question for quite a while and have come to the conclusion that there is no conflict there worth the effort of screaming atop a hill (or blog) about:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conflict_thesis

  2. santitafarella says:

    Heuristics:

    What an interesting way of thinking about this. That’s an excellent observation. Why aren’t atheist sociologists loudly burning down the metaphorical barn of religion?

    Great question.

    —Santi

    • Why aren’t atheist sociologists … ?

      This is a no-brainer. It is because atheist students of religion onsider it a “useful fiction” that they don’t flock to burn it down. In fact, that’s also Dennett’s whole point in his recent Breaking the Spell, he sees religious faith as a psychological lever. I think a lot of atheists who are not as extreme as Dawkins see it that way. They don’t believe it but they see it as potentially beneficial as well as potentially harmful. The militant atheists mostly focus on the negative potential and the fiction aspect.

  3. Very interesting and I think plausible way to think of the situation. Thanks very much, I’m glad to see someone is thinking about these issues a little more deeply and looking past the bickering on the surface toward the real causal model for what is behind the “culture war.”

    There are plenty of proximal causes, we see them in the news every day in the form of influential extremists, propaganda organizations, etc., but the deeper trends are more interesting and probably more worthwhile to try to understand in the long run. And at the very least, more satisfying than “well, look at those stupid people who believe that crazy stuff.”

  4. Veronica Abbass says:

    So, if “a lot of Americans just don’t read all that much, and have never been taught critical thinking skills,” what makes you think they are reading anything Jerry Coyne, Francis Collins and Ken Miller write?

    • There are a number of levels of reading, which differ in how much we think and reflect on and interact with the material and how we integrate it. Most people read constantly, it just isn’t often very deeply. There are advantages to that way of thinking, to be sure, but also disadvantages. Critical thinking is deeper thinking than just reading, understanding the material at something approaching the perspective from which it is being written is even deeper. That’s not a technical model, just an analogy to try to express what I think is going on when we read in different ways.

  5. Lynn says:

    Excellent post! Personally, I find Francis Collins’ approach toward religion much more reasonable and sane than someone like Dawkins’. The false dichotomy between science and religion is oversimplified. The few fundamentalists insist on demolishing each other while most people see no real contradiction between science and religion, but the fundies are getting most of the publicity. And personally, I feel that the atheist fundies (Dawkins and the like) have been more obnoxious lately than the evangelical Christians. Actually, people like Dawkins and Sam Harris make the Christians look like the sane ones for once.

  6. santitafarella says:

    Veronica:

    I would say that atheists like Dawkins and Coyne develop a reputation among the conservative intellectuals within Christianity, then those intellectuals characterize New Atheist views in popular and simpler books, lectures, and sermons to the larger laity that does not read all that much. They also might “quote mine” the authors for their most aggressive statements and distribute those ideas to congregations.

    I just think that Coyne confuses atheist advance with the advance of science. He may be convincing some to be atheists by his rhetoric, but he’s giving a much larger population (who will never become atheists) a reason to distrust the neutrality of science. Religious people, afterall, are in the majority and they pay the taxes. If science develops a reputation for being on the side of atheism, it can’t really help public support for science. I would decouple the advance of atheism from the advance of science. And if Coyne were thinking clearly in terms of strategy, he would do the same.

    —Santi

    • Santi,

      Interesting distinction, can you please elaborate on “atheist advance vs. scientific advance” with examples?

      I think many people assume that advance in science is driven very specifically by scientific naturalism, which is essentially, in many respects, a stance that is not compatible with higher purpose. So it is problematic for many to try to disentangle these kinds of advance. People making that assumption find higher purpose perhaps important psychologically but that scientifically, the purposiveness arises from within nature and is compatible with causal models.

      Is this indeed an irreconcileable difference perhaps? I have trouble imagining how the basic distinction of supernatural purpose and natural causation can be reconciled if we take both seriously.

      I’m curious as to whether this distinction between atheist advance and scientific advance takes a different tack?? This is new to me.

  7. santitafarella says:

    Todd:

    You’re right. Science is driven by naturalism. Science is a tool for discovering material causes for material events. You can’t use the tool for any other purpose.

    But here’s why science is not, therefore, a tool for atheism: Both the atheist scientist and the theist scientist who might look to science for hints on the existence of God (or God’s non-existence) are necessarily sharing the same project: to push material explanation to its limit.

    Let me say that again: If you want to know how reasonable God belief is, then push material explanation to its limit and see what you’ve got left. Science is the tool for doing that.

    Example: 150 years ago scientists thought the first cell was simple and could be generated rather easily. But by having a close, rigorously sustained, and systematic look, and pressing reductive material questions against the cell, now we know otherwise. The simplest cell is perhaps more complex, informationally, than a stealth bomber. By pushing material explanation to its limit, scientists discover the impasses of material explanation. The cell is, presently, one of those impasses. In the future, it may not be. The contemporary theist scientist and the atheist scientist must, necessarily, have the same project with regard to the cell: keep pushing material explanation ad infinitum. The cell’s material “origin safe” may never crack. But the project is the same (try to crack it).

    Atheism and theism will always be competing INFERENCES derived from looking, in the present, at the universe as a whole (as science currently discloses it to us). Science tries to narrow the range of inference, but neither serves atheism or theism. Science will probably always discover new perplexities for both.

    Like lawyers say, “Don’t ask a question of a witness if you don’t know exactly how she’ll answer.”

    Science is the opposite. Scientists don’t know what pushing material explanation to its limits will lead to. So how, if science doesn’t know in advance the answers that will be returned, can it be in the service of atheism?

    If science is atheism’s prosecuting attorney, it is doing a really shitty job. It keeps asking questions of the universe that return difficulties and new perplexities for materialist explanation. Likewise, if science is theism’s defense attorney, it is doing an equally crap job, for it likewise asks questions of the universe that return difficulties and new perplexities for theists.

    Science is like the grass. It just is, and it is up to us to make ultimate sense of the answers it returns. As the poet Carl Sandberg said: “I am the grass / let me do my work.”

    —Santi

    • I think that’s a splendid way to look at the relationship, I relate to it. I also think it is anaethma to militant atheists and to most of the Creationist/ID folks to think of the relationship in that way, they view it as an unacceptable “compromise” or “accomodation.”

      Unfortunately not everyone is interested in thinking together, some people find warfare inescapable and neccessary, and tragically they each manage to justify each others’ existence!

      kind regards,

      Todd

  8. santitafarella says:

    Todd:

    Harvard biologist George Wald died in 1997, but I can’t help but wonder what he would have made of the vanguard biologists (Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and PZ Myers) who make up the post 9-11 new “confidence atheists” or “faitheists.”

    Dr. Wald had a very particular way of speaking and listening to nature, and in his 1967 Nobel Prize lecture he said:

    “I have often had cause to feel that my hands are cleverer than my head. That is a crude way of characterizing the dialectics of experimentation. When it is going well, it is like a quiet conversation with Nature. One asks a question and gets an answer, then one asks the next question and gets the next answer. An experiment is a device to make Nature speak intelligibly. After that, one only has to listen.”

    One only has to listen. And what did Dr. Wald believe that nature had told him over a lifetime of study? In 1984, at the age of 78, and thirteen years prior to his death (he died at the age of 91), Wald made an extraordinary confession before a meeting of the Quantum Biology Symposium:

    “It has occurred to me lately—I must confess with some shock at first to my scientific sensibilities—that both questions [the origin of mind and the origin of life from nonliving matter] might be brought into some degree of congruence. This is with the assumption that mind, rather than emerging as a late outgrowth in the evolution of life, has existed always as the matrix, the source and condition of physical reality—the stuff of which physical reality is composed is mind-stuff. It is mind that has composed a physical universe that breeds life and so eventually evolves creatures that know and create: science-, art-, and technology-making animals. In them the universe begins to know itself.”

    Dr. Wald was a lifelong skeptic who, late in life, came to infer the existence of mind prior to nature. Science, for Dr. Wald, was not in the service of atheism, nor of theism. Science just returned answers from nature, and he thought about those answers and drew inferences.

    —Santi

    • I’m enjoying this discussion, thank you very much. It is so much more interesting to me than the usual pointless science/religion battles. I guess we’re both the sort of people that militants ends despise, people interested in listening to each other.

      As for mind prior to matter, I think I understand that perspective somewhat although I don’t generally think that way. I believe it defines mind in a reasonable but different way than functionalists are willing to use. There’s a matter of looking at a lot of things through a different lens, one that puts experience first rather than trying to explain experience in terms of a material brain.

      I think it gives a little different spin to science, and most functionalist/monist/physicalists are very loathe to look through that lens for very long even though it is tecnhnically compatible with naturalism since “mind” emerges within nature rather than from outside. But I really don’t see why they equate that in any way with what anti-evolution extremists do. They are not the same sort of endeavor at all. There’s no particular relationship I can see between mind-primacy philosophy (e.g. Chalmers) and Creationism, other than a very loose almost trivial compatibility.

  9. What I gather from reading Mr. Coyne’s site is that he views any non-scientifically verified thoughts a person might have as being fundamentally antithetical (and dangerous) to science and rational thought. This, to me, is a viewpoint as dogmatic and narrow as any expounded by a faith healer at a County fair. One can wonder and still be a scientist. In fact, only thinking in terms of what has already been verified and proven makes you a crappy scientist.

    • Douglas,
      I agree with you, what you attribute to Coyne is an epistemological stance that I disagree with as well. I don’t know if he actually thinks that way, but I’ll assume for the sake of discussion that someone out there still does.

      I think it makes sense to be able to turn something over in your mind and see it in other, including “non-scientific” ways. One of the keys to being a good theorist is resourcefulness and mental flexibility. Metaphor figures prominently in the descriptive aspect of theory which is important in the transition to new theories and in helping teach and communicate about theories.

      Someone can do research as usual with a relatively fixed state of mind, but not come up with really original work and think about entirely new questions.

      That said, I certainly don’t think scientists have to also be theists in particular to have resourceful minds. But the insistence on a rigid logical web of theories that lock into place is probably best seen as archaic ever since the failure of radical logical positivism.

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