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:
- the post literate society; and
- 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.