At Jerry Coyne’s blog today, Coyne takes after Michael Shermer for being a little too cozy with religion:
It always amuses me when an accommodationist tells the faithful that no, there is no conflict between science and religion, at least not if they stopped believing the things that cause a conflict. In a Darwin-anniversay piece on CNN, Michael Shermer comes out as an accommodationist, and more: he suggests that people really should modify their beliefs if they conflict with science.
In New Atheistland, accommodating other people’s beliefs (if you think they are false), and giving too much serious intellectual leeway to the question of whether God actually exists or not, are big no-nos. Such things put you in danger of being in “conflict with science”, and renders you a suspicious citizen of New Atheistland (if you call yourself an atheist). And so Shermer said, among other (to Coyne’s mind) ghastly things about religion, this:
If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe — 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.
To which Coyne retorts:
Who is Shermer, I suggest, to tell people what beliefs should or should not “matter” to them? Try telling this to a fundamentalist Christian, or a devout Muslim.
But perhaps if Shermer had used the word “need” as opposed to “should”, it would not have raised Coyne’s ire? (As in, “It need not logically matter when God made the world.”) Strictly speaking, theism, evolution, and a great age for the Earth are not logically incompatible.
Of course, evolution and an old Earth are logically incompatible with a literalist reading of the Bible, but the literalist reading is, in any case, blatantly false. The first chapter of Genesis, for example, gives clear structural markers of being written as poetry. Specifically, it is written in poetic parallelism (the 1st day corresponds to the 4th day, the 2nd day to the 5th, the 3rd day to the 6th). What we are reading is a poet laying out the world’s stage (on days 1, 2, and 3) and the things that move (the “actors” on days 4, 5, and 6). To put it in Shakespearean terms, Genesis 1 is a poetic expression of “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women players.” And in this profound sense, Genesis 1 is a reflection of this truth.
What Shermer is trying to make peace with are sensible moderate theists, not fundamentalists. It is the people in the middle, not those on the fringes, who will, ultimately, determine the virulence of religion and irreligion. Shermer is trying to reduce religion’s virulence, not embracing fundamentalist ownership of the Bible, and it’s ridiculous interpretations of it. Shermer is right to reclaim the Bible as part of the Western cultural patrimony, and not leave it to fundamentalists to tell us what it means, and the implications to be drawn from it.
And for this, of course, Shermer runs the risk of being demonized as an “accommodationist”, a “theologian”, and a “faitheist” by the confidence atheists who mentally inhabit that very narrow intellectual peninsula, New Atheistland.