Atheists for Common Cause With the Religious On Evolution

By Chris Mooney | April 27, 2009 12:43 pm

Why doesn’t such a group exist? After reading the latest from the latest New Atheist to start making a ruckus, Jerry Coyne, I wonder if we don’t need to start it up. And I would be the first to join.

Coyne, a prominent defender of evolution based at the University of Chicago, engages in a counterproductive attack on three major allies–the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and above all, the National Center for Science Education. Nobody does more than these three groups (and especially the last) to promote and defend the teaching of evolution in the United States. So how could any evolutionary scientist be upset with them?

Coyne’s charge against NAS, AAAS, and NCSE is that they’re too moderate on the extremely divisive subject of religion. They take the wishy-washy position that you can fully accept evolution and yet not in some sense turn into an atheist. Or as Coyne puts it of these groups:

By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one.  By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist.  Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

“Seeking union”? “Consorting”? How dare these organizations build diverse coalitions to achieve shared goals?!?

Allow me to make a few points in response to Coyne’s summarizing paragraph, above.

First, I don’t see anything particularly “philosophical” about the accommodationist stance. Rather, holding that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science is an empirical matter:  There are a vast number of different religions traditions in the world, and a still more vast number of ways in which different people profess and live out their faiths. In some of these traditions, and for some of these people, there is stark conflict with science; in other traditions, and for other people, there isn’t. That’s just a fact, and one that can be demonstrated simply by identifying any number of scientists who are religious, any number of religious leaders and denominations which embrace evolution, and so on.

Coyne, however, seems to think it is possible to more or less ignore this religious diversity. He says there is “significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled”–but which “religion” are we talking about here? It makes all the difference. Again, it is irrefutable that for some people, religion and science can definitely be reconciled. Forget for the moment how it is that they perform such a reconciliation in their minds–the point is, these people exist, and in large numbers. Are NAS, NCSE, and AAAS supposed to ignore this?

As for “dissent”: I don’t think any unanimity on science and religion is being implied by NCSE or the rest; rather, I merely suspect these leading organizations of American science are taking stances that, in addition to being realistic, are in the best interests of their members. After all, consider the massive importance of the reconciliationist stance on science and religion from a legal perspective: The pro-evolution courtroom strategy has long turned on recognizing that while creationism is just thinly veiled religion, evolution does not entail atheism. Does Coyne want us to give up the Dover case, and many others before it? Because they are strongly premised on this logic.

The charge that accomodationists are guilty of “philosophy” is also pretty gutsy in light of Coyne’s last sentence: “Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.” Is Coyne not himself making an explicitly philosophical move here, by saying that evolution must be understood in an exclusively naturalistic/materialistic way?

It’s true that we shouldn’t invoke supernatural “causes” (whatever those are) in science; but it’s also true that science can’t prove they don’t exist. Provided that one does not appeal to miracles to explain how things happened, then, a kind of “supernaturalism” may certainly co-exist with evolution: You can simply say that God created everything and then evolution happened in a God-created universe, governed by God’s laws, which are also the laws of nature.

There’s a far bigger point here: In my view, we’re not nearly so secure in our defense of evolution in this country that we can indulge in the luxury of alienating the vast number of evolution defenders who hold something like the above belief. In this light, I find Coyne’s piece deeply misguided on a strategic level, as Richard Hoppe points out here in a post aptly titled “Generals who don’t know the nature of war.” (Alternative suggested title: “University professors who should never be allowed to lead armies.”)

As for me: I’m happy to “consort” and to “seek union” with any and all religious folks who also wants to help defend the teaching of evolution. They’re powerful allies, and joining forces with them is the only way we’ll ever put this divisive fight behind us.

Comments (111)

  1. Erasmussimo

    I agree entirely with you on this, Chris. The demand for ideological purity is inimical to political success. Every time the ideologues win a battle, they lose a war. The Republican Party is struggling with this problem right now; the far right ideologues are insisting on absolute purity, and they’re taking the party to perdition. But this is not merely a matter of acquiescing to dirty politics. The unavoidable truth is that we live in a big world with lots of different opinions and nobody has a monopoly on truth. On every issue, there will always be a myriad of factions and interests, and the only way we can resolve controversies is to build coalitions that agree on some issues. Intellectual integrity demands that we respect the opinions of those who disagree with us. Not accept — respect. Without that respect, we descend into some form of totalitarianism. If a Christian fundamentalist who hates gays and Muslims and supports torture ALSO opposes CO2 emissions, I will gladly make common cause with that person against CO2 emissions even as I work against them on other issues. I do not balk at consorting with that person, because I do not consider them to be beneath me.

    Fortunately, ideologues are always bypassed by history.

  2. I think you are making out Coyne to be much more rigid than what I think he is. You cannot disprove the existence of supernatural causes just as you cannot disprove the existence of fairies, goblins and teacups in the orbit of Mars. But that is no reason to accord them the same level of reasonable acceptance as their opposites. How is Coyne making an explicitly philosophical move by saying that evolution must be understood only in a naturalist way? Is there any other way which bears equal merit? You can say all you want that God made evolution possible, only it does not actually explain anything because you simply push the problem under the rug. It is equivalent to saying “a miracle made evolution possible”

    Your point that empirically speaking there are several people who accept both science and religion is of course true. But I think you are missing the more general and even more important point that Coyne, PZ and Larry have made; that it would be safe if the NAS, AAAS and NCSE simply stuck to science and evolution and not pontificated on whether evolution and religion are compatible or not. For one thing, none of these academies have the expertise to make such a statement other than that from an empirical standpoint that you talked about earlier. Plus, it would be disastrous if they made this their official motto, if not for any other reason, because it would be very divisive among scientists. Coyne is right that such an official statement ignores the very large number of scientists who think that science and religion are not compatible. To ignore this group definitely smells of accommodation.

    To respect both these as well as those who think the two are compatible and also not mire themselves in non-scientific arguments, all these august academies should best stick to promoting the evidence for evolution and demonstrating the lack of evidence for ID or creationism. Just like the FDA should not hold forth on the social wisdom or lack thereof of making Plan B available to 17 year olds, so should the NCSE and NAS not hold forth on non-scientific matters.

    To me the question is flawed as it is asked “Are science and religion compatible?”. The problem with this is that while ‘science’ is quite well-defined, ‘religion’ is not. There is no way science can be compatible with young-earth creationism. But science is much more compatible with abstract notions of creationism and destruction, at least from a philosophical perspective, as embodied in some of the Eastern religion. The question “Are science and religion compatible” is itself a rather unscientific question because it fails to specific many details about religion. To avoid getting embroiled in the swampland exemplified but the question’s complexity, the NCSE and NAS should stick to science.

  3. “The pro-evolution courtroom strategy has long turned on recognizing that… evolution does not entail atheism.”

    I would appreciate some elaboration on this point.

    I do not ever recall seeing in any legal case the judge ruling something like, “Of course, if this was just atheism, we’d have to say it’s okay to teach creationism.”

  4. Did you take a look at Obama’s speech to the NAS by the way?

  5. mk

    Chris,

    You picked one of Coyne’s paragraphs to comment on. How about this one? How do you feel about this one?

    Am I grousing because, as an atheist and a non-accommodationist, my views are simply ignored by the NAS and NCSE? Not at all. I don’t want these organizations to espouse or include my viewpoint. I want religion and atheism left completely out of all the official discourse of scientific societies and organizations that promote evolution. If natural selection and evolution are as powerful as we all believe, then we should devote our time to making sure that they are more widely and accurately understood, and that their teaching is defended. Those should be the sole missions of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education. Leave theology to the theologians.

  6. MK,
    Absurd, and again, politically naive. In defending the teaching of evolution, the first question that comes up on virtually every occasion relates to religion. In public, or in court for that matter. You cannot dodge this question, because it is at the very heart of the whole controversy and the central motivation behind the anti-evolutionists. Obviously the NAS and the NCSE have to have a stance on it.

  7. In fact that was the central message I took away from Coyne’s article; let the NCSE and NAS focus on science and not pontificate on the compatibility or lack thereof of science and religion. I was more than a little surprised you did not focus on this.

  8. Paul Lyon

    I’ve never seen explained how “The earth was created in 6 days, 6000 years ago” is compatible with the theory of evolution. Could someone explain that to me, or am I missing the point of what you are saying?

  9. Davo

    “In public, or in court for that matter. You cannot dodge this question, because it is at the very heart of the whole controversy and the central motivation behind the anti-evolutionists”

    Absolutely true, and that’s exactly why accommodation is bad. The question about whether evolution conflicts with religion will inevitably come up as you mentioned, and the response should be nuanced and not constrained to some blanket “Yes” or “No”. The NCSE should really say that evolution is not compatible with those parts of religion which propound supernatural explanations for the origins of life. Period. This is not ideology, this is just an acceptance of facts supported by mountains of evidence. There is no way, absolutely no way, evolution can reconcile itself with the belief that the earth is 6000 years old. There are levels of absurdity in religious belief, and this level is one of the lowest.

    On the other hand, when it comes to other aspects of religion, the NCSE should probably not pontificate any more than you or I should. But the NCSE should make it clear that science and religion will inevitably be incompatible whenever religion starts making claims about the universe that involves physical or natural processes. This is an important point. Sadly, there are many claims made by religion (Jesus resurrecting, Mary conceiving as a virgin) that are manifestly subject to scientific scrutiny. In such cases, science is not only incompatible with evolution but is on the winning side without a doubt. However, abstract notions about the soul and how it is timeless and simply a manifestation of matter and forces may temptingly sound like science, but they are more philosophy/poetry and science cannot claim to really say anything about them. And that’s what the NCSE can say.

    And also note that neither is Coyne in favor of promoting atheism or saying that acceptance of evolution will lead to atheism. Finally, I would really recommend reading Coyne’s excellent recent book on evolution, ‘Why Evolution is True”. He is quite a reasonable man who respects people’s personal beliefs but who also thinks a spade should be called a spade wherever it appears.

  10. SLC

    I don’t want to play lawyer here but I have seen a number of legal commentaries which seem to imply that equating the theory of evolution with atheism might lead to a court decision that the theory had religious implications and therefore teaching it in public schools would violate the establishment clause.

  11. Brian M

    I’m with Chris on this one, emphatically. I am a religious person. And yet there is and was never any doubt in my mind of the reality of evolution. I am a staunch defender with my more fundamentalist brethren. And, yes, inevitably the first question to come up is a religious one. And the only way to get fundamentalists to “see the light” is to show that the two are not mutually exclusive. I am frequently surprised at the dogmatic anti-religious fervor coming from the evolutionary crowd. Darwin was religious. Religion stems from a personal sense of faith. It does not conflict with understanding natural science. God, after all, is by nature supernatural. I’m not trying to make you believe in God — why insult me if I do? In short, if we are going to stop seeing ignorant school board members forcing intelligent design into the classroom then we must show those individuals that they can keep their faith and still recognize the reality of evolution.

  12. Darwin was not religious. He called himself an agnostic, which was equivalent to an atheist in the Victorian age when evidence for human evolution and other evidence from biochemistry and genetics was non-existent. Darwin was drawn away from religion by the death of his beloved daughter and by the supposed statement that his father, who was a non-believer and who he knew to be a kind and generous doctor, would go to hell simply for not believing in God.

    Also, good for you that you are religious and still believe in evolution. But then let me ask if you reject those parts of the Bible that suggest that God created the entire world in its entirety without organisms evolving from one another, either in 6000 years or billions of years. If you do, then it’s fine. However I don’t think you are in a majority among your religious kin. If you are please let me know. Also, you say that God by nature is supernatural. But if that’s the case, then at the very least it puts Him or Her beyond questioning and criticism, something that opens the way towards dogma and conveniently protects religious belief. It is equivalent to a magician saying that his methods should not be questioned because they are by nature beyond natural investigation. Would the public trust such a magician’s demand or even a tacit understanding that he be placed beyond questioning and be taken at his word? In the absence of a naturalistic explanation, one must believe in God to the same extent that one believes in goblins, fairies and spirits. and folk tale angels and demons

    Finally, most people, both scientists and non scientists, are skeptical about evolution because they have not read enough about it. That’s the stark truth. Evolution will dazzle anyone when he or she first encounters it, and its power and beauty are so all-encompassing and profound, that one is hard-pressed to believe in the absence of evidence indicating otherwise that it is not magical. Looking at the diversity of life is like listening to Mozart’s 20th piano concerto for me; it is hard to comprehend that such a state of affairs was produced through rational processes. Yet both Mozart and natural selection are ultimately products of the blind laws of physics and chemistry, and we are honored to be around to witness both. But just like learning to read music helps us comprehend Mozart, reading good literature on evolution helps comprehend it, should be the number one priority in schools. Nobody will argue against this.

  13. Brian M

    I stand corrected on Darwin. As to whether I reject those parts of the Bible regarding the creation story, etc. Like many parts of the Bible it is allegorical. I am not in the minority of my religious kin. You are judging all religious based on a relatively small very vocal minority. Fundamentalist Christians, to be precise. Catholics, every one that I’ve met at any rate, overwhelmingly believe in evolution. We see it as the mechanism for God’s creation. The Pope has issued statements to that effect and has stated that intelligent design does not belong in the class room. The creation story is part of the OLD testament. Show me a Jew who believes the world is 6000 years old. You won’t find one. I think you’re being excessively dogmatic about the supernatural aspect of God, although you are correct that He’s beyond questioning. So what? If I believe in God, naturally I am not going to question Him. That doesn’t alter my ability to question the natural world. I don’t see the conflict here. Of course it protects religious belief. Again, so what? Religious belief should be separate from an inquiring spirit about the natural world. One reflects the other, but doesn’t explain it. I won’t try to explain what we gain from God, clearly in your case that’s nothing. What we gain from science is fairly obvious. If, and trust me, the majority of believers don’t have a problem reconciling religion and science, why should you insist on being so dogmatic about it?

  14. mk

    So… all the great scientific institutions should now be giving the appropriate nod to religious institutions (on their websites? in their publications?) because religious institutions continue to dog science with questions of religion?

    Talk about absurd, Chris.

  15. mk

    Chris said: “Obviously the NAS and the NCSE have to have a stance on it.”

    They do Chris… they do. Here it is:

    What is NCSE’s religious position?

    None. The National Center for Science Education is not affiliated with any religious organization or belief. We and our members enthusiastically support the right of every individual to hold, practice, and advocate their beliefs, religious or non-religious. Our members range from devout practitioners of several religions to atheists, with many shades of belief in between. What unites them is a conviction that science and the scientific method, and not any particular religious belief, should determine science curriculum.

    Sounds reasonable to me. But why do they (and you) feel the need to go further and kiss the ass of religionists by creating the “Faith Project”? Because some priest might say he was offended? Some religious fanatic might try to convince his school board to stop teaching evolution? Do you really think neutrality–true neutrality–on the part of scientific orgs actually eggs these people on? Do you really think this “Faith Project” is going to stop these things from happening? Naive indeed.

  16. If you stand corrected on Darwin, I would like to know which biography of Darwin you consulted. As for such opinions constituting a minority, I don’t think that Evangelical Christians who are more than 25% of the population are exactly a minority. About Catholics, I would like to know why, if they believe in evolution, they also do not reject the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ. Please don’t think I am trying to be facetious; I am genuinely trying to understand the psychology of a mechanism of thinking that accepts one natural explanation and also simultaneously accepts other supernatural explanations. Also, if you see natural selection as a mechanism for God’s creation, how did he set it up? Now if I understand you correctly, here you would say that because the mechanism is supernatural it is beyond questioning using the elements of reason and natural philosophy. But then what’s stopping religion from essentially saying that “Anything that we say about God is beyond questioning because it is by definition supernatural”? Note that we are connecting a supernatural explanation to a natural process and at the very least we then have to define some kind of line where the natural turns into the supernatural. In addition, the statement that God is supernatural and beyond natural investigation may be harmless by itself, but it has often been used as a pretext for asking everyone to handle religion with kid gloves and to make it exempt from the kind of criticism that no other faculty of human opinion, from political to musical, is spared from. But let’s say God is indeed a supernatural being whose workings we will never comprehend; how is the Christian god then any different from the Muslim god or the Hindu god or the poor African or Greek pagan gods who have now been cast into antiquity? Aren’t all their acts supernatural and therefore beyond questioning? If so, what gives one the ring of ‘truth’ and the others the stigma of myth? I don’t think I am being dogmatic and I am certainly not saying that people who believe in evolution should not be religious. People are free to believe whatever they wish, but the way I see it, such beliefs raise many questions. In any case, I think we should quell the argument at this point. If I am not wrong we have argued a bit on this forum before and as I did then, I respect your honesty and willingness for respectful debate, qualities sadly lacking in many others. I think we can at least stand next to each other in full majesty in opposing the teaching of creationism/ID in science classes. The original argument was really about the NCSE and NAS holding forth on compatibility of science and religion, and while such compatibility is empirically observable, in my opinion the NCSE sets itself on slippery ground by making it their official policy announcement, while also ignoring the opinions of scores of scientists and intellectuals. In order to stand on neutral territory, I personally think that they should stick to presenting the massive evidence for evolution and the lack of evidence for creationism/ID. This should be not just a sound but a political clever stratagem.

  17. About Catholics, I would like to know why, if they believe in evolution, they also do not reject the virgin birth or resurrection of Christ.

    Because Catholics believe that miracles (God’s direct intervention) can occur and that he is not limited by his own creation (which would include the scientific laws which tie all of that creation together).

  18. Sure, but again, saying something is supernatural or miraculous does not actually explain anything but in fact puts it beyond questioning. Anything goes then.

  19. Gerrit

    Chris,

    I was surprised when I read this and don’t like how Jerry Coyne is portrayed. You almost make it seem like he wants to lead some kind of atheist fight against religion, I’m sure that’s not the case.
    I just read “Why evolution is true” and I will gladly recommend it to anyone trying to understand evolution. In my view, that’s pretty much all he wants to do; get people to understand evolution.

    I also agree with him that institutions like the NAS, NCSE, and AAAS should stick to science. I get that the subject of religion will often come up in this regard, but that doesn’t mean they should take a stance on it. It means they should point out they’re dealing with facts and not beliefs. They shouldn’t have to defend themselves against claims made by scripture, which has nothing to do with science.

    I will also gladly show Brian M many Jews who believe the world is about 6000 years old. I’m sure you know many Jews and/or Catholics who don’t, that’s the thing with Jews and Catholics; it’s a cultural thing for a lot of them. Many atheists will still call themselves a Jew or a Catholic. That doesn’t mean however that there also aren’t a lot of them who do believe everything they’ve read in the Bible.

    I think people like Jerry Coyne are on the right track to getting people to better understand science. He’s not saying religion is bad, he’s merely laying out the facts and pointing out where they conflict with certain religious beliefs.

  20. mk

    Gerrit… I second your entire comment.

  21. Chris, thank you for this!

    I stopped reading scienceblogs.com altogether even though my blog used to be there, and even though there were lots of blogs I liked there (including this one), because of the ugly stamp of religion-hating atheists that was all over that site. Eventually, I realizied, it wasn’t worth the raise in my blood pressure to look at what was new over there. The uncompromising atheists are so (ironically) holier-than-thou about their views on religion that they have lots of long rationalizations why their position isn’t bigoted. It drives me nuts.

    It is heartening to see that there are atheists who understand that differening views on religion do not mean that we can’t have common cause in fighting for good science education, and that the latter doesn’t require a specific set of doctrines on religion. And it’s heartening to see those atheists giving voice to their views.

    Just as religious folks like myself need to be out there saying that creationists are wrong, and do not represent all of the religious, it’s nice to see some atheists indicate that the cause of good science education is not demanding that everybody completely abandon religion.

  22. I second the quips about Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True”. It is an excellent book and completely focuses on the massive and beautiful evidence for evolution while simultaneously discussing the implications for religion. Coyne’s main thesis is that the best way to convince people of the grandeur of the evolutionary view of life is to simply present them with the stunning evidence in favor of the process in bite-sized chunks. Nobody who truly understands this evidence can fail to be taken by its elegance and comprehensive totality.

  23. Jon

    Supernatural: Of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe ; especially : of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit…

    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/supernatural

    This is where PZ Myers jumps up and down and says “this is woo!!! this is woo!!!”

    But you can believe that there’s an “order” that isn’t “visible,” “observable,” material. And that won’t need to have anything to do with the fact that you’re a perfectly competent, empirical scientist. Heck, by this definition, Plato and Aristotle (in a lot of ways the original scientists) both believed in the supernatural.

  24. mk

    @Jon…

    Atoms were speculation once long ago. Today we know they exist. They were never supernatural. They didn’t suddenly, overnight, become natural. You are suggesting that something that is unknown is “supernatural.” That is, of course, wrong.

    There is no “super” natural. Only natural.

  25. Jon

    There is no “super” natural. Only natural.

    Who are you to tell me this? Who is the NAS to tell me this?

  26. Fantastic article. Thanks.

  27. Jon

    And Plato thought he knew something about the forms. And actually, the whole point of what he was saying was that you couldn’t see them directly in a physical sense.

    Who are you to tell me what I see is what I get and that’s it?

  28. scb

    I would definitely agree with you here, Chris. Whenever someone brings up creationism vs. evolution, the topic of religion inevitably surfaces. As an atheist who has attended Christian schools for my entire life, I can attest to the fact that science-minded people will get nowhere if we belittle others for simply believing in god(s). Atheists are a minority in the US, and yet evolution is still taught everywhere–even in my (private) religious schools.

  29. mk

    Well, I suppose in the end you are right. I am no one to say these things to you. Yet, I say them anyway. Because they are true.

    But do continue to live and enjoy your fantasy world.

  30. Let me put it differently. Before we call something “supernatural”, let’s first make sure it’s not “natural”. Before we call something as being out of this world, let’s first make sure it’s not in this world.

  31. Folks,
    I haven’t read Coyne’s book, though I’m glad to hear it’s good. But I read a seriously misguided blog post, and commented accordingly.

    Thanks for all the comments.

  32. Jon

    MK– But you have very little idea what I actually think. You’ve just heard a couple things I’ve said. I think Plato is out of date. But Kant and Hegel update him. The fact that you off-the-cuff decide I live in a fantasy world, says a lot. I’ve heard PZ Myers give the same kind of knee jerk reactions. If you actually studied some *philosophy*, you might understand some of the intellectually serious differences people have with you. But so many New Atheists are just not interested in that kind of conversation. You substitute a aggressive sneer for actually finding out what people think. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.

  33. Bob of CA

    I don’t think Jerry Coyne and his ilk would have any problem if the only spiritual types NCSE, etc. were consorting with are deists. The point of the matter is that all but a handful of spiritual practices make testable claims about the universe, and to ally with them is to discard the raison d’etre of these scientific organizations.

  34. Chris, I don’t think your post was misguided but I did think that you cherry picked a little (I am not saying deliberately) and missed out on the part where Coyne said that the NAS and NCSE should focus on science and leave the theology to the theologians. Coyne had specific reasons for saying this which he substantially elaborated upon. It’s fine if you don’t agree with this but since I (and others) took that as one of the main messages, if not the main message of his article and did not see you mention it, I felt a little disappointed.

    I would urge you not to put Jerry Coyne in the same category as Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers. That is why I really recommend his book.

  35. This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 4/28/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  36. mk

    @Chris…

    Coyne and P.Z. Myers (and a few folks in here) want scientific organizations to remain neutral with regards to religion. This is a perfectly reasonable stance. It’s a stance the NCSE even, apparently, agrees with. (as noted above)

    That you find all of it “misguided”, “naive” and “absurd”, suggests to me that you have more of a problem with the men than the idea.

  37. mk

    @Jon…

    You believe in the supernatural. Good for you. Enjoy it.

  38. Jon

    And you enjoy your scientific materialism. But be aware that when you regard all other views with reflexive, undisguised contempt, you don’t do your side any favors.

  39. Any possible ‘compatibility’ between science and faith must ultimately hinge on the focus of faith. If faith rests on a belief that some sort of transcendent, supernatural entity intervenes (whether only occasionally, rather regularly, or continuously) in natural processes to bring abouts ends beneficial to the faithful, then science and faith are indeed fundamentally and forever incompatible. Conversely, if we place our faith in the capacity of (natural) human relgious groups to work in ways that provide material and psychological benefits to group members (ala D.S. Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral), then there is no necessary conflict between science and faith.

    Thus any general statements about the supposed compatibility of science and faith are necessarily vacuous. This is precisely Coyne’s point. The ‘faith’ of a secular humanist is different than the faith of a young earth creationist. By blurring such distictions, NSCE (as well as NAS and AAAS) suggests that science is compatible with any flavor of faith and this is nothing short of absurd. Coyne simply, and I think correctly, recognizes that advocates of science have no need to issue any blanket statements on this issue and that any such statements will be counter-productive.

    Chris is, of course, right in asserting that science cannot disprove a supernaturalist stance (though individual faith claims regarding, for example, a Noahic flood or a geologically young earth can be easily refuted). So, might there be some supernatural first cause of natural processes, existing outside nature? Because we can’t jump over our own shadow, this is a question that science can’t address and one with an answer that is unknowable in principle. Consequently, science must remain agnostic on such issues. Again, this is Coyne’s point.

  40. Lucy

    It should not be the position of science to relate to religion, and considering that the greatest opponent to science and scientific advancement is religion, how is working with these groups, and making serious concessions, helping anything? Coyne is completely right that scientific organizations should not pretend science and religion can find a comfortable middle ground. For a true blend of creationism with evolution, both groups have to give up some prime convictions.

  41. Lucy

    However, I suppose if it is necessary to suck up to the powers that be in order to achieve better science education, then we have no choice but do that, right?

  42. Thank you for some long overdue common sense on this issue!

  43. Chris wrote:

    “Is Coyne not himself making an explicitly philosophical move here, by saying that evolution must be understood in an exclusively naturalistic/materialistic way?”

    Short answer: Yes. Understanding evolution in any other way is to misunderstand evolution. But couldn’t evolution also entail supernaturalistic/immaterialist elements? It could, I suppose, but recall Laplace: “We (as yet) have no need of that hypothesis.”

  44. mk

    @Jon,

    All other views? Heh-heh-heh…

  45. mk

    Oh and as for doing my side favors? I don’t speak in here for any “side.” I speak only for myself. And it is my contention that supernatural belief is childish and unenlightened. No sophistication to it at all. Sometimes (most of the time!) I simply ignore it, other times I get a little playful and the mockery comes out.

  46. Brian M. wrote:

    “In short, if we are going to stop seeing ignorant school board members forcing intelligent design into the classroom then we must show those individuals that they can keep their faith and still recognize the reality of evolution.”

    Sorry Brian, but these folks can’t keep their faith and recognize and the reality of evolution. Their faith and the reality of evolution are indeed fundamentally incompatible. If we “are going to stop seeing ignorant school board members forcing intelligent design into the classroom” we must make sure they don’t get elected in the first place (or that they are un-elected ASAP once their willful ignorance becomes apparent)! We do this by shining the harsh light of scientific evidence on the absurd aspects of their faith. Sorry if that sound harsh but sometimes truth can hurt.

  47. Jon

    And it is my contention that supernatural belief is childish and unenlightened.

    My point is that you guys should get out more, intellectually speaking. You’re like the hayseed who never left his home state. Karl Jaspers, “childish and unenlightened?”

    You don’t have to agree. Just get off the kneejerk pose of “that’s ridiculous.”

  48. John Kwok

    Chris,

    Thanks for your excellent post. I’ve e-mailed this to Jerry Coyne and have also posted it too at Panda’s Thumb:

    Jerry,

    If I didn’t have ample respect for your demonstrated excellence as an evolutionary biologist and as a brilliant critic of creationism, especially Intelligent Design creationism, I would have never written this as the opening paragraphs of my Amazon.com review of “Why Evolution Is True”:

    “’Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. That classic quote from the great Russian-American evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky is replete with far more truth now than when he uttered it in 1973. Thousands of scientists around the globe are using the principles of evolution towards understanding phenomena as simple as bacterial population growth to those as complex as the origin and spread of such virulent diseases as malaria and HIV/AIDS, and the conservation of many endangered plant and animal species. There is no other scientific theory I know of that has withstood such rigorous, and repeated, testing as the modern synthetic theory of evolution. The overwhelming proof of biological evolution is so robust, that entire books have been written describing pertinent evidence from sciences that, at first glance, seem as dissimilar from each other as paleobiology, molecular biology and ecology. But alas this hasn’t convinced many in the court of public opinion, especially here, in the United States, who remain skeptical of evolution as both a scientific fact and a scientific theory, and who are too often persuaded by those who insist that there are such compelling ‘weaknesses’ in evolution, that instead of it, better, still ‘scientific’, alternatives exist, most notably, Intelligent Design creationism. Distinguished evolutionary geneticist Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution Is True” is not just a timely book, but it is quite simply, the best, most succinct, summation I can think of on behalf of evolution’s scientific validity.”

    “No other modern evolutionary biologist has attempted to convey, with such excitement, and enthusiasm, a comprehensive, quite compelling, proof of biological evolution, unless you consider the notable literary careers of Coyne’s graduate school mentors; Ernst Mayr and Stephen Jay Gould. Coyne’s achievement is especially noteworthy for covering virtually every major evolutionary aspect of biology in a treatment that barely exceeds two hundred and thirty pages. In essence, ‘Why Evolution is True’ can be viewed as an updated, modern rendition of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, but encompassing those biological sciences, such as population genetics, molecular systematics, evolutionary developmental biology – better known as ‘evo – devo’ – and, indeed, even paleobiology, which were unknown to Darwin; to put it bluntly, this is ‘one long argument’ on behalf of evolutionary biology, told via Coyne’s respectable, occasionally lyrical, prose and compelling logic.”

    However, I am greatly perplexed, and distressed, by your recent criticism of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). I feel this way especially since you yourself have noted NCSE’s key role in “manning the barricades” against irrational foes like the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, Institute for Creation Research and Answers in Genesis. So since you do recognize this, then how can you reconcile your support for NCSE’s sterling work on behalf of both the scientific community and scientifically literate public with your assertion that NCSE should refrain from seeking some kind of compatibility with religion? When there are many mainstream religious organizations, and others, such as the Templeton Foundation, which not only seek such compatibility, but, more importantly, recognize that evolution is valid science. When these very organizations recognize that it is quite risible to claim that “belief in evolution EQUALS denial of GOD”. What you are advocating is not merely bad philosophy, but also one that merely confirms all the worst instincts of Evolution Denialists. To put it most succinctly, you are merely allowing yourself to fall into the philosophical trap that creationists have set for scientists and others who accept valid mainstream science like evolutionary biology, by giving them yet another example that only those who reject religion can accept evolution.

    Neither the NCSE nor other major scientific organizations like the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are overreaching by insisting that there can be some kind of compatibility between science and religion. This is an opinion recognized by major religious leaders like Buddhism’s Dalai Lama, and by organizations that promote this compatibility, such as, for example, the Templeton Foundation. It is a view that is reflected in academia through institutes like Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion. For these very reasons, it is quite reasonable for NCSE and NAS to issue statements supporting compatibility between science and religion.

    Neither you nor PZ Myers, or any of your fellow militant atheists, have had the decades-long experience that Eugenie Scott and her NCSE colleagues have had in countless successful efforts at science advocacy both within the courts and legislatures of the United States. One of the reasons why NCSE has succeeded is by adopting the very philosophy which is the unofficial “official” policy of the American Museum of Natural History; by reminding its visitors that it is not in the business of changing their religious views, but instead, it is interested only in teaching them the principles and facts of valid mainstream science like evolutionary biology. One of the reasons why NCSE may be succeeding is by refusing to attack religious faith, and by seeking instead, some kind of accommodation with those religious faiths that recognize evolutionary biology as sound mainstream science.

    I agree with you and Myers that it is a worthwhile goal to have a society in which rational beliefs have a preeminent role in forming public opinion. However, it is a goal that will remain elusive as long as militant atheists like PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins insist on mocking and humiliating those who are religiously devout. Instead of offering persuasive evidence on behalf of atheism and evolutionary biology, Richard Dawkins’s writings, lectures and television appearances, may have contributed substantially to strong negative opinion in Great Britain towards Darwin’s life and work and the acceptance of evolutionary biology as sound mainstream science. Depending upon which poll you believe, nearly forty percent of Dawkins’s fellow Britons now reject evolution as valid science. Are you certain that you wish to continue writing criticism that may prove to be as counterproductive as Dawkins’s writings and Myers’s outrageous acts – like the infamous “cracker incident” – have been?

    Sincerely yours,

    John Kwok

  49. David Bruggeman

    What happens when shining the harsh light of scientific evidence of faith fails to get these board members recalled?

    Evolution may be incompatible with fundamentalist or literal interpretations of religious texts. But it is not factually correct to equate religious faith with such interpretations of religious texts. By that standard, several fine Jesuit institutions would get tossed out as well. Talk about throwing out the baby with the bathwater…

  50. Jon wrote to MK:

    “But so many New Atheists are just not interested in that kind of conversation. You substitute an aggressive sneer for actually finding out what people think. Not a good way to win friends and influence people.”

    Look at science historically and you will see that it has seldom, if ever, been a good way to win friends and influence people (in the short term). Science is about understanding the way nature works. New understanding oftens challenges cherished beliefs and thus makes believers uncomfortable. Consider the responses of Darwin’s contemporaries.

    In the long run, we come to a better understanding of nature by discarding old beliefs (ie., flat earth, geocentrism, special creation, typological species, virgin birth, manifest destiny, etc.) and adopting a more well-grounded naturalistic understanding. Over time, supernaturalism gives way to naturalism. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” In 2009, that day is much closer…

    When willfully ignorant folks continue to cling to and espouse supernatural claims that are demonstrably false, an “aggressive sneer” might well be the most appropriate response (think T.H. Huxley).

  51. mk

    @Jon…

    Jaspers? Existentialism? Heh. Complete bullshit.

  52. I think we can all agree that before we declare something as “supernatural”, we need to make sure it’s not natural. Simply accepting that there are some things that are supernatural betrays skepticism and is not in the spirit of science.

    Do I think there are things that science cannot yet explain? Of course. Do I think these things are “supernatural”, that is, not subject to natural laws? The correct answer would be “Perhaps” but the sensible answer is “Perhaps, but the history of science tells me that it is much more likely that we will find natural explanations for these supposedly supernatural phenomena”.

  53. Jon

    Over time, supernaturalism gives way to naturalism.

    That’s one belief that a lot of scientists share. But do you *have* to have that view to be a scientist? Especially when there’s so much contention about it.

    Some humanists explicitly push back against it. Here’s one example. The impulse to just shut that kind of thing down doesn’t seem like a generous, democratic impulse to me. It strikes me as illiberal.

  54. Jon

    Complete bullshit.

    Completely typical.

  55. mk

    Excellent!

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/04/weekend_update.php

    “Unfortunately, Chris Mooney gets it all completely wrong, accusing Coyne of claiming that the national organizations are “too moderate on the extremely divisive subject of religion”, when what he and I are actually saying is the exact opposite —”

  56. Jon

    Unless it’s immediately empirical and naturalist from the beginning, there’s no patience.

    That’s fine, but what you want to do is dictate that for everyone.

  57. mk

    “The impulse to just shut that kind of thing down doesn’t seem like a generous, democratic impulse to me. It strikes me as illiberal.”

    Shut what down? Who said anything about shutting down anything? Are you even paying attention? And what Dann said was not a “belief.” It is demonstrable. Unlike the things in your fantasy world of the “supernatural.”

  58. mk

    “Unless it’s immediately empirical and naturalist from the beginning, there’s no patience.

    Wrong again.

    That’s what science is… patience! Taking time to figure things out. Taking more time to adjust ones thinking if necessary to make sure. It is the supernaturalists who are forever making that quick, unthinking “leap of faith”. No patience.

  59. Jon

    I think we’re back to playing around with the Online Screechy Monkeys, courtesy of PZ Myers, Lord of the Flies.

    mk, I’ll see your +1 World of Warcraft longsword, and raise you a Cloak of Invulnerability.

  60. An agnostic’s question for Jon on matters supernatural:

    What would the practice of science gain by assuming, a priori, that supernatural causes or agents exist and have effects in the natural world?

  61. Jon

    I think as Chris said, a scientist’s belief in God wouldn’t need to have an impact on how he views the laws of nature.

  62. What rational reason do we have for believing that things that are currently considered supernatural don’t have a higher probability of being explained at some point by natural laws?

  63. Jon:

    If a supernatural agent does not imfluence natural processes, what does it do? On the other hand, if such an agent does intervene in nature, it would necessarily influence how a scientist views the so-called laws of nature. You really can’t have it both ways. In the first case, the supernatura; agent is so impotent as to be completely irrelevant to science. In the second case, science it a waste of time since since any observed regularities of nature can apparently be suspended whenever “God” wills it so.”

    It seems to mean we gain nothing by positing a god or gods and we lose the possibility of reaching common human understanding (since different certainties worth killing and dieing for can be attributed to different beliefs about the nature of the unknowable and, quite possibly imaginary, supernatural agent.”

  64. James F

    Chris,

    Just to address your opening question, while there isn’t quite a group that fits that description, note that the scientific consultants of the Clergy Letter Project range from atheists to evangelicals, and that the CLP and the Center for Inquiry teamed up to launch the Teach Them Science web site.

  65. mk

    @Jon…

    mk, I’ll see your +1 World of Warcraft longsword, and raise you a Cloak of Invulnerability.

    I’m sure that’s terribly clever in your world, but I have no idea what it references. Nice try though.

  66. mk

    Dammit HTML! That was supposed to look like this:

    @Jon…

    mk, I’ll see your +1 World of Warcraft longsword, and raise you a Cloak of Invulnerability.

    I’m sure that’s terribly clever in your world, but I have no idea what it references. Nice try though.

  67. In response to my suggestion that:

    Over time, supernaturalism gives way to naturalism.

    Jon wrote:

    That’s one belief that a lot of scientists share. But do you *have* to have that view to be a scientist?

    I would answer, emphatically, yes! Science pushes against superstition and ignorance by pursuing naturalistic understanding of phenomena. The fact that some humanists push back tells of more about human psychology than the nature of science.

  68. Look, science provides what is our best understanding of nature at the current moment. An application of Occham’s Razor tells us that the greatest likelihood is for natural causes to ultimately underlie what we think of as supernatural phenomena. The history of science resoundingly announces this fact with a bang; things that were always thought of as supernatural now have a sound naturalistic basis. If you are a scientist and you don’t believe this, you cannot have a good reason for believing so.

  69. Jon

    If it were possible for you guys to play any more into my stereotypes, I don’t know how you’d do it.

  70. mk

    If it were possible for you to more succinctly show your gutlessness, I don’t know how you’d do it.

  71. Jon wrote:

    If it were possible for you guys to play any more into my stereotypes, I don’t know how you’d do it

    Meaning what exactly? Reads like an attempt at a rhetorical cop out to me. Please address the issues you raised. I’ll make it easy for you.

    What might we gain scientifically by assuming a supernatural agent? [__________________________________________________________________].

    T F History shows that supernaturalism gives way to naturalism.

  72. Jon

    I’m sorry, mk, you’ve bested me with your Superior Online Atheist Kung Fu.

  73. mk

    @Dann…

    Exactly right. Cop out. A cowardly one at that.

  74. Jon

    T F History shows that supernaturalism gives way to naturalism.

    Yeah, and don’t you forget it! Bow Wow Wow woof woof!!!

    There, I showed them. Mess with the online atheist keyboard warriors…

  75. Jon:

    Regretabbly, your behavior here is what gives rise to any “aggresive sneers” you choose to perceive. You offer nothing but (empty) critique. Again, the question I posed to you earlier: What (if anything) might we gain scientifically by assuming a supernatural agent? [extended silence...hmmmm?]

    BTW, I am a reverent agnostic, not hostile to religion per se but growing increasingly weary of willful ignorance masquerading as some sort of noble cultural pluralism.

  76. Jon, what do you mean by stereotypes? Are you implying that a scientist who would always look for natural causes for every phenomenon is stereotypical? Then I guess most if not all of history’s great scientists were stereotypes in your view.

  77. Jon

    My apologies. I guess I myself get impatient because it feels like these discussions don’t happen in good faith, with things getting a good hearing. It seems more a game.

    And what I’ve said isn’t an empty critique. Science doesn’t prescribe one particular worldview. You don’t have to be a scientific materialist or atheist to be a scientist.

    We don’t get anything scientifically by assuming some sort of supernatural agent, if you’re talking about scientific research, discoveries, etc. But if you’re talking about education or politics, though, having a diverse set of views does send a message that lots of different people, and not exclusively atheists, are in the sciences. That can be a message of goodwill, and it isn’t a bad thing, unless I suppose you’re a prosylatizing atheist, and your priorities are different.

    People act like these are ludicrously simple and obvious matters. They’re not.

  78. Jon

    Are you implying that a scientist who would always look for natural causes for every phenomenon is stereotypical?

    When I linked to Plato’s Cave parable, above, I was saying that not every matter that human beings are concerned about have to do with explanations and manipulations of the material world. Maybe, just maybe, there is a different way to look at things that have to do with what can’t be reduced to scientific explanations or manipulated physically. The German philosophical tradition tends to emphasize this a lot more than Anglophone philosophy, separating the study of Geist (mind or spirit) and nature into different categories.

    I post something like this on a science blog, and everyone flips out. It happens every time.

  79. Jon

    What you can get with this kind idealist philosophy is the work of someone like Kieth Ward or Charles Taylor.

    Again, I’m not saying you have to agree with them. They just aren’t the kind of Screaming Code Red Threat to the scientific rational order that you guys make them out to be.

  80. mk

    Jon,

    The only person who “flipped out” in here was…. you. Seriously, go re-read all the relevant posts. Every question asked of you in here was in good faith and with genuine curiosity about your answers. And you respond with “stereotypes,” “schreechy monkeys” etc.

  81. Jon

    The only person who “flipped out” in here was…. you

    This is from the person who wrote:

    If it were possible for you to more succinctly show your gutlessness

    Please. This is stereotypical PZ Myers commenter behavior. All the nuance is lost, all the distinguishing of the fine points is lost, any semblance of granting any merits to the other persons position is lost. It’s just online entertainment, not real discussion.

  82. MadScientist

    I wouldn’t join a group with such a name because it sounds like “Atheists in support of creationism”. Besides, I think the sort of groups you’re thinking about already exist – for example, the NCSE. I don’t think Jerry’s asking for much; he’s just saying that organizations like the NCSE don’t need to pander to the religious and say “evolution can coexist with your weird fantasies”, rather they should just say “evolution is real”. I just don’t see why people are getting all upset over what Jerry is saying.

  83. jake

    This could not be simpler.

    If you believe in the supernatural (because of your religion or otherwise), then your beliefs conflict with science. They conflict with science in the same way that fairies in the garden conflict with science.

    If Joe Blow believes in the truth of scientific discoveries and the divinity of, say, Jesus, then his beliefs still conflict with science. It does not matter if he does not see the conflict, just as it does not matter if he does not believe that 1+1=2; the conflict is real.

    Even if you claim to believe that a deity created the laws of physics, the big bang, and then walked away, you are still asking a scientific question. And since you do not have any evidence to back up your claims, and nothing even remotely similar to what you are proposing has ever been scientifically documented, the scientific answer would be something along the lines of “baseless – not likely the way it happened.” And if you still believe that you are correct, then your belief is in conflict with science.

  84. Jim S.

    Looks like Chris got served!

    PZ proves that Chris has not been reading very carefully. I thought PZ and Coyne were quite explicit in their posts: they are not advocating atheism promotion in scientific societies. They are keeping scientific societies honest by telling them to shut the F up about religion and stop advocating NOMA (which honestly is not a defensible philosophical position).

    I completely agree with the Dawkins, Harris, Coyne approach of jettisoning NOMA and keeping the AAAS, the National Academy of Sciences, NCSE, NSF, or any other organization honest with regards to a position on religion. Personally, I’m willing to take the fight to the religious and put them on the defensive for a while. The religious zealots must defend why secularism is bad, why atheists are immoral, why fantasy thinking is useful or better yet, true.

    I’ve seen Mooney speak (not just on YouTube) and while his heart is in the right place, he appears to be another religious apologist who wants to keep his enemies closer so as to achieve a majority to get things done. Tactically it makes sense but it debases science. Chris is embracing religious moderates to oppose religious fundamentalists. Is this an attempt to divide and conquer? I don’t think it will work. Politics is one thing; relationships with imaginary friends is another.

  85. Jon

    Jake seems to be saying anyone who thinks there’s more to reality than the shadows in Plato’s cave must be in conflict with science. The material is it.

    But that’s a metaphysical assumption. Isn’t science supposed to be about not introducing metaphysical assumptions into physical science? That’s how Newton went about things. And he basically invented modern science. You can have different metaphysical assumptions and still not have that affect your physical science.

    Simply stating that “this could not be simpler” doesn’t make it so.

    If answers to all our questions were so “simple,” threads like this one, for instance, wouldn’t be so long.

    I suppose discourse participants could say “that’s Complete Bullshit,” call each other “gutless,” WRITE IN ALL CAPS, etc., but that wouldn’t seem to improve matters much.

  86. mk

    I suppose discourse participants could say “that’s Complete Bullshit,” call each other “gutless,” WRITE IN ALL CAPS, etc., but that wouldn’t seem to improve matters much.

    No, you’re correct, it’s much better to call people “stereotypical” or “Online Screechy Monkeys” or simply ignore their questions.

  87. Metaphysical assumptions? Shadows? Cave walls? It seems that in fact, there are there are no shadows, no cave walls, no eidos to project. Plato’s metaphysics have proven to be fundamentally misguided. Consequently, science abandoned such drivel long ago. Rich and exceedingly complex though it is proving to be, apparently the material is it. (Score one for Jake.) We simply don’t need to posit immaterial entities to do science. Science, virtually by definition, studies physical phenomena in the material realm. No metaphysics is required until one posits immaterial essenses or some such imaginings. Can you suggest even a single case in science where has been fruitful to posit immaterial entities?

  88. Jon

    Point taken. But I would argue that way certain people seem to behave around this issue is part of the story.

    For instance, before you typed that, did you read anything I linked to? Or did you just react? No shortage of that…

  89. Jon

    I was responding to mk, by the way. I think I’m done with this thread.

  90. mk

    @Jon…

    When Dann and Ashutosh were, in good faith and all seriousness, asking you probing, intelligent questions above and you responded by saying, “If it were possible for you guys to play any more into my stereotypes, I don’t know how you’d do it.”

    Did you think first? Or did you just react?

  91. Jon

    No, I didn’t say anything thoughtful in this thread. I didn’t address any of their points. I didn’t link to anything that responded to what anyone said. And I’m sure, judging from what you just said, that you, thoughtfully, read all all of it. As they say on the intertubes, L.O.L.

  92. mk

    Reacting again are you? Well done.

  93. Jon, in case you are still there and interested, I did follow the links you provided and must say I didn’t find anything there with any significant merit. Charles Taylor the the most important philosopher writing in English today? In whose mind? By what criterion? In any case, appealing to the supposed authority of some lame apologist for outworn ideologies doesn’t do much to strengthen your case nor does it address the question I have raised repeatedly in one form or another:

    “Can you suggest even a single case in science where has been fruitful to posit immaterial entities?” No? I didn’t think so…

    And yes, some “religious” scientists do produce interesting results in spite of the handicaps imposed by their faith in supernatural phenomena. That hardly makes their metaphysics valid.

  94. Jon

    “Can you suggest even a single case in science where has been fruitful to posit immaterial entities?” No? I didn’t think so…

    Never said there was.

  95. Then why take the position that you do? Faith in supernatural entities is superfluous at best and more likely gets in the way of sound science.

    Perhaps I missed your point?

  96. Jon

    As I said in that comment, it’s a *people* issue, not directly a science issue. People are different, with different backgrounds, traditions, commitments they’ve made in life, etc. If non-scientists see a kind of clerisy that they can’t relate to, then there’s a gulf. And the perception that there’s a gulf has been part of the problem–with evolution, for instance. Just because you work in the sciences, doesn’t mean you’re a materialist atheist. If people see that, then that’s good for education, politics, etc. No one has to subscribe to beliefs they don’t want, but there’s no reason not to show the fact that you’re a diverse group, that you can differ philosophically and still be treated collegially and professionally, etc.

  97. Mike

    Jon,

    You say.. “No one has to subscribe to beliefs they don’t want.” and “you can differ philosophically and still be treated collegially and professionally” … but is there any difference between beliefs they don’t want and philosophy? Philosophy in your sense includes some sense of theistic context if I read you right … otherwise “materialist atheist” would just have well meant materialist with all that that entails philosophically. Maybe you should just hold that immaterialists have all these different backgrounds, traditions, etc. and there is no gulf between scientists other than perception? Do you have concerns about *any* immaterialist views? If not, why would the “theistic” qualification change that? I may be slow, but once the immaterial enters the scientific conversation as I think you intend it, aren’t all bets off?

  98. ss

    Chris, the empirical fact is that very few scientists see no conflict between science and religion. This does not mean that there is no contradiction between the two. You probably know that humans are capable of housing contradictory views, sometimes even more than two. If you really wanted to see the contradiction you would have to consider the methods of science which tells us about the natural world and then examine religion, which also makes claims about the natural world contradictory to those of science.

  99. mk

    Are we missing some comments in here?

  100. The simple point is that we need to call a spade a spade. Newton’s contributions to science will be unprecedented. Yet we should call his metaphysical ramblings for what they are, nonsense. Francis Collins’s contributions to science and the HGP are tremendous. Yet we should call his stance about religion kooky. Ken Miller’s book “Finding Darwin’s God” is probably the best refutation of ID and creationism that I have read. Yet one can only call his rather strange enunciations about religious faith confusing. One of the things science teaches you is to label things for what they are. One cannot help it if people constantly get offended.

    As for diversity, we can certainly respect diversity in views. But that does not mean we let all views influence public and education policy equally. There has to be some yardstick by which we have to gauge the contribution of every viewpoint or paradigm to progress. One can hardly doubt that teaching skepticism, questioning and the search for rational and natural explanations- which just turn out to be hallmarks of science- are important and necessary for human progress and mutual respect.

  101. Matti K.

    Chris:

    “There’s a far bigger point here: In my view, we’re not nearly so secure in our defense of evolution in this country that we can indulge in the luxury of alienating the vast number of evolution defenders who hold something like the above belief.”

    Do you really think that these religious “evolution defenders” would get alienated from science if societies advancing science would be strictly agnostic? Will they turn to creationists, if these societies do not continuously reassure them that religion and science are compatible?

  102. Leigh Jackson

    Individual scientists have the right to express their personal thoughts on the philosophical and/or religious implications of science. Scientific institutions of the stature of the AAAS and NAS disgrace themselves by doing so.

    These two statements by the NAS go beyond science advocacy:

    “Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith.”

    “Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”

    http://nationalacademies.org/evolution/Compatibility.html

    The fact that some religious people accept the evidence for evolution does not make the first statement any more an empirical proposition than the second. They are both philosophical positions.

    The NCSE does not have the institutional stature of the AAAS and NAS but it is a pity that they lack Darwin’s confidence in the ability of his science to speak for itself:

    ” I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.”

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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