On Science and Religion, It's Hard to Walk a Middle Road

By Chris Mooney | May 18, 2010 12:47 pm

It is no secret that our book, Unscientific America, which will soon release in paperback, displeased many New Atheists. They didn’t much like the argument that science and religion can work together, rather than always being at odds; that constant warfare between the two isn’t necessary, and can be destructive.

But don’t forget that there is another side in this debate that is also devoted to incompatibility, rather than reconciliation–the anti-science “intelligent design” types. Here is none other than Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute criticizing those like myself, or Michael Ruse, who are atheists but also take a compatibilist stance:

So it turns out that atheists like Ruse and Mooney promote compatibility between God and evolution out of constitutional concerns. They fear that if atheism and evolution become too closely linked, this could make the teaching of evolution unconstitutional. Thus, they feel they’d better fix the problem by going around preaching that God and evolution are compatible.

Now they might genuinely believe it’s possible to reconcile God and evolution, but then again, don’t forget we’re talking about ardent evolutionists and atheists who personally reject belief in God and expressly admit legally / politically oriented motives for pushing the compatibilist perspective. Isn’t that at least a little suspicious?

In any case, this could explain the curious crusade of atheists who go around preaching on the compatibility of God and evolution.

The website where this appears, by the way, is bibleprophecyupdate.com. Wow.

Luskin is wrong about my motives and beliefs…for instance, the main thing that has made me more aware of the possibility of science-religion compatibility is probably getting to know people who exhibit such compatibilism in their own lives and seem to do very well with it. Such folks seem to me to be eminent allies in the defense of science and reason.

As for my views being motivated by constitutional concerns–well, yeah, I’m definitely concerned that  incorrect arguments about science and religion, such as those propounded by the Discovery Institute, might lead to strikes against the teaching of evolution.

But anyways. This just goes to show you that it isn’t always easy taking the middle ground.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science and Religion

Comments (36)

  1. GM

    They didn’t much like the argument that science and religion can work together, rather than always being at odds; that constant warfare between the two isn’t necessary, and can be destructive.

    It is not about whether religion and evolution can “work together”, it is about what the consequences of such action would be. And it is also about whether there should even be such a thing as religion.

    They fear that if atheism and evolution become too closely linked, this could make the teaching of evolution unconstitutional.

    For my limited knowledge of the constitution, a very good case can be made that it is indeed unconstitutional to teach evolution. They have it right here. But so what? What this would mean is that the a revision of the constitution is needed

  2. Gus

    So is it also unconstitutional to teach newtonian mechanics, chemistry, mathematics, and history? Athesists also identify with these topics, as presented in public schools. Is all science out because atheists identify with it?

    Is government regulation/licensing of marriage unconstitutional because religious groups (such as christians) identify with it?

    What does a certain religious group’s acceptance of a body of knowledge have to do with the religious nature of that body of knowledge?

  3. Cassandra

    “And it is also about whether there should even be such a thing as religion.”

    Statements like this provide evidence that atheism is only a prejudice, and nothing more.

  4. GM

    Statements like this provide evidence that atheism is only a prejudice, and nothing more.

    A prejudice is to think that just because something is so culturally significant as religion is, such statements about it should not be made and the issue should not be discussed. I can give you a very well supported by evidence and logic argument for why we should aim for complete eradication of religion and I can do that because I have not always been of that opinion, but I have adopted it through going through the aforementioned exercise of applying logic to evidence and have found that it is the inescapable conclusion

  5. Jon

    Statements like this provide evidence that atheism is only a prejudice, and nothing more.

    I think GM is spoofing the atheist position. He looks to be playing agent provocateur, posting extreme views to see if anyone agrees.

    BTW, I’m reading an interesting book that makes the argument that I’ve seen kicked around at The New Republic, that the New Atheists are not in the liberal tradition, but are decidedly illiberal. There are quite a few pages available on Google Books:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=U6UVgs6m0V0C&lpg=PP1&pg=PA42#v=snippet&q=dawkins&f=false

  6. GM

    I think GM is spoofing the atheist position. He looks to be playing agent provocateur, posting extreme views to see if anyone agrees.

    Can you explain to me the connection between whether a certain view is considered extreme by you and whether it is correct or not?

  7. Woody Tanaka

    “For my limited knowledge of the constitution, a very good case can be made that it is indeed unconstitutional to teach evolution. They have it right here.”

    Oh? On what grounds? Teaching evolution has a clearly defined secular purpose — to teach science; does not have the primary purpose of promoting or hindering religion — its primary purpose is to teach science; and does not present any government entanglement with relgiion — as it is a wholly secular subject of science.

    The fact that some people’s religious views compels them to reject that science is irrevant as far as the constitution is concerned, because nothing in the law in this area prevents the teaching of secular subjects that some people reject on religious grounds. (The key is to remember to focus on the “what” that is being promoted by the gov’t, and not the “why” it is being opposed.)

  8. GM

    1. If you understand the theory of evolution there is almost no chance that you will remain religious. The few notable exceptions are either cases of extraordinary compartmentalization, adopting a version of the religion that is quite different from what everyone has historically followed, or simply cases of not understanding evolution

    2. From a purely strategic perspective, the best thing that can happen to scientific education if for the teaching of evolution to be declared uncostitutional

  9. J.J.E.

    I don’t particularly expect a response from Chris (judging by his commenting history, he prefers to engage only when there is no controversy, or when there is, to only respond to those that agree with him), but let me pose this anyway. Maybe he’ll surprise me…

    > They didn’t much like the argument that science and religion can work together, rather than always being at odds; that constant warfare between the two isn’t necessary, and can be destructive

    I object to this characterization. I would rephrase it this way:

    New atheists don’t like the argument that science and religion are NOT in conflict. They don’t even like arguments that science and religion are in conflict, but not in important ways. They believe that science and religion ARE often in conflict at this very moment and those conflicts are on public display, as Dover and McLeroy (among many many others) demonstrate. And the conflicts are important to society. Despite this, new atheists DON’T argue that individuals can’t trust science and religion simultaneously. New atheists go to great lengths to anticipate and head off this inevitable red herring. They explicitly, vociferously, and repetitively acknowledge that religious people and scientists are often the same people, and that religious scientists can do good science and that religious laymen can understand and accept science.

    Finally, Chris, your juxtaposition of new atheists and DI people suggests that you think them comparable. In addition to appearing to be an argumentum ad temperantiam, this also appears to be taunt to your opponents. Do you really think that new atheists are trying to undermine science like the ID people? Do you really think that they are willfully lying, playing political games with school boards, or are deliberately mis-characterizing scientific consensus like the ID people? Do you really think that they don’t have the same goal as you do, namely of increasing scientific literacy? Surely there are numerous disagreements, but your comments here don’t exhibit any desire to engage. Instead you appear to be be equating in some way ID people and new atheists. That’s wrong.

  10. Anthony McCarthy

    If you understand the theory of evolution there is almost no chance that you will remain religious. GM

    The largest part of the people who accept evolution as a fact are, in fact, religious believers. So, your contention is refuted by reality.

    You will not be able to accept evolution and remain a biblical fundamentalist, but that’s hardly the same thing. I’m not especially impressed with the religion of religious fundamentalists, which has always seemed more idolatrous than religious in exactly the sense that the Hebrew tradition promulgates.

    I think the most useful way to look at the creationism industry is as a profit making industry, not as a religious manifestation. They might be bilking the faithful into giving them money and buying their clap trap but there isn’t anything notably religious about it. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus, who they claim as a trade marked property.

    There are serious considerations about the implications of some theories within evolution that are important to religion but they can’t start with the denial of what the physical record shows, that evolution is a fact. The superstition of creationism stops that argument because, among other things, the creationism industry has nothing to do with the central parts of the bible, justice, among them.

  11. GM

    The largest part of the people who accept evolution as a fact are, in fact, religious believers. So, your contention is refuted by reality.

    Do not quote mine please

    The next sentence was explaining how the cases of people being religious and accepting evolution are typically cases of people not really understanding evolution

    Which is not that surprising given that even the majority of scientists don’t really understand evolution. The gory technical details actually do matter and have great theological implications

  12. J.J.E.

    GM, I’m sorry, but I see what you’re doing and I empathize with your perspective, but I think it is wrong. Sure, religion isn’t rational and anybody who believes in a personal god has at least their theism as an irrational belief. They’re wrong. We agree. But to conclude that evolution (or any other belief) “properly understood” negates religious belief reflects a woefully under-developed understanding of the way the human mind adjudicates beliefs. While I may not be infected with religion, I’m virtually certain that I have many other irrational beliefs, and I’ll bet you do too (we all do). And I suspect that my irrational beliefs coexist with their anathema in my brain. If I knew what they were, I’d try to root them out. But it ain’t that easy.

    Do try not give the accommodationists such soft targets.

  13. gillt

    Another coy and sidelong taunt by middling-of-the-road Mooney.

    Is it any surprise that now everyone has correctly pegged accommodationist rhetoric as shallow and condescending to the general population?

    If accommodationist can just frame everyone that they disagree with as an extremist, then that makes them seem like the reasonable ones. That’s no strategy to be proud of.

  14. Is it any surprise that now everyone has correctly pegged accommodationist rhetoric as shallow and condescending to the general population?

    (New Atheists + Fundamentalists) != Everyone

  15. gillt

    Roughly, there are three parties voicing opinions here. I don’t think I’m leaving anyone out.

    You’re showing progress by distinguishing between fundamentalism and vocal atheism. Or was that a result of a limited vocabulary?

  16. Jackson

    —As for my views being motivated by constitutional concerns–well, yeah, I’m definitely concerned that incorrect arguments about science and religion, such as those propounded by the Discovery Institute, might lead to strikes against the teaching of evolution—

    Chris thanks for this blog — it had never occurred to me that someone might make this argument — and I’ll bet a lot of people, including many religious ‘compatibilists’, would also be surprised.

  17. Anthony McCarthy

    —- Is it any surprise that now everyone has correctly pegged accommodationist rhetoric as shallow and condescending to the general population? gillt

    I’m assuming this is an evidence based assertion, gillt being the champion of evidence based proof. Only not really.

    —– If accommodationist can just frame everyone that they disagree with as an extremist, then that makes them seem like the reasonable ones. That’s no strategy to be proud of. gillt

    If new atheists can frame their opponents in exactly the way they want to, it all works out the way they want it to. That’s a tactic they seem to think that everyone is shallow enough to not notice. And they almost always do.

  18. You know, as one of those “often mobbed in here” folks who both understands evolution, and accepts liberal Christina Theology, I have to, again, point out that religion is NOT JUST about explaing the creation of the world – which is where it conflicts with evolutionary science. Religion plays many, and sometimes complex roles in human lives, and to assume, as GM and other do, that a full understanding of evolution will destry or negate any need for religion, is to deny those other roles. And no, I don’t mis-understadne evolution, nor do I compartmentalize rigidly. I do take each subject at its face, recognize each subject’s limits of application, and adopt a spirit of acceptance and support towoard others on both sides of the issue. That, to me, seems to be the most rational approach – accommodationist though it may appear to you.

  19. Anthony McCarthy

    It’s always interesting that it’s religion and only religion that seems to get singled out for the sci-jocks’ ire.

    You’d think that gambling would be far more problematic than non-literalist religion would be but I’ve yet to see any of them railing against scientists or atheists who gamble. And someone who runs up big gambling debts is far more likely to cook the results.

    Oddly, they don’t seem to have any problem with some of the most putrid uses with which science is abused for profit. The Gulf oil gusher certainly had a lot of input from corporate scientists, who, I’d guess, lied about the likelihood of this disaster being possible.

    Fuddling while the earth burns.

  20. JMW

    This just goes to show you that it isn’t always easy taking the middle ground.

    Into the valley of death rode the Chris Mooney…

  21. J.J.E.

    Anthony, science is a methodology. Religion is a belief system. This debate is between those. Saints and sinners abound among both the faithful and scientists. And of course, there are plenty faithful scientists. And plenty scientific faithful.

    So, yes, Anthony. There are tons of evil scientists. Yes Anthony, scientists are unethical all the time. Yes, some scientists deserve to be in jail. Yes Anthony, the fruit of scientists’ labors have caused virtually all non-strangulation deaths since we were able to make tools. Yes Anthony, 2*16 = 32. There are many things you can be trivially right about. But don’t you want to actually engage in the debate at hand, not some irrelevant topic.

    After all, in the so-called “religion vs. science debate”, it isn’t the religious people that are the targets. It is the religion.

  22. Anthony McCarthy

    Anthony, science is a methodology. Religion is a belief system. JJE

    You should see the argument I’m having with John Shook right now. He, devoted as he is to something called science, seems to think it’s much more than a methodology while I’m the one arguing that it is.

    There are many things you can be trivially right about. But don’t you want to actually engage in the debate at hand, not some irrelevant topic. JJE

    That’s what I thought I was doing, the comment aimed at gillt, excepted. Your deliberate mischaracterization of what I said is oddly similar to something Shook said yesterday. I actually think scientists are probably unethical about as often as other people, it’s just that their dishonesty can lead to things like the Gulf oil gusher, as a contributing party.

  23. J.J.E.

    No Anthony. If someone else pulls you off track, you’re still off track. Take the high road, call them on their off topic-ness. But don’t fall for the trap validating their premise by saying things like this:

    > Oddly, they don’t seem to have any problem with some of the most putrid uses with which science is abused for profit. The Gulf oil gusher certainly had a lot of input from corporate scientists, who, I’d guess, lied about the likelihood of this disaster being possible.

    This is an explicit conflation with people and a methodology. You clearly indicate you don’t believe that is the topic at hand. That’s good, I commend you for it. Undercut your opponents with that aspect. Don’t buy into their framing and start pitting people against people.

  24. Matteo

    “1. If you understand the theory of evolution there is almost no chance that you will remain religious. The few notable exceptions are either cases of extraordinary compartmentalization, adopting a version of the religion that is quite different from what everyone has historically followed, or simply cases of not understanding evolution.”

    Bull.

    “Sure, religion isn’t rational and anybody who believes in a personal god has at least their theism as an irrational belief.”

    Double bull.

    Neither of you have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

    But that’s not particularly surprising since it is quite evident that neither of you have put in any substantial effort into understanding rational theistic arguments, nor rational arguments against Darwinian evolution.

    But do carry on.

  25. GM

    You’d think that gambling would be far more problematic than non-literalist religion would be but I’ve yet to see any of them railing against scientists or atheists who gamble. And someone who runs up big gambling debts is far more likely to cook the results.

    It has been explained hundreds of times that scientists do not benefit financially from their results, as results lead to papers and papers lead to grants, but grants are spent on research, with not a cent going to the scientists.

  26. GM

    But that’s not particularly surprising since it is quite evident that neither of you have put in any substantial effort into understanding rational theistic arguments, nor rational arguments against Darwinian evolution.

    We have to yet hear a single “theistic argument” that deserves to be taken seriously. In fact, the whole discipline of theology is completely empty aside from what it has contributed to our understanding that there is no God (do you think that all those otherwise smart people have spent 2000 years studying the subject and none of them has reached the inevitable conclusion that the whole idea is total BS?)

    Also, the fact that you are mentioning “arguments against Darwinian evolution” means that you are creationist, which in turn means that you should go somewhere, do your 15-years worth of basic science literacy catch-up reading and then come to argue.

  27. Anthony McCarthy

    JJE, it’s my experience of conversations that they develop.

    As for conflating humans with methodology, the topic of the post is hardly limited to methodology.

    GM, the frequently made claim is that science and religion are incompatible because of some basic antagonism making it impossible to practice reason and to believe at the same time. All I did was to point out that religion is hardly the only form of thought and action that unrealistic claim could be made for.

    I’ve known of a number of atheists who gamble, who would scoff at the idea of “luck” if it was articulated, indeed, some of them members of the old CSICOP. Yet anyone with what one would hope was a level of mathematical sophistication you’d expect those folks to have would know that coming out ahead at gambling would only happen by something other than favorable odds. So, where are the condemnations of gambling scientists, who, if they run up big enough debts, might, well, be tempted to cook results or embezzle funds from their labs, etc. Where is the mockery for people who not only profess but clearly practice something that is the antithesis of pure reason in the way that even some very successful scientists with spotless records are when they express religious belief?

    And you could als0 ask about other kinds of non-scientific, even anti-scientific ideas. There isn’t anyone who is damaging science more these days than corporate science and scientific ideologues who are Republicans.

  28. TB

    @12 JJE actually illustrates a real problem: There is no clear idea about what “new atheism” is. Except for the idea of being in-your-face, it’s got self-identifiers who understand science as a methodology and others who see it as a belief system – although some deny that.
    It’s not a “big tent” when you have a lot if crazy uncles running around spouting, and as much as it’s inconvenient for people like JJE, the movement is going to be associated with folks like GM until they challenge that wing of their movement.
    Because if they don’t, one possible end game is science being challenged as being unconstitutional to teach in public schools. As long as science is accepted as only a methodology, it’ll be fine. But if some insist that science is only consistant with atheism and that makes it into public school policy then you’re going to have another Dover-like trial but with misguided new atheists as the target.

  29. Matti K.

    Mr. Mooney: “This just goes to show you that it isn’t always easy taking the middle ground.”

    There might be sound political and diplomatic reasons to aim for the “middle ground”. But that has nothing to do with reaching reasonable and logical conclusions.

    I hope that there are not too many science journalists who are ready to compromise on reason and logic for political reasons.

  30. GM

    Because if they don’t, one possible end game is science being challenged as being unconstitutional to teach in public schools. As long as science is accepted as only a methodology, it’ll be fine

    If you define science as methodology, then you are defining it the same way as I do.

    And the incompatibility follows only from the definition of science as methodology, because you can twist the theological interpretation of facts any way you want, but the there is no way to get around the epistemological incompatibility between the methodology of science on one side and faith on the other.

    From which it follows that science is unconstitutional because if you successfully teach science as a way of knowing the world, then you are killing religion as an “alternative” way of doing it. And as I have said many times, declaring science unconstitutional would be the best thing that could happen in the whole conflict, because it would reveal the deep anti-intellectualism of this country (and the world as a whole), it would escalate the debate to the level it has to be at, and it would eventually not last long (if it does then there was no hope anyway) and it would lead to some long overdue changes in the constitution.

  31. Jackson

    Jerry Coyne discussed this on his blog yesterday http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/karl-giberson-its-un-american-to-criticize-faith/ following up on a US Today opinion piece he references.

    Chris needs to continue to sharpen his argument for a ‘middle road’ — where do you draw the line to invalidate religious teachings which violate scientific reality? Flat Earth? Praying for children rather than seeking medical care?

  32. Jeff Snipes

    Chris, would you care to explain why you link to Luskin’s words via a site he has never heard of in his life instead of linking to the original post at ENV?

  33. Mike Johnson

    It’s rather apparent, both by the content of Chris’ commentary as well as both his and his co-author’s credentials. They simply aren’t qualified to comment intelligibly about the issue…which is why I won’t waste my money buying their book.

  34. tjguy

    GM says above:

    “I can give you a very well supported by evidence and logic argument for why we should aim for complete eradication of religion and I can do that because I have not always been of that opinion, but I have adopted it through going through the aforementioned exercise of applying logic to evidence and have found that it is the inescapable conclusion.”

    And why should we believe anything you have to say or trust it? After all, you are just an accidental bag of chemicals and you make decisions based on what the accidental software in your brain determines. You have no free will. You are nothing more than an animal that is motivated by sex, food, and self-preservation. Why should we believe what an evolved monkey has to say? What proof do we have that the chemical processes in your brain are better than the chemical processes in the brain of a person who evolved to believe in God? Neither of you can help yourselves as you are slaves to the chemical processes that occur in your brains.

    When a materialist/atheist like yourself makes material claims, I am forced to ask how you know what you are saying is correct? If your mind is nothing more than the result of contingent or determined natural processes, then so are any thoughts about it. This undermines any truth claims that you can make – or anyone for that matter. The problem is that you cannot get outside of your head and look down on everything else objectively and do science. When you enter the game, the game is over. Without an Umpire, without rules, without standards, without truth, and without morals, it’s not a game. It’s chaos.

    You have to do science inside your head and your head is subject to the same natural processes that my religious head is subject to. So my question is why is your brain better than mine? After all, there are more religious people out there than atheists. Perhaps survival of the fittest means that religious people will win out over atheist/materialist types and so what? There is no right or wrong in evolution. What is is. There is no goal in evolution. Evolution doesn’t care what happens to any species. How can evolution be right or wrong or one direction be right or wrong? It can’t. You can have opinions about things. There might be a certain direction that you would like to see evolution go, but there is no “should” or “ought” in evolution.

    God designed and created this world. That is why there is order, design, and complexity orders of magnitude above what is possible for chance to produce. He made us with brains capable of doing and understanding science because we are made in His image. Laws of logic exist because God is a God of order and truth. Evolution cannot account for the laws of logic that you want to use. In order for you to use these laws, you have to borrow them from the Judeo-Christian worldview. Then you turn around and shoot yourself in the foot by claiming there is no God. The minute you say that, your laws of logic have nothing left to stand on and your whole philosophy crumbles. You become nothing more than a bag of chemicals – basically an “it” without free will. You think, act, reason, etc based on the chemical reactions in your brain. Love is a figment of your imagination – simply the result of the chemical s in your body. What a fulfilling life that sounds like. Oh how I’d love to become an atheist, but alas, I’m stuck being a creationist because of the chemical processes in my own body.

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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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