Friday, February 22, 2013
Jerry Coyne’s Critique of Accommodation
All evolutionary scientists agree that the creationists are wrong, in almost every way; but they disagree in how to deal with the problem. Scientists disagree about whether to oppose all religion, or to accommodate those religious ideas that are consistent with evolutionary science.
“Accommodationists” are evolutionary scientists who accept the legitimacy of some religious views, even if not believing them. For example, some scientists see “let there be light” as an ancient description of a Big Bang. They believe that “all truth is God’s truth” and if a religious belief contradicts the clear facts of science, then the belief must be wrong. They accept a highly figurative interpretation of the Bible. Galileo was an accommodationist; he said the Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. Some scientists, such as Sir John Polkinghorne, have gotten advanced degrees in theology so as to not make amateurish theological assumptions.
Of course it has not escaped anyone’s notice that religion has retreated whenever science has advanced. Galileo’s story is a case in point. See my earlier series of essays about the vast gulf between science and religion, from October 2, 2012, to January 2, 2013. One wonders if, someday, the accommodationists will have anything left to accommodate. Even the oft-repeated question, “Why does anything exist rather than nothing?” might have a cosmological answer someday.
Some accommodationists are sincere believers in some form of religion. Others are simply being practical: religion is here to stay, and we might as well work with it. Religion may be ineradicable (I am trying to use the word neutrally): even if there is no genetic basis for religion per se, its mental components and the memes that activate them will always be part of the human experience in some form. I am reminded of the scene in Nicholas Mosley’s novel Hopeful Monsters in which two children in Soviet Russia had a secret cave with Orthodox icons in it. Accommodationists think that opposing religion itself is not only going to fail but it is going to make some religious people, who might otherwise be open to science, dig in their heels. I have actually seen science teachers who are religious show resistance to evolution, then soften into cheerfulness when they realize that the evolutionary scientists are not preaching atheism.
Many accommodationists are greatly bothered by the tone taken by many of their critics, one of the most prominent of whom is P. Z. Myers, who writes the Pharyngula blog. It is an extremely popular blog and, in the eyes of many outside of science, represents scientific belief. Sam Harris is famous for saying that Francis Collins’s religious beliefs make him a very poor choice to be the head of NIH. Another vocal anti-accommodationist is Jerry Coyne, president of the Society for the Study of Evolution. Coyne, however, published an article in the journal Evolution in 2012 that makes a very reasonable critique of scientists accommodating religion and is well worth reading. Most Evolution articles are for members only, but this one is free.
Some of Coyne’s points are common sense. The mere fact that some scientists are religious does not mean science and religion are compatible. “That people can simultaneously hold two conflicting worldviews in their head is evidence not for compatibility but for” the flexibility of the human mind. “This argument for science/faith compatibility is like saying that Christianity and adultery are compatible because many Christians are adulterers.”
But Coyne makes some very basic and insightful points. It is similar to the point I also made in the first of my essays on science and religion, though of course he thought of it first. Coyne says, “In science faith is a vice, in religion it is a virtue.” Furthermore, science itself is based on the assumption that “deities do not affect the universe.” Coyne says this is a “conclusion born of experience; the experience that only a naturalistic attitude—that is, a scientific one—has helped us understand nature and make verified predictions about it.” Name an example of any time that religion has helped science make a discovery.
Coyne’s position is further strengthened by a study published this year in Science by psychologists Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan. This article is available to members only, but this link shows you the abstract. Gervais and Norenzayan preconditioned some study participants by showing them images (such as The Thinker statue by Rodin) that promoted an attitude of critical thought, and preconditioned others by showing them the otherwise similar discus-thrower statue (Discobolus by Myron). Regardless of their general religious beliefs, experimental preconditioning to critical thought significantly reduced the participants’ acceptance of religious statements. To many of us, this is experimental verification that religion dulls the proclivity (though perhaps not the ability) to think carefully.
Coyne’s solution is to quit accommodating. He particularly criticizes the John Templeton Foundation and the AAAS DoSER (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion) program, as well as Stephen Jay Gould. He isn’t even very pleased with the National Center for Science Education. And he goes further. He says that scientists should actively try to “weaken the grasp of religion on America…” He points, correctly, to the recent and dramatic secularization of Europe. However, he does not claim that European secularization was caused even in part by anti-religion missionaries telling people to stop going to church. So he cannot use the example of Europe to demonstrate that scientists will be successful in an attempt to de-religionize America.
Then, at the end of the article, Coyne seems to draw a different conclusion. Coyne presents data that indicate an association between how religious and how dysfunctional a society is. But which causes which? I live in rural Oklahoma and know of no one who says, “I am religious, therefore I will beat my wife and get into drugs and crime.” Maybe, after all, we scientists should not go around trying to weaken religious belief: Coyne says, “…weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian.” Now this conclusion is one that, I think, even Francis Collins could accept. And if, as a result of the advancement of altruism in society, religion dwindles away, this is a risk that accommodationists will have to accept.
Announcement: I just posted a YouTube video about symbiogenesis on my channel.