Kitcher on Darwin and Religion

From the blog of Oxford University Press comes this essay from philosopher Phillip Kitcher. The subject: evolution and religion. Let’s look at some highlights:

The answer, very often, is that particular pieces of scientific knowledge are viewed as threatening. Acknowledging the truth about global warming would unsettle those who believe in the unfettered rights of oil companies to drill and of auto-makers to produce gas-guzzling behemoths. Acknowledging the truth about Darwin would raise worrying questions about religious belief (or so many people think). So the pressure for “alternative science” becomes strong, and we lose opportunities to craft our policies according to the best knowledge we have. As this occurs, as the idea of “alternatives” to received scientific wisdom becomes firmly entrenched, any conception of real expertise starts to erode. The media fragments into economic niches, where “information” is passed on to consumers in ways that accord with prior values – or prior prejudices. Debate about difficult issues becomes ever more difficult because we can’t agree on the basic facts.

I would only add to this that political demagogues, found almost exclusively on the right in modern American politics, find it convenient to play upon these fears. Just think of the Bush administration’s snide dismissal of the reality-based community.

Kitcher continues:

The continued debate about Darwin is a symptom of a serious underlying disease. It’s useful to think about that debate as an example of the deeper problems, trying to understand how scientific work that is as firmly established as any piece of research can be regarded as questionable. Darwin’s defenders need to get beyond the sense of irritation, to recognize that advances in knowledge can pose genuine threats to people’s beliefs and to their lives. It’s important to appreciate that trumpeting the Great New Enlightenment often seems like bullying, and that the distant pundits who scoff at superstition sound less trustworthy than apparently friendly champions of “alternative views” that are more sympathetic to those who feel the threat.

I think most academics do appreciate that trumpeting the Enlightenment can seem like bullying, but what else is there to do? As Kitcher himself recognizes, evolution does, indeed, pose a genuine threat to the religious beliefs of countless Americans. All the soft-peddling in the world won’t change that simple fact. Scientists can try to present evolution in as gentle and non-threatening a way as possible, but reliigous fundamentalists will recognize it for the threat that it is nonetheless.

In trying to help people see that we have to learn to live with Darwin it doesn’t help much to thump the table and declare that Intelligent Design isn’t REAL science. Our criteria for identifying “real science” are not sharp, and, in any case, there was a time in the history of inquiry in which something very like Intelligent Design was a cornerstone of scientific investigation. That last fact provides a clue about what’s needed: people should be given clear, straightforward explanations of how Darwinism came to triumph, and how the evidence in its favor continues to roll in.

This is an important point, and one that I’ve made myself at this blog. All too many people make, “It’s not science!” their main reply to ID nonsense. That statement is true, but it does not get at the heart of the matter. ID should be rejected because its scientific claims are demonstrably false. That it also is not science has some relevance to courtroom procedings, and is a useful point to make when creationists claim that it is, but it should not be the focus of the conversation.

Because of the perceived impact on religious beliefs and values, that won’t be enough. So long as Darwin is seen as the bogeyman, no amount of evidence will counter the charm of smooth advertisements for faith-friendly alternatives. Many religious scientists try to convince the public that fears are unfounded – we can have God and Darwin too, they say. Yet the worried Christians – including our President – who worry that Darwin is the apostle of godlessness have a point. There’s a real threat here.

Once again, I agree. Darwin really is the bogeyman to certain popular religions in this country. Our inability to convince people otherwise is not a failure of marketing. It is a reflection of the fact that it is difficult to reconcile the idea of human beings as the pinnacle of creation as willed by an omnipotent God with the idea of humans emerging from a highly contingent evolutionary process.

Kitcher goes on from here to give a good discussion of different flavors of religion, and which ones are legitimately threatened by scientific progress. Essentially, religions content to interpret their myths as significant allegories can survive the scientific juggernaut. But religions that feel it is sacrificing too much to interpret their stories this way are going to have a problem.

But then Kitcher slips up near the end:

How do we get beyond this impasse? Not by shouting at people about “the God delusion”. Religion is immensely important to people, and, although it’s easy to point to the ways in which religious belief has caused serious harm, it’s also necessary to appreciate its social and personal functions. Religious beliefs play an important role in people’s sense of their own lives, explaining why those lives matter. Religion also offers genuine community with others, providing spaces for joint ethical commitment and joint action. You don’t end this heated debate by simply telling folk to brace up – or to take their scientific medicine so that they’ll feel better in the morning. They won’t.

You’ll notice that Kitcher does not answer his own question. How do we get beyond this impasse? The answer is that we do not. Kitcher devotes much of his essay to explaining why people cling to their myths in spite of the evidence. They rightly perceive a threat to their religious beliefs, and prefer to cling to those beliefs rather than give them up. If it is not possible to persuade such people with mere evidence, then what does Kitcher propose that we do?

And that is why shouting about the God delusion is an important part of how we deal with this issue. If large segments of the population are absolutely determined not to be swayed by evidence, then our only recourse is to be loud and bold in our opposition. We must make it clear that they will not have things their own way. Books like Dawkins’ (the obvious target of Kitcher’s snideness here) are important not because they are going to make fundamentalists wake up, but because they forcefully present a more rational, sensible view of the world. Fundamentalists have made themselves very powerful in American politics largely by screaming like crazy over the most minor of perceived slights. It’s long past time for secularists to do likewise.

Anyway, I recommend all of Kitcher’s essay. It’s not very long, but provides plenty of food for thought.

Comments

  1. #1 Jason Kreul
    January 31, 2007

    I’m reminded of what Dennett referred to Darwinism as in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Universal Acid is what he compared it to. I think the analogy was pretty fitting. Of course, Dawkins would and does agree on this account.

    There is no way to reconcile religion with evolution. End of story. I wish the outcome could be different for the small minded individuals who seek meaning in their lives that they cannot find in a world devoid of the supernatural; but, there is no outcome where they can have it both ways. The real question is whether knowledge comes from inquiry or from revelation; and sadly, for those who would answer to the latter there is no reaching with evidence, regardless of the source or where it originates.

  2. #2 divalent
    January 31, 2007

    Kitcher: “How do we get beyond this impasse? … Religion is immensely important to people, and, although it’s easy to point to the ways in which religious belief has caused serious harm, it’s also necessary to appreciate its social and personal functions. Religious beliefs play an important role in people’s sense of their own lives, explaining why those lives matter. ”

    Jason: “You’ll notice that Kitcher does not answer his own question.”

    IMO, Kitcher gets to real central conflict between science and religion, one that many people either overlook or ignore. He does, in a way, answer his question. He’s saying that those who wish to shake people from their superstitious beliefs better recognize the value that people place on their religion, because that is what holds them firmly to it.

    For most people (who aren’t academic research scientists nor well-read intellectuals), a Dawkin-esk exaltation in the wondrous complexity of the natural world is well beyond their capacity to experience. Shouting “God delusion”, while perhaps cathartic to the shouter, is liable only make them cling tighter to their beliefs.

  3. #3 Pseudonym
    February 1, 2007

    I think that Kitcher answers it, too. As you said:

    Essentially, religions content to interpret their myths as significant allegories can survive the scientific juggernaut. But religions that feel it is sacrificing too much to interpret their stories this way are going to have a problem.

    So religions just need to stay out of claims about the natural world and, instead, stick to building communities and talking about philosophy. What’s so hard about that? Some religions have already done the transition, and they’re all the better for it.

    Of course, religion may have valid things to say about the ethics of science. Science tells us what we can do, but it doesn’t tell us what we should do. But, of course, any specific religious tradition will have to realise that, even in this area, it is but one philosophical voice out of many.

  4. #4 Greg
    February 1, 2007

    Any parent can tell you that two immature persons shouting at each other will solve nothing and often will resort to worse.

    If you think you have the biggest gun, you might try to blow the other away. Otherwise, you must bring them around the long hard way.

    Fortunarely people are not logic-engines. Most people will give up quite a lot, preferring to get along rather than to endure a state of constant warfare. Except those who sell the guns and submit low-ball bids to estate-auctions.

  5. #5 Koray
    February 1, 2007

    There isn’t anything an existing religion should or shouldn’t say. Whatever any religion had to say has already been said and we don’t get to change it because if we do, that’s called man made philosophy, not religion.

  6. #6 RBH
    February 1, 2007

    His new book, Living with Darwin, is well worth reading. I’ve read it rapidly once, and will read it more carefully soon.

    One thing I quite liked was that rather than calling it non-science (because of the demarcation issue), he argues that ID is really “dead science”, and thereafter he refers to ID proponents as “resurrection men”. :)

  7. #7 Russell Blackford
    February 1, 2007

    I like Kitcher, but I think we’ve been too soft on religion. I’m not as hardline as I see some people are being in posts on scienceblogs, but we just do have to stand up for reason.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    February 1, 2007

    As far as I can read the issue, ID is so far beyond the pale that any sensible demarcation will leave it outside the realm of science. (We can argue what constitutes a “sensible” demarcation, if you’d like, but we should meet over pizza for that.) There is a lot of room to jerk that magic line back and forth, making the border wiggle all over the landscape of ideas — but ID is way out there.

  9. #9 David D.G.
    February 1, 2007

    “You don’t end this heated debate by simply telling folk to brace up – or to take their scientific medicine so that they’ll feel better in the morning. They won’t.”

    Well, that’s true enough, but then we are not responsible for how religious people FEEL about science and reality.

    That. Is. Not. Our. Problem.

    Our only objectives should be to (a) educate those who are “on the fence” or merely ignorant of the facts, and (b) forcibly prevent the religionists from rewriting reality, Ministry-of-Truth style, and foisting such myths off on the public (especially children) as facts.

    If the religionists themselves want to hate reality, or even want to try to hide from it, that’s up to them, but it should not become our problem if they don’t like the idea of accepting reality. Reality does not care what they choose to believe; and as long as they mind their place, neither should we.

    ~David D.G.

  10. #10 Monado
    February 1, 2007

    It might be impossible to reconcile evolution with Genesis; but Man is the rationalizing animal. It’s equally impossible to reconcile modern psychiatry with demonic possession; genetics with goats having spotted babies because they gaze on spotted sticks; tolerating our children’s rudeness with killing your children if they’re disrespectful; at-fault divorce with putting adulterers to death; and getting rich quick with selling all you have to give to the poor. We’ve managed to ignore, soften, explain away, or mythologize all of the above Biblical concepts. We can equally well promote the “Fiat lux” version of cosmology to a poetic allegory. Let’s get to it!

  11. #11 Russell Blackford
    February 2, 2007

    I do care about what other people believe. People have always cared about that – and for many good reasons. One is that I don’t want to live in an electorate full of people who have false beliefs that are likely to permeate their thinking (in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)on a vast range of issues. That is our problem.

    I suppose science teachers, in that official role, have a narrower agenda – if that’s the context of David’s comment. But as a writer and a philosopher I do actually have the agenda of wanting to influence what other people believe. Of course, I don’t support using force to influence them, but such methods as rational analysis, narrative art, and so on, are all legitimate ways of influencing people’s beliefs, and that is a perfectly legitimate goal. I applaud Richard Dawkins, for example, for pursuing that goal.

  12. #12 J. J. Ramsey
    February 2, 2007

    “Fundamentalists have made themselves very powerful in American politics largely by screaming like crazy over the most minor of perceived slights. It’s long past time for secularists to do likewise.”

    Actually, I doubt that it’s the screaming that got fundies where they are now. That seems to have more to do with getting organized and fostering political connections. The screaming helps, but it would be more ignorable if it weren’t attached to a political machine that had made conservative Christians a large voting bloc.

  13. #13 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 6, 2007

    Religion also offers genuine community with others, providing spaces for joint ethical commitment and joint action.

    Sure. That’s just what religion is doing for the Shias and Sunnis in Iraq right now. Isn’t it wonderful how religion brings people together?

  14. #14 Robert Smith
    February 7, 2007

    Since mankind has been,on this planet has any thing evolved, a frog still looks like a frog doesnt it?

  15. #15 mark
    February 10, 2007

    Since mankind has been,on this planet has any thing evolved…Yes–mankind.

    Mustafa–you don’t quite have it right. Religion brings people within a group closer together, in order to kill those outside the group.

    I like Kitcher’s likening of alternatives to scientific understanding with economic niches. Just as commercial sponsors aim for certain demographics (e.g., who watches which tv shows), sponsors of “ways of knowing” can collect information on students, then pitch their “sales” to the groups most susceptible to their product.

  16. #16 David Calvani
    February 16, 2007

    Jason, I wish I had seen this post earlier.

    Demagogues exist “almost exclusively on the right in modern American politics,” eh? You are probably correct. And since he was acquited in his impeachment trial, Bill Clinton never had sexual relations with that woman … Miss Lewinsky.

    You think the religious need to learn that “they will not have things their own way.” Yep, I guess you’re right. Evolution is taught in all the schools and colleges, homosexuality has been mainstreamed, the federal courts call partial-birth abortion a constitutional right, but the silly christians still need to be put in their place!

    And it’s “long past time for secularists” to take a page from the crazy fundamentalists and start “screaming like crazy over the most minor of perceived slights.” Indeed! I suggest secularists starts bitching about creches in public parks and suing the government to have mention of God removed from our money and the Pledge of Allegiance

  17. #17 seslichat
    March 10, 2010

    will leave it outside the realm of science. (We can argue what constitutes a “sensible” demarcation, if you’d like, but we should meet over pizza for that.) There is a lot of room to jerk that magic line back and forth, making the border wiggle all over the landscape of ideas

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