Another little blogfracas has erupted on the subject of accommodtaionism between science and religion. Chris Mooney, channeling Barbara Forrest, reiterated the standard complaints against those of us who argue that science and religion generally, and evolution and Christianity in particular, are not compatible. The specific target of his ire was Jerry Coyne’s recent, largely negative review of the current accommodationist books by Ken Miller and Karl Giberson. Coyne has replied in some detail to Mooney. Mooney has now posted two partial replies to Coyne here and here, and has promised several more.
I won’t attempt to reply in detail to Mooney’s post. I think Coyne replied very effectively over at his own blog, and regular readers of this blog already know what I think about this issue. There were, however, two issues I wanted to raise.
Forrest then gave three reasons that secularists should not alienate religious moderates:
One of the three reasons was
3. Humility. Science can’t prove a negative: Saying there is no God is saying more than we can ever really know empirically, or based on data and evidence. So why drive a wedge between religious and non-religious defenders of evolution when it is not even possible to definitively prove the former wrong about metaphysics?
This is a straw man. Absolutely no one (with the possible exception of William Provine) thinks that evolution or science generally flaly disproves God. Not Coyne, not Myers, not Dawkins, not Hitchens, not Harris, not Dennett, not Stenger. No one. The cliam is that science has a big role to play in making traditional views of God seem unsupportable, and that there is no evidence whatever to support the existence of a transcendant, supernatural deity.
So where do we find a lack of humility in this debate? Well, here’s an excerpt from the statement of Pope John Paul II on the subject of evolution.
But even more, man is called to enter into a relationship of knowledge and love with God himself, a relationship which will find its complete fulfillment beyond time, in eternity. All the depth and grandeur of this vocation are revealed to us in the mystery of the risen Christ (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22). It is by virtue of his spiritual soul that the whole person possesses such a dignity even in his body. Pius XII stressed this essential point: If the human body take its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God (“animas enim a Deo immediate creari catholica fides nos retinere iubei”; “Humani Generis,” 36). Consequently, theories of evolution which, in accordance with the philosophies inspiring them, consider the spirit as emerging from the forces of living matter or as a mere epiphenomenon of this matter, are incompatible with the truth about man.
We begrudgingly recognize your meticulously collected evidence and cogent argumentation on the subject of evolution. But know your place, science. We are the final arbiters of truth. It is for us to hold forth on the truth about man, and if you contradict us then you are wrong. And we don’t have to defend our ideas with facts or evidence or anything of that sort. Our pronouncements are not for you to challenge.
Where’s the humility in the Pope’s statement? Where’s the humility in thinking the religious sect you lead has unique access to the basic truths of life? Remind me again who is going beyond what data and evidence can support.
The second point has to do with strategy. Mooney writes:
Basically, Forrest’s point was that while Coyne may be right that there’s no good reason to believe in the supernatural, he’s very misguided about strategy. Especially when we have the religious right to worry about, why is he criticizing people like Miller and Giberson for their attempts to reconcile modern science and religion?
To which I ask: strategy towards what end?
Coyne is criticizing people like Miller and Giberson because they are offering bad arguments on important subjects. He is criticizing them because reconciling science and religion is not a goal we should want to pursue. First, because it nearly always comes at the cost of compromising science, and second because it entails carving out a place in civil discourse for very bad ideas about knowledge and authority.
It is not as if our only two choices are a world of the religious right or a world of Millers and Gibersons. There is a third option, in which people are free to believe whatever they want but in which religion is marginalized in the public conversation. It is not an unattainable option, as many European countries show, but we are certain never to get there so long as we are unwilling to challenge bad religious ideas. That those bad ideas are sometimes linked with political stances we like is neither here nor there.
Moving on, let’s look a bit more closely at what exactly Coyne did to bring Mooney and Forrest down upon him. He published a book review. In The New Republic. In this review he did not level a single ad hominem attack and praised certain aspects of what Miller and Giberson have done. He then went on to criticize their ideas. Mooney himself, in his follow-up post, wrote
So-I have recently reread Jerry Coyne’s lengthy New Republic piece, which is at the source of some of our debates; and let me say, it is a very good, extensive, thoughtful article.
Are you seriously telling me that is poor tactics? A very good, thoughtful, extensive book review in a high-level venue like TNR is just too much for those poor, delicate liberal Christians to handle? Please. Any Christian who has genuinely made his peace with evolution is not going to be driven to the other side because Jerry Coyne offered a few contrary thoughts.
The whole thing is reminiscent of that Jerome Bixby short story “It’s a Good Life” (later made into a memorable episode of The Twilight Zone). That’s the one with the three-year old who has God-like powers, but lacks any sense of judgment or conscience. Whenever someone does something he doesn’t like, the kid simply wills something terrible to happen to that person. Everyone has to go around thinking happy thoughts all the time, because happy thoughts are relaxing to the kid. And everytime the kid throws a tantrum everyone has to say things like, “It’s very good that you did that. We’re all so happy you turned Mr. Smith into that terrible thing.”
That’s what I think of whenever I read essays like Mooney’s. Liberal Christians are playing the role of the kid. Coyne et al are in the role of those doing things the kid doesn’t like. And Mooney et al are in the role of those trying to soothe the kid. “Mr. Coyne didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. It’s very good that you believe religious clerics and holy texts have something valuable to tell us about the workings of nature…”
In one of his follow-up posts Mooney bristled at the idea that he is telling Coyne, in effect, to shut up. Mooney writes
So although I shouldn’t have to, let me come out and say it: I believe in freedom of speech and the value of dialogue and the open exchange of ideas. I have never argued that anybody ought to shut up, be quiet, etc. This simply wrong.
Nobody wants anybody to shut up. This is America. Etc.
No, he didn’t argue that Coyne should shut up. He only argued that writing a very good, thoughtful, extensive article for The New Republic was evidence of how woefully misguided Coyne is about strategy. Which raises the question: where should Coyne have expressed his views? If even a relatively tame article in a high-level venue like TNR is too much for liberal Christians, then what could Coyne have done, short of shutting up, that would have mollified them?
It sure sounds like Mooney is telling Coyne to shut up, if only for strategic reasons.