Coyne Clarifies His Views

As a coda to the previous post, have a look at this post from Jerry Coyne. Since some of his blog posts have been at the center of the recent dust-ups about accommodationism, he elected to provide a clear statement of his views on this topic. He presents things in a list of six numbered points, five of which I agree with. Here’s the one with which I disagree:

I think the National Center for Science Education and other scientific organizations should make no statements about the compatibility of science and religion. When they insist on this compatibility, they are engaging in theology. And if they must say something about compatibility, let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as incompatible.

This goes a bit too far for me.

First, it is unrealistic to think the NCSE, or other science advocacy groups, could avoid making any statements at all on this subject. It seems to arise inevitably whenever evolution is discussed in public. Since the NCSE is in part a place you can go to get information about all aspects of this issue, it seems perfectly appropriate to have resources available on this topic.

Second, I think it is fine to point out that many people see no problem reconciling evolution and religion. For one thing, it is true. For another, I think a lot of people are genuinely unaware of the diversity of religious opinion on this issue. Most people do not need to have it explained to them that evolution poses real challenges to traditional religion. They do, in many cases, need to be exposed to the views of those who manage to reconcile the two.

So what should the NCSE say? They should say simply that there is a diversity of views on this issue. Some people think they are incompatible, for a variety of reasons. But others see them as perfectly compatible, even mutually reinforcing. By all means point to Ken Miller and Francis Collins as people who have recently written engaging books describing how to reconcile the two. I don’t even object to spotlighting their books and not spotlighting the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris. After all, the books by Hitchens and Harris say almost nothing about evolution, and even Dawkins mentions it only tangentially. If someone writes a decent book focused specifically on how evolution challenges traditional religion then by all means mention it as well. I am not currently aware of any such book. (The “decent” provision rules out the various YEC tomes that make this argument.) I doubt if such a book will ever be written, simply because it is perfectly obvious how evolution challenges religion. Finally, I think it is perfectly fine for the NCSE to have a full-time employee devoted to religious outreach. If such outreach can lead to people being moved to more pro-science forms of religion, I think that is great. At any rate I certainly do not see what harm is done by such an effort.

I see no reason why this presentation, which is entirely true and potentially useful politically, needs to cross the line into asinine and genuinely controversial claims about science and religion being separate, but equally valid, ways of knowing. There is no need to demonize those who think science and religion are like oil and water, and to paint them as no better than religious fundamentalists. There is no need to pretend that NOMA represents some consensus view among scholars, or that there is only one correct way of viewing the relationship between science and religion.

Is that so complicated?

For the most part I think the NCSE does a good job on this score. Occasionally someone goes a little overboard, like Kevin Padian in his recent statement. This bothers me, but as I have noted before the list of things that bothers me is very long, and this little offense ranks pretty far down. There are so many bigger outrages coming from the other side that I think I will save the lion’s share of my anger for them.

Comments

  1. #1 Kevin (NYC)
    November 2, 2009

    well said, sir. pleasure to read you all these years.

    clear concise and sensible… that’s you.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 2, 2009

    Not too sure about concise, but thanks for the kind words!

  3. #3 John Danley
    November 2, 2009

    I’m still worried about how the NCSE’s “statements” may end up being subject to hermeneutic mayhem (leading right back to the same old cat & mouse).

  4. #4 bad Jim
    November 2, 2009

    As I read Coyne, he’s not objecting to the observation that many people find science and religion compatible, but rather to policy statements asserting their compatibility.

    Perhaps it’s a semantic issue; when the NCSE says they’re compatible, they’re merely observing that some religions and some believers don’t find them in conflict. If so, they’re likely to be misunderstood. Evangelicals certainly know that evolution contradicts their beliefs, and a great many atheists treat religious beliefs as scientific questions and reject them for lack of evidence.

  5. #5 Sigmund
    November 3, 2009

    I read your response to Jerry’s statement and thought it sounded reasonable at first but on second reading I realized the flaw in your argument – specifically about having a religious outreach representative.
    The problem is in terms of practicalities. A religious outreach representative in the US is not going to be a Dawkins, Harris or Coyne. It’s going to be an evolution friendly Christian who, like Collins and Miller, will have no problem in finding compatibility between science and their religion and who will have problems with those who say otherwise (such as the ‘new atheist’ scientists).
    I think its important to point out that the initials NCSE stand for the National Center for Science Education.
    Should such an organization have a representative that teaches that Christianity is compatible with the scientific method?
    The very fact that the NCSE has to pussy-foot around the religious at the moment has created an atmosphere of self-censorship that means it has to avoid at all costs talking about the scientific method – the very definition of modern science!
    How is science education furthered in this way?
    Your other point about Jerry’s line “if they must say something about compatibility, let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as incompatible” is probably politically ‘negotiable’. I would have no real problem with a statement such as “there is a diversity of views on this issue. Some people think they are incompatible, for a variety of reasons. But others see them as perfectly compatible, even mutually reinforcing.”
    It leaves out the percentages but at least it isn’t completely omitting one side of the debate – or misrepresenting is as being the ‘fundamentalist atheists’, their current approach

  6. #6 Bruce Gorton
    November 3, 2009

    After all, the books by Hitchens and Harris say almost nothing about evolution, and even Dawkins mentions it only tangentially.

    Say whaaat?

    The Selfish Gene, The Extended Phenotype, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution and he only mentions evolution tangentially?

    Seriously?

  7. #7 Sigmund
    November 3, 2009

    Bruce, I think Jason is specifically referring to the other ‘new atheist’ book written by Dawkins, ‘The God Delusion’, rather than his other writings.

  8. #8 Jim
    November 3, 2009

    Second, I think it is fine to point out that many people see no problem reconciling evolution and religion.

    As far as I understand, Coyne’s criticism of the NCSE is that they don’t say this. Instead, they proclaim the philosophical compatibility of evolution and religion as if it’s the consensus among all scientists. Are you sure you disagree with him on this, at all?

  9. #9 Bruce Gorton
    November 3, 2009

    Sigmund
    It still needs correcting though.

  10. #10 J. J. Ramsey
    November 3, 2009

    Sigmund: “The very fact that the NCSE has to pussy-foot around the religious at the moment has created an atmosphere of self-censorship that means it has to avoid at all costs talking about the scientific method”

    Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!

  11. #11 Bruce Gorton
    November 3, 2009

    Posted by: Sigmund | November 3, 2009 4:00 AM

    One of the issues I have with the current approach is this:

    It ends up saying “Science doesn’t contradict religion, only the nutters say otherwise”.

    Now part of this is that it takes the scientific fields which actually do contradict certain religions, and dismisses their findings.

    No creationist thinks of him or herself as a nutter, and thus they look at this stance, note that they aren’t nuts, and so conclude that the science that contradicts their religion is unscientific in some way.

    Hence you get complicated forms of creationism, you get “creation science”, you get the mental gymnastics of micro-versus-macro evolution. Religion dressing as science not simply because it wants the illusion of science, but because the creationists honestly think that science is unscientific.

    You see it in the Expelled mythology, the concept that science is being ruled by a cabal of atheists who just won’t accept the inconvenient fact of God and so they silence creationists.

    A much better approach would just be simple honesty “It doesn’t actually matter, the science on this is as accurate as we can get it at present.”

  12. #12 hazur
    November 3, 2009

    Coyne: “… if they must say something about compatibility, let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as incompatible.”

    Jason: “This goes a bit too far for me.”

    Rosenhouse: “There is no need to pretend that NOMA represents some consensus view among scholars, or that there is only one correct way of viewing the relationship between science and religion.”

    Isn’t Rosenhouse going too far also, Jason? (I don’t think so)
    Cheers,

  13. #13 Jason Rosenhouse
    November 3, 2009

    Bruce -

    As Sigmund points out I think it is very clear from the context that I was talking about The God Delusion. Evolution plays a surprisingly tangential role in the book’s argument. My point was simply that the NA books are not really about the relationship between evolution and religion, unlike the books by Collins and Miller which largely are. I would certainly place Dawkins’ earlier books on any list of basic reading about evolution.

    hazur -

    Perhaps I should have been clearer. The part that I thought was going too far was in saying that the NCSE should say nothing at all about the subject. My main point was that I don’t think emphasizing that many people see no conflict and making resources available for people interested in exploring that possibility needs to cross the line into denigrating vocal atheists or taking a firm stand on the proper way to view the science/religion issue.

  14. #14 BaldApe
    November 3, 2009

    The point that so many seem to miss, and I suspect that you agree with me to some extent, is that the so-called New Atheists and the so-called Accomodationists are talking past each other.

    The NCSE has a mission of improving science education by fighting against the distortions of creationists. They are in a similar position as I am when a kid in my Biology or Earth Science class says “But what about Adam and Eve.”

    It is moderately likely that this kid has been told, explicitly or implicitly, that if they believe their science teacher they will go to Hell. My job is to get them to understand science, not to discourage their religious belief. If I try to go head to head over Biblical literalism, or similar issues, not only will I lose the student, but I will have acted unlawfully as a government employee.

    Those who attack the Accomodationists insist that philosophically you can’t subscribe to a view of the universe that is evidence-based and rigorously scientific, and still believe in religious claims.

    I do not disagree with them, but making that point is not my job. There is a difference between being nice to the reality-challenged and alienating people unnecessarily with too much of an in-you-face approach.

  15. #15 hazur
    November 3, 2009

    BaldApe: “Those who attack the Accomodationists insist that philosophically you can’t subscribe to a view of the universe that is evidence-based and rigorously scientific, and still believe in religious claims.
    I do not disagree with them, but making that point is not my job.”
    To which everybody agrees. The non-accomodationist claim is (I hope to be faithful here) that making the opposite claim shouldn’t be the job of any non-religiously affiliated scientific organization. But if out of need you are still going to say something then all positions in the scientific community should be fairly stated.
    Cheers,

  16. #16 Pierce R. Butler
    November 3, 2009

    Part of the problem is, NCSE Faith Project Director Peter M. J. Hess has a tendency to climb on his soapbox to spread, in the name of the NCSE, personal opinions more suited to an individual blog:

    Like color and shape, “creation” and “evolution” do not occupy competing categories, but are complementary ways of looking at the universe. “Creation” is a philosophical concept… an empirically untestable belief that makes no claims about how or when the world came to be…

    It was only after Coyne’s criticism of nothing-but-accommodationism that Hess expanded his “Bibliography for Theology and Evolution” to include a few titles from the skeptical viewpoint.

  17. #17 The Moiety
    November 4, 2009

    “…I think the National Center for Science Education and other scientific organizations should make no statements about the compatibility of science and religion. When they insist on this compatibility, they are engaging in theology. And if they must say something about compatibility, let them recognize that a large fraction of scientists see science and faith as incompatible…”

    This goes a bit too far for me.

    Or perhaps it not go nearly far enough?

    What would the proper response of the NCSE be to the question of how science relates to astrology? I don’t think there would be much hand wringing over a reply that went into specific detail about how science has refuted various truth claims of astrology. Why shouldn’t the same approach be taken with religious truth claims?

    Saying that some people find accommodation between science and religion is only telling half of the story. What science also has to say about religion is that it finds zero or very little evidence to support religious truth claims.

    Science rejects miracles, has found no evidence of a human soul, can not discover a scintilla of any physical trace of any god. Archeology rejects the Exodus, the Biblical flood; it cannot find circumstantial evidence of the historicity of Jesus Christ, etc.

    The NCSE would not be making any new friends if its official statement re religion was that it finds Abrahamic religious claims as plausible as alchemy and phrenology, but if it said so at least it would be forthright and honest about the subject. Damn the torpedoes.

  18. #18 Sigmund
    November 4, 2009

    The Moiety makes a good point. Evolution is not the only topic that is scientifically uncontroversial but politically controversial. What about subjects like global climate change, anti-vaccination or complementary medicine?
    Would it be reasonable to treat these subjects the way Jason suggests we treat evolution?
    For each of these topics there is also a ‘diversity’ of opinion amongst the scientific community(99% versus 1 % is diverse, isn’t it?).
    I’m swinging back towards completely backing Jerry again!
    Jason, convince me otherwise!

  19. #19 dış cephe
    November 4, 2009

    The point that so many seem to miss, and I suspect that you agree with me to some extent, is that the so-called New Atheists and the so-called Accomodationists are talking past each other.

  20. #20 Steve P.
    November 5, 2009

    Is it possible that science is just not up to the task yet?

    There was a time when we thought devils caused disease and then found out that little organisms do. It was incredible. Just as was our discovery that we could project sound over long distances via unseen waves.

    So logically, if we keep at it, we may eventually understand the fundamental forces that act upon matter as living forces?

    So why the controversy? Why all the posturing to deny this reality? How is science in fact incompatible with the logical progression of thought, which results from our scientific discoveries, leading us to the discovery that the cause of the effects we see in nature is a conscious intelligence we commonly refer to as God?

    It is absurd only from an irrational POV.

    Science rejects miracles, has found no evidence of a human soul, can not discover a scintilla of any physical trace of any god. Archeology rejects the Exodus, the Biblical flood; it cannot find circumstantial evidence of the historicity of Jesus Christ, etc.

  21. #21 IanW
    November 6, 2009

    Fortunately this doesn’t all hang on the flip-off a Coyne….

  22. #22 Robocop
    November 6, 2009

    I’m fascinated by all this talk about whether science and religion are compatible, but nobody on the non-accomodationist side of the fence seems to want to put science to work testing the hypothesis. If science and religion are truly incompatible, one ought to be able to discern it in the scientific work of actual — you know — scientists. So how about (per Prof. Heddle) a blind test where competent, working scientists are asked to review peer-reviewed papers and discern if they are written by atheists or believers? We might even create a sub-set of reviewers including elite scientists, to see if they are even more discerning. If Coyne, et als are correct, there ought to be evidence for their claims.

    Any takers?

  23. #23 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009
  24. #24 hazur
    November 6, 2009

    Robocop, that test only discriminates between competent and incompetent scientists. The incompatibility of s&r comes up when you consider what the reaction of reviewers would be, if they were presented with articles for consideration containing many of the arguments that the Miller and Collins of science put forward freely on their books or presentations, accounting for morality, conscience, origin of life, etc. Oh, and Sigmund link is appropriate too.
    Cheers,

  25. #25 Robocop
    November 6, 2009

    Robocop, that test only discriminates between competent and incompetent scientists.

    Being incompatible, by definition, means being unable to exist in harmony. If religion were truly incompatible with science, that incompatibility would have to creep into the work. A really good “accomodationist” might be able to cover up his or her infection for a while, but real incompatibility would have to show up over time. If science and religion actually are incompatible, believing scientists would be inferior. Thus my proposed test. I’m simply calling for evidence.

    Got any?

  26. #26 hazur
    November 6, 2009

    Robocop: “If religion were truly incompatible with science, that incompatibility would have to creep into the work.” It does, but it doesn’t show up for two reasons: the first is peer review, the second is that scientist have plenty of room to do good research in areas where they can dodge the conflict. As evidence, the Collins’ talk I linked to at the University of California I think is a nice example:
    Slide 1
    Almighty God, who is not limited in space or time, created a universe 13.7 billion years ago with its parameters precisely tuned to allow the development of complexity over long periods of time.

    Slide 2
    God’s plan included the mechanism of evolution to create the marvelous diversity of living things on our planet. Most especially, that creative plan included human beings.

    Slide 3
    After evolution had prepared a sufficiently advanced “house” (the human brain), God gifted humanity with the knowledge of good and evil (the Moral Law), with free will, and with an immortal soul.

    Slide 4
    We humans use our free will to break the moral law, leading to our estrangement from God. For Christians, Jesus is the solution to that estrangement.

    Slide 5
    If the Moral Law is just a side effect of evolution, then there is no such thing as good or evil. It’s all an illusion. We’ve been hoodwinked. Are any of us, especially the strong atheists, really prepared to live our lives within that worldview?

    Please, send us the link to peer review articles where we can find that published. (I took the above quotes from Sam Harris NYT article)
    Cheers,

  27. #27 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009

    Robocop said:
    “If science and religion actually are incompatible, believing scientists would be inferior. Thus my proposed test. I’m simply calling for evidence.
    Got any?”
    Here you go. Sticking with your own prediction if you follow the evidence its clear that believing scientists ARE inferior – statistically (there are bound to be a few outliers like Miller and Collins).

  28. #28 Sigmund
    November 6, 2009

    Ooops, link didnt work.
    Here’s the direct URL
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/news/file002.html

  29. #29 Robocop
    November 6, 2009

    It does, but it doesn’t show up for two reasons: the first is peer review….

    Interesting hypothesis. Can you offer any evidence that believing scientists have their work rejected more often via peer review? Edited more often or more heavily via peer review?

    …the second is that scientist have plenty of room to do good research in areas where they can dodge the conflict.

    As noted above, a really good “accomodationist” might be able to cover up his or her infection for a while, but real incompatibility would have to show up over time.

    Please, send us the link to peer review articles where we can find that published.

    Since it isn’t science, I don’t see why anyone should expect to see it anymore than I would expect to see any of the atheistic arguments (such as they are) from, for example, The God Delusion in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

  30. #30 Robocop
    November 6, 2009

    Sticking with your own prediction if you follow the evidence its clear that believing scientists ARE inferior – statistically (there are bound to be a few outliers like Miller and Collins).

    Puh-leeze. That study is as likely to be evidence of like supporting like, or the “old boy” network, or of the kind of people who go into science as a career as it is evidence of real merit. That’s why I’m calling for a blind study (and why I specifically called for, as you will recall, “a sub-set of reviewers including elite scientists”).

  31. #31 hazur
    November 6, 2009

    Robocop, I may be wrong but feel that you are just in denial mode, so I’m done for the moment. It shouldn’t be that difficult to see that believing scientist can publish without problems as long as they write as just scientists. Collins’ slides are those of a believing scientist, as opposed to what he sends to publish as just scientist. He presented them as matter of fact, like things that happen/ed, are real, and that he understands. If that does not constitute showing up real incompatibility I don’t know what it does.
    Cheers,

  32. #32 oldfuzz
    November 30, 2009

    One of the problems I have with the “science vs. religion” debate–which it has not been so far, a debate, that is–is the lax use of terminology on both sides. Consider:

    “Most people do not need to have it explained to them that evolution poses real challenges to traditional religion.” What does this mean? What is this traditional religion? To many, maybe all, anti-religion scientists this means literalist fundamentalist creationism, mainly Christian, and ignores liberal (progressive) Christians and possibly the majority of non-Christians including many humanists whose religious views are dynamic.

    Casting religion, as a general term, in the fundamentalist domain is like saying the Newtonian laws of physics, especially F=ma, were invalidated by Einstein’s theory of relativity, where e=mc**2. They weren’t. The true scientist grabbed it and moved on.

    So, too, the truly religious, theist and non-theist alike, see the whole as sacred, embracing all knowledge as additional underpinning in their quest of wonder.

    If scientists want an honest discussion of the issue they would benefit from tidying up their terminology, start using words more carefully.

    Theism is one form of religion, but there are non-theist religions, too.

    Faith and religion are not synonyms. One can have faith, but not be religious. And there are many examples of those who are religious, but have no faith.

    Fundamental, literal, creationist Christianity is a rather recent evolution (or mutation or petrifaction) in the Christian religion triggered by the scientific advances of the last few centuries and advanced by religious leaders(?) who were unwilling or afraid to consider scientific discovery as religious revelation. But this was aided by the harsh dictates of scientists who railed against those who believed in their tradition.

    I wonder if Darwin would have altered his Christian views instead of casting them aside had he enjoyed the company of Matthew Fox, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and others who, today, understand that the discoveries of science cannot be outside the domain of God’s creation, rather, God must be redefined to include everything science reveals. Of course, that’s the theist view. The non-theist religious embrace science enthusiastically.

    This means the contemporary theist has the same definition of God as always, a transcendent creative source, which is beyond “word and form” as Joseph Campbell liked to say.