Back in 2009, Chris Mooney, together with Sheril Kirshenbaum, wrote a book called Unscientific America. It purported to explain the origins of America’s current antipathy toward science, and to make suggestions for what we might do about it. It created something of a stir in the science blogosphere. I was one of many folks who found the book disappointing, for reasons I explained in a lengthy, three part review (Part One, Part Two, Part Three). I pulled my punches somewhat, partly because at one time Mooney and Kirshenbaum were my colleagues here at ScienceBlogs, and partly because I was frankly horrified by some of the more extreme overreactions the book provoked.

The book, together with Mooney’s writing on the subject of “framing,” led to some ill-feeling towards him from some of the people on my side of the blogosphere. That might help explain the rather hyperbolic reaction to his most recent article, published in Mother Jones. Larry Moran and Jerry Coyne (here and here, respectively) did not like the piece, but I think it’s actually pretty good.

The article is titled, “7 Reasons Why It’s Easier for Humans to Believe in God Than Evolution: What science can tell us about our not-so-scientific minds.” It opens like this:

Late last week, the Texas Board of Education failed to approve a leading high school biology textbook—whose authors include the Roman Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University—because of its treatment of evolution. According to The New York Times, critiques from a textbook reviewer identified as a “Darwin Skeptic” were a principal cause.

Yet even as creationists keep trying to undermine modern science, modern science is beginning to explain creationism scientifically. And it looks like evolution—the scientifically uncontested explanation for the diversity and interrelatedness of life on Earth, emphatically including human life—will be a major part of the story. Our brains are a stunning product of evolution; and yet ironically, they may naturally pre-dispose us against its acceptance.

He then points to seven cognitive predispositions that tend to make religion easier to accept than evolution. For example, people tend to be prone to teleological thinking and to biological essentialism. I won’t try to summarize the seven items, but I recommend you go read Mooney’s article to get the idea. It’s not very long. All seven items seem plausible to me, as does the general premise that religion’s ubiquity is in part the result of people’s psychological dispositions.

Larry Moran demurs:

I don’t believe that we evolved to favor religion over science any more than I believe we evolved to favor slavery, male superiority, castes, homophobia, and a host of other things that have disappeared or are about to disappear. Religion, especially the extreme versions, is soon going to disappear as well. I don’t believe that those seven things are innate, hard-wired, ways of thinking. They are mostly learned behaviors. There’s no reason to suspect than we can’t teach our children different, and better, ways of thinking. There’s no evidence that I know of that convinces me that essentialism, teleological thinking, dualism, and inability to understand vast time scales are more “natural” than other ways of thinking.

Well, if Mooney is wrong about the science that’s one thing. My experience teaching mathematics suggests to me that careful, logical thinking is not something that comes naturally to most people, and the sheer ubiquity of religion in the world suggests that there is some underlying psychological basis for it. So I’m not sure why Larry regards Mooney’s hypothesis as obviously false.

The bigger problem, however, is that what Larry is railing against here is so far removed from anything Mooney is suggesting that it amounts to simple caricature. Mooney was talking about psychological dispositions, not hard-wired, unchangeable traits. We have a tendency to find sugary and fatty foods appealing, and that tendency probably has an evolutionary origin. But that doesn’t mean we cannot be educated to reject that tendency. The point is that education is necessary, and that was the basic point Mooney was making about our psychological dispositions. Religion comes naturally, he is arguing, but science has to be taught.

Larry tells us that religion is primarily about learned behavior. I’m sure that’s true, but why are so many people being taught religious modes of thought in the first place? And why do so many people find those modes of thought appealing? If I understand Mooney’s point, he would say that the specifics of religious belief and practice are learned and differ from culture to culture, but a general tendency to find something like religion to be appealing is innate.

Jerry’s post is far more measured, and provides a far more accurate summary of what Mooney wrote, but I disagree with his main criticism:

Although Mooney opposes evolution and religion in his title, he will claim (see below) that they’re still compatible. And he’s not suggesting in that title that belief in God promotes rejection of evolution, even though that’s the fact of the matter, a fact one can glean from Mooney’s analysis. What he’s suggesting is, in fact, that humans have hard-wired psychological traits that prevent them from accepting evolution. Although it’s not a coincidence that many of these features are those that promote religion, Mooney doesn’t emphasize that conclusion.

I don’t know what article Jerry read. I don’t see how Mooney could have been clearer that he thinks religious belief tends to make one hostile towards evolution. As Jerry notes, it’s right there in the subtitle. The juxtaposition is also pretty obvious from the article’s introduction. The article is so shot through with the idea that science and religion are opposed, that Mooney felt he had to clarify his view of the matter at the article’s conclusion. The point is simply that the story doesn’t end when you say, “The popularity of religion is the main reason people reject evolution.” The popularity of religion is precisely what needs to be explained.

Speaking of which, that’s another place where Jerry takes issue with Mooney. Mooney wrote:

Such is the research, and it’s important to point out a few caveats. First, this doesn’t mean science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The conflict may run very deep indeed, but nevertheless, some individuals can and do find a way to retain their religious beliefs and also accept evolution—including the aforementioned biology textbook author Kenneth Miller of Brown University, a Catholic.

Jerry is unamused:

So after he says that there is a deep conflict between science and religion, he backtracks and says that maybe there isn’t, really, because people like Ken Miller can accept both science and religion. That is infuriating. Mooney has been an accommodationist for a long time, but apparently hasn’t listened to the rebuttals of the “some scientists are religious” argument for compatibility. (He’s heard that rebuttal a lot; I mentioned it in a review of his book that I published in Science.) Mooney might as well say, “The conflict between Catholicism and child rape may run very deep indeed, but nevertheless, some individuals can and do find a way to be both a Catholic and a child rapist, including Angel Perez, a Catholic priest.”

I think Mooney has it exactly right.

When you assert that the conflict between science and religion is “very deep indeed,” and then remark that some individuals merely “find a way” to reconcile the two, I hardly think you can be accused of downplaying the conflict. But Mooney does stop short of saying flatly that they are incompatible, and I think that’s correct. Conflicts are not the same as contradictions, and as strongly as I disagree with the arguments made on behalf of reconciliation I don’t think it’s right to say flatly that you cannot accept both.

That also explains why Jerry’s analogy is inapt. A priest who engages in child abuse is not reconciling his behavior with Catholic teaching about respect for individuals. He is simply being hypocritical in claiming publicly to accept Catholic teaching while behaving in ways that are flatly in contradiction with it. That’s not the case with people who try to reconcile science and religion. I have all sorts of criticisms to make of their arguments, and I do not think they are successful in resolving the conflicts between science and religion. But I do not see any hypocrisy, and I do not see how they are accepting beliefs that are flatly contradictory.

Frankly, I think religious folks have more to feel aggrieved about than atheists with regard to Mooney’s article. Mooney’s whole premise, if I may read between the lines just a little bit, is that all the rational, reasonable people are on the side of evolution. That’s why we must look for a psychological explanation for why all those folks on the other side do not agree. I think a lot of religious folks would not be amused by Mooney’s psychoanalysis, and would retort that it is they, and not the scientists, who are thinking clearly.

I get very annoyed when defenders of evolution pretend that virtually all Christians accept evolution and suggest that it is only a handful of extremists who believe otherwise. That is flatly untrue, and it trivializes very difficult issues. But I also don’t like it when my fellow atheists say bluntly that science and religion are incompatible, as though that’s a statement of fact and not opinion.

Whether or not science and religion are compatible depends on what you mean by the words “religion” and “compatible.” It depends on what you consider it plausible to believe. I know where I stand on those questions, and I will argue strongly against anyone who demurs from my view. But arguing about the compatibility of science and religion is not the same as arguing about, say, the merits of evolution. That question can be resolved definitively by a sober consideration of the evidence. Science and religion compatibility is murkier.

Jerry post contains his usual arguments about the opposition between religious belief and acceptance of evolution. I agree with everything he says in that regard. I just see this material as mostly nonresponsive to Mooney’s article.

Comments

  1. #1 Thanny
    December 4, 2013

    The main problem both Mooney and you have is that you use the term religion as if it’s something much more specific than it is. You both claim that “religion” is ubiquitous in human culture, but use a vary narrow definition of the term that fits only the western religion that you’re both most familiar with.

    That particular brand of religion has been a minority position for the entirety of human history, so arguing for some kind of innate yearning for its basic monotheistic precepts is nothing short of provincial nonsense.

    As for the compatibility of science and religion (in the broadest sense), there is none. Science is the process of acquiring knowledge systematically following the basic rules of reason. Religion, in its broadest sense, is about holding beliefs that were given without reasonable foundation, usually at a very early age.

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 4, 2013

    Thanny–

    Where exactly did I employ a narrow definition of religion that fits only Western religion? At the end of post I specifically point out that “religion” is a vague term. And considering how you ended your comment, I’d say you have some nerve in accusing others of taking too narrow a definition of religion.

  3. #3 Richard Wein
    December 4, 2013

    Good, well-measured post, Jason.

    ‘I don’t know what article Jerry read. I don’t see how Mooney could have been clearer that he thinks religious belief tends to make one hostile towards evolution.’

    Yes, but he didn’t shove that conclusion forcefully into the faces of religionists. He didn’t make it the whole point of the article. Worse still, he committed the unforgivable sin of being Chris Mooney. ;-)

    ‘Whether or not science and religion are compatible depends on what you mean by the words “religion” and “compatible.”

    Yes, the word “compatible” causes more trouble than it’s worth in this context. I think you’ve expressed things well in the past, when you’ve said that there’s a high degree of “tension” between science and religion. I would also say that someone who adopts a scientifically-informed way of thinking about religious claims is likely to reject them. Mooney puts it fairly well, though he leaves his comment ambiguous by using the word “may”: “The conflict may run very deep indeed, but…”. This can be read as a concessive “may”, making the clause equivalent to “Although the the conflict runs very deep…” But it could also be read as expressing uncertainty: “Perhaps the conflict runs very deep”.

  4. #4 DS
    December 4, 2013

    The two things that motivate humans more than any others are fear of death and fear of change. Evolution requires both, religion circumvents both. So it is naturally easier for humans to accept religion than evolution. Of course, that doesn’t make it right.

  5. #5 Chband
    United States
    December 4, 2013

    It used to be so easy to believe in god. We got volcano god and lightning god. The great heroes or kings are all semi-gods. Why do you need any physiological reason?

  6. #6 Brian
    December 4, 2013

    I just can’t agree with your statement “But I do not see any hypocrisy, and I do not see how they are accepting beliefs that are flatly contradictory.” It is contradictory to believe, for example, that mutation is random and also believe that god is in some way directing evolution. One could always say that God is merely using mutation and selection his means of creation, but then he would not be perfect as I was taught he was in Catholic school. How is this not contradictory?

  7. #7 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 4, 2013

    You do not have to believe that God is personally directing the mutations to reconcile evolution with Christianity. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s a minority view among those who defend theistic evolution.

    People who defend this view could also just say that the mutations only appear random, and can be studied by scientists as though they were random, but really that is ultimately an illusion. I think this view has serious problems though. It casts God in the role of deceiver for one thing. For another, it’s inherently untestable and ad hoc.

  8. #8 Gary Slabaugh
    Utah
    December 4, 2013

    “[Hypocrisy is] not the case with people who try to reconcile science and religion.” Do we REALLY want this ongoing culture war. Darwin’s theory and all good (as opposed to pseudo) science is deeply ingrained in our culture. Religious myth, stories, fictions taken as divine truths are probably even more deeply rooted in our culture. Frankly the number one priority in this cultural dialogue is to be aware of our own hypocrisy instead of pointing the finger of blame and shame.The belief that empirical science is going to drive transcendent religion extinct is extreme wishful thinking, no? Is reconciliation, understanding, seeking common ground, mutual respect for “the other” with whom one has an honest difference of opinion in metaphysics REALLY so beyond the pale?

  9. #9 Daoud
    Canada
    December 4, 2013

    I read all three articles (and yours), I found Mooney’s to be reasonable, Moran’s to be a barely coherent rant, and Coyne’s to be partisan and unfair. I think yours is a reasonable defense. I am not familiar with any of these four’s previous writings.

  10. #10 Michael Fugate
    December 4, 2013

    That sounds lovely, but what exactly does it entail? Teaching creationism in schools or letting students opt out of evolution, segregated seating at lectures?

  11. #11 Michael Fugate
    December 4, 2013

    ” Is reconciliation, understanding, seeking common ground, mutual respect for “the other” with whom one has an honest difference of opinion in metaphysics REALLY so beyond the pale?”

    (the quote from Gary’s comment that I was replying to didn’t appear above -sorry)

    That sounds lovely, but what exactly does it entail? Teaching creationism in schools or letting students opt out of evolution, segregated seating at lectures?

  12. #12 sean samis
    December 4, 2013

    I saw the comments about Mooney’s piece on WEIT. Coyne’s comments included a graph he’s published before regarding a correlation between religious belief and acceptance of evolution.

    As one of the comments (#19) said there,

    “The most interesting thing about that graph is that there is one unidentified country more religious than the US but also nearly twice as accepting of evolution, and two other countries (unidentified) that are nearly as religious as the US and much more accepting of evolution.

    Upshot: we in the US are doing something wrong. It would be good to know what countries those data points represent and figure out what they are doing.

    There is a correlation between religious belief and acceptance of evolution, but it appears to be a weak correlation; acceptance of evolution drops 30% (78% down to 48%) as belief in God rises 90% (10% up to 100%).

    Chris Mooney makes some good points, and the data in the graph does not strongly disprove anything he says; given the wide scatter at any level of belief or acceptance, the data may support Mooney.”

    I’ve made this point in the past, but I am no longer permitted to comment at WEIT. The correlation between belief and acceptance of evolution is exaggerated by Coyne, I suppose to justify a strong disapproval of “accommodationism”.

    In any event, Mooney’s piece is not about “accommodationism” as much as about innate human biases and mental behaviors. Some wish he’d been more negative about religion, but Mooney appears to have believed that is not part of the information he was presenting, and I agree with that.

    sean s.

  13. #13 eric
    December 4, 2013

    Larry Moran quote:

    I don’t believe that those seven things are innate, hard-wired, ways of thinking. They are mostly learned behaviors. There’s no reason to suspect than we can’t teach our children different, and better, ways of thinking. There’s no evidence that I know of that convinces me that essentialism, teleological thinking, dualism, and inability to understand vast time scales are more “natural” than other ways of thinking.

    I think Moony’s argument works pretty well even without calling these traits innate or hard-wired. Normal life forces people to make a huge number of decisions and categorizations using non-scientific decision-making processes, generalizations, and biases. The ‘predispositions’ that Mooney cites might be innate, or learned, or a bit of both, but they are constantly reinforced by a lot of our normal, every day life. To take one example from Moony’s article, a two-year-old’s essentialism is probably reinforced by the way adults around them speak normally about objects. ‘Cats aren’t dogs’ and so on.

    Compared to science, such alternate decision-making processes are extroadinarily cheap and fast. So as long as they work even just moderately well, people are going to keep using them, and its naive to think that a good education will stop this. For most people and most life decisions, its just not worth the effort to make that decision scientifically. Outside of maybe a few hours of quality classroom time a day,excluding weekends and summers, for maybe 18 years, the entire weight of human experience is teaching people that these unscientific ways of thinking generally do the trick.

    So to respond to Larry: yeah, we can teach our children different and better ways to think. And we should. But these better ways to think are going to be layered on top of the unscientific ways of thinking which get used all day, every day, in normal life. Are these or other cognitive predispositions more ‘natural’ in the sense of built in? I don’t know. Are they more ‘natural’ in the sense of being getting more practice, being easier, and thus being more reflexively used? Yes, I’d say so – and I’d say that no education program is going to change this. We’ll need to teach our children when to use each different way of thinking – each tool in their cognitive toolkit – because IMO you’ll never be able to remove those ‘worse ways of thinking’ tools from it. They have too much day-to-day utility to disappear, and scientific analysis happens too little to ever realistically replace them as default decision-making mechanisms.

    As an analogy, doing science is like driving a car. Cognitive predispositions are like walking. Yes, its better for all of us if everyone learns how to drive competently and uses those skills appropriately (do not drive on the sidewalk; do not run down the middle of the road). But for the vast majority of 1st world people, the best driver’s education system in the world is still not going to make driving as ‘natural’ to them as walking.

  14. #14 sean samis
    December 4, 2013

    In my post above (#12) I should have credited a contributor named George Hand for the lengthy quote. My bad.

    sean s.

  15. #15 eric
    December 4, 2013

    Gary:

    Frankly the number one priority in this cultural dialogue is to be aware of our own hypocrisy instead of pointing the finger of blame and shame.

    IMO the number one priority is that kids get a secular education in state-supported primary and secondary schools, and more specifically, a sound science education in science classes. No pro- religious messages from the state, and no punches pulled about what manstream science says and why it says it.

    The belief that empirical science is going to drive transcendent religion extinct is extreme wishful thinking, no?

    Well, its a bigger (or different) giant than I would personally tilt at. My donations of time, money, and effort go more towards medical relief than eliminating religion. OTOH, given the history of 20th century Europe, the idealogical goal of greatly reducing the impact of religion on society seems a lot more doable than curing cancer or putting humans on Mars.

  16. #16 konrad
    December 4, 2013

    The problem with Mooney’s article is that he starts by implying the premise that our brains naturally pre-dispose us against accepting evolution. What he actually states is that this _may_ be true, but the implication is clear.

    He then goes on to provide explanations for why his premise is true, without bothering to ask whether it actually _is_ true. But the thorny reality is that it’s only true in _some_ countries. To non-American readers it reads as if he is writing an article explaining why the sky is green.

  17. #17 sean samis
    December 4, 2013

    eric,

    I like your comment #13 very much.

    With regards to #15, I’d only say that our number one priority should be that kids have access to a good education. Religiously neutral (not the same as secular) education in state-supported primary and secondary schools is the best way to do that, but as long as they have access to a good education and a sound science education, then I don’t care what kind of school teaches it.

    The State should never promote any message about religion except that it’s a personal matter, and it should never alter the content of science classes to suit any view about religion (including secularism).

    The only way to reduce the impact of religious thought is to promote religious liberty and that requires protecting the rights and dignity of people who are religious. There’s no other way to get their buy-in except by violence.

    sean s.

  18. #18 Gary Slabaugh
    December 4, 2013

    I think what it implies is better education starting at youth about a more sophisticated understanding of cultural values. How we as a society would teach mutual respect for persons who have different values is of paramount importance. Ought it just to be left up to parents? It’s like sex education on a grander scale, but how successful have we been as a society teaching youth about sexual values? Education is the key, but what is taught and how it’s taught is presently part of the problem instead of part of the solution. Good values, like good science, isn’t about popularity. Or are cultural values only consensus opinions?

  19. #19 Les Lane
    http://lclane2.net
    December 4, 2013

    Most people acquire religion and rudimentary cognitive skills while very young. Formal reasoning normally develops about the age of 12, but never develops in some. It’s clear that virtually everyone has cognitive biases to overcome by the time they acquire sufficient analytical skills to grasp evolution. It’s also clear that many will never acquire the necessary skills whether or not they profess belief in evolution.

  20. #20 sean samis
    December 4, 2013

    I think the premise of Mooney’s piece is that our minds are predisposed in ways that make accepting evolution difficult. This is not the same as being “predisposed to reject evolution”. Evolution is just a very challenging idea for many people.

    These predispositions do occur in people from different countries, they appear to be normal human traits. If evolution is more accepted in other countries (even other highly religious countries) then it is likely that people in other countries have been better educated to avoid these biases. Given the sad state of US education, that is quite likely.

    sean s.

  21. #21 Gary Slabaugh
    December 4, 2013

    I agree that a secular education is a great way to help young minds develop critical thinking skills (a great antidote to hypocrisy if learned to be self directed instead of primarily other directed). Also critical thinking would go a long way toward detecting BS in pseudoscience and pseudohistory and religious/political neo-fascism.

  22. #22 James Downard
    Spokane WA
    December 4, 2013

    This fracas over Mooney’s piece is delightfully illustrative of how convoluted the creation/evolution debate can get once people loose sight of the forest/tree issue of what is going on cognitively in people’s heads when they express skepticism about evolution. I’ve been studying this for some decades and Mooney is quite good in his taxonomy (I call things by different terms, such as the Map of Time problem for time scales, but small difference). My wrinkle is that I regard these as only epiphenomena of a deeper attribute, the “tortucan” trait of being able easily to not think about things you don’t want to think about, which may also be connected to the “supersense” elements outlined by British psychologist Bruce Hood, and built on by Michael Shermer in “The Believing Brain”.

    Kulturkampf conservative Christianity is the social network within which a small group (maybe only 10-15%) of full blown tortucan activists have corralled a larger demographic in their belief system, which includes (but is hardly limited to) disbelief in evolution, and the stability of that cohort in the US (roughly 45%) should be telling us loads about the unique dynamics of American society. But students of this topic shouldn’t presume the low incidence of creationism in some countries is the same as a low occurrence of oddball thinking in general. If you would like a short definition for religion, it is a “neotonous spandrel that is sustained as a scorched-earth defense,” and anyone who expects religion or even evolution doubting to disappear in a utopia of secular education will find their expectations dashed when it comes to that 10-15% tortucan cohort that shows up across the globe (as Moran’s own chart indicated).

  23. #23 PaulC
    December 4, 2013

    The article isn’t terrible, but it is weak in the sense that it explains too little about too much. For instance, quantum mechanics is counterintuitive for many of the same reasons offered for evolution, but is rarely the subject of political controversy. Why is that?

    It’s pretty obvious that people have to work hard to become critical thinkers–e.g. to avoid seeing specious patterns in random data or to avoid selection bias that reinforces preconceptions. Scientists also have to work hard, but they do it or else they don’t succeed in their field.

    The “thinking is hard work” thesis can explain a host of phenomena from lottery ticket purchases to herd reasoning. What it doesn’t explain is why evolution in particular is the subject of more political action than any other scientific theory. I think the reason is that it is uniquely threatening to a specific set of religious beliefs.

    Based on this, I would expect it to show a strong dependence on culture rather than intrinsic human traits. And, what do you know, the chart reproduced by Moran seems to back this up.

  24. #24 sean samis
    December 4, 2013

    “quantum mechanics is counterintuitive for many of the same reasons offered for evolution, but is rarely the subject of political controversy.”

    … because it is not yet believed that QM undermines other critical beliefs; such as the belief in deites, of human specialness, of a designer of reality, etc.; all of which are undermined or challenged by evolution.

    sean s.

  25. #25 konrad
    December 4, 2013

    @James Downard: but there is a world of difference between an effect present in 45% of people and one present in 10-15% of people. The former certainly warrants an explanation; the latter – not so much.

  26. #26 Gary Slabaugh
    December 4, 2013

    That the human animal has the mental processes to create gods, elevate ourselves into children of gods, conceive of reality in terms of the illusion of design is a testament to the natural selection of brains. Now if we can use our brains not to impoverish and foul the biosphere…

  27. #27 MNb
    December 4, 2013

    ” My experience teaching mathematics suggests to me that careful, logical thinking is not something that comes naturally to most people, ”
    As a teacher math and physics (my pupils are 12-16 years old) I can only confirm this. Frankly, when Coyne does not write about biology he confirms this as well. His “religion and science are incompatible” is such a strong dogma for him that anything that may even remotely seem to contradict it is wrong a priori. That’s why I only scanned the first few lines he wrote about Mooney and skipped the rest.
    Teaching careful, logical thinking can be done though and that’s why teaching math properly is so important. Especially young teenagers are open to it.

    “I get very annoyed when defenders of evolution pretend that virtually all Christians accept evolution and suggest that it is only a handful of extremists who believe otherwise”
    In several European countries this is the case indeed.

  28. #28 MNb
    December 4, 2013

    @20 Sean Samis: “If evolution is more accepted in other countries”
    it’s because Dawkins is right on this point: kids are used to the idea of common descent from an early age on.

  29. #29 couchloc
    December 4, 2013

    This is an interesting article you’ve posted. I think Jason is right about the issue of “compatibility” and that those like Coyne who are constantly selling the hard-incompatibilism line are wrong and come across as biased. Jason’s account is more measured and sensible in this regard. The only thing I would add to this discussion has to do with the contrast between “evolution and religion” that frames the larger issue. As someone who teaches the theism-atheism debate I think it is a mistake to think that the way to get students to reject religion is to focus on teaching the “theory of evolution”. The material taught in Biology classes is not likely to do lots to students views about religion in the larger scene. These classes don’t focus on theism enough to lead to searching examinations of students’ personal beliefs of the sort that are required. So I disagree with Coyne’s view that the way towards a secular society is through teaching evolution more. A more effective way is to have students read the classical authors from other areas: Freud, Hume, Nietzsche, Marx, etc. This material directly engages with the student and doesn’t require her to learn lots of scientific theory which is an obstacle for some of them. Coyne wants to make everything into a debate with evolution but that seems unhelpful in some ways.

  30. #30 mrkat2
    Finland
    December 5, 2013

    Evolution has armed our minds to observe others minds movements. Rosenhouse and Mooney got it. Funny that Coyne et al don’t want listen what stories evolution tried to whisper.

  31. #31 Iain Robertson
    Edinburgh, Scotland
    December 5, 2013

    Why is it that some of you Americans (it is an exclusively American thing, as far as I can see) have such a problem with the reality of human evolution? The biologist that was mentioned elsewhere in this has pointed out one ‘error’ in the human genome that arose when one sequence of human DNA was split and ‘reconnected the wrong way round’… which resulted in that piece of genetic material being ‘non-functional’ (junk DNA, basically) – this is surely one of the best pieces of evidence for the reality of human evolution (unless it was a piece of ‘misdirection’….)

  32. #32 Iain Robertson
    Edinburgh, Scotland
    December 5, 2013

    The biologist that I mentioned a few minutes ago, was (I see) Kenneth Miller who is a Catholic who does not think that the Almighty is a cheap conjurer…

  33. #33 eric
    December 5, 2013

    Iain @31:

    Why is it that some of you Americans (it is an exclusively American thing, as far as I can see) have such a problem with the reality of human evolution?

    That is a good question, and the one that folk like Mooney (and Rosenhouse and Coyne etc.) are trying to answer.

    But you and Sean @20 bring up a good data point – rejection varies with country. This would seem to support Coyne’s position (that the idiosyncratics of particular religious belief are the major factor) and undermine Mooney’s position (that common human cognitive biases are the major factor), since rejection of evolution seems to correlate much more strongly with religious sect than it does with ‘having predispositions.’

    This is not to say that Mooney is entirely wrong. A prediction from his argument would be that acceptance of evolution would increase with critical thinking and general education skills (i.e., the ability to be aware of, and step out of ones’ biases). And that is in fact what we see, even in the US. So standard human cognitive biases probably are playing a part. However, given the very clear and obvious differences between evolution rejection in different countries and subcultures, IMO county and subculture has to be having a great deal of impact.

  34. #34 Daoud
    Canada
    December 5, 2013

    From 27 above: “Frankly, when Coyne does not write about biology he confirms this as well. His “religion and science are incompatible” is such a strong dogma for him that anything that may even remotely seem to contradict it is wrong a priori.”

    This I find typical, because it is typical human nature! How many “Brights” (gag) and other self-proclaimed critical thinkers lack or don’t apply critical thought to some areas of life? I would predict all of them (myself included)! How many brilliant scientists and phd’s in complex fields are hopelessly dogmatic and uncritical and unthinking in areas outside their expertise?

    HUGE caveat: I am not equating the quality or value of thought from a brilliant scientist with some knob-head creationist! I am just saying that for all our the success of rational thinking and scientific thought, no one is a computer or robot and no one is immune to the weaknesses found in the human brain.

    For this specific example, I would probably greatly enjoy listening to Larry Moran speak or Jerry Coyne speak about biology and evolution. I doubt I’d enjoy listening to them go on about religion. Same reason I read Dawkin’s Ancestor’s Tale or Selfish Gene but have no interest in The God Delusion.

  35. #35 Sean T
    December 5, 2013

    Michael Fugate,

    Pardon me for jumping in, but maybe such a reconciliation could involve teaching only evolution in science classes, but having students take some type of comparitive religion class where they study the beliefs of various world religions. It would most definitely not be aimed at promoting religious belief, but rather only descriptive of what the belief systems of the major religions are. Such a class would allow treatment of creationism in its proper setting as well as being beneficial in promoting understanding of the cultural and historical developments in different areas of the world. Like it or not, religion has undeniably been a major influence on the history and culture of the world, and such a study of religious beliefs could lead to a better understanding of historical events and cultural differences.

  36. #36 Michael Fugate
    December 5, 2013

    Sean, I agree. This is where I have problems with the US approach to religion in education. We have school administrators who force students to hear evangelists and others who tell students they can’t read Bibles on school property. I am much more in favor of an integrated curriculum where ideas can be explored from different perspectives than what we have now where we argue on whether this is science or philosophy or history or math. School doesn’t reflect the need for integration necessary to function as an adult.

  37. #37 MNb
    December 5, 2013

    @33 Eric: “rejection varies with country. This would seem to support Coyne’s position”
    It doesn’t. The Netherlands have 14% atheists and 14% agnosts, which means 70% believers. Still evolution is hardly an issue. Even orthodox-protestant schools teach it – it’s required by (Dutch) government.
    Of course Coyne never discusses this point – I strongly suspect because it doesn’t suit his prejudices.
    At the other hand state-religion separation is much stricter in the USA than in The Netherlands. Said Dutch orthodox-protestant schools are financed by government as well. Important points are that in The Netherlands the educational curriculum is highly standardized and that there is consensus that scientists have a big say in that curriculum.
    Do the USA know something like this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freudenthal_Institute_for_Science_and_Mathematics_Education

    If yes, is its influence as big?

    @34 Daoud: “lack or don’t apply critical thought”
    Of course this applies to me as well. But the remedy has been known since JM Keynes: “if my info changes my decisions change. What about you, sir?” The primary task of the skeptic is to look for additional and contradictory evidence, challenging his/her own opinions. And how stronger emotionally attached you are to those opinions the more active you should be.
    From my own experience I know how painful that can be. But what right do I have to challenge the opinions of others if I don’t challenge my own?

  38. #38 Daoud
    Canada
    December 5, 2013

    @37 MNb
    It is interesting that the US has probably one of the strongest constitutionally protected separation of church and state in the world, certainly much stronger than Canada. But then again, it would seem they need it! :)

    When I (arrogantly) accuse everyone (including myself) of having blind spots in their application of critical or scientific thought, there is also a big question of degree and impact. Because I am not saying there is an equivalence between Jerry Coyne, and let’s say, Ken Ham! And it makes a big difference in impact if you’re a biochemist who just sounds like a blowhard when ranting about religion, but you’re doing science in your classes and research, as opposed to being a religious blowhard who is working to have religion taught in place of science in science classes. I just want to point out that I believe it’s impossible for anyone to relentlessly, universally apply critical thinking to every aspect of life (and I don’t think that would actually be desirable), and that I have too often found champions of critical thought etc. to fall far short of that ideal when moving outside their very specific, narrow subject of expertise.

  39. #39 eric
    December 5, 2013

    Mnb:

    @33 Eric: “rejection varies with country. This would seem to support Coyne’s position”
    It doesn’t. The Netherlands have 14% atheists and 14% agnosts, which means 70% believers. Still evolution is hardly an issue. Even orthodox-protestant schools teach it – it’s required by (Dutch) government.

    That’s a quibble at best. The country variance supports the point that belief systems (whether religious or not) are a major factor. If rejection of evolution were primarily the result of cognitive biases all humans shared, then mapping rejection across the globe would not lead to a lumpy pattern, it would lead to a smooth one. Mooney’s argument is somewhat similar to saying “Yo Yo Ma is a good cellist because humans evolved nimble fingers.” Broad-based characteristics of all humans cannot fully or even best explain secondary charactistics that vary widely within (the population of) humans.

  40. #40 colnago80
    December 5, 2013

    Re Sean “Semis @ #12

    Prof. Coyne has rather sensitive corns. He banned me last year for having the temerity to point out that Lawrence Krauss has palled around with a child molester, one Jeffrey Epstein. However, I now have a new moniker and use gmail so I can post comments again over there. However, I studiously avoid stepping on Coyne’s sensitive corns.

    Re Jason Rosenhouse

    I think that some of the negativity that Coyne and Moran show towards Mooney is a hangover from the framing wars of several years ago. I am convinced that Mooney was brainwashed by his association with Matt Nisbet, an accommodationist par excellence. Some of that washed off during his sojourn in Los Angeles but not all. I note that there is also animosity against him because he accepted a Templeton fellowship, a dog whistle for the Coynes and Morans of the world.

  41. #41 MNb
    December 6, 2013

    “When I (arrogantly) accuse everyone …”
    That’s not arrogance, that’s accepting a scientific fact – from psychology this time. Like you wrote there is no reason to consider yourself an exception. One of the paradoxes I like so much is that being aware of it leads to (attempts to) diminishing the problem.

  42. #42 sean samis
    December 6, 2013

    Eric (#39),

    If “belief systems (whether religious or not) are a major factor” in the acceptance of evolution, the data slope would be much steeper and the scatter narrower. The data shows clearly that religious belief is only weakly correlated with acceptance of evolution.

    MNb’s point is quite valid.

    sean s.

  43. #43 PaulC
    December 6, 2013

    Shorter Mooney: “People don’t understand evolution because it’s Science, and Science is hard to understand.” Seriously, I don’t find anything to disagree with in Mooney’s article, but I’m missing the part where it provides any new insight.

    I liked eric’s analogy to Yo Yo Ma. A theory that explains why Yo Yo Ma plays the violin better than a moose is not very interesting. A theory that explains why he plays better than almost all other professional violinists would be interesting.

    Most people already agree that science can get pretty hard. Classical physics from over 150 years ago is already hugely counterintuitive–e.g. Poisson’s Spot, the bright spot at the center of a sphere’s shadow.

    So my question (and maybe I’m missing something obvious) is what has Mooney said that applies to evolution and does not apply to every other scientific principle that goes against human intuition?

    Take Poisson’s Spot specifically. Obviously, certain tendencies such as “biological essentialism” would not apply, but others (line of sight visibility) could be substituted. Yes, the human brain is not well suited to understand certain things without disciplined study. But that point is not contested. The issue is what is special about evolution in contrast with other scientific theories, and Mooney provides little to say about that.

  44. #44 MNb
    December 6, 2013

    @39 Patrick Sele: “It was not the result of HER free will, but of HER FATHER’S.”
    So your god values the free will of her father the rapist higher than the suffering of his victim. Her own free will doesn’t matter anyway. So much for a righteous god.
    Also note that an omnigood, omniknowing, omnipresent and omnipotent god easily could have found a way not to affect the precious free will of a rapist and still give victim Elisabeth the chance to get free. Wait – your god actually did. I wonder why waited for 24 years. Maybe your omni-everything god actually enjoyed Elisabeth’s suffering and decided to remain a passive bystander? In a civilized country we consider that a crime too, you know. Yup, you’re worshipping a criminal god.

    “I wouldn’t say that Elisabeth Fritzl committed a sin that made her deserve 24 years of being locked up and raped”
    Then why did your god punish her for all those years? I have made two suggestions. The first one is that he is not righteous, the second one that he is a criminal himself. My third one is that he is not there. What’s your pick?

    “If God created us so that we always would want to do good, we no longer would have free will.”
    Where was Elisabeth Fritzl’ free will during her 24 years stay in her father’s basement?
    It seems that you value the free will of Daddy Fritzl to rape or not rape his daughter higher than the free will of the victim. So much for christian compassion.

  45. #45 MNb
    December 6, 2013

    S**t, wrong thread. JR, could you be so kind to remove my comment above (#44)?

  46. #46 JerrySchwarz
    December 6, 2013

    Mooney has some interesting things to say about psychology, but I agree with PaulC (#23, #43) that most of the biases he enumerates would tend to make physics (both classical and quantum) hard to accept. Which means that if you want to explain rejection of evolution by these biases you need to explain why they don’t cause rejection of the physical sciences as well.

    Many anti-creationists seem to believe that the conflict between science and religion consists primarily in the conflict between biology (i.e. evolution) and religion. But I think the conflict is primarily between physical science and the supernatural. I reject the idea of “guided evolution” not because there is evidence from biology that God hasn’t intervened in mutations or the path of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs but because physics rules out those interventions.

  47. #47 H.H.
    December 15, 2013

    If religion and science were compatible, it would be possible to mix them without conflict. Though operating by different means, each would arrive at the same conclusions, supporting and affirming one another with complimentary viewpoints.

    But as everyone is aware, that’s not the reality. Good religious scientists know that they must keep their religion out of their science. Their “solution” to the obvious conflict is to keep science and faith in separate “compartments,” never allowing them to intrude into the other’s spheres. But that’s not a solution, it’s a demonstration of their inherent incompatibility! If you can’t mix them without disastrous results, then clearly they aren’t compatible.

    I mean, in what sense could they be compatible?
    Science is a form of applied skepticism. Religion demands faith. Skepticism is fatal to faith, and faith is fatal to skepticism. Plainly so. There is no “murkiness.”

  48. #48 Ichthyic
    December 15, 2013

    we have certain psychological dispositions that make it easier for us to accept religion than evolution

    without intending to offend by not having a chance to read all the comments yet, the problem with this is that it is only partially correct.

    SOME of us have personality types that dispose us to religion as an organizing principle. The underlying personality would also score highly on authoritarian scales.

    Mooney, as usual, is pontificating without even bothering to research the psychology and sociology involved, which has been out there for over 30 years already.

    It’s past time anyone takes Mooney seriously any more. He just repeats the same patterns endlessly. My take on him was always that he himself would score highly on an authoritarian personality index.

  49. #49 Ichthyic
    December 15, 2013

    …anyone who ever even read “The Authoritarians” already knows the underlying psychology that predisposes one to religious thought.

    aside from any other hundreds of other treatises on the subject.

    Mooney is not interesting to anyone who has studied this stuff, even for a single day.

  50. #50 MNb
    December 15, 2013

    @46 JS: I think the main conflict is not between science and religion but between science and pseudoscience. Other disciplines see similar conflicts; most Jesus-mythologians are pseudoscientists. Pseudoscience can, is often but doesn’t need to be religiously inspired.
    @47 HH: “If religion and science were compatible, it would be possible to mix them without conflict.”
    Then you have to check every single theist on Earth to check if he/she fails to mix them without conflict.
    Good luck.

    “Though operating by different means, each would arrive at the same conclusions”
    This is silly. General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics in some respects arrive at different conclusions even if using the same means.

    “But that’s not a solution, it’s a demonstration of their inherent incompatibility!”
    That’s a non-sequitur you very likely will not apply to science and ethics.

    “If you can’t mix them without disastrous results, then clearly they aren’t compatible.
    Using the scientific method to answer ethical questions gives disastrous results, so according to you all scientists should be amoral.

    I’d love to see proven that religion and science are incompatible indeed as it would be the last nail to religion’s coffin, but it’s an extraordinary claim and thus according to our own skepticism demands extraordinary evidence and arguments. You have to do better than this.

  51. #51 Anton Mates
    December 18, 2013

    Brian,

    It is contradictory to believe, for example, that mutation is random and also believe that god is in some way directing evolution.

    Not really. Evolutionary theory only requires mutations to be “random” in the sense that their probability of occurrence must be uncorrelated with their effect on fitness. In other words, organisms don’t preferentially develop beneficial mutations for a given environment.

    Mutations need not be random in the sense of being, ultimately, indeterministic or unpredictable. Evolution works just fine in computer simulations, where mutations are determined by pseudorandom number generators.

    Nor do mutations need to be random in the sense that all mutations are equally likely. Some are definitely more likely than others, depending on whether they’re transversions or transitions, point mutations or insertions or deletions, caused by a particular chemical or frequency of radiation, etc.

    So it’s entirely possible for mutations to appear random in the way asserted by evolutionary theory, and yet be chosen by God for his mysterious purpose of ensuring the eventual appearance of axolotls, or whatever it is he wants to do.

    Like Jason says, that’s not a particularly parsimonious combination of beliefs, but it’s not contradictory either.

    JerrySchwarz,

    Mooney has some interesting things to say about psychology, but I agree with PaulC (#23, #43) that most of the biases he enumerates would tend to make physics (both classical and quantum) hard to accept. Which means that if you want to explain rejection of evolution by these biases you need to explain why they don’t cause rejection of the physical sciences as well.

    Particularly when you consider that the general public believes that modern physics is baffling, counterintuitive and illogical, and they’re okay with it anyway. They simply accept that you have to be a particular type of highly-trained genius to understand relativity or quantum stuff.

    So if many Americans reject evolutionary theory, it’s not because they don’t understand it; they accept lots of things they don’t understand. It’s either because they believe that it’s wrong or dangerous to accept evolution, or because they believe that the scientists who defend it are unusually dishonest or unreliable. And both of those beliefs are heavily reinforced by our country’s particular religious landscape.

  52. #52 Lenoxus
    December 19, 2013

    I generally accept the “incompatibility” model, but one reason I’m not a hard-liner is the readily available observation that people do reconcile them in their own lives. Now the obvious counter is “They’re compartmentalizing; they’re not thinking hard enough about either science or religion.” I don’t disagree. But the problem with that is this: If you think hard eough about religion, it fails to be compatible with itself. In an odd way, emphasizing the incompatibility with science is to give religion too much credit, as if our universe “could be” a theistic one even in principle, it’s just those pesky scientific facts that get in the way.