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.