Reading Diary: Atoms & Eden: Conversations on religion and science by Steve Paulson

Warning: I generally don't post about religion/atheism/new atheism or any of those similar topics. I also don't generally post about my own views on such subjects. This post clearly will be breaking those habits. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Now on to the review proper...

First of all, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. Yes, I'm an atheist. I don't believe in any god, old- or new-fashioned. I have no spiritual feelings at all really, including any vague "search for a higher meaning or sense of transcendence." I tend to find those sorts of feelings a little odd and unexpected in other people. At the same time, I don't hold them against anyone and am generally pretty tolerant of privately practised religion. On the other hand, I'll be very blunt and very honest if someone asks me a question about my own views. In terms of public discussion of religious thoughts or practices, I tend to view them the same way as political thoughts or practices -- open to vigorous debate and strong criticism.

And therefore I was a bit surprised when Atoms & Eden arrived on my office doorstep. I guess I never really expected to get a review copy of a book exploring the topic of how religion and science can co-exist. More or less, because I don't think they can. On the other hand, it's a topic I'm pretty interested in reading about and exploring. For example, I often use the Scopes Trial as a test search case in Information Literacy sessions I do for various Science & Technology Studies courses. It's an interesting topic with a wide variety of sources available.

So, an interesting task, reviewing this book. As I started reading the the book, I knew I would have to read it carefully and attempt objectivity at least at a certain level. I understood from the beginning that I could both disagree strenuously with the philosophical position of the book yet at the same time find it to be a good example of it's genre, worth recommending to fans of the genre and libraries that collect in that area.

And that's more or less what's happened. I dislike the book's philosophical position, in fact finding it somewhat biased in the way the arguments are presented and the way the deck is loaded in favour of finding an "accommodation" between religion and science. At the same time, I do find it a good explication of the accomodationist viewpoint. In that respect, it was useful to me in that I know understand where they are coming from, helping me frame and clarify my own positions in response.

All that being said, I haven't even said work one about the book itself yet.

Let's dive in.

First of all, the author is Steve Paulson, an American radio producer. It's also worth noting that he was awarded the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. So right away we know what his point of view is going to be -- the whole Templeton-supported program is about finding ways to reconcile the scientific and religious viewpoints. In other words, the clearly accomodationist viewpoint.

The point of the book, made fairly explicit, is to try and circle around to a position, through various contrasting viewpoints, whereby people with religious feelings can feel that they also can take modern science seriously. Similarly, a second aim seems to be to convince critics of religion that the religious impulse that so many feel is compatible with a rational worldview, at least in an intellectual compartmentalization/non-overlapping magisteria kind of way. In other words, to establish a groundwork whereby religion can accept scientific truths and where scientific rationalists can at least stop mocking and making fun of believers.

Ok, I'm getting closer.

The book itself is in the form of a series of interviews with various well-known figures in the science/religion debate, based on an NPR radio show that Paulson hosts. Overall, the format works quite well, engaging the interviewees in at times spirited debate.

By my count, Paulson interviewed 9 (Edward O. Wilson, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Ronald Numbers, Daniel Dennett, Robert Wright, Stephen Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein, Stephen Weinberg) on the atheist side and 12 (Francis Collins, Karen Armstrong, Andrew Neuberg, Jon Haught,Simon Conway Morris, Alan Wallace, Ken Wilber, Elaine Pagels, Nidhal Guessoum, Paul Davies, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Goodall) on the religious or accomodationist side. While not hugely out of whack, I find it unfortunate that he didn't interview any creationists or intelligent design supporters. He mentions several times that he consciously decided to avoid them because they're too extreme and because their science just isn't credible. That's fine, at a certain level. What it does, though, is make the mushy middle accomodationists seem like the most reasonable of the bunch compared to the "extreme" atheists. Without the extreme on the other side as a counterweight, the book is unbalanced towards that mushy middle, making the false compromise seem so much more reasonable than either extreme. The presence of those creationists, I think, would have made the atheist position seem stronger.

In general, during the interviews Paulson doesn't let his subjects off the hook too easily and presses them to clarify and defend their positions. Does he toss softballs at the more religious/accomodationist and hardballs at the strident atheists? While feigning objectivity, does he ultimately take sides?


He doesn't press Francis Collins very much on how he reconciles his need for evidence in science with his really quite literal interpretations of religion. In many ways, Collins to me seems completely delusional. He gives Sam Harris a way harder time defending his strong opinions.

He also doesn't really press Karen Armstrong on how she's really 99.99% atheist -- but somehow doesn't want to give up going to church bake sales so she needs to come up with these bizarre and elaborate lame circular new age hippie twaddle rationalizations for being religious or spiritual or something.

It's the same thing played over and over throughout the book.

This exchange with Stephen Pinker says it all for me:

Paulson: But can you really equate religion with astrology, or religion with alchemy? No serious scholar still takes astrology or alchemy seriously. But there's a lot of serious thinking about religion.

Pinker: I would put faith in theat same category because faith is believing something without a good reason to belive it. I would put it in the same category as astrology and alchemy.

Paulson: Those are fighting words!

It's all there -- in an almost Mulder/Scully-like interchange. He really tips his hand here with his amusing overreaction. Paulson is really only interested in one side of the story, one answer to the science/religion question. And none of the equally outrageous things a Francis Collins says get the same dumbfounded reply.

Or this one:

Paulson:...Let me suggest another dangerous idea which is not on your list -- the idea that the mind is more than the physical mechanics of the brain, that there might be some aspect of consciousness that does beyond an individual's brain. Is this a dangerous idea?

Pinker: No, it's an idea that probably the majority of the population believes. The more dangerous idea is what most biologists believe, which is that the mind is the information-processing ability of the brain.

Which is another example of what bothered me the most about the book. The subtitle wasn't, "Taking sides in the science/religion debate" but "Conversations on religion & science." It's not an entirely equal conversation when the moderator tips his hand and favours one side so plainly.

Overall, I have to say the book certainly engaged and enraged me. I left me arguing with it on nearly every page. Not a bad thing, necessarily. On the other hand, it seems to me that part of the problem is that the whole project of the book is wrong-headed. In that sense, I'm not sure arguing with it is that productive. Arguing with Paulson and his ilk is sort of similar to the way he views arguing with creationists and ID supporters. Ultimately unproductive.

In terms of libraries that should acquire this book, I think that those that support any sort teaching or research on the topic would find it a useful addition to their collection. Similarly, for a library where the patron community need to know what that position is and how it's rationalized, then it is definitely appropriate. Most decent-sized public libraries as well would probably find it a popular book among their patrons.

Paulson, Steve. Atoms and Eden : Conversations on Religion and Science New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. 320pp. ISBN-13: 978-0199743162.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

(I have reviewed a number of relevant books over the years. I think I'll probably repost those reviews here on this blog over the next few days.)

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Let me get this straight. You are saying that the "accomodationists" would appear less reasonable if there were were a few hardcore creationists in the book to compare them with? I rather think the effect might be the opposite?


Also, you seem to be using "accommodationist" here to mean religious people who do not reject science. Many atheists do not think that all forms of religion are necessarily evil, and believe that it is a strategic error (both for the cause of atheism,* and, a fortiori, the cause of science) to attack these religious "accommodationists" in an aggressive confrontational manner. Are such views represented in this book?

*The argument is as follows: If science and rationality is, in fact, corrosive of religion (as I, personally, think it is) then most "religious accommodationists" will be won over to atheism in the end - in a few generations, anyway. Indeed, the slow but steady spread of atheism over the past couple of centuries has been almost entirely the result of this sort of process of attrition. An aggressively confrontational stance toward these people, while they are still strongly emotionally attached to their religion, risks driving them precipitately into the camp of intransigent unreason and hatred of science.

[No doubt the Pharyngulites will soon be over here in force to point out what a fool and weasel I must be to express such views.] :(

Hi Nigel, thanks for the comment.

First of all, I don't think I was clear enough in what I meant. In the book, Paulson really only strongly disagrees with the atheists and mostly quite happily agrees with the supporters of religion. This gives a false sense that there's nothing he disagrees with that comes from the religious side where in fact he probably disagrees with creationists/IDers even more than with the atheists. That's the imbalance I was referring too. Too much of the overall intellectual ground that the book covers is given to one side, the side he agrees with.

As for whether the accomodationist viewpoint is well-represented in the book -- the idea that science and religion can happily co-exist -- yes, that's Paulson's main point so it is well represented. As for whether or not he talks a lot about the whole "framing" debate, about how scientists should argue their case in a religious world, yes, that's touched on a fair bit but isn't really the main focus.

And no, the Pharyngulocusts haven't descended yet.

Excellent review....thank you for taking the time and effort to write. I only recently discovered your blog and am blown away by the quality of the posting. I will visit often and long from now on.