I’m the skunk in the woodpile again

April 7, 2011 • 10:03 am

I’m getting a bit weary of being the go-to-dissenter when Templeton Prizes are announced.  But hey, someone has to do it.  Yesterday I was interviewed by Sara Reardon of Science about Martin Rees’s award.  Her report has some interesting information about his nomination.

“He’s an observant member of his tribe,” University of California, Irvine, astrophysicist Virginia Trimble, who nominated Rees for the prize, told ScienceInsider, adding that although she is a “third-generation atheist,” religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously. “So few people these days take anything seriously. That, I think, is not healthy. Scientific endeavor is a serious activity.”

Is this a consilence of science and religion because they’re both “serious”?  Holy Jeebus!  Yes, religion encourages its members to take life seriously—based on completely bogus premises.   By all means go to church, pray, prostrate yourself before Mecca five times a day, go to confession, worry about your sins, don’t work on the Sabbath: all that serious stuff, to no good end.  One might as well be serious about leprechauns or the Loch Ness monster.

And the skunk appears:

Asked about scientists’ concerns with the Templeton Foundation itself, Rees denies any conflict. But evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago in Illinois feels that Rees, as a nonbelieving scientist, should have refused the prize and that this year’s award is just Templeton’s latest attempt to transmute money into credibility. “This just shows how far the Templeton Foundation has its tentacles into the scientific establishment,” he says. “[Rees] is a smart choice for Templeton: he’s highly respected, accomplished, and not a crackpot. It was a poor choice for Rees.”

Of Rees’s bringing cosmology to bear on philosophy, Coyne says, “He’s mistaken: religion and science are separate domains. If there’s no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?”

To be fair, Reardon’s piece is not that pro-Templeton, though she could have called on other scientists besides me.  An N > 1 makes opposition, which is pretty widespread among scientists, look more serious.

(Note to Ms. Reardon: Francisco Ayala, last year’s winner, was not a “Benedictine priest.”  He was a Dominican monk.)

93 thoughts on “I’m the skunk in the woodpile again

  1. “Religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously”


    Trimble can make this statement without mentioning the scores of beliefs adhered to by millions that treat life as an afterthought, an antechamber to an afterlife that they DO take seriously?

    The only way I can give a nod to religion in that sense is that it can placate existential angst and the fear of dying and allow some people to get on with living. But to state it in this fashion, with the inescapable implication that the ones who lack religion aren’t take life (and science) seriously, is a lamentable and ill-thought remark.

      1. Exactly – I couldn’t scroll down fast enough to type “take life seriously”??? Are you kidding me?

        Not a day goes by that I don’t think “you know, I wouldn’t be that offended by people’s childish beliefs if they would just butt out and let the adults handle the serious business (environmental regulation, economic policy, etc).” But, unfortunately, they insist on running for office and basing public policy on bronze-age mythology.

    1. Trying to be as objective about myself as I can, I’d say I take life more seriously because of my atheism. It’s the only life I’ll have!

  2. So Dr Tribmle has no need for religion to take life seriously. But I guess the poor, benighted masses do?
    Jesus. And Dawkins is the one accused of “arrogance”.

  3. “Religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously”

    Cmon, this is yet another myth. Religion does not do serious work, it’s fantasy and idealism. It neither takes life seriously nor death. It’s theatre and pretends to be everything else.

    It is realists that take our single one time only life seriously, and therefore take death seriously.

    1. Religionists often will take their own life seriously, while treating the lives of others with utter indifference.

      I’m starting to believe this idea that young people never take life seriously is just confirmation bias combined with the horrors of the modern news cycle. I think young people today are just as foolish and impulsive and passionate and dedicated as they were yesteryear. When I look at how entitled and selfish the tea party crews are, I think there is plenty of rationale that entitlement is not a new phenomenon.

  4. Have any Anglicans spoken to the fact that their church is understood to be universal and that, therefore, either Rees or his supporters making reference to his tribe is at least mildly heretical. Never mind his absolute apostasy!

    I find it amusing: Atheists with a Christian background wanting to think of themselves as the equivalent of secular Jews.

    1. This atheist with a Christian background has no such desire. (I suspect there are millions of us. …Not that Ken was implying otherwise.)

  5. Wait.

    Pretending that everything you need to know about how to live your life can be found in a Bronze Age anthology that opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and and angry giant and ends with a bizarre zombie snuff porn fantasy…that’s somehow “taking life seriously”?

    Seriously — do these people understand the meaning of the word?



  6. I must say that it has not been my experience either that religious people take life seriously. All too often, religion gives people a reason to not take life seriously and they end up disrespecting both their own lives and the lives of other people they love. If Trimble meant that religion often sucks all the humor out of life, then yes I would agree with that.

    1. How many times have we seen theists ask atheists, “you mean you think THIS is all there is? When we die, that’s IT?” in an incredulous tone, as if life is such a paltry thing?

  7. religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously

    This reminds me of something a Christian friend of mine said during a discussion about our beliefs. She remarked that as an atheist it was “sad” that I was “giving up all my beliefs.” I think the implication here is that there’s something wonderful about people who Believe (I’m reminded of the Yes, Virginia there is a Santa Claus editorial), and that as an atheist I have not only lost that, but I’ve given it up because of laziness or a lack of concern with what’s important.

    It’s such an ignorant thing to say. It’s only because I have always been so concerned with truth and “what’s important” that I examined my religious beliefs and found them to be without substance in the first place. It’s my friend and others like her who refuse to examine their beliefs and find out, you know, if they’re actually true.


    1. It’s only because I have always been so concerned with truth and “what’s important” that I examined my religious beliefs and found them to be without substance in the first place.

      Precisely this. It would have been so much easier to just go along with the crowd and believe.

    2. “She remarked that as an atheist it was “sad” that I was ‘giving up all my beliefs.’”

      Only in exactly the same sense that it’s sad when a child gives up all her beliefs in the Easter Bunny, Santa, and Tinkerbell.

      1. My mother, before she died, complained that Risperidone (Risperdal) was causing her to lose her faith. (Google it if you don’t know what it is.)

  8. I was chatting someone today. His brother makes t-shirts with words like “Peace” and “Mercy” written on them in Arabic.

    Mercy is similar to Merciful, which is one of the 99 names of Allah. So his family are currently researching whether or not it is okay to wear one of these t-shirts when you go to the toilet.

    And then you get someone implying that atheists cannot take science seriously?


    1. Hilarious isn’t it. How does one get so mesmerized by religion to not ask oneself, “Wait a minute, is this something that god really gives a shit about – what’s written on my shirt when I take a shit? Really?” And if millions of people are so shallow that even such a tiny departure from their religious indoctrination doesn’t occur, how can anyone claim that religion encourages people to take life seriously?

  9. You are not ever going to be the skunk in the woodpile, Dr. Coyne, but your point about being the go-to guy on Rees’ Templeton win is accurate.

    Journalists are well-known for their unwillingness to tap new sources. That’s why television news is always the same faces. Some part of this is laziness, but it’s also efficient.

    You really are an expert spokesperson on the subject, though, and I can’t think of anyone who can better articulate the problem with Rees’ acceptance of the prize.

    1. You really are an expert spokesperson on the subject, though, and I can’t think of anyone who can better articulate the problem with Rees’ acceptance of the prize.

      Anybody who doubts the veracity of this observation needs to re-read Jerry’s op-ed in The Guardian.



    2. Sure he’s the skunk in the woodpile. But no woodpile was ever in greater need of a healthy dose of mercaptans than the Templeton prize woodpile. Keep on spraying!

  10. On a side note, I do think it is true for some people that they are not religious because they simply don’t take anything seriously, much as Trimble says. In fact, I think this explains some of the conflicting data showing a possible benefit of religious belief/regular church attendance. It’s not that faith per se has any benefit; it’s that within the subset of people who are prone to faith, people who actually give a shit become religious and go to church, while people who don’t give a shit don’t.

    In other words, amongst the population of individuals prone to faith, religion naturally sifts those who are “serious” and those who aren’t. Without religion, the “serious” people would surely just find something else to be serious about, and the unserious people would find something else to not give a shit about. *shrug*

    1. That’s a good point. There are people who seem to be comfortable with with religious ideas, and probably espouse at least some of them, but don’t care enough to go to church or any of that.

      Parenthetically, it is possibly this bunch that angers me the most- claiming that something is important to them while clearly acting like it’s not. If you’re gonna be wrong, I’d prefer you to be consistently so.

      On the other hand, “non-practicing Christians” and the like often make a good starting argument against religion. The fact that you can live a wonderful life without going to church, or while eating pork, is evidence that those prescriptions aren’t really important to human fulfillment in the first place.

      1. This bunch angers me, too. I think: “You are pretty much an atheist. Why dont you drop the other shoe?! Why don’t you just admit it?!?! Arrrrgh!”

  11. I have to disagree with our gracious host when he says that Rees should have refused the Prize.

    As far as I can tell, Rees is not opposed to the Foundation’s views or agenda. He’s not being asked to violate his own principles, or feign a religious belief. If the TF wants to honor him for work that reflects his own sincere beliefs and scientific effort, then why should he have any moral obligation to refuse it?

    Sure, Jerry doesn’t care for the TF — nor do I — but I think it’s a little odd to say that everyone else is obligated to shun the TF. It’s like saying that Candidate X should refuse the Republican nomination for president because you disagree with the Republican Party; Candidate X should act in accordance with her views, not yours or mine.

    1. Actually, I don’t remember saying that! If I did, the reporter has a record of it, and perhaps I did, but I don’t feel STRONGLY that Rees should have refused the prize. I would have refused it, but given his accommodationism I don’t see why he should have refused it.

  12. Seriously? Maybe. Rationally? No.

    And it’s a bit unrealistic to ask anyone to refuse £1M, but it would have been nice if Rees had taken the money and then donated a portion to an appropriate organization in order to make a point.

    1. I would accept the £1M in a heartbeat, and I would even be willing to mumble some quasi-accommodationist phrases about how I’d love to go to church, because I like organ music and the smell of old buildings .. or something.
      Why not? Isn’t this just a perfect situation, where we now have (3rd generation!) atheists recommending other atheists for the prize, and they’re giving us their money.
      I think we should keep this up!

          1. Well, just as a reminder: don’t overdo the acceptance speech! We’d like to keep this revenue stream open!
            Just think of a few reasons why you would love to go to church. (Maybe not mention ‘crackers’)

  13. “Of Rees’s bringing cosmology to bear on philosophy, Coyne says, “He’s mistaken: religion and science are separate domains. If there’s no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?””

    Don’t mean to nitpick, but I just want to get this straight. My thoughts on this that they are not different domains (IOW, I’m not supporting NOMA), but that because science and religion deal with the same world (domain) and one uses a useful methodology and the other did not (guess which is which…) they are incompatible as ways to attain truth, information about reality, etc. Am I missing something, or was this an oversight?

    1. Now that you mention it, that phrasing could be taken the wrong way. I read it as JAC intended it, knowing so well his position. I’d think the readership of Science would know enough to do the same thing. But it does use the NOMA terminology and thus may be quote mine bait.

      I’ve read JAC, et al, use the reasoning in your last paragraph before, and suspect it would be a better line to stick with, though of course interviews are more interested in short, sound-bitey quips. And “domain” doesn’t have to connote “magisteria;” which always sounds like it should be said in a James Earl Jones voice. 😀

    2. It’s a catch-22 for the compatibilists.

      If science and religion are NOMA, then they do not overlap; they are orthogonal. There is no purpose in a dialogue.

      If there is actual overlap, then NOMA must be discarded, and it must be pointed out that in areas of overlap, where there is conflict, it is always religion which has been wrong.

    3. I also assumed that Jerry must have intended to say something consistent with his well-known views on NOMA, but… the way it’s worded is a pretty straightforward statement that NOMA is correct.

    4. When I’m quoted as saying this:

      “He’s mistaken: religion and science are separate domains. If there’s no conflict between science and religion, why do I still deal with creationists?”


      I meant of course that Rees is mistaken in saying that religion and science are separate domains. But the reporter made it sound as if I think they were separate domains. I don’t think that that quote is 100% accurate, as I’d never say something like that. When interviewed on the phone, I probably said something like, “He’s mistaken when he says religion and science are separate domains. . .”

      Such are the vagaries of phone interviews. I should record them myself!

  14. Well, you may be the skunk in the woodpile again, but there was a time, not all that long ago, when the voice of atheism was scarcely ever heard. And now look! More space has been taken up with the atheist response to the Rees award than with the award itself. Surely, this is a great sign! It means that the religious are now playing catchup, and that’s got to be a good place to find them. By the way, I think your Guardian piece was excellent. First rate rebuttal. Keep em on the defensive. That’s where they should be.

    As for religion taking life seriously. That’s just the effect of placing the importance of life somewhere else. It makes it look as though you are taking it seriously, but what you are really doing is living now so that you get to live then. That’s not taking this life seriously at all. It make it look serious, because so much hangs on it. But, as St Paul himself suggested, if there isn’t anything coming after, we really are fucked up! What looks like seriousness will just be a waste of time. Yes, it will.

      1. Add “the Templeton Foundation’s PR efforts” to the list of things that the Gnus Aren’t Helping!

      2. Oh, but you forget. The influence of the likes of Dawkins and Harris “has peaked and is on the wane”.
        At least, according to Martin Vernon.

  15. For the sake of discussion, I’ll very roughly define “taking life seriously” (TLS) as “caring about something of more import than what’s on TV tonight”. In that sense, I’d say that religion certainly *can* make people TLS, or be the vehicle for TLSing. In my own case, I would never have gotten into religion had I not been a teenager who like to ask the Big Questions (my main error there being to assume that “Is there a God?” is a Big Question, when by rights it should carry no more weight than “Is there a Tooth Fairy?”). And I would not now be an atheist who hangs out on Gnu-ist blogs had I not continued to TLS. The main problem with religion, as Jerry points out, is that it’s mostly wrong in the Serious Answers it supplies.

    But Trimble’s remark represents another instance of treating the “best” of religion as if it were normative or typical. If we look at religion as actually practiced, there’s at least as much mindless emotionalism or blind tribalism as there is profound philosophizing or useful efforts to improve the world. And religious emotionalism and tribalism are far more dangerous than secular equivalents like devotion to one’s favorite celebrity, or sports team.

    1. Precisely. Plus, simply looking at demographics, the vast majority of mall-haunting, “reality”-TV watching Americans is gonna be at least nominally religious.

    2. I’m not sure I would even go that far with the TV analogy. Isn’t “becoming religious” more like “changing the TV channel from ‘Jersey Shore’ to ‘Keeping up with the Kardashians'” as opposed to “turning off the TV and doing something more meaningful than watching TV”?

  16. I see nothing wrong with you (and anyone else) pointing out the rank hypocrisy and cynicism inherent with a religious organization trying to buy respect in the halls of science.

    Or by pointing out that a person of conscience and personal conviction would turn down such a blatant attempt at bribery.

    What’s to accommodate? It’s ethically wrong for a non-believing scientist to take such a prize. Even if he does enjoy the choir.

    1. Thing is, Rees can accept the award for reasons of his own, having little or nothing to do with reasons Templeton had for awarding him the prize.

      The criteria Templeton used to award the prize are (is?) so wishy-washy, the simple shout of “hallelujah” qualifies for the win.

      And unless Rees was actively campaigning for the award, he can easily claim that he was just laying about, contemplating his ping-pong lesson when the money landed on him like an Acme flower-pot.

      1. Yes, and if NAMBLA suddenly came to me with a $1 million award that I did not lobby for and apparently would deserve only by virtue of being in favor of gay marriage …

        1. Do you really think NAMBLA is comparable to the Templeton Foundation?

          I disagree with the TF, but I don’t find them morally abhorrent.

          1. Heh. Templeton is WORSE than NAMBLA. NAMBLA is only about diddling little boys.

            Templeton is trying to whore the entire enterprise of science in the name of invisible fairies, who want you to know that not is diddling little boys wrong, but that girls should always look up to their daddies and husbands, that their wombs are very very special places that are owned by whomever inserts sperm into them … and on and on.

          2. “Heh. Templeton is WORSE than NAMBLA. NAMBLA is only about diddling little boys.”

            I understand the point you’re making.

            But, no.

          3. The point that needs to be made is that NAMBLA, as astutely portrayed by Jon Stewart, is a joke. There is a vanishingly small chance that they will have any kind of influence on public opinion on the subject of pedophilia.
            Templeton is telling the vast majority pretty much what they want to hear, and they are managing to dress it up with the voice of authority. While the former of the two may be worse on a moral perspective, the latter has far greater potential for harm.

  17. What is deadly serious about religion is the amounts of money it brings in, the countributions (not legal) to political campaigns. Religion is very serious about money, then all that other stuff, the control issues.

  18. Life is NOT serious! It is not ANYTHING (not even a joke).
    [Except what meaning you may choose to give it perhaps.]

    Seriously though – oops – if those people DID take life seriously, would they go around murdering other people over a fairy tale???

    1. If these people took their beliefs seriously, they’d be pro-abortion, since the fetus’ soul gets whisked off directly to eternal bliss, with no risk of infinite torture.

      1. Heh. Not just pro-abortion…mandatory abortion.

        God needs more blameless souls in heaven. More abortions, please!

      2. Serious Christians or Muslims would never have children — because there’s a pretty good chance that child would end up in hell for eternity, and who would risk causing something like that?

    1. Journalists, like most people, are working against deadlines with very limited resources, and they need reliable people to go to for comments. Although you won’t always be happy with the way they render your comments, at least your [edited] views will reach a wide audience.

  19. Plus, you’re not just a skunk in the woodpile. You’re the fine boot-wearin’ skunk in the woodpile. 🙂

  20. Some observations aside: I can follow Jerry’s link to Sara Reardon’s piece that the AAAS posted as news (at http://news.sciencemag.org). But where her piece has a link to “scientists’ concerns with the Templeton Foundation itself“, that link requires AAAS membership or Pay per Article (at http://www.sciencemag.org). And the summary for that piece shows the AAAS has it posted as “News of the Week” from 2010 when Francisco Ayala won the prize.

    So my observations are: 1) Jerry isn’t the only critic of Templeton in AAAS news — he’s the only critic of Templeton in AAAS news outside their paywall, and 2) This week’s news is free — but last year’s news will cost you.

  21. “religion at least encourages its members to take life seriously”

    Wow – what a DUMB statement. If anything, religion encourages its members to take fairytales too goddamned seriously. Anyone for a koran burning and some pogroms? As for taking life seriously, aside from what Cafeeine wrote at #1, the list really goes on and on:

    – women are intended to suffer and die rather than have a medically necessary abortion

    – women have the god-given duty to be subservient to their husbands

    – medication is not necessary; god takes care of his flock

    – HIV/AIDS is a disease sent by god to punish those horrible evil homosexuals

    I can’t even enumerate ’em, all the vile counter-reality claims of religion just make me sick.

    1. This has been festing in my head since I made the first comment because I remembers the case of Kara Neumann.
      Her parents let her die because they preferred to pray rather than take her to the doctor. And when she finally died, they kept on prayin’, believing that God will resurrect her. This was not a just a case of insane parents, as their pastor and their congregation supported their actions, even after the girl’s death.

      This is how seriously religious thought treats life and science.

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