I knew this was going to happen. If you indict religion as a cause of anti-evolutionism (as I did in my upcoming Evolution paper), despite the mountains of evidence supporting that claim, you’ll get accommodationists nit-picking at you. And that is precisely what Nick Matzke (a former employee of the National Center for Science Education) has done at Panda’s Thumb. In his “rebuttal” (I use quotes because he doesn’t rebut anything), “Coyne on religion and evolution in Evolution,” Matzke makes four points.
1. The Society for the Study of Evolution’s (SSE) statement on the teaching of evolution, which I quoted as a model for how scientific associations should promote evolution without mentioning religion, includes Theodosius Dobzhansky’s famous quote, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”
Matzke takes great glee in pointing out that Dobzhansky was an accommodationist. Dobzhansky was also quite religious for an accomplished scientist. Of course I know all this: Dobzhansky was the advisor of my advisor. But so what? Just because the SSE statement uses a quote from Dobzhansky doesn’t mean that I, or the SSE, endorse all of the man’s views on science and religion. I’m surprised that even Matzke, not known for his acumen on these issues, can see this as a problem with my piece.
2. Matzke then points out that Darwin himself avoided direct confrontation with religion, and wrote two statements that could be construed as accommodationist. Again, so what? First, it’s not clear what to make of these statements, for we know that Darwin’s wife was very religious and he was careful not to injure her feelings. He also realized that explicitly dragging religion into his writings (though he constantly went after creationism in The Origin) would impede acceptance of his theory, about which he was quite nervous. (Remember his long delay in publishing the book). He let Huxley do his dirty work with the preachers. Finally, as we know, Darwin didn’t believe in a personal God. I myself suspect he was an atheist.
But again, all this is irrelevant. Even if Darwin were an accommodationist (and that’s not clear given his sometimes ambiguous statements about religion), my admiration for his science wouldn’t make me admire that accommodationism any more than I would admire Darwin’s faulty theories of genetics.
Implying that my admiration for Darwin is hypocritical because Darwin was an accommodationist is just another diversionary tactic of Matzke, who simply can’t stand religion being publicly blamed for creationism.
Matzke knows that such an accusation will rile up the more liberal religious people that the NCSE and other accommodationists want to court. We must by all means keep quiet the dirty little secret that religious belief—and not just fundamentalism, as I show in my article—is behind all American opposition to evolution. As I show in my piece, even many adherents to faiths that officially endorse evolution, like Catholics, are themselves garden-variety creationists or accept theistic evolution, in which God had a hand in the process and guided it toward humans. Neither of these views comport with the modern scientific view of evolution. I’m always surprised when accommodationists are so eager to claim theistic evolutionists as true allies. Evolution is a purely materialistic process; there’s a reason why one of its engines is called natural selection.
3. I’ll quote Matzke directly here:
Darwin’s point about Leibnitz [Darwin noted that Leibnitz saw the theory of gravity as subersive of religion] guts a great many of Coyne’s arguments that science is necessarily opposed to religion, since Coyne’s logical arguments mostly rely on the premise that religious people aren’t allowed to endorse natural explanations as a method of God’s action. But pretty much no religious person ever has ever taken this position.
This is so poorly written that it’s hard to follow, but it’s certainly wrong. My “logical arguments” do not rely on the premise the religious people aren’t allowed to endorse natural explanations as a method of God’s action. Many religious people do do that, of course. My point was that the existence of a theistic God, who actually interferes with the operation of natural law, is incompatible with science. And many religious people, including scientists like Francis Collins, Ken Miller, and Simon Conway Morris, do see God as having affected nature in this way. The Resurrection, the virgin birth, miracles, and any incursion of God into the natural world—these are all in direct conflict with science.
I’m not sure what Matzke means by saying “pretty much no religious person has ever taken this position” (what position?), but if he means “no religious people are prohibited from endorsing natural explanations as a method of God’s action,” he’s dead wrong. Remember that 40% of Americans are straight Biblical creationists, and many of the churches to which they belong do indeed proscribe accepting evolution as God’s method for creating humans and other species.
4. Matzke doesn’t like the term “accommodationist,” which he says was “invented by the New Atheists in its present sense as a term of abuse”. He’s wrong here, I think: it was “invented” to describe a particular intellectual stance: the claim that science and religion are compatible fields of inquiry. Now I don’t like that stance, of course, but the word itself is not a term of abuse, any more than “anti-abortionist” is a term of abuse. But again, that’s irrelevant to my piece.
Finally, Matzke questions whether Evolution should publish papers like mine:
Is it good for the professional field of evolutionary biology for arguments about this kind of thing to be aired in the field’s top science journals? I recall a historian once writing that the journal Evolution was set up specifically to help make evolutionary biology into a serious professional science, and disabuse the world of the notion that evolution was more a topic of metaphysical and political discussions than pure rigorous science.
He says he could go either way on this, but let me remind Nick, in case he didn’t know, that well before I wrote my piece the journal created the “outlook on evolution and society” section (under which my article falls) to specifically deal with wider societal issues of our field. Evolution, after all, has more ramifications for humans’ self-image than any other field of science (save perhaps cosmology). So why not discuss them in a special section of the journal? Further, it’s ludicrous to claim that such discussions have degraded evolution as a serious professional science. It’s been such a science since 1859.
Here, for Matzke’s edification, are the author guidelines for articles like mine:
Outlook on Evolution and Society articles present essays on the relationships between academic evolutionary biology, on the one hand, and other scientific disciplines and social issues on the other hand.
And here are some of the article on science and religion and have been published as “outlook pieces” (mine is last). I give the abstracts of each of the pieces as well:
Evolution and creationism in Middle Eastern Education: A new perspective, by Elise K. Burton
Statements made in a recent outcry against a creationist in the Israeli Ministry of Education starkly illuminated Western misconceptions about Iranian science education. These misconceptions are perpetuated not only among the general public but also within the international scientific community, where investigations of “Islamic creationism” often incorporate misleading assumptions regarding Islamic religious attitudes toward science as well as the nature of secularism in non-Western states. In turn, these assumptions have led to superficial analyses that overly rely on state religiosity to explain the treatment of evolution in national science education. Therefore, a new framework accounting for local political and social circumstances is crucial and urgently needed to effectively analyze science education in the Middle East.
Accepting evolution, by Anyusuya Chinsamy and Eva Pláganyi
Poor public perceptions and understanding of evolution are not unique to the developed and more industrialized nations of the world. International resistance to the science of evolutionary biology appears to be driven by both proponents of intelligent design and perceived incompatibilities between evolution and a diversity of religious faiths. We assessed the success of a first-year evolution course at the University of Cape Town and discovered no statistically significant change in the views of students before the evolution course and thereafter, for questions that challenged religious ideologies about creation, biodiversity, and intelligent design. Given that students only appreciably changed their views when presented with “facts,” we suggest that teaching approaches that focus on providing examples of experimental evolutionary studies, and a strong emphasis on the scientific method of inquiry, are likely to achieve greater success. This study also reiterates the importance of engaging with students’ prior conceptions, and makes suggestions for improving an understanding and appreciation of evolutionary biology in countries such as South Africa with an inadequate secondary science education system, and a dire lack of public engagement with issues in science.
Is the age of the earth one of our “sorest troubles”? Students’ perception about deep time affect their acceptance of evolutionary theory, by Sehoya Cotner, D. Christopher Brooks, and Randy Moore.
From the abstract:
. . . In this study, we examined how college students’ self-described religious and political views influence their beliefs about Earth’s age and how this may affect their knowledge and acceptance of evolution. To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine these factors in college students.
The relationship between evolutionary biology and religion, by Michael J. Reiss.
Belief in creationism and intelligent design is widespread and gaining significance in a number of countries. This article examines the characteristics of science and of religions and the possible relationship between science and religion. I argue that creationism is sometimes best seen not as a misconception but as a worldview. In such instances, the most to which a science educator (whether in school, college or university) can normally aspire is to ensure that students with creationist beliefs understand the scientific position. In the short term, the scientific worldview is unlikely to supplant a creationist one for students who are firm creationists. We can help students to find their evolutionary biology courses interesting and intellectually challenging without their being threatening. Effective teaching in this area can help students not only learn about the theory of evolution but better appreciate the way science is done, the procedures by which scientific knowledge accumulates, the limitations of science, and the ways in which scientific knowledge differs from other forms of knowledge.
Science, religion, and society, the problem of evolution in America, by Jerry A. Coyne
American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the U.S., which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the U.S. suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Since creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the U.S. is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.
It’s curious that Matzke didn’t get his knickers in a twist about the Reiss paper, which is also about the conflict in America between religion and evolution. Could that be because because Reiss’s paper is far more respectful of religion than mine? It seems that what Nick objects to is not discussing religion and evolution in the journal, but discussing it in a certain way. For Matzke, evolution and faith must be friends, not opponents.