Chris Mooney downplays religion as a cause of creationism

December 3, 2013 • 7:27 am

Chris Mooney hasn’t been on my radar screen for a long time, and I thank Ceiling Cat for that. But I gather that he’s still busy “framing,” at least judging from his new piece in Mother Jones, “7 reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution.”  We could quibble about using the word “believe” with respect to evolution—many of us prefer “accept”—but let’s not quibble. What is distressing about Mooney’s piece is its weaselly avoidance of the real problem: rejection of evolution in America—and elsewhere—is due almost entirely to embracing religion. As I often say, you can have religions without creationism, but you never have creationism without religion. (I know in fact of only one nonreligious creationist—David Berlinski—although there are surely a few more.)

Mooney has historically been an accommodationist, athough once he was a pretty vociferous atheist. Then, along with Matt Nisbet, he discovered “framing,” and decided that—along with the National Center for Science Education, the National Academies of Science, and other accommodationist groups—that you couldn’t sell evolution to the American public if you either touted atheism or blamed creationism on religion. No, we must at all costs avoid raising the hackles of the faithful, for they are as little children: if they sense that their faith is attacked, they become completely immunized to Darwin.

But of course creationism is one of the smallest problems created by religion, and at any rate if we really want creationism out of our schools and our country, we must first weaken the grip of those religions that reject Darwinism.  (And don’t be fooled by thinking that only fundamentalists are creationists. Although the Catholic Church officially endorses evolution, it’s a form of theistic, God-guided evolution claiming that God inserted a soul into the hominin lineage. Further, fully 27% of Catholics are young-earth creationists, rejecting Church doctrine on this issue.)

Over at Sandwalk, Larry Moran took Mooney’s piece apart on the same grounds: Mooney’s avoidance of religion, but I’ll add my two cents.

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.

We already know why embracing a theistic religion, especially an Abrahamic one, makes evolution repugnant. Here’s a list of reasons that came to mind just as I wrote this:

  1. Evolution shows that humans aren’t special since we evolved by the same processes as all other species.
  2. Evolution doesn’t give any evidence for special, non-materialistic aspects of human mentality, e.g., the soul.
  3. Evolution is a purely materialistic and naturalistic process, not requiring God’s intervention.
  4. Evolution suggests that at least some of human morality is evolved, and is certainly not given by God. That makes people think that if we’re just beasts, we should “behave like beasts.”
  5. The fact of evolution definitively shows that the creation story of Genesis is a fiction, casting doubt on many other claims of Scripture.
  6. The mechanism of adaptive evolution, natural selection, is harsh and cruel.  That doesn’t comport with a loving and omnipotent God.

There are other reasons, of course, but I’ll let that list stand.  In effect, the faithful find evolution odious because it removes the specialness of humans vouchsafed us by scripture, and also removes a God-given basis for morality.

Well, you won’t arrive at those conclusions, at least in that blatant form, from Mooney’s piece. Instead, he suggests the following seven features of human psychology make us resistant to the truth of evolution. (The characterization of each feature is mine, not Mooney’s.):

  1. Biological essentialism.  If we think of species as “essences”, that makes it hard to see how one species could evolve into another.
  2. Teleological thinking.  We tend to think of processes as having purposes, and purpose implies an intelligence behind it. That, according to Mooney, makes people less favorable toward purposeless evolution and more disposed towards purpose-driven theories like Intelligent Design.
  3. Overactive agency detection. This is the notion, proposed by Pascal Boyer and others, that we tend to see an agency behind natural features like lightning and disease. Ergo we see an agency behind evolution, so that even if we accept evolutionary change, we think that God guided it. It is in fact true that more than twice as many people who accept evolution accept a theistic as opposed to a naturalistic form of evolution.
  4. Dualism.  A distinction between mind and body not only promotes belief in God, but also direct resistance to evolution, for the latter process can’t explain how we get a soul.
  5. Inability to comprehend vast time scales. This causes us to resist evolution because we can’t comprehend how much change could occur over such vast time spans. We are unable to see that tiny changes over such spans can add up to big evolutionary changes—in both morphology and numbers of species.
  6. Group morality and tribalism.  Here Mooney does mention religion, arguing that our (probably evolved) tendency to live in interactive social groups makes us fear anything that could dissolve those groups. In the case of religious groups, the solvent would be evolution (Mooney mentions only “fundamentalist Christianity,” but of course many, many Americans who are not Biblical fundamentalists still reject evolution (see the reference at bottom).
  7. Fear and the need for certainty.  Again, Mooney connects religiosity with evolution, but does it by saying that religion arises as a solution to fear and doubt, and we tend to reject those factors, including evolution, that reawaken our doubts).

What Mooney has done, then, is to list psychological tendencies that promote the rejection of evolution. He also emphasizes, rightly, that religion itself may not be an evolved phenomenon, but a byproduct of some other adaptive psychological traits. What he doesn’t emphasize is that many of these psychological tendencies are those that promote religion, and then religion promotes rejection of evolution. That message can be gleaned from his list, but he tiptoes around it. It’s no coincidence that the traits that promote rejection of evolution promote acceptance of religion.

And, at the end, Mooney undermines the whole religious issue by listing a “few caveats,” especially this one:

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.

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.”

Why does Mooney come so close to indicting religion but then backs away at the last minute? It’s “framing,” of course. Unless he’s a total fool, which he isn’t, he knows that religion is the proximate cause of creationism, and that the battle against religious theories of biology won’t end until religion backs off.  He also knows that the incompatibility between science and religion, based on their different ways of perceiving “truth,” is a real one, and is not resolved by pointing out some scientists who are religious. Ceiling Cat knows, Mooney’s commenters have told him this dozens of times.

But Mooney wants to be perceived as religion-friendly, and has the misguided idea that by coddling faith, he’ll make it easier for the faithful to have their Jesus and Darwin, too. This misguided tactic has become so common that I’m going to name the “The BioLogos Fallacy.” It just doesn’t work.

Finally, as Larry Moran points out, if resistance to evolution is hard-wired, it’s not so hard-wired that it can’t be changed over a relatively short period of time. The people of northern Europe, for instance, don’t seem to have much trouble accepting evolution Larry gives a bar chart from Science showing how America is next to last on a list of 34 countries surveyed for acceptance of human evolution. (It runs 75% or higher in countries like France, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan, but only 40% in the U.S., next lowest to Turkey, which has 27% acceptance. In fact, if you include “naturalistic” rather than God-guided evolution, the US figure would drop to about 15%.) Presumably the French, Japanese, and Scandinavians share the same psychological traits of humans (evolved or otherwise) listed by Mooney.

There is a strong negative correlation among both countries and US states between religiosity and acceptance of evolution; here are data from 34 countries that I compiled in a paper published in Evolution last year.  Of course a correlation doesn’t prove causation, but in this case I think one can make a strong case that if there is causation here, it’s that belief in God that confers rejection of evolution (see discussion in my paper).  Why is there such a difference in religiosity among countries? I discuss that in the paper, too, and argue, based on sociological data, that the most religious countries are the most dysfunctional ones, and dysfunctionality of a society makes its inhabitants more religious.

Picture 1
Figure 1. The correlation between belief in God and acceptance of human evolution among 34 countries. Acceptance of evolution is based on the survey of Miller et al. (2006), who asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (Original data provided by J. D. Miller.) “Belief in God” comes from the Eurobarometer survey of 2005, except for data for Japan from (Zuckerman 2007) and for the United States from a Gallup Poll (2011b).“US” is the point for the United States. The correlation is −0.608 (P = 0.0001), the equation of the least-squares regression line isy = 81.47 − 0.33x.

The paper is free, and you can read it at the link below. I must say that I experienced a bit of resistance publishing it. It was an invited submission because, as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, I get a “free” slot in the journal, but I insisted on having my contribution refereed so that I could publish an indictment of religion as a cause of creationism and say it was peer-reviewed, which it was.  Religiosity is an obvious cause of creationism, yet people like Mooney are so resistant to hearing that simple fact that they avoid mentionng it at all costs. Such is the nature of religion in America, which must never be criticized, even for obvious transactions. In fact, one of the three reviewers of my paper noted that he/she liked the paper and agreed with my analysis, but was worried about what would happen if its “antireligious” message was published. That reminded me of the old (and probably apocryphal) story of the bishop’s wife:

On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’

Yes, the antievolutionism of Americans is a direct result of their high religiosity, but people like Mooney try to ensure that this does not become generally known.


Coyne, J. A. 2012. Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America. Evolution 66:2654-2663.

57 thoughts on “Chris Mooney downplays religion as a cause of creationism

  1. The Catholic Church actually teaches that Adam existed as an individual person from whom all present humans descended directly (Humani Generis, 1950). This is the basis of the doctrine of Original Sin.

    1. For those who are interested, the statement of this doctrine is in paragraph 37 of the document John Hamill cites. Paragraph 36 gives a lukewarm endorsement of the idea of evolution–yeah, we can see how it might be consistent with Catholic teaching, but don’t be too hasty; it hasn’t been proven yet.

      I have to say I was surprised to see the statement about a literal Adam as father of humanity. I thought Catholicism was a bit looser in its interpretation of that story.

      I know the RCC has more firmly endorsed evolution (albeit the “theistic” version) since 1950. Does anyone know if the teaching about a literal Adam has softened?

      1. Don’t think the RCC position has changed since that encyclical. The standard interpretation is to pick some random human ancestor who lived before the identical ancestors point for contemporary humans, call him Adam, and then say every human-like creature not descended from him is a “false human.”

        This of course has a number of ridiculous implications

        1)Most humans who lived within a few thousand years of “Adam” were zoophiles

        2)There should be a large number of humans who inherited “original sin” but no actual genes from “Adam”

        But hey this is from the people who brought you “fermented grape juice” is secretly fully human/ fully divine blood!

        1. I didn’t know that, Ray. Thanks.

          When paragraph 37 referred to “true men,” I figured the category of “false human” must be out there somewhere, too, but I’d never heard of it.

    2. Yes. As already said here many times, if Adam and Eva did not exist, the original sin did not exist and Jesus’s death theology based on this vanish. Another problem regards to the Mathew’s gospel where Jesus says explicitly that Adam and Eva were created. If this is false, then this implies he is/was no eternal god and was not at the beginning of creation:
      Mathew 19:4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’…

  2. I don’t think it’s quibbling to point out the problem with using “believe” instead of “accept”. Using believe just feeds those who view science/evolution/atheism as just another kind of religion. I also think that calling any form of creationism a theory gives it a patina of legitimacy it doesn’t deserve.

      1. Evolution is understood just like gravity is understood. It would be strange to suggest that one ‘accepts’ gravity, as if there were a choice. Believing evolution sounds awful and people should avoid it if they can…especially dimly lit intellects like Mooney.

      2. Accept is used as the opposite of deny. One may accept that evolution is true without fully understanding it. As long as one assumes that the experts are not lying in some grand atheistic conspiracy. For example, I accept quantum physics, though I don’t really understand it.

  3. Chris may think that he’s somehow being “respectful” of the religious…but all he’s really doing is patronizing them. They’re not mature enough to be confronted with cold, hard facts, so we should just make nice and let them keep their blankies wrapped ’round their heads.

    Dr. Miller, for example, at the very least, I respect far too much to insult him thusly. Were he to go off the rails and propose chocolate milk as the ultimate cure for cancer, he’d rightly expect to get raked over the coals for it. If he can handle that, he damned well can handle being raked over the coals for his play-pretend Jesus cracker cannibalization as the ultimate cure for immoral tendencies.



    1. He also does not seem to have a very high opinion on the intelligence of Americans. I doubt if people in the US are significantly thicker than their Europeans cousins, but Mooney seems to suggest he thinks they are.

    1. “using (national) averages instead tends to over-estimate the strength of a correlation.”

      This statement simplifies matters a bit too much, I think, and doesn’t apply to Jerry’s data. The issue of ecological versus individual correlation is more nuanced than it’s often given credit for. Broadly speaking, if you average some individual level data together to create an aggregate level data set, then the aggregate level data is “likely” to exhibit a stronger correlation because the averaging operation can downplay outlying or extreme observations; averaging is generally a smoothing operation (makes the data less messy looking). This tendency is not a necessity, as it depends on how the individual level data is aggregated, but it is still a likely phenomenon.

      However, this is only the case if all your variables of interest are (approximately) continuous quantities. That’s why you often see the statement being made with regards to economic style data, where the variables tend to be continuous quantities like income or age. In the case of Jerry’s data though, in the aggregate domain, he compares % Belief in God with % Acceptance of Human Evolution. In the individual domain, this data would take a purely binary form, either an individual believes in a god or does not (in essence), and either an individual accepts human evolution or not (again, in essence). In this setting, there is no correlation to measure as the variables are binary, and there are no extreme values (everything is either a 0 or 1) to be smoothed out by averaging. So the problem of ecological versus individual correlation does not apply.

      1. I plead guilty to the charge of over-simplification, bur the principle does apply. Here’s a (not too) simple example:

        X is belief in god, Y is acceptance of evolution. In each of three nations, four people are sampled. The individual data, written as (x,y) are:
        nation A: (0,0), (0,0), (0,1), (1,0);
        nation B: (0,0), (0,1), (1,0), (1,1);
        nation C: (0,1), (1,0), (1,1), (1,1).

        Although this is not often done, it’s perfectly possible to calculate a correlation between two binary variables. In this case, the estimated correlations are -1/3, 0, and -1/3 for nations A, B, and C, respectively.

        On the other hand, the pairs of averages (or percentages, if you prefer) for the three nations are (1/4,1/4), (1/2,1/2) and (3/4,3/4). So the estimated correlation at the nation level is 1.

        1. Oh I totally agree that it is mathematically possible to calculate a correlation between two binary random variables, but I think the meaning of such a quantity is rather dubious. And thinking about things a bit further now, I think I agree with you that this version of the ecological fallacy (ecological correlation ~ individual correlation) would apply in principle here. But I guess what bothers me about the criticism is that the correlation between two binary variables can give an indication of the overall relationship (i.e. positive or negative or neither) between the two, but the actual value of the correlation I feel is rather meaningless. Especially so when compared to a correlation derived from population percentages. So how can we claim that the latter correlation overestimates the former, when the actual numerical value of the former is not very meaningful?

          Really, I guess what I’m getting at is that we shouldn’t be so concerned about the actual numerical value of the correlation (within reason). There’s a lot more useful information that could be extracted from the data with a more detailed analysis, and we don’t have to be satisfied with a simple sample correlation as a measure of the relationship in question.

          1. Well, I could quibble about just how meaningful a correlation value for binary variables is. But that would be beside the point, because I whole-heartedly agree with your last paragraph.

  4. “Although the Catholic Church officially endorses evolution, it’s a form of theistic, God-guided evolution claiming that God inserted a sole into the hominen lineage.”

    “injected a sole”?? Is that the O-fish-icial doctrine of the church??

    (To be even more pedantic, I think it should be “hominin” too)

  5. JAC: I think you would enjoy reading a recent article found in the journal Science & Education which nicely highlights many of the themes you’ve touched upon.


  6. I loved Mooney’s article and more or less agreed with all of it. He’s summarizing a lot of theory and research which I’ve been reading for years. Supernatural beliefs have such a strong hold on so many individuals and cultures because the human brain tends to be lazy and interpret the world according to social and personal cues. Science, with its rigor and objectivity, goes against the grain of human nature.

    Belief in essences, teleology, anthropomorphism, tribalism, specialness, the power of thought, credulity, subjectivity, egocentrism, and all the factors which feed Spirituality and religion may be innate to the human animal — but so is curiosity, discipline, skepticism, objectivity, cooperation, and science. We don’t necessarily want to do what’s easy.

    In fact, it’s pretty telling that the spiritual and religious apparently want to eat their cake and have it, too: supernatural “wisdom” is supposed to be simultaneously intuitive (“deep down we all just ‘know’ there is a God”) and very, very hard and demanding (“atheists refuse to believe in God because they just can’t handle disciplining themselves.”) There’s all that moaning and groaning about the difficulty of keeping faith, maintaining faith, holding faith, and following faith. Mooney’s examples of how simplistic it really is to “believe” and his classification of scientific thinking with more sophisticated and wiser development is devastating to the believer’s personal narrative.

    I think this article works very well with Jerry’s argument that religion is the problem. My own take is that — despite that little nod to the religious evolutionists — it helps lay the necessary groundwork for gnu atheism. With a few minor changes, itcould have been written by Dennett (or even Dawkins.)

    Why do I see Mooney as giving aid and comfort to the gnus? Because he’s explaining and undermining the truth of religion by showing its components. Whether he intends to or not, this is an attack right into the supernatural heart. An accomodationist approach would avoid critiquing why people believe in the first place and focus instead on fundamentalism. It would tryto divide the Bad Religions from the Good Religions and then whine about how the latter are our allies and can’t we all just get along?

    I don’t think an accomodationist would do a point-by-point dismantling of ALL religions — including the nice, friendly liberal ones and the simpering spiritual-but-not-religious. Read that list. It doesn’t just take the wind out of Biologos. Shit, it looks to me like it deflates Biocentrism.

    In my opinion Mooney’s essay is only accomodationist if the take-away point is a Little People Argument: believers are simple, weak, and not too bright so don’t expect or ask them to change, poor things. It’s their nature to be what they are.

    But it supports a rip-roaring gnu atheism if you read it and think “exactly — and now we know what we’re all going to have to fight against if human beings want to do better.” Belief in God is “natural” the same way superstition, violence, racism, war, sexism, ignorance, bigotry, and self-delusion is ‘natural’ — meaning, something we need to progress away from.

    You should thank Chris andcongratulate him for renouncing that whole “only Bad religions are the problem” stance. The religious rot goes to the core.

    1. The basic virtue of Chris’ piece is that it goes to the underlying source and roots of religious thinking rather than just treating it as an unintelligible irrationality.

      Chris does seem to hold out hope for a religion that has been effectively tempered and purified by science and consequently been reduced in the scope of its claims.

      In the 1930s, Bertrand Russell thought Christianity had gotten there but that was before the rise of the religious right in America.

      1. I wonder if part of religion’s effect to promote some of these tendencies/beliefs and that therefore there’s a vicious cycle of reinforcement.

        For example, any religion with a soul concept supports dualism, and no sincere believer can really escape it.

        Some believers in various faiths don’t accept luck or chance or coincidence, everything happens through God’s will, or because their angel was looking out for them or whatever.

        There’s a tendency among accomodationists to portray a properly tamed religious belief as a mild good, or at least harmless, but these examples show how religion promotes some of the harmful flaws of basic human cognition.

    2. A credit to Mooney is that he parses many motivations for individuals for wanting a more profound explanation for their existence. But his conclusion is empty. Religion wraps it up and justifies the whole process of doubt.

      I know of no one that I have read about who follows the points Mooney makes without being religious as the underlying reason for rejecting evolution.

      1. I haven’t read the whole piece yet but based on the excerpts that’s my take as well. It sounds like Mooney does a good job of laying out the various blind spots in the human brain that make people susceptible to denial of evolution (or science in general), but then fails to finish by pointing out that religion actively exploits these blind spots to further it’s own interests, and as the influence of religion decreases the denialism drops significantly. Religion is the enabler.

      2. Anyone who would “follow the points Mooney makes” automatically IS religious (or “spiritual” if they don’t have a particular church or creed.) He’s saying that the problems people have with evolution are based on habits of supernatural, prescientific thinking. Spot on.

        And what’s the term we use for “ideologies and institutions which foster, encourage, and direct habits of supernatural, prescientific thinking? ” Oh, let me take a guess — ‘religion?’

        If Mooney really is trying to downplay the role of religion in evolution denial, he’s going about it as badly as he could.

    3. I think Mooney’s article is fine as well.
      My take-away message is that we have these characteristics that may have served us well in some pre-civilized, certainly pre-scientific, contexts that makes it difficult for us to accept evolution and make us more susceptible to religion. An educational system in which students must hone both their abstract and critical thinking abilities would certainly help in both overcoming mistakes that derive from these characteristics and, of course, religiosity.
      I don’t hear Mooney claiming that there isn’t some feedback involved, i.e., being religious can both derive from such characteristics as he lists even as it reinforces resistence to evolution.
      Most children acquire sufficient analytical intelligence to figure out that Santa Claus doesn’t add up, but they have be of cartain age before the questions arise. By the time they are a few years older, Adam & Eve and Noah should look pretty fishy too – but by then Christianity may have sunk its hooks too deeply into their sense of identity and they can rationalize away the doubts. I think that all that Mooney is saying that the ability for religion to get gain such a strong foothold is that we possess these unfortunate characteristics that help it along.

  7. Fair point, its only the “Ken Miller” paragraph that gets a bit accomodationist by skating over the definition of “compatible”.

    Are we being a bit over-critical based on his past writing, not what he’s written here?

  8. Of his seven points, #5 is the only one with complete merit. As to #1, if he was trying to lead with his strong hand, he fails miserably.

  9. (I know in fact of only one nonreligious creationist—David Berlinski—although there are surely a few more.)

    Are you sure about that? I doubt that someone like Berlinski woudl pin himself down.

    Knight-Ridder article of September 27, 2005:

    .. But in an e-mail message, Berlinski declared, “I have never endorsed intelligent design.” ..

    1. Based on what I have just read of those individuals (Berlinski/Denton). Their idea of creation and existence is incommensurate. If they are agnostic/atheist and really deny evolution, it is like a six year old who wants people to think he is color blind by telling them the wrong colors when in fact he knows them to be correct. Only the hope that some part of existence is supernatural could lead one to manufacture any doubt in evolution.

    2. Michael Denton claims to be an agnostic and he accepts common descent. He is skeptical about natural selection being a complete explanation (as is Larry Moran by the way).

    3. By the way, I’m not sure that Berlinski should be taken seriously. He appears to me to be someone who enjoys rattling cages and what better way to rattle the cages of evolutionary biologists then to reject evolution.

    4. Fred Hoyle, surely.

      “Non-religious creationist” is a bit of a weird ask, even for rhetorical purposes, given that it by definition requires belief in a supernatural creator. One might as well ask to see a flightless aeroplane, or a Darwinist intelligent-design aficionado or, oh, what’s that Fred?


      Oh dear.

      However, there’s all sorts of nutso stuff out there that has no basis in reality, none in religion, than manages to find both a proponent and an audience. Some of the points Mooney makes apply to those too. Expanding earth theory, aquatic ape, et al.

      What they generally lack, and what Mooney doesn’t really account for to his detriment, is a well-funded transmission vector with a reason to profit by said transmission, like a church; though you do get outliers like abiogenic petroleum, not to pick on Fred too much, and PR-firm funded science-esque products like with climate/tobacco/asbestos-related denialism.

  10. I think one of the important distinctions to note is that while religion produces an environment in which creationism can exist, it is not essential that antievolutionists/creationists be especially devout.

    Many individuals have lost interest in, or even developed and strong dislike for churches and organized religion, but still accept some sort of fuzzy creationism in their head because a) they haven’t given the matter much thought compared to the more day to day aspects of religion that turned them off, and b) they haven’t made the effort to understand the science that would demonstrate the validity of evolution since it also doesn’t seem to impact their daily lives directly. In short, they see little difference in life with either belief so they stay with their default setting.

    What can most interesting is the children of such people, growing up with a dislike of religion, but keeping some artefacts like a rejection of evolution for no good reason other than that was the household belief growing up. Such folks can change their thinking quite rapidly if an interest in science can be developed and the right information gets into their hands as a result. I’ve known a couple of people who went from an enjoyment of ‘Mythbusters’ (the earlier seasons) to accepting an evolutionary view of the world.

  11. I find arguments from gnu atheism, new atheist, and even some accommodationist arguments to be plausible. Yet another approach, the one I favor, is to just focus on epistemology as Peter Boghossian does. Don’t attack particular religious beliefs, but attack faith as a pathological method for trying to find out the truth. Undercutting faith undercuts religion (and other forms of woo) which will in turn undercut creationism. This seems plausible too. What we really need is some data on effectiveness, rather than try to decide this question from the armchair.

  12. Perhaps Chris Mooney has overlooked one of the major reasons: mental laziness. A lack of desire to think this thing through to a logical conclusion based on facts because it is easier to just accept the fables of religion. I opine, based on what I see in my own catholic-raised family (siblings, cousins & voluminous offspring), that religious folks are not really big on thinking about religion or on learning much about it. They have a mishmash of fuzzy beliefs acquired in childhood and never really examined in the light of reason or even of what religion itself teaches.

    1. “Perhaps Chris Mooney has overlooked one of the major reasons: mental laziness. … religious folks are not really big on thinking about religion or on learning much about it”

      Mental laziness is also a natural behaviour of brains. Why put more effort into thinking than is necessary? A good deal of science is based on doing enough, but only doing enough and no more.

      While many religious believers do not think too deeply about how much science and critical thinking might alter their beliefs, many very capable theists do think about it very much, and go to great lengths to reason about religion, and reason about why they should use faith. Mooney lists some of the reasons even capable thinking theists might do this.

  13. 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.

    Sastra, in #11 makes a lot of good points also.

    1. I wonder the same thing about accommodationists – it just boggles my mind that someone could look at the whole evolution/creationism stoush and minimise religion’s role (i.e. by saying that religion did something other than kick the whole thing off and perpetuate it at every conceivable level from pre-school and homeschool to the halls of power).

      That being said Sastra does have a point: that bullet-point list of Mooney’s describes the flesh and bones of most religions without naming any of them. If you want, you could view his article as a little bit subversive.

  14. Your: “religion is the proximate cause of creationism” seems true to me, but it also begs the question Mr. Mooney is trying to address. As with commenter 11 above, I don’t at all see it as being accommodating for his article to stick with a partial explanation or rationale for why we are religious. It would’ve been inaccurate to start railing on religion as a cause, when one of his very points is that religious origin explanations and propaganda are a result of psychological forces listed. Does every such article that touches on evolution-oriented psychology have to categorically denigrate religion to be fully useful? 80% of the world’s population is religious, and probably a great deal of the reason for that is found in these 7 points. Instead of derailing predictably at every turn on impractical polemics about how religion causes something it didn’t, or how it’s anti-science, we might very well go elsewhere with such data, such as improving general education levels (shown to be critical), or specific educational tactics, or the many cool examples of religious acceptance of evolution. Or, horrors, we could stick with the psychology, to simply understand people like almost everyone in my extended family better. But no- he hasn’t repeated adequately here and elsewhere how loathsome religion is, so his is a duplicitous article, making points that matter much less than his lack of polemics.

    Your article made me think of Scott Atran’s annoyance at being considered ‘accommodating’ in his work on the real causes of terrorism. And Chomsky’s recent point that many ceiling cat worshipers are essentially religious, having adopted related traits that fit their own psychology.

    1. Religion is such a problem because it is organized “psychology”. As shown by the graph, populations that have the same psychological problems but not religion accepts evolution more.

      So yes, we have to attack religion. In fact, Jerry has written a peer reviewed article laying out all of this, mentioned earlier.

      1. Torbjörn; The graph Coyne posted shows, at any level of religiosity a wide variance in acceptance of evolution. Religious beliefs are not a sufficient explanation for the lack of acceptance of evolution in the US or some other nations.

  15. If there’s any sense in which cultural ideas are going to have an effect, there’s got to be some sort of psychological disposition that the cultural units work with. Focusing on how the mind works is fine, but it’s not going to be the whole story. We may very well have minds with all the traits that Mooney highlights, but those traits are only going to make sense when we take in how they operate in a cultural environment. Maybe Mooney just thought it was obvious that religiosity breeds creationism in the same way that poverty is the main factor behind tuberculosis. It might simply be ubiquitous enough not to need to point it out, or uninteresting enough that the underlying physiology would shed more light on the problem.

  16. I agree with some of the other comments here, that Mooney’s piece was not accommodationist.

    If anything it is explaining that evolution has left us with these barriers to emotional or perceptual acceptance of the implications of evolution, even if we are able to accept it intellectually. This distinction, between what we intellectually think is the case and what we can’t help feeling is the case is one of the reasons we struggle on the free will issue – dualism seems a natural state of mind; I think free will is an illusion, and I can’t help avoid that illusion and more than I can avoid many optical illusions. Intellectually I can accept my brain misleads me on these issues.

    This shouldn’t be problematic. If evolution isn’t a guided process then whatever we end up with is not necessarily beneficial to us now. There are many traits we humans have that we might now prefer we did not have. If it is the case (and that’s a matter for specialists in evolution and the brain) that our evolution has left us with the tendency to be dualists, teleologists, essentialists, killers, rapists, irrationalists – even if these traits vary within individuals and over time – then in what way is acknowledging that accommodationist?

    I think any easily offended theist reading Mooney’s piece would be deeply insulted by the implications that we are evolved to believe the type of bat shit crazy stuff such a theist believes. Mooney’s piece is telling such a theist, “Look, I get that you believe that holy crap, but it is crap, and here’s how your brain is functioning unreliably, albeit naturally, to make you think that crap is true. Wake up from your natural biological slumber and smell the intellectual coffee!” I think such a theist would consider Mooney to have gone over to the dark side of Satanic New Atheism. I’m not sure such a theist would consider the piece to be accommodationist.

  17. You overlook the many very intelligent individuals who obviously are not mentally lazy who believe in God. And I am not talking about just the obvious examples such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. I am a retired high school science teacher. There are 13 teachers in the science department where I taught. Three of us were atheists. Ten were not. I worked with these individuals for many years. Not one of them was or is mentally lazy. Furthermore, if you think mental laziness is the culprit then what is your explanation for the many atheists who were once believers. Are you saying that these individuals were mentally lazy during their years of belief and that somehow they shed themselves of this mental laziness? If you are and I were to agree then I would be forced to conclude that Dan Barker, Michael Shermer, Robert Price and other well-known atheists who were once deeply devoted believers must have been mentally (I suppose you actually mean intellectually) lazy in their past. I doubt that this was actually true.

    1. I’m just not with you here.

      1) Michael Shermer’s book “Why People Believe Weird Things” includes a chapter on why *smart* people believe weird things; it’s good reading.

      2) As an ex-fundamentalist I know literally hundreds of believers, and all of them, from the most dimwitted tea-party clown to one guy who is a professor of physics at a major secular university, are mentally lazy, at least when it comes to questions of religion and science. There is parroting of the approved answers, a complete lack of knowledge of the opposing viewpoint, no inkling of the Dunning-Kruger effect or confirmation bias, and a conscious effort to remain ignorant of anything that might rock the intellectual boat; there is no intellectual curiosity (“godidit” is the answer to any question beyond social niceties), no reading of challenging books, no nothing. It is the apotheosis of anti-intellectualism. The mere fact that Ken Miller and Francis Collins exist, the proverbial exceptions to the rule, means nothing. I can’t speak for Shermer or Barker, but I’d be willing to bet that they would indeed say that they were intellectually lazy before their deconversions.

      3) I do not exempt myself from the criticism of the previous point. Although my position in the church was more or less that of guru, it was because I knew the original languages of the bible, and could reel off the standard doctrines (with supporting bible verses) and apologetic arguments more fluently than could most anyone else; it was not because I posed interesting questions, made people think, or referred them to books that might cause them to question their pre-digested beliefs. Did I read a lot? Yes. Was it all theology, apologetics, creationism, and missions magazines? Yes. Was I intellectually lazy? Yes.

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