AccomodationFest: New York Times readers respond to David Barash

October 9, 2014 • 6:26 am

David Barash’s post in the Sept. 27 online New York Times, ““God, Darwin, and my college biology class,” incited a lot of discussion. In it Barash describes how he sees science and religion as incompatible, but also how he tells that to students in his animal behavior class at The University of Washington (a public university) in an attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance of religious students.

In my own take on Barash’s post, “David Barash on the incompatibility of science and faith,” I praised him for his public proclamation of science’s incompatibility with faith (after all, I have a book on the subject coming out in May), but considered it inappropriate for Barash to engage in what is essentially theology in a public-university science class. Some readers disagreed, seeing a positive value in trying to overcome student prejudice so they could accept the science. David and I had a cordial exchange over email, and he explained to me the secular purpose of what he called “The Talk.”  I could see where he’s coming from, but I still wouldn’t give my own students “The Talk.”

What is disappointing, though, is the reaction of the Times‘s readers to Barash’s op-ed.  There were nine letters about his piece, all published under the heading “Science and religion” in the NYT Sunday Review. While several agreed with me that The Talk was not kosher, all but one argued that science and religion are absolutely compatible. Maybe my book is needed after all.

Here are all nine letters with brief commentary by Professor Ceiling Cat:

To the Editor:

Re “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class” (Sunday Review, Sept. 28):

I absolutely disagree with the evolutionary biologist David P. Barash when he asserts that religion and science, in the form of the theory of evolution, cannot be reconciled. Science begins with the Big Bang theory, and evolution according to Darwin begins with a simple one-cell life. But science can say nothing about what preceded the Big Bang or how life was injected into that simple cell.

In essence, science cannot say where we came from, where we are going or even where we are, and certainly not why we are. Those kinds of questions are the business of religion.

Science and religion do not compete. They are separate animals that can and should work together to discover what and who we are.

Charleston, S.C., Sept. 28, 2014

The writer is the author of “The Gospel of Yeshua: A Fresh Look at the Life and Teaching of Jesus.”

Well, we know the secular responses to this one. Perhaps some day science will tell us what preceded the Big Bang, and although we may never know for sure how life began (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t injected into a simple cell: who did the injection, and where did the “simple cell” come from?), we’re making progress. Further, if we can produce the origin of life in the lab under realistic early-Earth conditions, there can be no more objection to the notion that life could have originated without divine intervention.

Finally, as most of us know, religion cannot tell us where we came from (science says “evolution”), where we are going (underground), or even where we are (I’m in Midway Airport), and the question “why we are” simply makes no sense.  At any rate, religion addresses these questions but cannot answer them.  Why do people keep saying that religion gives us answers when it only gives us guesses, and has no way to determine whether those guesses are correct?


To the Editor:

I think David P. Barash may be deceiving himself about the efficacy of “The Talk” he gives his students, in which he attempts to illuminate the logical superiority of evolution over belief. Like him, I am always stunned by repeated surveys showing the public’s ignorance regarding evolution’s status as established science, and I’m sympathetic to his attempts at remedying the situation.

As often seems the case, however, his arguments soon become more grandiose than convincing. He argues that the patent amorality of the natural world leads to an “unavoidable” exclusion of a benevolent creator, just as random variation excludes the need for a grand “watchmaker” god.

While I agree that these distinctions are masterful explanations of how we understand the physical world, they do not unavoidably exclude a creative force. To overstate the case against a creator, in my mind, is as logically obtuse as preaching the reverse.

San Diego, Sept. 30, 2014

Well, yes, I think “The Talk” shouldn’t be given, but of course  nothing can unavoidably (i.e., logically) exclude a creative force. But neither do we have evidence for it, so why even bother to mention it? What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. We can “unavoidably” exclude the intervention of a creator with precisely the same conviction that we can exclude the existence of a monstrous reptile lurking in Loch Ness.


To the Editor:

As a Catholic biology teacher, I see that teaching students about life processes is a powerful mode for learning about their creator and understanding their place in the cosmos. Like Prof. David P. Barash, I recognize the centrality of evolutionary theory in biology; however, I also see that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive theories. The creation story in Genesis is meant to communicate that God created the world and has a certain relationship to it, not how he created the world.

Also, Mr. Barash does little to prove his claim that science and religion cannot be reconciled. It all depends on how science and God are defined. Science, without religion, becomes its own belief system. We would benefit to embrace science as a valuable, though limited approach toward understanding the multidimensional mystery of life.

Louisville, Ky., Sept. 29, 2014

Ms. Shaugnessy apparently knows exactly what the writers of Genesis meant, and it certainly was not anything literal about the origin of the universe. Was she there when they wrote that book of scripture? I think not.  And certainly many famous theologians over the last two millennia thought that Genesis was indeed a literal history of creation. The only reason this teacher thinks she “knows” what the writers of Genesis meant was that we’ve since learned about evolution. But the authors of scripture didn’t know about evolution! The chapter is indeed the Bronze age version of a science book: a prescientific attempt to explain the origin of Earth and its species.

As for her claim “Science, without religion, becomes its own belief system,” that is a false equation of science and religion, and of course science without religion is still science. Science has no need whatsoever for the existence of religion’s superstitions.  Further, of the two “belief systems,” give me science any day, for at least science produces evidence for one’s “beliefs.”


To the Editor:

David P. Barash argues that science and religion cannot be reconciled. That is true if one reads the Bible literally. But if we extract from the myths of the Bible (such as the creation myth in Genesis) the moral underpinnings, then the teachings of the Bible and religion hold relevance even for the scientist. The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, from a common ancestor, in the divine image. Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.

Albert Einstein observed, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” The Nazi doctors who performed atrocious criminal experiments on humans were all educated scientists — but they lacked religious and moral values. If we can grasp the significance of the two disciplines and their legitimate functions and limitations, then science and religion might coexist peacefully and enrich one another.

Needham, Mass., Sept. 28, 2014

The writer is director of the National Council of Synagogues.

Here we go again: modern claims that “Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.” Sorry, Rabbi Rosenthal, but that’s your take on it now-—a take that is neither one that was embraced throughout history nor one that is even close to universal now. What are you going to say, Rabbi, to Biblical literalists? As for Rosenthal’s attempt to tar science because scientists have done bad stuff, well, so have religionists. In fact, I suspect that many Nazi doctors. like many Nazis themselves, were indeed religious.  What warps people is not science, but absolutist ideology, which, in fact includes many religions.


To the Editor:

David P. Barash notes that evolutionary processes show “no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” In other words, he argues (very reasonably) that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. However, in religious logic, this absence only indicates that the creator is withholding the evidence — perhaps to test your faith.

Science deals with theories that stand or fall on the data; there must be (at least potentially) tests to prove or disprove the theories. Religion is a non-falsifiable “theory of everything” in which the conclusion need not fit the facts, but rather the facts must be fitted to the conclusion. This methodological conflict is the essential reason that science and religion are incompatible and not merely nonoverlapping.

Professor Barash falls into the trap of trying to apply scientific logic to religion. Indeed, the New Testament firmly discourages use of the scientific method: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Evanston, Ill., Sept. 29, 2014

The writer is a professor of physics at Northwestern University.

This is all very good except for the last paragraph, for many religious people do indeed embrace truth claims. It is not a “trap” to ask, “What is your evidence for those claims?” Responding that “you should just believe because Jesus,” the answer that many religionists give, is not a rational answer, and deserves outright rejection, or even mockery.  We should press forward, always marching under a banner that says, “How do you know that?”


To the Editor:

Perhaps The Talk should begin with a preface and change of venue. David P. Barash should gather his students where they have a clear view of the nighttime sky and acknowledge that he is a human being with limited intelligence, living on a small planet traveling through space at 67,000 miles per hour, rotating around a medium-size star in a small solar system that is on the fringe of a galaxy that is one of billions out there in the universe. Sometimes a little dose of humility discourages scientists from thinking that they have all the answers.

Bel Air, Md., Sept. 29, 2014

Who said science has all the answers? If it did, there would be no more science!  At least, unlike theologians, we don’t pretend we have answers when we don’t. We don’t make stuff up and pass it off as truth, as churches do regularly.  When you see people calling for scientists to have more “humility,” you know you’re dealing with an accommodationist, and probably a religionist. I’d like to see these people telling believers and preachers to have more humility, for those are the people that simply make stuff up and tell everyone it’s real.


To the Editor:

In discussions about the alleged conflict between science and religion, our ethnocentricity is apparent. We seem to regard our own religion as what “religion” really is, and assume that if our religion has a problem with evolution, then all religions must have that problem. However, many religions have no problem with evolution. It doesn’t bother most Hindus or Buddhists. The problem, then, lies not in “religion” per se. But if we believe that Scripture is an infallible source of historical and scientific facts, then we are asking for trouble.

Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 29, 2014

The incompatibility between science and religion is not refuted by pointing to the existence of science-friendly believers or believers (like Francis Collins) who are scientists. The incompatibility lies in how any religion can claim it know anything about gods, their nature, their intentions, their actions, and their moral codes.  That is, science is a genuine way of understanding the universe, and religion is not, though it pretends to be.  If a religion makes no empirical claims based on faith (and that excludes Hindus and many Buddhists, who accept the supernatural doctrines of karma and reincarnation), then yes, that “religion” is compatible with science. But I know of almost no religions that fill that bill.


To the Editor:

A colleague of mine, a professor of biology, with whom I shared this article mentioned that he too has The Talk with his students — the only difference being that his conclusions are the opposite of that of the author. Indeed, an evolutionary biologist should know better than to suggest that religion does not evolve. In the 21st century, orthodox theology has unapologetically confronted the conflict of science and religion, and declared not only that the two are compatible but also that they wonderfully complement each other.

Great Neck, N.Y., Sept. 30, 2014

LOL!  “Orthodox theology” declared compatibility only because science proved many of religion’s claims wrong or untenable, forcing the faithful to make the best of a bad job. And what the deuce kind of “orthodox theology” is Shavolian talking about? Certainly not the orthodox theology of the Southern Baptists or of fundamentalist Islam—or even of Orthodox Judaism, which rejects evolution. Religion surely does evolve, but not because the lucubrations of believers and theologians has led us to a more accurate notion of god. No, it evolves simply because science and secular morality forces religion to evolve by dispelling its insupportable claims. I’m reminded of the convenient “revelation” the Mormon elders had in 1978 saying that it was now okay for blacks to be lay priests.  Does anybody believe that that revelation came from God? Hogwash! It came because secular morality had evolved to the point where regarding blacks as inferior beings was odious and insupportable.  The alternative is to suppose that God changed his mind.


To the Editor:

Prof. David P. Barash argues that evolutionary biology has “demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith.” Contrary to his claim that evolutionary biology has narrowed the space for religious faith, many theologians and scientists argue that Darwin has opened new horizons for the understanding of God and the place of the human person in the cosmos. It turns out that Darwin’s work is as great a gift to theology as it was to biology!

While Stephen J. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria,” or “noma,” principle — viewing science and religion as separate but compatible — may be simplistic, it at least allows room for theological exploration, which Professor Barash would shut down. Mr. Barash presents his stereotyped comprehension of religion as the only one. Does he not realize that the discouragement of exploration is anti-science?

Until he is willing to openly consider Judeo-Christian religion and spirituality in all its many forms, I would ask that Mr. Barash please spare us, and his students, The Talk.

Fairfield, Conn., Sept. 28, 2014

The writer is a professor of biology at Fairfield University.

Here we have what I’ll henceforth call “the N + 1 Fallacy” (thanks to the reader who coined this): the idea that if you haven’t considered every religion, and every strain of faith in every religion, you’re not entitled to pronounce on it.  Yes, I agree that the students should be spared the talk, but not on the grounds that Barash is wrong about the incompatibility of science and religion. They should be spared the talk because such discussion seems inappropriate in a science class, and seems to me to skirt the First Amendment.


h/t: Diana MacPherson

123 thoughts on “AccomodationFest: New York Times readers respond to David Barash

  1. I just love the diea that science deals with its own types of questions, and religion with others, so “let’s work together!” That’s from the first letter.

    1. Yes, this drives me crazy too – it’s the “other ways of knowing” argument. I really don’t see why those that espouse this argument can’t see that science gives us the only way we can know that something is true and in doing this, it doesn’t negate other things we experience as humans. I suspect these people, wrongly, believe that to recognize science as a mechanism to show us truth is to say art, literature, music, etc. are all stupid and not worth doing. I sort of get why they’d react this way since our society tends to favour big money making professions over traditional art careers and they’re probably reacting to that. Still, their conclusion is wrong.

      It’s like saying, “well now I’ve learned how the eye works, I can no longer see in colour – thanks science!” Or “I don’t like what the statistics are telling us – let’s just go with my gut feelings because that’s more human”.

      1. Yeah. And let me channel Aslan here, it is profoundly unsophisticated of believers. And unimaginative. And, often I think, just flat out dishonest of them.

        The idea that something becomes less interesting or beautiful once you come to understand it is not just flat out ridiculous, it is contradicted numerous times every day in even the typical believers life. It is only in defense of their silly religious / supernatural beliefs that they pretend, and or convince themselves, it is true.

        1. I am reminded of many of the Original Star Trek episodes. In particular the episode The Apple. The natives are like believers who think that science revealing something of the reality of a thing takes away the wonder.

          They are comfortable in their ignorance, which is something that their religion (Vaal) has worked hard to create and maintain. Just the thought of considering more makes them uncomfortable, fearful and defensive.

          1. I heard that Roddenberry was pretty devoted to the idea that the Federation was supposed to be strongly secular and actually fought to keep a ship’s chaplain character from being added to the show.

          2. Oh yes. Roddenberry introduced all kinds of shocking things in Star Trek. It was awesome. One of my favorites was Uhura, in general, and particularly a scene where she and kirk kissed. Black woman, white guy, right there on public TV in the 60’s. Shocking, I tell ya.

            There is a neat interview with Nichelle Nichols, Uhura, were she describes a conversation she had with MLK regarding Star Trek. She commented how she wasn’t sure doing the show was the right thing to do. MLK insisted that she do it.

        2. That’s because Feynman was fearless, unlike the majority of these letter writers who provide courage-less advice that rests on the faith besieged unknown.

    2. What I’d really like to see is a NOMA argument made for a territorial separation between religion and philosophy. After all, questions about morals and meaning are technically philosophical questions — questions which may be informed by or even fall under science as well.

      So, what type of question does religion try to answer, but philosophy can not? Anything having to do with the supernatural, that’s what. Philosophy asks “how ought I live?” but only religion asks “how ought I to live according to God?”

      Which gets us into the picky empirical area of whether God exists or not.

        1. That’s what annoyed me most about Gould’s articles (I didn’t read Rock of Ages), really – while affirming that religion should keep its nose out of the biology department, he was very generous about handing other sections of the university campus to religion.

      1. “…should gather his students where they have a clear view of the city’s churches, temples, mosques and synagogues, university departments of theology and philosophy, and offices of political organisations. Sometimes a little dose of humility discourages people who hold absolutist opinions from thinking that they have all the answers.”

        But sadly not very often.

  2. “Between the Pope and air-conditioning, I’ll take air-conditioning” — Woody Allen, _Deconstructing Harry_

    1. Jerry, did you not take exception to Dutta’s “Religion is a non-falsifiable ‘theory of everything’ in which the conclusion need not fit the facts, but rather the facts must be fitted to the conclusion.” in his second paragraph? Well, you might not disagree with it literally, and interpret it as a *criticism* of religion, but I think, as the modern idiom goes, that Dutta was saying that like it’s a good thing!


      1. Yes, I was confused by Dutta’s letter. The first two paragraphs seem to be outlining very clearly what is wrong with religion as a way of explaining the natural world and then in his third paragraph – hop! – it turns out that this is all a good thing because ““Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed”!

          1. I agree with that interpretation. While his letter is a bit confusing regarding his position, I think it likely that his intent was to criticize religion.

          2. Re Ant

            William Dumbski got his math degree from the Un. of Chicago. I suspect that every prestigious school has graduated a few duds.

          3. Yeah, I took Dutta’s remarks as criticizing religion as well. I think he just wasn’t very good at expressing his position as he could have been.

          4. You’ve conjured up in my head the image of non-overlapping morons, Ant. I wish you hadn’t done that. I may lose sleep tonight.

      2. It read to me as though Dutta was saying the “scientific logic” in Barash’s talk isn’t likely to be very effective because most believers not only hold that the scientific method is unnecessary for drawing ontological conclusions, but that outright spurning it is something noble.

  3. It is not a “trap” to ask, “What is your evidence for those claims?” Responding that “you should just believe because Jesus,” the answer that many religionists give, is not a rational answer, and deserves outright rejection, or even mockery.

    I think the purpose of Dutta’s paragraph is in fact to mock — as in “fallen into the trap of debating with a creationist”.

    1. I think the purpose of Dutta’s paragraph is in fact to mock — as in “fallen into the trap of debating with a creationist”.

      I understood it the same way. Overall, I find Prof. Dutta’s letter quite on point and not at all confusing.

  4. Personally I find that on the whole the morals of the Bible are if anything worse than its science.

    The central idea is essentially the important of submitting to a ‘superior’ power, often to the exclusion of basic human decency.

    The story of Saul to me is the ultimate illustration of this. Saul’s sin wasn’t that he committed genocide, but that he had compassion and actually spared somebody.

    He was not enough of a war criminal for God.

    When you get right down to it the morality and codes of the Bible are downright monstrous abominations – yet they are always appealed to whenever it is shown that the science is dodgy.

    If your book cannot get simple matters of fact right, then it has no business claiming to be some sort of perfect moral guide from an all knowing creator, because the facts ultimately are the easy shit.

    If it cannot get those right, then there is no reason to assume that it is going to get the answers to the tough questions right either.

    1. Even when the morality in the Bible happens to involve something which is genuinely wise or kind, the rationale is still wrong. Instead of grounding Good in reasons related to rational relationships, it harks back to obedience to God. The imagined goal is to establish the mindset of a simple childlike follower of an unimpeachable authority, one which is defined as always being right. That’s not only a recipe for disaster, it actually skirts all the deep, reflective questions about what we mean when we talk about what is good and how we deal with values which conflict. No problems: just let go and let God.

      That abdication of responsibility is abominable.

    2. If you’re referring to the Saul example I’m thinking of (1 Samuel 15), I’m not sure that’s the best example. Saul claimed he was bringing the king and livestock back just to sacrifice them at home, so it wasn’t compassion. His sin in that story may have been partly pride, wanting to show off to his people. Or maybe he was even lying about his intentions to sacrifice the livestock.

      I think a better Saul example is 1 Samuel 13 – not so bloody, but no real ulterior motives for Saul, either.

      I think an even better example is Abraham and Isaac. Just because Abraham was stopped at the last second doesn’t mean he wasn’t ready & willing to go through with it.

  5. Me thinks the motivation for some of these letters is the all too human trait of lets not unnecessarily offend religious colleagues and relatives not any kind of conviction, i.e. go along to get along.

  6. Is it interesting that all nine of these letters claiming to show compatibility between science and religion boil down to very few ideas. None of them any good.

    1. Anything not yet answered by Science must be the business of Religion.
    2. Science can’t prove religion does not exist.
    3. Argument fails to understand what Science is.
    4. Modifies the bible until it fits anything.
    5. Simply takes offense at Science

    There is nothing in any of these letters that comes close to making their argument for compatibility.

  7. The Einstein quote from the Rabbi is a little bit out of context, but that is to be expected whenever a religious person quotes Einstein.
    The real meaning of his quote, I think, is that our aspiration to understand and to find truth (as in the desire to do science) rests on a faith that reality is lawful and can be understood. When he says ‘religion’ he seems to really mean ‘a faith in a reality that we can understand’.

    This is summarized in an article here in The New Republic written by our esteemed host. You can see the whole quote in context to see if I am close enough.

  8. Just keep in mind some of the letters that went into the wastebasket. Many deserved it, but the NYT editorial page has taken on a peculiar (to me) pro-religious “flavor” in the past few years. I, for one, do not appreciate being preached at by fatuous religists. Those letters were chosen with the same biases that form that section of the paper.

  9. “But if we extract from the myths of the Bible (such as the creation myth in Genesis) the moral underpinnings, then the teachings of the Bible and religion hold relevance even for the scientist.”

    This is a perfect example of one of the major problems with religion. This person, and they are not unusual at all, made this statement without the slightest bit of irony or sarcasm. They really think that Genesis, and many other parts of the bible, contain “moral underpinnings” that are so admirable that we should model our morals on them.

    I can see only three reasonable explanations for this.

    1) This person has abysmal moral standards and should be considered a serious risk.

    2) This person is very ignorant of the book that they hold to be sacred and the basis for their religious beliefs. And it can only be willful because the damn book is right there for them to read. They are refusing to see.

    3) This person is lying.

      1. I agree that your number 4 is undoubtedly the case for some.

        I disagree that it is the most likely explanation, if by that you mean that it is the most common. I think that the most common explanation, by a very wide margin, is merely inertia. Most believers have never seriously reflected on such issues because they are embedded in a culture in which their religion’s take on morality is the norm.

        1. I think that the most common explanation, by a very wide margin, is merely inertia. Most believers have never seriously reflected on such issues because they are embedded in a culture in which their religion’s take on morality is the norm.

          I agree.

    1. Or 2b – too lazy to read the book themselves.

      Or 2c – too gullible, trusting that the readings they hear every Sunday are representative of the Bible as a whole.

  10. I live in Florida and come from a very religious family (though they would claim it is a personal relationship with god, not “religious.”) I grew up in pentacostal and Baptist churches and was a fervent believer for 35 years. All of my family are Christians, as well as many of my friends and acquaintances. The overwhelming majority of them (including myself previously) believe in the literal interpretation of the bible, believe in a 6 day creation, the flood, a young earth, and do not believe evolution.

    When I lost my faith it was because of two main reasons: Finally accepting that the bible may not be inerrant, and learning enough about evolution that I could no longer reject it.

    So I too am sick of people claiming that it is rare or unheard of to believe the literal genesis interpretations. And for me, I could not reconcile my faith with science once I accepted the science. True, maybe it is more incompatible for fundamentalist types like I was, but fundamentalism is not rare in my circles and it is the fundamentalists that stir the debate. If all Christians were the non-literal science accepting variety, these debates about whether they are compatible would not constantly be cropping up.

    1. I don’t think people defend religion out of inertia. I think they do it to avoid alienating friends and family. Or to avoid thinking how stupid one’s friends and family might be.

      The worst side effect of faith is that it alienates people from each other.

      Believers must remove themselves from the presence of wrong believers, and nearly everyone else is wrong.

      It’s mental and social speciation.

  11. Also, Mr. Barash does little to prove his claim that science and religion cannot be reconciled. It all depends on how science and God are defined.

    This part made me laugh. Well hell yeah — I can pretty much reconcile any two opposing things if you let me play semantic calvinball with the definitions. So can anyone. That’s not relevant.

    The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, from a common ancestor, in the divine image. Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.

    Sure, but first lets turn our sharpest philosophical and scientific reasoning on “God” and its supernatural nature — and no, there is no “rule” against doing that. If honest inquiry and analysis could establish a reasonable basis for believing that reality either is or came out of some pure Mental existence then there wouldn’t be all the song and dance concerning how much we need “faith.”

    If people are going to throw around words like “discovery” and “true” — as in “discover the true meaning of human existence” — then they can’t throw off science and pretend we need only consult our personal preferences and a sacred text.

    1. I laughed there too. I also laughed at the

      The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, . . .”

      claim as well. Women are the first thing that comes to mind.

  12. This one is the most likely culprit, IMO.

    “2)This person is very ignorant of the book that they hold to be sacred and the basis for their religious beliefs. And it can only be willful because the damn book is right there for them to read. They are refusing to see.”

    (I know this will seem specious at first, but stick with me.)
    Derek Jeter is the most popular baseball player of the last 20 years not because he’s the best player, there are at least 30-40 contemporaries of his that were much better baseball players, but because sports writers and sport fans like to write and read about glamorous players in glamorous markets who date TV stars and pop singers. Rarely has Jeter even been the best player on the Yankees and yet the farewell coverage, particularly from ESPN, was fawning to the point of being a little bit gross.
    The author of the above comment has been TOLD that the book of Genesis has positive moral underpinnings just like baseball fans have been TOLD that Jeter is the second coming of Mickey Mantle. An objective assessment of the veracity of these claims is never actually made. If it was, then christians would realize that the bible is a terrible source for morality and Yakee fans would realize that Derek Jeter is a poor man’s Harold Baines.
    Julia Sweeney’s “Saying Goodbye to God” has some tremendously entertaining passages about Sweeney deciding to actually read the bible for the first time during a crisis of faith and becoming horrified at what a brute the Abrahamic god is in the Old Testament.

  13. It turns out that Darwin’s work is as great a gift to theology as it was to biology!

    Hey, Mr. Sauer of Fairfield, Conn — I’d sure like to ask you an honest question!

    In your opinion, what scientific discovery WOULD HAVE turned out to threaten theology, had it occurred? That is, if scientists had discovered to a high degree of probability that all animal species were created in their present form 10,000 years ago and there was no gradual evolution — would this have posed a serious problem? Would theologians have had to struggle and then abandon not just Christianity but the existence of God?

    I thought not.

    Nothing “turned out.” So stop pretending science is theology’s friend and going all ‘gee whiz’ over how WELL each new theory perfectly comports with an even better view of God than before!!!11!1

    It’s a rigged game.

  14. On “orthodox theology” – could what was meant mean (say) Eastern Orthodox of some kind? The writer’s name sounds vaguely Armenian. Doesn’t save the thesis, because “declaring compatibility” doesn’t *make* compatibility.

          1. Neither do I have terribly fond memories of FORTRAN, but not as horrible memories as of COBOL.

          2. Never had the pleasure of knowing COBOL. Had some good times with FORTRAN. SAS, though… had a long and intimate relationship with SAS. That program would do ANYthing.

          3. Oh, SAS! I used that a lot, but only ever scratched the surface of what you could do with it. BBC BASIC, REXX, Assembler 360, SELCOPY, … Then when I stopped being a professional programmer i tinkered a bit with Java and Objective-C.


          4. Holy Cow! Fortran is still taught?

            Don’t get me wrong, I like Fortran. It’s sort of like the mother language. Up until the advent of object oriented languages.

            But, wow. The last time I recall actually using Fortran was in the late ’80s.

            I was always surprised how all the newer lanquages (except for object oriented ones) I encountered throughout the ’90s and early ’00s were so similar to the types of BASIC I first learned using my TI-16, and then TRS-80, that there was nearly no learning curve.

          5. @ Ant

            BBC Basic was beautiful. Left every other variety of Basic for dead.

            I once wrote a program in Quickbasic to calculate the output of a number of pumps in a pumping station – it had to carry out a whole lot of iterations to balance the flows and heads (pressures) in each section of pipework. It could only do it if all the pumps were identical.
            I wanted to generalise it to handle different pumps at varying speeds but I could see that just keeping track of where I was in the program was going to be next to impossible.

            Then I found a free BBC Basic for the PC and wrote the program in that – and it worked. It was only because BBC Basic was so well structured that I could even attempt to do it.

          6. @Diana

            Surely you jest. At least I hope you do 🙂

            I do not wish to start a Holy War (** but I seem to recall C64 Basic was legendary for its limitedness. (Is that a word?)

            In contrast Beeb Basic V in its later implementation on the Archimedes was certainly the best-structured and easiest-to-use language I’ve ever come across.

            **Okay so I don’t trust WP to interpret HTML the same way I interpret HTML

          7. It’s what I taught myself to program on as a kid.

            I also favour the pico editor in Unix, which casts me out of all the nerd circles.

          8. @Diana

            OK, that’s always worth something (what you learned on).

            I tend to use nano as an editor, at least for simple edits, ‘cos it’s there and I never learned vi or emacs.

      1. My sister was maintaining COBOL code just a few years ago ; I’ve no reason to believe that that company has moved on – why would they? – even though my sister has.

      2. I don’t, but I am told that very “conservative” development shops like at banks, revenue agencies and the like have huge COBOL code bases they still maintain. Don’t know of it is true. Imagine talking to one of those via (say) modern web services or the like. Ugh.

        1. I’ve learned that there are a lot of legacy systems out there and work arounds, patches & kludges built around them. I’ve also learned there are a lot of efforts being put forward in replacing legacy systems and all the technical debt they bring with them. However, these systems are often in more conservative industries (financial, insurance, etc.) and often the techniques to replace said systems are, shall we say, also legacy. So, it takes longer than it should.

  15. Beliefs in the transcendent are not based on evidence. If they were, they would be called science. The majority of these letters were written by adults who want to reconcile their childhood fantasies of the ever-after with reality.

    And yes, science does compete with religion. Confer here:

    The reproducibility of prayer and/or miracles and french toast with a white man’s bearded face.

  16. Jerry, I agree with your comments as a whole. however, you make a point I’d like to take issue with.
    We cannot exclude the existence of a creator “with precisely the same conviction that we can exclude the existence of a monstrous reptile lurking in Loch Ness.”

    If we accept a Creator, most of physics, geology, chemistry, biology, science in general or even simple cause and effect would have to be revised. Our world view and science would be false.
    If, on the other hand, we would find a surviving plesiosaur or other monster lurking in the depths of Loch Ness, that total revision would not be necessary. I mean, it is *extremely* unlikely, but not world-shaking. (I’m sure this point is not original, I think Dawkins or the Hitch have almost certainly made it before).

    The only possible -but not probable- ‘escape’ can be found in Shermers Law (inspired by Arthur C. Clarkes 3rd law: “Any technology advanced enough is indistinguishable from magic”): “Any extraterrestrial advanced enough is indistinguishable from God”. If -very improbably- so (our universe being ‘regulated’ by a very advanced ET) our science would not necessarily be completely invalidated (but it would definitely be world view shaking…)

    1. Let us see what we would do if we could bet on it with a bookie.

      I would bet about one pound to a million for Nessies existence (after all, a pound is not what it used to be, but the Scots decided to remain in the UK, so we’re talking pounds). I might even bet to or three pounds in that case, with a reward of 2 to 3 million pounds, of course. After all, we did get a Coelacanth (even 2 species, if I’m not mistaken) and the Megamouth shark. Of course, Oceans are wider than Loch Ness. But one to a million appears not a deeply irrational bet there.

      I would not bother to place my bet if the existence of a Creator would be 1 to a million, at least one to a billion, or better a trillion, I would’ take. On the condition that an extremely evolved ET (who probably was evolved him-(or her-)self according to Darwinian principles), would be acceptable as the Creator….

      Come to think of it, maybe I will be starting a bookmakers office, I’m sure these millions of fundamentalists would go for a 1 to 2 or even less for a definite proof of a Creator, Nessie would go for 1 on 1. I can feel already: I’m rich!!

    2. I don’t think it matters what the consequences are (between finding Nessie or a Creator). What’s important to note is the likelihood of something being so and the evidence of something being so.

      Perhaps this is what you meant to say.

      1. Yes, that is what I meant. The consequences are but an illustration of likelihood. It is not so much the ‘consequences’, but the fact it would contradict the vast little what we know.

        A Nessy is virtually impossible. For all practical purposes we can say there is no monster lurking there.
        The point is that science has sown so much, such a plethora of evidence, theoretical, empirical and practical against a Creator. The evidence against a Nessy is mainly empirical (and only mildly theoretical).

        My point is, although the probability of Nessies existence is basically 0, the existence of a Creator is orders magnitude (or should I say minitude here) lower.
        In other words, I do not think it is precisely the same kind of certitude.

    3. Speaking as a geologist who has probably swum in Loch Ness more often than you (not recommended, BTW ; decidedly sub-tropical), the revisions to ecology (what the fsck is the colony feeding on?) and historical geology (how the fsck did they hide in the loch when it was filled with ice a mere 14kyr ago?) are pretty severe arguments against the existence of any “Nessiform” organism – we also have Mor(ar)ag – even before adding the speculation that “Nessiforms” might be a relict population of plesiosaurs.
      Compared to that, the famous “rhomboid paddle” image from the mid-70s project isn’t particularly worrying. It’s a weird shape, with only poor indications of scale, but weird-shaped pieces of waterlogged peat-bog wood are nothing unusual.

  17. What we have here is a bunch of ordinary people and so-called apologist experts trying to claim their favorite fairy-tale has brought contributions to human knowledge, morality, etc. I suppose this also happens among those that follows Spiderman, Harry Potter, etc.

  18. From Rosenthal’s letter:

    The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, from a common ancestor, in the divine image. Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.

    The flip side of this lesson, however, is that we were created separately from the animals, and they are not equal to us but instead we are given lorship over them. Which has lead to lots of animal cruelty in the past, and is currently leading fundie Christians to mostly reject environmentalism and endangered species protections.

    So, even as an ‘attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence,’ it does a pretty bad job. The meaning it gives us is both factually inaccurate and a moral mixed bag at best.


    Here we have what I’ll henceforth call “the N + 1 Fallacy” (thanks to the reader who coined this)

    I believe that was me. Thanks in return for propagating the idea!

    1. Harking back to comments from original post (09/28) on Barash, especially those in comment #17 (Woody, Ant, Rickflick et al.) re. the scientific process: it does seem that teachers in the sciences have an obligation to foster an understanding, and wherever possible the application, of scientific thinking, i.e., the scientific process. Showing students how to develop and test hypotheses, how to gather and evaluate evidence, and the critical importance of recognizing the provisional nature of our conclusions helps them to understand the strength of the process, and how to apply it; and perhaps also to appreciate the greater reliability of scientifically-acquired information (compared to methods e.g. faith). (Along the way, if it were sometimes possible to demonstrate the utility of Occam’s razor, as well as the use of probability in accepting or rejecting evidence, it would simplify things.) I think most of us do this when the opportunity arises, and often develop exercises specifically to develop these skills, but perhaps if it could be emphasized more, and at younger ages.

      1. I think it is a serious problem that students are typically allowed to hold the belief unchallenged, even encouraged to hold it, that there are aspects of reality that are categorically different, and that there is at least one category that science can not investigate.

        That science is hobbled in this way does not seem like an equitable situation to me. It seems like religious believers having it their way at the expense of all of us, i.e. a large percentage of the population having a very inaccurate understanding of science that causes them to discount it and undervalue it.

  19. The universe could have been created 5 minutes ago, memories and all by a cosmic deceiver, by the flying spaghetti monster, or be a simulation of a superintelligent computer programmer. Why are there no letters to the editor, defending compatibility with those views, plus thousands of others that could be invented or imagined.

    1. Last-Thursdayism (or five-minutes-agoism) is a relatively orthodox view, but nicely trumped by the revelation that the creation will take place next Tuesday (these are all just false memories, don’t you know).

  20. Even if Ms. Shaugnessy is correct that Genesis was not originally meant as a scientific explanation, it would still be the case that throughout history, only a minority “elite” of the religious have read it as a symbolic metaphor/allegory of God’s relationship to the world.

    (Some scholars have argued there is evidence for her assertion simply in light of the fact that Genesis contains two mutually conflicting creation stories stitched together.)

    While Genesis does indeed have some grand poetry and drama, I do not see what valuable message is being conveyed in its current version of the stories of Noah and Abraham, which along with several other bits, just seems plain weird. (I do like the story of Joseph in Egypt though.)

    I do like Shaugnessy’s reference to the “multidimensional mystery of life”, but while the scientific method indeed has limits, it also has a track record of reliability and verifiability unlike any other way towards the world.

    Ergo I opt mainly for the Sam Harris/Bertrand Russell approach to spirituality re Harris’ new book and Russell’s essay “Mysticism and Logic”.

  21. To my evolution class students, I lay out the philosophical alternatives and point out that there are scientists who have been on both sides of the compatibilist/incompatibilist divide. I try to be neutral and do not push my own incompatibilist position or disparage the other side.

    1. Compatibilists argue that it is perfectly obvious that science and religion are compatible because people do both all the time. This of course is a clear non sequitur with respect to the actual incompatibilist argument.

      I can certainly respect how you have decided to address the issue to your students. It seems very appropriate. But in the general case, the compatibilist’s arguments deserve mockery at best, in my opinion. Though I am sure many believers are not really aware of both side’s arguments and merely repeat respected sources, there are many who are surely being disingenuous.

  22. Ugh, there’s so much treacle-sweet attempting to be the valiant defenders of humanity that I could barf.

    Science and religion “should work together to discover what and who we are”! There’s still room for “a creative force”! God “has a certain relationship” with his “creation”, the “mystery of life”! There are “moral underpinnings” revealed in “myths of the Bible” that “we are all created equal”! The Creator is merely “withholding the evidence” to “test your faith”! You should show “a little dose of humility” if you start making truth claims too strongly! There’s no need to be “ethnocentric” and regard our “religion” too highly! Science and religion “wonderfully complement each other”! Now we can “explore” the theological ground revealed by Darwin!

    This is merely waving one’s compatibilist badge and showing what a swell bunch of people the religious are. Look at how human they are, look at how they grapple with the Big Questions and the amazing mysteries of creation, how they aren’t afraid to be open-minded, and how wonderful God’s message really is when you’re sensitive enough to listen to it and not let science get in the way. We’re all friends here so long as we’re not arrogant enough to think that the other side can’t offer anything.

    Well, yes, until you stop and notice the category errors on display here. Abstract collections of ideas and methods are not people who need to be persuaded to be chummy. You don’t get to justify your pet theory with ignorance, especially when you have to manufacture gaps for it to begin with, and you don’t go around talking about the relationships an entity has when the entity’s existence is under question to begin with. The mystery of life is what science has been chipping away at for centuries; it’s what the science runs on. Go read some literature on cognitive biases before you start harping on what an old “sacred” text is “really” saying between the lines, especially when the result is, if I were less restrained, what I’d call chicken soup for the stupid. Stating the facts and their implications is not arrogance; trying to shut someone down for not stating your favourite truth is closer to arrogance. You even use science to try to convince a scientist that their science is arrogant! Are you trying for the all-time unintentional irony awards? Science is no more a religion than basic logic and maths are, and invoking ethnocentrism is to completely miss the point. Rational ideas do not complement made-up garbage believed in by romantics and faith cranks; they disprove them. And you can’t explore ground for a subject that is, for all intents and purposes, empty at best, parasitic at worst.

    It’s not the intellectual errors on display that bother me so much as the pretentious moralism and romanticism – implied or outright claimed – oozing out of these accommodationists’ letters. Every time they wag their fingers at science for dismantling their sorry pro-religious paper castles, they stop playing by the rational game of argument and counter-argument, and behave like liars, manipulators, dupes, cowards, and passive-aggressive bullies trying to get “their” way. They do more to impede any understanding of ethics, virtue, philosophy, science, and rational intellectual inquiry than they do to defend and encourage it. And they have no idea what they’re doing.

  23. “Finally, as most of us know, religion cannot tell us where we came from (science says “evolution”), where we are going (underground), or even where we are (I’m in Midway Airport), and the question “why we are” simply makes no sense.”

    Also too, religion cannot tell us who we are, or how we are… and I’m shuper, thanksh for ashking!

  24. Like Prof. David P. Barash, I recognize the centrality of evolutionary theory in biology; however, I also see that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive theories. The creation story in Genesis is meant to communicate that God created the world and has a certain relationship to it, not how he created the world.

    Once again, one has to ask: How is it that you can worship an agent who would choose to create the world in a way that entails the incalculable suffering required for evolution by natural selection?

  25. There is no question that Dutta was going for mockery—read his 2nd para over again. However, letters have to be 150-175 words, which doesn’t leave much space for “My point is…” verbiage. So clearly he was too subtle for some readers.

  26. The N+1 fallacy “in all its many forms” doesn’t even pass the smell test.

    The N+1 asks us to look at historical and current, and one may surmise future, forms of religions to analyse even one of them. It would be like asking traffic safety workers to collect data on all historical and future car accidents “in all their form” before deciding to investigate safety belts as potential precaution.

    Fun picks:

    But science can say nothing about what preceded the Big Bang or how life was injected into that simple cell.

    Unless you define Big Bang in an idiosyncratic way, there are several dedinitions, science did say something on the era in front (inflation of what was the historical Big Bang (Hot Big Bang). Same as there are several emergence of life theories.

    The creation story in Genesis

    Which of them? The existence of two stories is evidence that “how” was prominent in the mind of those who wrote the myths!

    Religion is a non-falsifiable “theory of everything”

    Except all of it, which claims some type of non-phsyical action exist. We don’t see that.

    And when did _professors of physics_ start to quote myths as evidence for how to observe religion!?

    living on a small planet traveling through space at 67,000 miles per hour,

    Only in the reference frame of the Sun. The Milky Way has another velocity vs the local supercluster Laniakea, at a guess much faster.

  27. (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t injected into a simple cell: who did the injection, and where did the “simple cell” come from?)

    For the audience’s information when this comes up in a search 63 months from now:
    One of the more popular methodologies for examining Origin Of Life (OOL) is to address the question of which came first – metabolism or information? “Metabolism” is the sequence of chemical reactions that produces biologically interesting molecules and energy from environmental materials, while the “Information” leg is what we now know as genetics, but more generally allowed the construction of the various necessary enzymes for the metabolism to work. One popular family of scenarios is to postulate a variety of geochemical conditions where flow of mineral-rich fluids from the interior of the Earth to the surface provides energy and material to drive cyclical metabolism-like systems (i.e., these are dis-equilibrium systems), and the mechanical structures that develop as part of such structures gradually get replaced by “information bearing” chemical structures – eventually enzymes – using byproducts of the metabolism-like processes.
    The Wachtershauser “Iron-sulphur” metabolism-first system is a popular scenario ; more recently Mike Russell’s “white smoker” (cool alkaline hydrothermal vent) system has provided geologically reasonable conditions where such systems could have developed. There are, of course, other possibilities being pursued with varying degrees of persistence. It is also possible that different systems operated in different conditions, and then found themselves mixing and having to come to a mutual accommodation, perhaps after the disruptions following a major astrobleme impact.
    (Recent work suggests that once the Earth had formed deep oceans, although a hundred-km asteroid would have been devastating for the surface of the Earth, in the deeper parts of the oceans things would have been relatively well protected for thousands of years after such an event, though the oceans may have reached high temperatures. It is interesting to note that some of the most fundamental parts of life’s common metabolism are heat-tolerant.)
    Work continues. It’s possible that the evidence simply does not remain to deduce what exactly happened. But that doesn’t stop people from trying to find answers. Really, we need another water-rich rocky planet to examine. Europa, anyone?

    1. It seemed to me the person that wrote the response to the article was thinking that vitalism was somehow involved – dude, that is so 17th C.

  28. These letters to the editor have one theme in common; the ability to dress up the No True Scotsman Fallacy with distracting language.

    Religion and science are not compatible because there are religions out there that flatly reject science. Unless the proposal is that these religions aren’t really religions (what are they?), then they seem to be claiming that some hundred million people in the United States alone aren’t following a religion, and that’s just the creationists. Add in the number who believe we only have two common ancestors, that the laws of Physics were violated via resurrections and ascensions, that Jesus physically created matter with the loaves and fishes, walked through walls, etc., and the number goes way up. And this list doesn’t even begin to touch the claims that may be scientifically or logically possible but not even remotely plausible.

    Sure, there may be people out there who call themselves religious and don’t accept anything supernatural, but they are far from the majority and certainly don’t have any basis to make claims that all religion comports with science.

  29. I wrote the second to last letter.

    I read your comments- as an insider I can posit that orthodox judaism does support claims of evolution. Get your facts straight and read some Modern orthodox literature on the subject before claiming to know what they say.

    Secondly, theres something called ‘interperation’ and
    lastly, read ‘ the great partnership’ by jonathan sacks to get a better idea of how religion and science speak of different ‘truths’

    1. I’m sorry but a bit of Googling shows that there are many Orthodox Jews, including rabbis, who unequivocally reject evolution, so don’t pretend that they all accept it. And I’ve met three ex-Orthodox in the last year who all gave me the same story: when they told their family they accepted evolution, they were rejected and shunned: they became apostates. That resulted in them leaving Judaism. You can find the opposition by simply Googling “Do Orthodox Jews accept evolution?”

      Even many Orthodox who do accept a kind of theistic, God-guided evolution that they force into the Procrustean bed of the Genesis narrative.

      So, Mr. Rude Man, get YOUR facts straight before you imply that all Orthodox Jews are down with evolution. Sacks may, but he’s about as liberal as Orthodox Jews come.

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