Five books, all trying to show that science and religion are BFFs, get my kishkes in a knot

September 1, 2021 • 12:00 pm

UPDATE: Philosopher Maarten Boudry has issued a series of tweets also criticizing Harrison’s take on the relationship of science and religion. Here’s the first one, but there are about two dozen in the thread:



Matthew sent me a tweet about this Five Books article telling me it would irritate me. Well, it really didn’t, as the books aren’t really about the compatibility of science and religion, but more about whether there’s been a perpetual war between science and religion. These are two different issues. The second is completely empirical: have there been recurrent clashes between religion and science over history?  The first is a combination of philosophical and empirical study: do the natures of science and religion give them different ways to find out what is true about the cosmos? And, if so, have those different methodologies led to conflicting and incompatible claims?

In my book Faith versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, I maintain that there have been sporadic clashes between science and religion (the most notable being the Galileo story and the persistence of creationism), but in general most modern science doesn’t step on religion’s toes.  In this interview, Professor Peter Harrison of the University of Queensland, whose field is the relationship of science and religion, picks out five books that he’d recommend for the layperson to study the intersection of these fields. Click to read it:

Here are photos of the five books chosen by Harrison. I’ve read only one of them: the Hardin et al. essay collection.

Harrison is pretty much an accommodationist, and although he admits that, say, Darwinism conflicts with religion, this is a relatively new phenomenon because, he avers, before the 17th century nobody took the Bible as a handbook of science. What he means—and I think he’s dead wrong here—is that before the 17th century nobody thought that the Bible’s empirical claims were true. If you read the Church fathers, or the Nicene Creed (a fourth century confection) you’ll see that the account of the Bible was seen as purveying the literal truth about our origins, the existence of deities, the existence of Heaven and Hell, and many other empirical matters. Most important is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, for which we have no extrabiblical evidence, and yet is the fulcrum on which all Christianity rests.

So the idea that Biblical literalism is a new phenomenon seems badly wrong to me. Yes, “science” as a practice and profession didn’t come along until a few centuries ago, so there couldn’t be a conflict between science and religion per se, but even the ancient Greeks engaged in empirical studies that didn’t involve the hand of Zeus.

As with all accommodationist historians, Harrison argues that the Galileo affair has been exaggerated as a clash between empiricism and religion; these people always say it’s about religious power, or is more nuanced than we think.  Harrison even emphasizes a “science versus science” element: that Galileo neglected some of his contemporaries’ claims, like Tycho Brahe’s “parallax” arguments against a heliocentric solar system. But you’d have to be deluded to think that the controversy wasn’t mainly about Galileo’s empirical claims contradicting the Earth-centricity divined from Scripture.

On to creationism. Harrison’s discussion of it is weird, and I reproduce it below:

It is slightly different with Darwin. With evolution, there are religious issues at stake. This is part of what motivates young earth creationism: fundamental questions about the nature of human beings, the origins of morality, and the literal truth of the Bible. Darwin’s theory puts question marks against these in a way that the Galileo case doesn’t. It wasn’t evolution that generated difficulties but the method of natural selection, because it made evolution look like a random directionless process. Again, that appears to be inconsistent with Christian notions of a providential direction to history and the special place given to human beings.

But, as we say, history is complicated. Darwin has very powerful highly religious supporters and he has some scientific critics as well. And until we arrived at “the modern synthesis”, with its better understandings of genetics, there wasn’t a plausible mechanism for natural selection.

At least he admits that creationism does exemplify a war between science and faith. But his claim that it was natural selection and not evolution itself that generated creationism seems wrong. Regardless of the mechanism of evolutionary change, the idea of evolution itself flatly contradicts the Bible, and much of the opposition to Darwin’s views rested on his claim that evolution happened (contradicting Genesis), that it was slow (contradicting a young Earth), and that the distribution of plants and animals on the surface of the earth, according to Darwin, could not be explained by a Flood and dispersal scenario.

Second, if you understand natural selection, you know that it is NOT a “random directionless process”. It is the presence of variation (randomly generated by mutation, but Darwin didn’t know that) interacting with a non-random process: the differential proliferation of variation that confers a reproductive advantage. Does Harrison think this? It seems so, because he implies that Darwin’s theory made evolution look like that “random directionless process.” Even if you’re a creationist, you don’t understand what you’re criticizing if you go after natural selection on that basis.

Finally, once we had genetics at the beginning of the 20th century, we knew about mutations and thus had a theory of how natural selection worked on newly arising (or standing) variation. (The “modern synthesis” didn’t begin until the mid-Thirties). But so long as there is heritable variation, which even Darwin knew about, you have a “plausible mechanism for natural selection,” which is simply the differential sorting of variants via their effect on reproductive success. If the variants are heritable, that causes evolution.

One gets the idea from these two paragraphs that Harrison doesn’t really understand Darwin’s theories, is unable to explain them, or doesn’t know their place in history.

A few more items lest I go on forever.

First, Harrison takes the common stance of believers and some philosophers (I don’t know if he’s religious) that you have to philosophically justify the methods of science a priori before you can have any confidence in what you find by doing science. I quote (here he’s talking about Merton’s book):

What’s particularly interesting is that he treats science itself as a kind of ‘black box’ and focuses on external factors and, crucially, values. He argues that Puritan values were important to setting up science and justifying scientific practice. That’s the key thing about this book. He understands that more generally, social values are crucial to the legitimation of science. That means it’s not just to do with the inherent internal logic of science as something that is somehow self-evidently true. That’s not how you make science successful—it’s something external to the sciences that leads us to value them, that makes scientific advance possible, and that makes science an important and central feature of society.

Why this question is so vital to this very day is that science is undergoing challenges to its legitimacy. It’s simply not enough for a scientist to rehearse the chorus ‘well, we’re scientists and this is what the science tells us’; they have to understand the role played by values in giving legitimacy to what they’re doing.

I’m not sure what “challenges to legitimacy” science is undergoing, but I deny that there are any “social values” or a priori philosophical rationales necessary to give us confidence in science or make it “legitimate.” While there’s no one fixed “scientific method”—and here I agree with Feyerabend that “anything goes”—there are general agreed-on principles of what counts as evidence, including empirical observation, doubt, criticism, replication, and so on, that are used by all scientists trying to discern “truth”. If there is a social value at play here, it’s merely “we value what is true.” (That’s not what Harrison means, of course.) There is nothing external to the sciences that leads us to value them, but simply the toolkit that is science that, importantly, IS A TOOLKIT THAT WORKS.  Why people value science is simply that it tells us the things we want to know, and tells them truly. You don’t turn to religion if you want to make a vaccine against Covid-19. (Now why we want to make one rests on social principles, but the method itself is what gets us what we want.)

Second, Harrison claims that it is religious values that gave rise to science. That is, the legitimation of science that he deems necessary comes from faith—Christian faith. In this case, it is the faith that gives us impetus to understand God’s laws. Harrison also claims that religion is “necessary but not sufficient” to give rise to science. In other words, in an atheistic West, we would have no science. Two quotes here:

To overgeneralise somewhat, with the new views of Descartes and Newton, the powers of things are stripped away—they become inert—and God has to do the work of moving things around. He does according to his own laws. The notion of divine omnipotence—that God can make any kind of world he wants and is not constrained by any other considerations—then leads to the necessity of empirically investigating the world. That’s one example: the idea of laws of nature and mathematical laws of nature which are foundational to modern science come out of the idea of divine omnipotence. Descartes is explicit about this, and so too are English thinkers like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Samuel Clark. They are very explicit that laws of nature are divine edicts.

Now you can argue about the extent to which scientists were motivated by religion to find out stuff, but I don’t think that, say, the ancient Greeks, or many scientists in the early days, were simply trying to work out “God’s laws”. I think you’d have a hard time arguing that William Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, for instance, was motivated by his efforts to work out how God designed the body. It was motivated, as far as I know, by sheer cussedness: the desire to find out for himself whether Galen was right (Galen wasn’t). And certainly now, when most working scientists and a big majority of good ones are atheists, there is NO motivation to do science as a way to understand God or God’s plan. Even Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, leaves God at the door of the NIH.

There’s also this:

Interviewer: One of the claims that Funkenstein makes towards the end of the book is that while one “can draw many meaningful connections between medieval theology and early modern science”, the stronger claim that “without the former, the latter would never have emerged” is “neither demonstrable nor plausible.” Do you disagree?

Harrison: I think I would. I’d be inclined to say that the medieval theological background is necessary but not sufficient. That would be my view, which is a bit stronger than Funkenstein’s claim.

Ergo, had we not had medieval theology, we’d never have had science. Well, of course this is an untestable claim, but I’d argue that pure curiosity, and the realization that the empirical, naturalistic toolkit of science produces results, that all that would have emerged without medieval theology. You have to do some fast dancing to lay the entire enterprise of modern science at the doorstep of Thomas Aquinas.

Third, I’ve long argued that while science can make contributions to religion—by determining whether their truth statements are really true—religion has, like Laplace apocryphally asserted, nothing to contribute to science.  Harrison disagrees, arguing (without giving examples) that naturalism is not necessarily a sufficient assumption for science: that maybe injecting an element of the divine or numinous could advance science:

Clearly, the advocacy of something like intelligent design or scientific creationism in present circumstances is absolute heresy. And I want to be clear that I am not advocating that. But I do think it’s very interesting to consider whether religious conceptions might lead to unconceived possibilities in terms of contexts of discovery. This is precisely Funkenstein’s point—that thinking about divine omnipotence and what God could possibly instantiate led to new ways of thinking about the world. This was also argued even more strongly by the French historian and philosopher of science Pierre Duhem.

. . . I wonder whether the very strong naturalism which either explicitly or implicitly shapes virtually all modern thought is in some way restrictive. Your point is that specific religious dogmas are potentially restrictive, and I think that’s absolutely right. But there’s a difference between specific religious dogmas and thinking in more elaborate theological terms about something like divine omnipotence (which is the historical case I’m thinking of). To put it this way, I don’t buy the idea that scientific naturalism is some neutral position and that the religious position is the one invested in a set of restrictive assumptions. I think naturalism is potentially just as dogmatic and restrictive.

I’d love for Harrison to give us an example of how naturalism has limited scientific thought, for surely there must be one example in the history of science in which thinking about God would not just motivate scientific exploration, but produce specific hypothesis that naturalism wouldn’t. He doesn’t give us those examples, and that’s because they don’t exist.

Finally, and least important, Harrison claims that the existence of religious scientists constitutes an embarrassment for those of us who claim that science and religion are incompatible. A quote:

As you say, the existence of Christian scientists who are not obviously subject to cognitive dissonance is an embarrassment for some who would claim the incompatibility of science and religion (as, for example, the New Atheists did). The fact is that there are now eminent scientists who have religious commitments, as there have always been throughout history. This is an awkward fact for advocates of the incompatibility of science and religion.

It’s not awkward to me, not if you understand human psychology.  People are religious for a variety of reasons (including childhood brainwashing), and to say that people can’t be superstitious in one part of their life and rational in others is to misunderstand human nature.  I think religious scientists are philosophically muddled, but don’t necessarily experience cognitive dissonance because they’ve built a mental wall between delusion and rationality.

h/t: Matthew

Elaine Ecklund has a new book, and yes, it’s more of the same accommodationism

August 31, 2021 • 9:30 am

It’s been a long time (over a year) since we’ve examined the oeuvre of Elaine Ecklund a sociologist at Rice University—and now “director of the Religion and Public Life Program in Rice’s Social Sciences Research Institute—who used to be the subject of many posts.  The reason? Because she made her living as a researcher heavily funded by the Templeton foundations, and apparently dedicated to showing that religion and science are compatible. She was not above twisting or misrepresenting her data to make that point which, besides the tendentious nature of her scholarship, upset many of us, including Jason Rosenhouse and Russell Blackford, who panned her 2019 book Secularity and Science for misrepresenting the very data she published.

For most of the years I’ve written this site, Ecklund has been heavily funded by three foundations started with John Templeton’s mutual-fund fortune. According to her c.v., she’s currently sitting on three grants from the Templeton Religion Trust totaling $ 3,939,548! Sir John Templeton’s ambition, when he founded the John Templeton foundation, was to show that the more we learn about science, the more evidence we have for God.

Well, Ecklund doesn’t talk about her own religious belief, but she’s dedicated her career (and spent a gazillion Templeton dollars) trying to show that scientists aren’t as atheistic as people think they are, and that scientists are “spiritual people,” not meanies like Richard Dawkins. This message, of course, plays right into Templeton’s program, ergo the continual stream of funding she gets from their foundations. And once you’ve gotten your stall in the Templeton Stable, the feed bag has no bottom.

Now Ecklund has a new book, coauthored with David R. Johnson, which promises to be more of the same. I haven’t yet read it, but I’ve read several of her books and papers, and have never failed to be infuriated by them. To get an idea of what it’s about, there’s a summary of the contents in the puff piece issued by Rice University and on Ecklund’s personal website.  The book is called Varieties of Atheism in Science (you can also get it from Oxford University Press). The screenshot below links to the Amazon page.

Some of the puffery in a press release from her school, Rice University:

As it turns out, the “New Atheism” embraced by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and other notable scientists is at odds with the beliefs of most scientists who are atheists.

“Atheist scientists and religious communities, for example, certainly disagree about many things, but we found that they have so much more in common than they might think they share,” Ecklund said. “Both groups often have a sense of fascination about the world, a sense of meaning and purpose and a desire to explain something larger than themselves.”

This is completely disingenuous. Science has ways of showing what we think is true about the world, while religion just makes stuff up and its claims about the cosmos are falsified or untestable. The “sense of meaning and purpose” of scientists rests on the desire to find out the truth about the world, or involves secular stuff like their families and hobbies, while that of believers rests on the assumption that a deity confers meaning and purpose upon us. Finally, “something larger than ourselves” means “the universe or the Earth” to scientists, but “God and his plan” to religionists. We also have in common that we eat, breathe, and sometimes like books and music. We should be friends!

But wait! I rant! The puffery goes on:

. . . Ecklund and Johnson argue that improving the public’s perception of scientists requires uncovering the real story of who  scientists are.

“As the pandemic continues to ravage the global population, never before has it been more important to improve the relationship between the public and the  community,” Ecklund said.

Of the New Atheists, the book concludes, “It is now our responsibility to replace their rhetoric with reality.”

“Reality” is Ecklund’s construal of the data, which, as we’ve seen repeatedly, doesn’t quite match with what the data themselves say. And I wonder who those 81 interviewed scientists are. They certainly don’t include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or me!

The onus for improving the “science-religion relationship” rests not on scientists, who by and large are atheists who ignore religion, but on religionists and their rejection of science. It’s not the scientists who are making the pandemic worse by ignoring data!

Which reminds me, as I continue my rant, of a lovely quote from The Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll:

“There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

That, in a nutshell, is the academic program of Elaine Ecklund.

Here’s a summary of her new book with Johnson from Ecklund’s personal website:

A significant number of Americans view atheists as immoral elitists, aloof and unconcerned with the common good, and they view science and scientists as responsible. Thanks in large part to the prominence and influence of New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Hitchens, [JAC: SAM HITCHENS????] New Atheism has claimed the pulpit of secularity in Western society. New Atheists have given voice to marginalized nonreligious individuals and underscored the importance of science in society. They have also advanced a derisive view of religion and forcefully argued that science and religion are intrinsically in conflict.

Many in the public around the globe think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheist scientists are New Atheists, militantly against religion and religious people. But what do everyday atheist scientists actually think about religion? Drawing on a survey of 1,293 atheist scientists in the U.S. and U.K., and 81 in-depth interviews, this book explains the pathways that led to atheism among scientists, the diverse views of religion they hold, their perspectives on the limits to what science can explain, and their views of meaning and morality. The findings reveal a vast gulf between the rhetoric of New Atheism in the public sphere and the reality of atheism in science. The story of the varieties of atheism in science is consequential for both scientific and religious communities and points to tools for dialogue between these seemingly disparate groups.

Well, unless Ecklund produces a survey showing the percentage of “people around the globe who think that all scientists are atheists and that all atheists scientists are New Atheists”, I will doubt that. Many atheist scientists have criticized the likes of Dawkins, Harris, and [Sam] Hitchens for being too outspoken and “shrill.” So even atheistic scientists themselves think that not all atheist scientists adhere to their views.

Given the way Ecklund has vastly overblown her findings in the past, I’d take that second paragraph above with a grain of salt.  For years Ecklund has been calling for productive dialogue between science and religion, and yet what we have, and will always have, is an unproductive monologue, with science telling religion, “Your claims are either unevidenced or disproven.”  Religion has nothing valuable to say to science, though they often repeat the ironic mantra: “Be humble”. Yet it is “humble” to be a believer who not only thinks there’s a divine being, but claims to know its nature?

Will I read the book? I suppose so, but only in the way that I visit the endodontist for a root canal.

Public acceptance of evolution grows in the U.S.

August 24, 2021 • 11:30 am

According to a survey just published in Public Understanding of Science, acceptance of evolution is increasing in the United States. Click on the screenshot below to read the article (it’s free), or access the pdf here.

The survey continued data collected over 35 years, but a lot of the methodology is described in the Supplemental Materials, which are not given in this link nor on the journal page, where I can’t find this article (it’s clearly an early publication).  Now other surveys have found a smaller percentage of Americans who accept evolution (see below), but it’s surely because of the different ways the questions were asked.

Here’s the question this survey posed to Americans:

The following question was used in all of the years in this analysis:

For each statement below, please indicate if you think that it is definitely true, probably true, probably false, or definitely false. If you don’t know or aren’t sure, please check the “not sure” box.

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Acceptance must be the sum of “definitely true and probably true”, while rejection would be the converse.

So the question at hand is simply: evolution or no evolution of humans? And for the first time, acceptance of human evolution, now at 54% , was seen in a majority of those surveyed—an increase of 14% in the last decade. Rejection of evolution (red line) appears to be about 37%, while “don’t know” is about 9%. As the authors note, the increase in acceptance since 2009 or so seems to be due more to those who “don’t know” moving into the acceptance column than to rejectors moving into the acceptance column.

If you look at a similar survey of a Gallup poll over 36 years (below), you see a different pattern, but that’s because they surveyed for more than just acceptance of evolution: they asked whether people accepted human evolution as purely naturalistic (22%), accepted human evolution but with God guiding it (33%), or simply rejected human evolution in favor of Biblical creationism (40%). The figure for rejection is pretty much the same as shown in the figure above, but the difference in “evolution acceptance” is undoubtedly due to the fact that “acceptance” below includes evolution guided by God. If you added that up with the naturalistic acceptors, the Gallup poll would show that 55% of Americans “accepted” human evolution, again close to the data above. But there are two types of evolution being accepted, one involving supernatural intervention. (Intelligent design would qualify, in this way, as “acceptance of evolution.”)

The data, then, are not that disparate between the two polls, but the apparently heartening 54% acceptance of evolution in the poll above seems to conceal the fact that most acceptors see a hand of God guiding evolution. I don’t find a teleological or theistic view of evolution all that heartening, for it still gives credence to divine intervention. And although the authors mention that disparate results of different surveys depend on the questions asked, it would have been nice had they compared the data above with that below.

A few other points. First, among the demographic data (age, gender, education, college science courses, children at home, etc.), the most important factor determining acceptance of evolution is whether the respondent took at least one college science course.

But “demographic data” did not include religion, which, as usual, turns out to be the most important factor determining how one answered the new polls. (The authors play this down in the paper, perhaps because the National Center for Science Education, two of whose members or former members are authors of the survey, have always been accommodationists.)

Nevertheless, when you do a path analysis of how these factors interact, and parse out the individual effects of factors that normally interact (for example, Republicans are more likely to be religious, and therefore to reject evolution), you find that “fundamentalist” religion has by far the biggest effect on evolution acceptance—in a negative direction, of course. (Because I can’t access the supplementary material, I can’t see how they determined whether a religious person was “fundamentalist”.)

Here’s the complicated path analysis and the weight of each factor. Religious fundamentalism has nearly twice the effect, in isolation, of any other factor on whether one accepts or rejects evolution.

Two more points. More men than women accepted evolution (57% vs 51% in 2019, a reduced disparity from 1988, when the data were 52% and 41%, respectively). This is probably because, on average, women are more religious than are men. And in terms of politics, here are the data for its relation to evolution. As you might expect, the more liberal you are, the more likely you are to accept evolution, and there is a huge difference between conservative Republicans and Liberal democrats in accepting evolution (34% vs. 83% respectively in 2019).  Republicans just can’t get with the program!


There’s one other point I want to mention. The authors claim that it’s really “fundamentalist religion” that’s at odds with evolution, not really other forms of religion, though I’ve maintained otherwise. Here’s what they say:

Religious fundamentalism plays a significant role in the rejection of evolution. The historical explanation of the low rate of acceptance of evolution in the United States involves the central place of the Bible in American Protestantism. In a country settled piecemeal by colonists of varying religious views and without a state church, it was natural for people of faith, especially Protestants who already accepted the principle of sola Scriptura, to privilege the Bible—or their interpretation of it—as the primary source of religious authority and an inerrant source of information about history and science as well as faith and morals. In contrast, religion in European countries is strongly structured by ecclesiastic institutions and the public receptivity to creationism has been limited as a result (Blancke et al., 2014Branch, 2009).

It is thus a particular form of religion that is at the foundation of American anti-evolutionism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not religion in general (see Coyne, 2012, for a dissenting view). Indeed, evolution is routinely taught in Catholic parochial schools in the United States, and mainstream Protestant denominations similarly accept evolution (Martin, 2010). While not all anti-evolutionism originates in Fundamentalism and its inerrantism about the Bible, it largely reflects a conservative form of Protestantism with relatively inflexible and inerrantist religious views (Scott, 2009), which we have been calling fundamentalism.

I would deny the claim that it’s only Protestant fundamentalism that’s at odds with evolution instead of religious belief in general. I say this for two reasons/

First, across the world, where Protestant fundamentalism doesn’t have such sway, you still see a negative correlation between religiosity and evolution. Here are data I published in a paper in 2012. There’s a strong negative correlation between religiosity and acceptance of human evolution across 34 countries, but it’s significant even omitting the U.S.point. Further, the only country lower in evolution acceptance than the US is Turkey, which is a Muslim nation.

More important, here are data taken from the Gallup survey mentioned above. Look at “religion”. Yes, Protestants are more likely to be creationists than are others (note that they don’t subclassify “fundamentalist Protestants”), but the Catholics, touted above as being good for teaching evolution in their schools, are still 34% young-earth creationist! What is taught is not always what is accepted!

No, it’s religion of all stripes in the U.S. that’s inimical to accepting evolution. I wish the authors would have mentioned these data as well.

Nevertheless, both surveys show a general acceptance of evolution, though I like the data from the Gallup poll better because it decouples theistic evolution from naturalistic evolution. What I teach is naturalistic evolution, and so I want to know what proportion of Americans accept evolution the way I teach it to students.

When will nearly everyone in America accept evolution, then? When America is like Iceland: a country that is basically atheistic.

Neil deGrasse Tyson osculates religion, arguing that dissing religion impedes accepting science

August 17, 2021 • 9:15 am

Neil deGrasse Tyson prefers not to go after religion very strongly (though he has on rare occasions), believing that if you diss somebody’s religion, it prevents them from accepting the science you want to purvey—especially evolution. And he’s probably right, at least if you try to cover both subjects in a single lecture. The result is that Tyson is soft on faith, as you can see in the video below.

This video was put on YouTube last year, but I don’t know the venue or the title. Tyson shows a ranking of 34 countries and the degree of acceptance of evolution of their inhabitants. It’s well known data, but Tyson cherry-picks it to try to show that “religious” countries can be relatively high in accepting evolution, touting accommodation and giving us “hope in the world”. At least that’s how I understand his aim. Examples he adduces are these:

a). Britain is high in accepting evolution but was the country where the Anglican religion was founded. Tyson said that this shows that Britain was “a quite religious community” but is still “very high in this evolution support.” (That was centuries ago, and Britain is no longer so religious!)
b.) Likewise in Germany, where Protestantism was born under Luther, acceptance of evolution high as well. Ditto with Catholic Italy.
c.) Eastern bloc countries are low on religion, as you might expect as they were largely atheistic countries under communism, but fall in the middle on accepting evolution

Tyson finds this “hard to understand”, presumably because religion is supposed to be inimical to accepting evolution. He gives an anecdote about sending people who question the absence of God in the AMNH’s Big Bang exhibit over to the “human evolution” exhibit, concluding that the AMNH’s evidence for evolution is much stronger than the Big Bang in buttressing acceptance of evolution (he doesn’t mention physics). I grant him that, but so what?

Tyson then boasts about how he bested Dawkins in a panel discussion, showing a video of their verbal fencing. Tyson asks Dawkins whether, though Dawkins wants badly to promote evolution, doesn’t he undercut that purpose—and his role as “Professor of the Understanding of Science”—by being a vociferous anti-theist? Doesn’t criticism of religion dispel the “sensitivity” needed to get people to accept science?

It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve faced. Dawkins responds by saying, “I gratefully accept the rebuke” and then goes on to give his own anecdote. In the meantime, Tyson narrates the video by showing how successful he was in “dissing the dude” (Dawkins). Tyson is clearly showing off, but implicitly arguing that you can’t criticize religion if you want people to accept evolution.

The answer that I give is that you can be both an antitheist and a promoter of evolution—you just don’t do it at the same time. Does Tyson think that Dawkins should simply take off his antitheist hat and never criticize religion at all? That idea neglects the fact that the downside of religion goes far deeper than merely preventing acceptance of evolution. Look at what the Taliban does, for instance, or how Catholicism has led to all kinds of inimical restrictions on sex, to the terrifying of children, and to pedophilia. Look how hyperorthodox Jews turn women into breeding stock.  Religious wars and disputations have led to the death of millions. Next to that, creationism is small potatoes.

So no, Dawkins shouldn’t shut up. After all, The God Delusion was one of the best sellers of our time, moving more than a million copies.  And as the old Dawkins site “Converts Corner” attests, it helped dispel the religiosity of many people.  So Richard’s antitheism was instrumental in helping drive people away from faith and towards rationality—and science. (Note how many people in the Corner link the rejection of religion with the acceptance of science.)

At the same time, with his evolution books like The Selfish Gene, Climbing Mount Improbable, and (my favorite), The Blind Watchmaker, Richard not only educated people about science, but got them to accept evolution and its marvels. How many people have attested that it was Richard’s writings that brought them to accepting evolution and appreciating science?

So while Tyson may be right about dissing religion and selling evolution in the same lecture, Dawkins has been inordinately successful in not only helping drive religion from our world, but in getting people to accept and love science. You can say that without the first activity he would have been more successful at the second, but Dawkins, like me, has more than one goal in his life.

By the way, if you analyze the data Tyson presents in his talk above, it actually provides some support for the incompatibility of science and faith. What I did in the Evolution paper below (click for free access) was to correlate these 34 countries’ acceptance of evolution with their religiosity. And the correlation was negative. (As President of the Society for the Study of Evolution, which publishes the journal, I got the privilege of publishing one article, and I wrote this one. As you can imagine, it took some trouble to get it accepted, but the journal did print it!).

If you take Miller’s data shown in Tyson’s talk, and correlate it with the religiosity of the 34 countries, with each dot representing a country, you see a strong and significant negative correlation: the more religious a country is (moving right on the X axis), the less likely its inhabitants are to accept evolution (moving down on the Y axis). Here is that plot with the caption from my original figure:

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 is y = 81.47 − 0.33x.

Now this shows a correlation, not causation, so it may not show, for example, that belief in God makes people resistant to accepting evolution. Another interpretation is that acceptance of evolution is the causal factor, and that leads people to become atheists (this may be true for some folks). But I think, as I said in the paper, a third factor is in play here that leads to the correlation: human well being. For if you plot either various indices of well being, like the UN’s “Happiness Index” or the “Successful Societies Scale” (a measure of social support) against religiosity, you find out that the happiest people, and the healthiest societies, are the least religious. (See my paper for the evidence) And if you lose your religion because your society, as a healthy and happy one, makes religion superfluous, you naturally begin to accept evolution. (As I always say, “you can have religions without creationism, but you can’t have creationism without religion.”) In support of the idea that low well-being makes one religious, I often cite the full quotation from Marx (most people leave out all but the last sentence):

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

At any rate, I believe Tyson distorts the data by cherry-picking individual points.

Therefore, my explanation for the correlation above, including social causation, is this, written in my Evolution paper:

Creationism in America, then, may be a symptom of religion, but religion in the modern world may itself be a symptom of unhealthy societies. Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

If you’re interested, read the paper, for it’s written not for professional evolutionary biologists but for the educated layperson.

By the way, the correlation between acceptance of evolution and religiosity also holds strongly for the 50 American states as well. I couldn’t get the data for religiosity of individual states, but in my lecture on the incompatibility of faith and science, I do show a slide in which I there is a bar graph depicting the acceptance of evolution in each state. I found separate data for the ten most religious states (red arrows) and the ten least religious states (blue arrows), and put the arrows next to the states in the bar chart.

As you see below, all the blue arrows are above all the red ones. That is, every one of the ten least religious states has higher acceptance of evolution than all of the most religious states. Why? I think the reason is the same as for the correlation among countries.


Thus endeth today’s sermon. Praise Ceiling Cat, and may fleas be upon him. Amen.

Eric Hedin is back, now asserting that there is zero chance that life originated through natural processes, so God must have been responsible

August 13, 2021 • 11:30 am

I’ve tried to avoid writing about this, as Intelligent Design advocates really love getting publicity from me, and I’m tired of the muddleheaded lucubrations of Discovery Institute flacks like Michael Egnor and David Klinghoffer. But I have to call attention once again to Eric Hedin, ID advocate and former professor of physics at Ball State University, a public school.

Way back in 2013, I discovered that Hedin was teaching a general science class to nonmajors that not only promoted intelligent design, but religion itself. That was a violation of the Constitution, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation and I informed the school’s President that they were breaking the law. The result: Hedin’s class was ditched, as it should have been. I never called for him to be fired or not promoted (he was subsequently given tenure), but I didn’t want him teaching creationism as science, which the courts have repeatedly forbidden. I didn’t try to get the man dumped or permanently demonized, which is what cancellation is about.

This site has a gazillion posts over several years on the fallout; if you want to see some, go here.

As I wrote a short while back, Hedin is now trying to cash in on this incident by claiming he was canceled: he’s published a book called Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You To See. I’m apparently one of those atheists, for the Amazon blurb says this:

Eric Hedin was enjoying a productive career as a physics professor at Ball State University when the letter from a militant atheist arrived and all hell broke loose. The conflict spilled first onto the pages of the local newspaper, and then into the national news. The atheist attack included threats from the Freedom from Religion Foundation [FFRF], which targeted Hedin after learning his Boundaries of Science course exposed students to an evidence-based case for design and purpose in cosmology, physics, and biochemistry. Canceled Science tells the dramatic story of the atheist campaign to cancel Hedin’s course, reveals the evidence the atheists tried to bury, and explores discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of the nature and origin of matter, space, and even time itself.

I am indeed the militant atheist (see below), and for my part in this “cancellation” the Discovery Institute named me “Censor of the Year” in 2014, an honor I’m quite proud of. Meanwhile Hedin’s new book isn’t selling very well, and never did (it was published by the Discovery Institute in February and now ranks about 17,000 on Amazon). In the meantime, Hedin moved from Ball State to the Christian college Biola University (formerly the Bible University of Los Angeles), where he can teach all the Jesus he wants as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy and also Chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Engineering. The Lord works in mysterious ways, eventually leading Hedin back to Home.

BTW, whenever I’m called a “militant atheist”, I remember this cartoon, which is great:

Perhaps to boost his sales, Hedin just gave an interview to the right-wing college-monitoring site The College Fix, which to its discredit has a palpable dislike for evolution, and makes the following claim (click the screenshot to read):

Hedin’s argument is familiar: it’s the “fine-tuning” argument, which claims that the laws and parameters of physics are too “fine-tuned” for life to be an accident, so God must have tuned the parameters (as for the rest of the Universe where life doesn’t exist, well, that’s just collateral damage). Further, the universe hasn’t always existed, and its finite time and space make it even unlikelier for life to have originated “by accident” (it wasn’t an accident, of course: life requires both accident and then natural selection). I’ll quote some of his argument, but I’ve argued before against this nonsense many times and am not in the mood to do so again:

As the title of your book suggests, what is it that atheists don’t want us to see?

Evidence that points to something beyond nature as being responsible for major aspects of our universe, in particular the origin of the universe. The laws of nature all seem to be finely tuned to a value that of course allows life, but there’s some razor sharp or knife-edge tuning to these parameters that really can’t be explained by saying, “Oh, it’s just luck.” The level of biological information that is within the cell far exceeds what can be attained by any natural process we can think of, and actually there are laws of physics that claim that natural processes cannot generate that level of complexity that is functional, specific, information-rich, resembling machines, architecture and coding. There’s also the esoteric aspects of human nature: a mind, a consciousness, emotions, a spiritual sense. These go beyond what can be explained by appealing to random interactions between particles guided by the push-pull forces that we find in nature. We see the universe, we look at it, we study it, and we find evidence of intelligent design. The more we study nature, the more evidence for something beyond nature comes into the picture.

He keeps citing “randomness” as an unlikely explanation for consciousness, emotions, and the like, but why does he leave out selection? And why is he so damn sure that these features couldn’t arise either as a direct product or a byproduct of selection? This is the ID argument: we can’t explain it now, so God must have done it. But is it really God? Yes! See below. First, though, more argument:

Do people who have not studied this issue in depth truly understand the mathematical enormity of the fine-tuning argument? It’s not just “the chances are low” that life arose by chance.

Honestly, as a physicist I would be willing to say the physical reality chance of life originating on its own by natural processes within this universe is zero, not just low. It’s because the universe is not infinitely big. There is a finite universe. We don’t have an infinite amount of time, the universe has a finite age, roughly 13.8 billion years. That limited time, limited spatial extent of the universe means that there’s a limited amount that any natural randomness could generate. The probabilistic resources of our universe fall short of what is necessary to develop even one large functional protein molecule that would be just one of tens of thousands of different protein molecules that are needed for human life to exist. It’s almost to me desperate to keep trying to think that this could have happened by chance.

I do not think that these people know what “enormity” means. But at any rate, 13.8 billion years of Universe and 4.5 billion years of Earth, combined with a gazillion gazillion gazillion planets suitable for life—that seems like a lot of opportunity for me. And why did God wait so long between the stromatolites and the appearance of humans?. But Hedin, who makes no calculations, just says that the fine-tuning and limited-time-and-space arguments convince him that God Did It. And yes, it is God:

The intelligent design movement does not endorse a particular religion per se, just that all this could not have happened by accident, correct?

That is the main thrust, although my own personal conviction is that the designer is the God of the Bible. That comes through in a few places in the book but I don’t start with that.

No of course not. He wouldn’t want to reader to think his book is tendentious!

Finally, why do so many scientists reject Hedin’s claim that life absolutely proves the existence of God? He has an answer: atheists are religious!

It’s been said that it takes more faith to be an atheist. Why do your peers in the scientific community ignore all the evidence that points to design in life and nature?

Atheism has some similarities to a religion. The teaching of evolution and the teaching of naturalism is ingrained in the sciences and the educational system. There are people who want to keep it that way because they know if it didn’t happen naturally, then it’s happening supernaturally, and that opens the door for a divine designer and they are very opposed to that. A lot of times they think, “Well, we just need to keep studying and we will find some, almost vital force, some emergent system of complexity that explains it all naturally, even though what we already know dictates against that.” That was why I called my course at Ball State “Boundaries of Science.” There are boundaries to what nature can accomplish naturally.

You can see why Hedin’s course at Ball State was a violation of the First Amendment.  And he doesn’t explain why religious scientists like Ken Miller or Francis Collins are firm adherents of evolution. In fact, there are a fair few religious scientists who accept evolution. I guess Hedin would say they’re just conforming to the predominant view to be able to get along. But if you know Miller or Collins, you wouldn’t say that!

Meanwhile, over at the Discovery Institute’s Evolution News, Klinghoffer touts the interview and Hedin’s book:

Physicist Eric Hedin talked with Jennifer Kabbany at The College Fix about Hedin’s recent book, Canceled Science: What Some Atheists Don’t Want You to See. She asked him to estimate the chances that life originated without intelligent guidance. His answer: a bold zero.

. . .  As Kabbany points out, Hedin was “canceled before the term cancel culture was even coined.” Atheists led by Jerry Coyne at the University of Chicago meddled with Hedin’s department at Ball State University in a pretty despicable power play. Read the rest at The College Fix.

Despicable power play my tuchas! All I did (along with the FFRF) was call the University’s attention to a potential legal violation of its academic program. Ball State and its President did the rest.

Wrongheaded religious accommodationism in physics

June 20, 2021 • 9:15 am

Like religion and secular government, religion and science survive best when they’re kept well apart—when there is no incursion of religion into government and science. (The other way around, at least for science, is not bad, for science has always served to show the falsity of many religious claims—claims like creationism, the worldwide Flood, Adam and Eve, and the Exodus.)

Yet the article below, highlighted by the tweet at the bottom, calls for accommodationism: for religious people to profess their faith to other scientists, and even to tell each other about “the role of faith in science” (there is none) and “the health benefits of intermittent fasting” (a sop to Muslims). This kind of well-meaning but intellectually vacuous accommodationism surfaces from time to time, and I have to whack it down.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece from Physics World from April. I couldn’t find a post I’d done on this piece, but if I have, well, perhaps some of you haven’t read it.

The article is a straight out call to mingle faith and science, a movement that I thought had slowed, and so haven’t written about it in a while. The piece first points out the disparity between the religiosity of scientists (not very religious) and the religious general public—not only in America, but in most of the West.

A British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 found that 48% of the UK population identifies as religious and that since 1983 there has been a decline in the proportion of Christians, an increase in the non-­religiously affiliated, as well as a rapid rise in the Muslim population, along with other minority religions (up from 2% to 9%). In other words, the beliefs and worldviews of the UK population are becoming more diverse as we move away from a predominantly Christian population to a more mixed one. Yet in this regard – as in other aspects of diversity – the UK scientific community is strikingly out-of-step with society. Indeed, a report from Rice University in 2016 found that just 27% of UK scientists identify as religious compared with 47% of the general population (Socius 10.1177/2378023116664353).

That is, of course, the Templeton-funded work of Elaine Ecklund, who regularly distorts the data to make scientists, irreligious as they are, seem more religious than we think.  But why the disparity between the religiosity of the average person and that of the average scientist? It is even larger in the UK and US than Ecklund admits, with the most accomplished scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society) being almost wholly atheistic (only 7% of NAS members believe in a personal God, and a similar figure holds for the RS.

There are several possible reasons for this disparity, which I discuss in my book Faith versus Fact. One is that “scientists are simply more educated than the average American, and religiosity simply declines with education.” That may be partly true, but can’t explain much of the disparity, as professors in science are far less religious than professors in other areas, who presumably have had just as much education. Second,  if you’re religious, you’re probably less likely to want to go into science. It is the nonbelievers who may be drawn to enter a discipline that discards the supernatural. Another reason, for which there is some independent evidence, that doing science erodes your religious beliefs over time. I can’t really see any other explanations, but the latter two, which I think both contribute to the disparity, show that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion. This is the case I make in Faith Versus Fact.

One suggestion that isn’t the case is that scientists demonize and/or expel other religious scientists, purging our ranks of believers. But by and large we don’t give a rat’s patootie about the religious beliefs of our colleagues. We may puzzle over them, or even make fun of them, but we don’t penalize scientists who believe in God. Often they are quite accomplished, too, viz., Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Ken Miller, cell biologist and author of widely used biology texts.  None of us claim that believing in God prohibits you from doing good science. I claim that there is a clash between science and faith, and this clash explains why, on the whole, Western scientists are so much less religious than the general public from which they’re drawn.

Here’s Wood’s “explanation”, or rather a non-explanation:

So, what is keeping religious people away from science? It is tempting to follow the Enlightenment phil­osophy that places science and religion in conflict: “as science advances, religion declines”. But that is far too simple. The Rice report compares eight countries, finding that the disparity between scientists and the general population who identify as religious is small in nations such as Turkey and India, while in others such as Taiwan and Hong Kong religious people are even over-represented in science. That picture is very different from the UK and other western countries where the religiously affiliated are strikingly under-represented. The report also finds that most scientists do not believe there is a conflict between science and religion – instead it being more a societal issue than a philosophical one.

He’s wrong. Ecklund’s report showing a smaller disparity (which is still a disparity) in countries like Turkey and India can be explained by the fact that those countries are more religious compared to Western ones (indeed, now both are approaching theocracies), and so the disparity is almost guaranteed to be smaller. As for Taiwan, the disparity in the other direction isn’t great, and I have no explanation for Hong Kong (readers might suggest theories that are theirs). But at any rate the “conflict” is most discussed and visible in Europe and North America, and here the disparity is profound, even more profound that Ecklund pretends since she doesn’t dwell on those UK and US scientists who actually do research and are good at it. Here’s a figure from her 2016 paper using data from all surveyed scientists.


Sebastian Wood disagrees that there’s a conflict between faith and science, and asserts that harmony is possible:

Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt manifold and complex, I believe that neither society nor scientific pursuits stand to benefit from being out-of-step with each other. Rachel Brazil’s insightful Physics World article “Fighting flat-Earth ­theory” traces the rise of belief in a flat Earth back to religious convictions. It stands as a warning that we need to build bridges between scientific and religious communities rather than allowing the divide to widen further. In a society that increasingly recognizes the value of diversity, it is worth reflecting on the history of science to see that no single religion or worldview has a monopoly on scientific progress. Even a cursory glance reveals profound contributions to science from individuals representing the full range of religious and non-religious worldviews, both historic and contemporary. Clearly this diversity of thinking is of enormous and proven value to science and technology, and is something to be treasured, nurtured and encouraged.

In contrast to the first sentence, I think that science, religion and society benefit from religion not sticking its nose into science but science examining religious claims. Science doesn’t get polluted with superstition that has never helped us find truth, while religion gets its false truth claims corrected, and society becomes less religious, which I think is a good thing. (I attribute the growing secularization of the West to the increasing hegemony of and public respect for science, and here agree with Steve Pinker in his Better Angels book.) As for getting rid of stuff like creationism by “building bridges between science and religion”, that doesn’t work very well. Francis Collins and Karl Giberson founded BioLogos as a explicit vehicle for convincing evangelical Christians that evolution is both true and harmless to their faith. They failed: instead of evangelicals embracing evolution (the data shows no change in decades), the BioLogos site has become increasingly Christianized, with apparently sentient academics and scientists arguing about how Adam and Eve could really have been the ancestors of us all (a sine qua non of Christianity). While some people’s minds can be changed by telling them scientific truths, the best way to efface religion is simply to emphasize the benefits of science and wait for people over years and generations to realize that, hey, science can find truth and religion can’t.

Wood gives two other reasons why science and religion aren’t in conflict. First, many scientists don’t perceive a conflict between science and religion. That is, besides creationists, American scientists simply don’t see a “war” between the two areas on a day to day basis. But so what? If you define your terms carefully, as I do in Faith versus Fact, you see a very profound conflict between science and religion: conflicts in methology, philosophy, use of “faith”, and how we apprehend “truth”.

Second, Wood claims that religious scientists have made profound contributions to their fields. I agree, but so what? Science itself is practiced as an atheistic discipline, and these contributions, at least in the last two centuries, had nothing to do with religion. In fact, they were made despite religion. (It’s clear that in the 19th century nearly everyone was religious, so it was a no-brainer to say that religious scientists advanced their field.) But now atheistic scientists make far more contributions than religious ones—for two reasons. First, there are so many more atheistic scientists than religious ones. Second, the better a scientist is, the more likely he or she is to be an atheist.

So here’s Wood’s proposal to put science and religion in step, a proposal that seems to me useless and worthless, at least for accomplishing its aims. It wouldn’t hurt, I suppose to have tea with your religious colleagues as a way of social bonding, but best to avoid discussing faith!

At NPL [the National Physical Laboratory in the UK] we have made “inter faith week” a regular fixture in our calendar. This is a national initiative that supports and encourages constructive interactions between people with different beliefs to build relationships and mutual understanding, recognizing common values as well as differences. We also encourage colleagues to share their experiences of how their beliefs affect their work and invite guest speakers to talk about a subject relating science to religion. Over the past three years we have had talks on the relationship between artificial intelligence and religion, the role of faith in science and the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Each year we find that there is an enormous desire to learn about and discuss these topics.

Again, scientists are welcome to discuss these issues on their own time (I enjoyed writing my book, but I didn’t write it to “build relationships and mutual understanding”). But for Ceiling Cat’s sake keep these discussions unofficial. “Interfaith week” in a science institution is a disgrace. It’s like having Bigfoot Week, UFO Week or Djinn Week at the NIH, or Crystal Healing Week at the CDC.

Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

June 2, 2021 • 9:30 am

I was a bit queasy when I woke up this morning to see the announcement below.  It’s not that I don’t like Jane Goodall, for who doesn’t? She’s a respected primatologist, spent years finding out new stuff about chimps, and is also a conservationist and prolific publicizer of science, as well as founder of her eponymous institute. She’s also long-lasting, having turned 87 this year while remaining as active as ever (she says she travels 300 days per year!). Nor do I begrudge her the $1.5 million that the John Templeton Foundation hands out to the prizewinners, as Goodall will undoubtedly use it for good causes.

No, I was queasy because the prize was given, as it always is, to someone who conflates science and spirituality, promoting John Templeton’s accommodationist mission. Granted, the JTF’s giving it to more scientists these days (they used to give it to people like Alvin Plantinga, Rabbi Sacks, John Polkinghorne, Chuck Colson, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, but they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize). The word “God” and “divine” has been downplayed, replaced by the eupheism “The Big Questions”.  As the Wikipedia entry on Sir John notes,

In an interview published in the Financial Intelligence Report in 2005, Templeton asserts that the purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is as follows:”We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”

If you know what “spiritual realities” are beyond something numinous and divine, please enlighten me. Were I to answer that, I’d use terms of neurology and emotion rather than anything external to the physical world.

And Goodall is really known for showing not human exceptionalism, which is what the Prize is about, but for showing our psychological and behavioral connections to our closest relatives. In other words, she’s showing that we’re part of an evolutionary continuum, and share many traits with other primates. Evolution is one Big Question that’s been answered to most people’s satisfaction. Another is that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the announcement from Templeton, or part of it:

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.

“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”

Investigating the “deepest questions”, Sir John’s original purpose in bestowing the Prize fund, was intended explicitly to show that the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God. Those are what Templeton calls “The Big Questions”, like “why are we here?” and “what does it mean to be human?”. (The ultimate question, which isn’t broached, is “What is God like?”)  As for Goodall’s efforts to “connect humanity to a greater purpose,” that’s just bogus. Sure, she’s shown evolutionary commonalities, but evolution is not a “purpose.” “Purpose” implies teleology, i.e., for Templeton, “God.”

Goodall’s work surely enriched our understanding of chimps far more than about humans, but did show that in many respects, such as tool-using, humans are not unique—not exceptional among the beasts of the field.  As for “humility”, I know nothing about that, though Goodall has a reputation for being nice and certainly was engaging the one time I heard her speak. But that’s not the kind of humility that Templeton means: they mean “humility” before the Great Unknown—the same way theologians are always bragging that they’re “humble”. (They’re not: they pretend to know things they don’t.)

What about Goodall? It does appear she has a spiritual side that helped her get the prize. Here’s another paragraph from the award description (my emphasis):

Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

What? The “divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature”? “A divine force connecting all living things in the natural world”? Indeed, the subtitle of her 1999 book is “A Spiritual Journey.” And I’ll readily admit that “spiritual” can be construed as “awe before Nature”. If that’s what spiritual can mean, than I am spiritual, and so is Richard Dawkins. But “divine”? That’s a different kettle of fish. And yet eleven years ago she abjured acceptance of the divine in Right Attitudes:

In the May-2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Jane Goodall discussed her spirituality: “amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don’t understand—can’t be understood in this life.”

“Can’t be understood in this life.” That means it’s beyond empirical investigation. But I digress: there’s more:

When asked if she believes in God in an interview published in the Sep-2010 issue of Reader’s Digest, Jane Goodall said,

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

That could simply be “evolution” or “wonder”. So why, in 2021, is Templeton touting Goodall’s acceptance of a “divine intelligence in nature”? As usual, as with other scientists like Francisco Ayala, Templeton often bestows its Big Prize on scientists who don’t explicitly say they believe in God, but are sufficiently ambiguous or waffle-y about the concept that they can slip under Templeton’s radar. And of course there are the explicit religionists who get the prize: people like Francis Collins.

Well, judge for yourself from the 9½-minute video below, and, later, from the Templeton Lectures that Goodall has signed up for:

As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.

In the video she mentions the soul, the Bible, “powerful spirituality” and so on, and says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”. The interview is definitely infused with the numinous. Granted, she says some good stuff about ecology and conservation. One telling statement, “It is just a feel of spirituality, you know, it’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific brilliant brain could have created.” What? Where does it come from, then?

At 8:35 she resorts to a form of the First Cause argument: “What created the big bang?”

Before you give me flak for dissing a much beloved scientist, I’ll assert again that Goodall’s scientific work is exemplary and helped change the paradigm of human exceptionalism that preceded her. I admire her a lot, and clearly her life has produced on balance a great good. But that’s not what Templeton is giving her the prize for! She gets her $1.5 million for banging on about spirituality.

No, Goodall’s probably not perfect in that she evinces a weakness for the numinous, but we all have her flaws, and given her accomplishments, that a trivial one. What burns my onions is that the JTF is roping her into their stable so they can parade her as another example of someone whose work helps bring us closer to the Divine.

You can’t not like and admire this woman. The problem is that Templeton saw an opportunity to use her, and seized it.

The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

April 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.

Click to read (and weep):

His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”

Here’s Benson’s homily:

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.

But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.

Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true  (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)

Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”

Benson goes on:

Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.

And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?

Finally, there’s this:

. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.

h/t: Jeff

Accomodationist physicist: Why science can’t disprove God

February 26, 2021 • 1:30 pm

If you read the title below, you’ll probably guess that the answer will be “no”. And you’d be right. Grady, a credentialed physicist, but also a believer, uses her Conversation piece to ponder several questions, one of which is: “If God created the laws of physics, and thus is infinitely powerful, can he break the laws of physics?” (Answer: Yes, of course he could. But we wouldn’t know that.)

Click the screenshots to read:

It’s all a bit of a mess. For example, Grady asks “Can God go faster than the speed of light?” She responds that some phenomena already do, referring to quantum entanglement, but that’s still a mystery and, at any rate, cannot be used to send information faster than the speed of light. Why this is relevant to her question is unclear. Then she asks whether the anthropic principle is evidence for God. She calls our universe “fine tuned for life”, but evokes the multiverse as the reason why this could happen: we just happen to be in one universe where the laws of physics (which may differ among universes) permit life to exist and evolve. Yet according to her God created not just the multiverse, but the different laws of physics that may apply among them.

In the end, Grady admits that science and religion are different, for science uses evidence while religion uses faith. But that itself gets her into a dilemma. For example:

I have this image of God keeping galaxy-sized plates spinning while juggling planet-sized balls – tossing bits of information from one teetering universe to another, to keep everything in motion. Fortunately, God can multitask – keeping the fabric of space and time in operation. All that is required is a little faith.

Has this essay come close to answering the questions posed? I suspect not: if you believe in God (as I do), then the idea of God being bound by the laws of physics is nonsense, because God can do everything, even travel faster than light. If you don’t believe in God, then the question is equally nonsensical, because there isn’t a God and nothing can travel faster than light. Perhaps the question is really one for agnostics, who don’t know whether there is a God.

little faith? But put that aside and look at the bit in bold above (my emphasis). Here’s her admission that God is omnipotent: he/she/it can do anything. Okay, we’ve established that, and we can’t ask Dr. Grady why she knows that God is omnipotent—after all, some religions have gods that aren’t all-powerful—because she takes that on faith. She simply has an intuition or revelation that God can do anything.  But then look at this:

This is indeed where science and religion differ. Science requires proof, religious belief requires faith. Scientists don’t try to prove or disprove God’s existence because they know there isn’t an experiment that can ever detect God. And if you believe in God, it doesn’t matter what scientists discover about the universe – any cosmos can be thought of as being consistent with God.

Well, as the late Victor Stenger said, “Absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence if that evidence should be there in the first place.”  Stenger was referring to the fact that in fact we have evidence against a theistic god since such a god, either on purpose or inadvertently, should have provided evidence since that god interacts with the world. Presumably, Dr. Grady would respond that evidence or lack thereof is irrelevant, for religion is a matter of faith. But remember that her faith has told her that God is omnipotent. 

In that case, since God can do anything, how you deal with the question she raises (but doesn’t answer) at the beginning of her piece:

 “. . . . tragic events, such as pandemics, often cause us to question the existence of God: if there is a merciful God, why is a catastrophe like this happening?”

She never answers that question or even addresses it further. Yet if she knows that God is omnipotent, presumably through faith alone, why can’t faith also tell her why an all-powerful God allows such suffering? Is he malicious, or simply indifferent? You can’t say that you know God’s characteristics from faith, but then plead the Fifth when asked about why God kills so many kids who could not possibly deserve it—especially when he could stop the harm. In other words, if faith tells you that God is omnipotent, then it should also tell you whether God’s a nice being or a callous one.

Such is the selective ignorance of the theist.

h/t: Robert

Yet another accommodationist writes in

December 16, 2020 • 9:00 am

This is the third and last email I’ll post from people reacting to the recent re-publication on Yahoo! News of my Conversation article, “Yes, there is a war between science and religion.”   I stand by what I said and assert again that the incompatibility between the two—war, if you will—is that religion accepts certain truths about the universe without good reasons to do so, while science, with more rigorous standards, has empirical methods for supporting or eroding what we think is true. In other words, religion itself has no way to verify its beliefs, though they can be knocked down by science.

It may sound harsh to say so, but the Abrahamic religions, like most religions—some “secular” faiths like Quakerism or Unitarian Universalism are exceptions—are fairy tales, pure and simple. They may make you feel good, and even motivate some people to do good things, but in the end their factual stories, like that of Jesus, Muhammad and Gabriel, as well as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, are just myths. We have no need to support our morality or behavior with myths.

But some people still like religion because even if it isn’t “true” in the sense of being grounded on genuine circumstances or beings, it still makes them feel good. They like sitting in a warm pew, singing, hearing the soothing ministrations of the pastor, and admiring the stained glass while sniffing the incense. Or they like the sense of ritual involved in a daily puja. Well, the email below came from one of these folks.

Hello Jerry,

Read your recent article. I would have to disagree a little bit.

I am a secular minded person who still attends Christian church. I don’t believe any of the theology. But I find the service comforting nevertheless. And in our church we are constantly reminded to be better persons — not to escape hell but just because it feels right. Why would we throw out the arts, music, dancing, etc. because they don’t express thoughts verifiable by science?  Religion to me is in the same category as the arts.  It’s part of human expression. Some of Mozart’s music is very powerful to me. It raises my spirts. Religious services do the same thing.

Name redacted

I really don’t have much quarrel with this person’s feelings. If he likes the morality preached from the pulpit (assuming that he doesn’t go to an evangelical Christian or Catholic church, where the “morality” is ludicrous), that’s fine.

I tossed off the email below about about 4 a.m. yesterday, so it’s not particularly eloquent, and I’ve edited it a tiny bit so it doesn’t sound like I just woke up. What I would also say to this person, which I wasn’t sentient enough to add, is that the Scandinavians and northern Europeans, who are by and large atheists, manage to find solace and meaning without having to go to church, much less believing in God. Yet I bet the average Swede still goes to musical performances and museums much more often than he goes to church. You don’t need religion to get the kind of solace that this guy gets from church. And stuff like music and art can arouse the emotion without making you believe in nonexistent divinities. Finally, as I emphasize below, patronizing a religion has the side effect of enabling faith, a defect in the human character that is mistakenly regarded as a virtue.

Anyway, my reply:

Yes, if all religion was involved providing a place to go and appreciate the music and quietude and smell the incense and to meditate, that would be fine. It’s all the other stuff that bothers me–the things that Catholicism, Judaism, and Christianity do to people and make them do to other people. You’re admirable in not believing the theology, but religion enables all the people who do believe to create all the bad things that religion does to the world. It’s the factual beliefs, which undergirds the invidious moralities, that cause these problems. Surely you realize this–that by saying that we need religion because you yourself enjoy the non-theological benefits–you’re advocating keeping systems that oppress women and gays, terrorize children with thoughts of Hell, keep little Orthodox boys and girls from getting an education, and so on and so on and so on.
Religious services are fine; it’s what they lead to and support that is bad.