Scientific American: Denying evolution is white supremacy

August 22, 2021 • 9:30 am

As we’ve seen, the once-respectable journal Scientific American is circling the drain, with an increasing surfeit of articles pushing a particular ideological point of view—a woke one. Well, this article, by writer Allison Hopper, has a bit of science in it, but it’s mixed with politics in such a toxic way that it’s almost funny. It’s full of unsupported assumptions and false claims, is based on no logic at all, and is false in its main claim for two reasons.  Those of you who still subscribe to this rag may want to either write the editor, Laura Helmuth, or cancel your subscription.

Laura had a distinguished career before she took over this journal (she has a Ph.D. from Berkeley in neuroscience and has edited or written for Science, The Washington Post, and Smithsonian). I have no idea why she lets this kind of tripe into her magazine. But she’s less to blame than the author, who doesn’t even have a coherent argument. All Hopper wants to do is show that American creationism has nothing to do with religion, but that white supremacy, not belief in God, is at the core of creationism.

Read and weep: this is a this is a three-hankie article:

Now over the last 12 years I’ve given plenty of evidence that creationism stems from religious belief: belief in the Bible for conservative Jews and Christians, and belief in the Qur’an for Muslims, with both books having their own creation stories. For one thing, I’ve never met a creationist who wasn’t motivated by religion, and all creationist organizations, including the Discovery Institute, are at bottom manifestations of religious belief, regarding evolution as inimical to belief in God. This is so obvious that only someone with a bizarre agenda could deny it.

Well, Hopper does deny it.  She says that the roots of creationism really lie in white supremacy and not religion. Here’s the logical connection that leads her to that conclusion.

a. If two falsities are in the Bible, they can be connected as causal.
b. Two falsities that Hopper deals with are Biblical creationism as limned in Genesis, and the claim that humans started out with white skin and then God, marking the descendants of Cain, made them black.
c.  The supposedly black descendants of Cain have been historically portrayed as bad people, and then as black people, as the “mark” given to those descendants is said to be black skin.
d.  Therefore the Bible evinces white supremacy, since humans, made in God’s image, started out white, but a bad subset of them were turned black.
e.  In reality, human ancestors were black, so even the Bible story is wrong.
f.  The white supremacy story comes from Genesis (4:15), a book that also tells the creation story.
g.   Ergo, creationism stems from white supremacy.

(Note, as I say below, the white supremacy argument is itself based on religion!)

You’ve already noted a number of fallacies in this argument. One is that if two bad things are in the Bible, particularly in the same part of the Bible, they can be connected, and one can assert that one bad part gave rise to the other. Well, there are a number of mass killings in Genesis: beyond the extirpation of humanity by the Flood, there’s also the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, including Sodom and Gomorrah. And of course the Old Testament itself is full of genocide. By this logic, one could say that creationism stems from an impulse to murder. (Indeed, Hopper connects creationism with “lethal effects” on black people!).

The other bit of “evidence” Hopper adduces to draw creationism out of white supremacy is this (I am not making it up):

In fact, the first wave of legal fights against evolution was supported by the Klan in the 1920s.

Well that’s a strong proof, right? No matter that a lot of people who didn’t support the Klan still went after evolution in the 1920s and before.

And that’s all the evidence that Hopper has. She makes no case that creationism comes from a desire of whites to be on top save the occasional depiction of our African ancestors as white people (and, because they’re often men, this shows misogyny as well). But that claim really argues that our view of evolution comes from white supremacy!

Do you think I’m kidding? Here are a few sentences from Hopper’s article:

I want to unmask the lie that evolution denial is about religion and recognize that at its core, it is a form of white supremacy that perpetuates segregation and violence against Black bodies.

. . . At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve. In literal interpretations of the Christian Bible, white skin was created in God’s image. Dark skin has a different, more problematic origin. As the biblical story goes, the curse or mark of Cain for killing his brother was a darkening of his descendants’ skin. Historically, many congregations in the U.S. pointed to this story of Cain as evidence that Black skin was created as a punishment.

The fantasy of a continuous line of white descendants segregates white heritage from Black bodies. In the real world, this mythology translates into lethal effects on people who are Black. Fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible are part of the “fake news” epidemic that feeds the racial divide in our country.

One bit of advice for Ms. Hopper: besides the obvious one that you’re wrong about where creationism comes from, PLEASE stop using the term “black bodies” for “black people”. Yes, I know the phrase is au courant, but it dehumanizes black people in the same way that “slaves” dehumanizes “enslaved people.”  You are using racist language. And what, by the way, are the lethal effects of creationism on black people? Is Hopper speaking metaphorically or literally here?

But I digress.

Hopper is right that the Genesis account of the Bible is creationist, and says that Adam was made in God’s image. But does it say what color Adam was? I don’t think so. It’s just assumed that he was white, but on this point Scripture is silent. In fact, we don’t know, though Hopper asserts it confidently, that the earliest human ancestors were black, though humans certainly split from our closest relatives, the bonobos and chimps, in Africa, and evolved black pigmentation at some point. This is because humans probably evolved from chimplike primates (as “naked apes,” we’re outliers), and chimps happen to have white skin. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica says:

Chimpanzees are covered by a coat of brown or black hair, but their faces are bare except for a short white beard. Skin colour is generally white except for the face, hands, and feet, which are black. The faces of younger animals may be pinkish or whitish. Among older males and females, the forehead often becomes bald and the back becomes gray.

Here’s a photo from Forbes, but you can find lots of photos like this.

Old and young chimps from NBC News:

It’s entirely possible that the first members of the hominin lineage after it split from the chimp lineage had light skin, and darker skin evolved later via natural selection. If this is the case, Hopper’s argument falls apart. But it doesn’t matter, because, really, who cares besides evolutionists and anthropologists—and energetic anti-racists like Hopper—about the skin color of the earliest hominins? I’m not claiming that the earliest members of the hominin lineage were white, and I’m certainly not making a case for white supremacy, for our later hominin ancestors were surely much darker. All I’m saying is that these early hominins could have been white or gray. Hopper has no way to be sure, and in that case she has no argument.

It is likely that after several million years, hominins in Africa did evolve dark skin, and that those hominins were the ones that gave us fire, tools, and other rudiments of culture. But I don’t see how that buttresses Hopper’s argument. Even if it did, her big fallacy is not assuming that the first hominins were black, but connecting white supremacy supported by some religionists with creationism, with the former giving rise to the latter.

Why does Hopper make this argument? Because she has a goal:

My hope is that if we make the connection between creationism and racist ideology clearer, we will provide more ammunition to get science into the classroom—and into our culture at large.

Good luck with that!  Because creationism really comes from religion, and accepting evolution would overturn the faith of many Biblical literalists (about 40% of Americans), you’re not going to change their minds by telling them: “Hey! Your creationism is really a manifestation of white supremacy because the story of Adam and Eve is a tale of white supremacy!”

But were Cain’s descendants really black? Hopper assumes that they were, and that’s how many people have interpreted the story, but let’s read what the Good Book says (King James version; Genesis 4:15).

And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

This is a “mark”, not dark skin, and I can’t find any scholar who interprets the Hebrew as meaning “dark skin”. Furthermore, the “mark” placed on Cain was not to identify him and his descendants as miscreants, but to protect them.  Here, from the King James Bible again, are verses 9-16 from Genesis 4:

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

10 And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.

11 And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand;

12 When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.

13 And Cain said unto the Lord, My punishment is greater than I can bear.

14 Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.

15 And the Lord said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

16 And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.

The “mark” is clearly given by God to protect Cain, so even if it were dark skin, for which there’s no evidence, it means that dark skin marked Cain and his descendants as people protected by God. How does that comport with Hopper’s narrative?

I’ve already gone on too long picking additional in Hopper’s Swiss cheese of a narrative, but I have one more bit of evidence that tells against her risible theory.  And that is this: historically, in the United States black people have been far more creationist than whites. If creationism draws from white supremacy, then haven’t black people heard the news?

Here are some data from a Pew Study in 2015: see bars 4-6 from the top:

So there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends: an insupportable argument, weakly based on erroneous science, and gracing the pages of what was once America’s premier science magazine. How low the mighty have fallen!

All I want to add in closing is that Hopper is dead wrong in claiming that the roots of creationism are not in religion, but in white supremacy. And, as the supreme irony in her argument, the “white supremacy” argument is rooted in, yes, the Bible! So even her main thesis is wrong. Yes, no matter how you slice it, even Hopper’s way, creationism is an outgrowth of religion.

In case they ditch this article, I’ve archived it here.

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

Why theological challenges to science resemble conspiracy theories

October 2, 2019 • 10:00 am

My friend the philosopher Maarten Boudry called my attention to a fairly new paper by Taner Edis, a professor of physics at Truman State University and frequent critic of religion and creationism. I’ll let Maarten tell you about it in this post. His take is indented, and we’ll both give you links and ways to read the paper.


Maarten Boudry

My long-time collaborator, the physicist Taner Edis, has a cool new paper in which he draws analogies between religions and conspiracy theories. In dealing with challenges from modern science, theologians have often resorted to conspiracies, involving both the “scientific establishment” and God himself (or Satan). As Edis writes in the abstract:

“Theological responses to scientific challenges can usefully be compared to conspiracy theories in order to highlight their evasive properties. When religious thinkers emphasize hidden powers and purposes underlying a seemingly material reality, and claim that these hidden purposes are revealed only through special knowledge granted to initiates, they adopt conspiratorial attitudes. And when they charge mainstream science with corruption or comprehensive mistakes, so that science becomes a plot to conceal the truth, the resemblance to a conspiracy theory deepens. Theologically conservative denial of evolution often exhibits such features, but some liberal theologies also border on conspiracy theories. Intelligent design creationism, however, is sometimes less conspiratorial.”

In some respects, according to Edis, the responses to evolutionary theory developed by liberal theologians are MORE (not less) conspiratorial than those of their conservative, fundamentalist counterparts. Since liberal theologians want to evade conflicts with science as much as possible, their conception of God tends to be that of a “Deus absconditus”, a God who choses to remain hidden and does not interfere with the natural order. For example, liberal theologians like John Haught believe that God is secretly meddling with quantum processes to bring about the right DNA mutations needed to fulfill his creative plan. All biological evidence points toward processes of pure chance and necessity, but in reality, according to Haught and others, God is tweaking atoms and molecules in statistically undetectable ways. It’s like a casino operator who cheats, but only very rarely, as Edis writes. This is nothing less than a giant, cosmic conspiracy in which God, for whatever inscrutable reason, is pulling the strings behind the scenes, though always making sure to cover his tracks.

More conservative theists, by contrast, want to attack certain parts of modern science head-on. As a result, they tend to believe in a God who massively interferes with the natural world. Young-earth creationists, for example, believe that the evidence for Biblical miracles such as the Flood and the Resurrection of Jesus is all around us. Or take the infamous example of ID creationist Michael Behe, who claims that he has found empirical evidence of design in the ‘irreducible complexity’ of the bacterial flagellum and the blood-clotting process. This is not a God who covers up his tracks, but one who leaves his fingerprints everywhere in plain sight.

Initially, ID creationists were also less likely to invoke conspiracies involving the scientific establishment (the other type of conspiracy discussed by Edis). They believed that scientists were just wrong or misguided, but not that they were actively hiding some truth. As a result, ID advocates were also pretty optimistic about the prospects of Intelligent Design in the scientific world. After all, they found irrefutable evidence for design! It was only a matter of time before Darwinism would be toppled. As the scientific community turned against them, however, and no cracks appeared in the Darwinian paradigm, ID creationists resorted to conspiracy theories to explain their defeat. It was all part of a secret plot by “dogmatic materialists” to keep God out of science.

This is what often happens when a belief system is threatened with counterevidence. Even though many pseudosciences did not start out as conspiracy theories, sooner or later many believers resort to conspiratorial thinking as an immunizing tactic, to explain away defeat or to evade confrontation with reality.

The paper’s link is in the screenshot below, and if you aren’t a member of ResearchGate, judicious inquiry will yield you a copy.

And I’m told the paper is in this book that was published last December (click to go to Amazon link). The book has no reviews on Amazon yet, perhaps because it costs £120!

Another big Templeton grant for philosophy (religious philosophy, of course), and a note on Templeton’s corruption of the field

February 19, 2019 • 9:30 am

A certain philosopher who could be mistaken for Santa Claus called my attention to this article in the Daily Nous, a website devoted to the profession of philosophy—and by “profession” I mean “job”. Below you can read yesterday’s announcement of a big new John Templeton Foundation (JTF) grant by clicking on the screenshot, but I’ve put the entire announcement below (it’s also announced on Leiter Reports):

Luis Oliveira, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has received $1.3 million to lead an international project on the epistemology of religion.

The central question of the project is “What arguments are there for believing in God or for following a specific religious tradition?”, according to the University of Houston.

The project aims to “connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion.”

The funding for the project is from the John Templeton Foundation. Funds will support summer seminars in Latin America, research scholarships, academic prizes, and a conference at  the University of Houston. You can learn more about the project here.

There’s a bit more from the University of Houston’s exultant announcement about the Big Questions, and about how Templeton’s dosh will be used.

Summer workshops planned over the next three years in Brazil, Argentina and Chile will connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion. Fellowships will bring Latin American scholars to U.S. universities in order to further strengthen research ties between the two groups.

The project is religiously neutral. This means the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism, Oliveira said. Scholars of every persuasion will be involved.

He said the timing is right. “In the last 15 years, discussions of religion in the public sphere have become very acrimonious and not very philosophical at all,” he said. “There has been too much one-sided conviction. The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.”

While the Daily Nous announcement doesn’t say anything about nonbelief, the UH announcement says the project is “religiously neutral”. And by that they mean “the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.”  Well, I’m not heartened by the note that other religious traditions will be involved (that’s only to be expected), and not much heartened by their claim that the work “will include the study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.” How about “NO EVIDENCE, PEOPLE!”?  Can I have some dollars now? Can I go to Argentina and talk about atheism?

As for the main question, “What arguments are there for believing in God or a specific religious tradition?”, don’t we know the answer now? There have been almost no new arguments for God’s existence since medieval times, with only gussied-up emendations proffered by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.  And as for “what arguments are there for believing in a specific religious tradition?”, the answer is “WHERE YOU WERE BORN AND WHO BRAINWASHED YOU”. Can I have some dollars now and maybe a trip to Chile?

And there’s this:

The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.

Well, the empirical (scientific) evidence for God is exactly as copious as the scientific evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. That is, no evidence. The “data”, as Vic Stenger used to say, consist of the absence of evidence for God when there should be evidence. 

The other scientific evidence consists of empirical refutation of religious claims, including the claim that prayer works and that there was an Exodus, Adam and Eve, the de novo creation of life, and so on. Liberal religion accepts these refutations while still clinging to claims that are harder to refute (or, as in the case of theologians like David Bentley Hart, lapsing into arcane and flabby theobabble), while conservative faith, like evangelical Christianity and Islam, won’t be swayed by scientific evidence.

And “obvious aspects of the human experience” as evidence for God? How does that work? As far as I can see, this isn’t evidence but revelation and wish-thinking: “I think there is a God because I feel/want to believe that there is one.”  I don’t acknowledge the “force of these points made from the other side” because that force is equivalent to the force of drag applied by a single barnacle affixed to a humpback whale.

In sum, I see absolutely nothing that this expensive study will add to the sum of human knowledge, though it will contribute to the sump of futile human endeavor.

It appears that philosophers are still divided on the issue of whether it’s okay to take Templeton money. When Googling philosophy and Templeton, I came upon a pair of articles by Dan Dannett and Alfred Mele from 2014. In a generally positive review in Prospect Magazine of Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, Dennett brings up Templeton at the end (click on the screenshot below):


This review could similarly end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well. But there is a larger context worth considering. Suppose you were reviewing a scientific report that drew the conclusion that a diet without fat was in fact unhealthy, and that butter and cream and even bacon in moderation were good for you, and suppose further that the science was impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued. Good news! Yes, but the author acknowledges in fine print that the research was financed by a million dollar grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon. We would be entitled—obliged—to keep that fact in the limelight. The science may be of the highest quality, honestly and sincerely reported, but do remember that the message delivered was the message hoped for by the funder. This is not reporting a finding contrary to the goals of the fact-seekers.

So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.

Mele responded briefly at the Daily Nous, saying that he’s never felt pressure from Templeton and was working on free will long before the JTF gave him money (he admits, though that he got about $9 million from Templeton!)

An excerpt from Mele:

As I’ve said in print, I enjoyed working with JTF on the Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project and I never felt pressured to do anything that seemed wrong to me. I have friends there now — good, hard-working people who love philosophy and want to showcase what philosophy can do. But, of course, Dan has a right to express his opinions about JTF.

. . . I don’t take Dan’s remarks personally. I know his views on JTF. We had a friendly discussion of them in London a couple of years ago while I was in the midst of directing the BQFW project. It’s safe to say that we disagree about what JTF is up to. His views about JTF come through clearly in his article, and writing about Free was an occasion for him to express them. Tying those views to me by way of the agnosticism about compatibilism in Free is ineffective, for the reason that I mentioned. If JTF likes neutrality about compatibilism, I’m their guy; I’ve pretty much had that market cornered for almost 20 years.

But the issue is not whether the JTF pressures its awardees to come up with a specific set of findings. The issue is whether the JTF distorts philosophy (and science) by funding projects in areas that are ideologically and philosophically compatible with Templeton’s mission, which is to show that science can help answer the “Big Questions” about God and spirituality. Projects defending free will and attacking its detractors fit nicely into that schema.  As Dan notes, the JTF funds projects that are more purely scientific to help buttress the religion side of its agenda, so the Scientific Horses are put in a stable with the Woo Horses, in hopes that they will breed and produce the kind of wooish hybrids that Templeton loves.

The $1.3 million grant above is in one of the religion stalls of the Templeton stable, which makes it pretty much a waste of money. Yes, philosophers like Mele may indeed take JTF money without feeling pressure, but they don’t realize (or want to ignore) how the JTF slants the philosophical playing field by funding ideologically agreeable projects. This is unlike the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, which have no ideological slant and fund science projects based on the assessment of whether they’re going to find out anything interesting and important.

“Scholars” explain religion to me

December 24, 2018 • 8:30 am

Yesterday I got three longish emails taking issue with my piece on The Conversation in which I argued that science and religion are incompatible. Two of them were incoherent and don’t deserve reproducing here, much less mentioning. The one below, however, came from a person who said he was a scholar of religion, and I wanted to post it to show the kind of criticisms that are arising. I’ve omitted the person’s name. (I checked on who he/she/hir is, and it’s not someone very notable or accomplished, as far as I can see). But on to the argument:

Hello Dr. Coyne,

You make some very good points but I think you have misunderstood the nature of religion.  As it happens, that is my specialty.  I have studied religion for over 30 years.  What most people do not realize is that there is an academic study of religion and we have been at this for over a hundred years now — and its greatest center of study has been at your home university.  Religion is not what most people think, just as you probably encounter people who think they understand ecology but are totally clueless.

The problem with using Dennett for a definition of religion is that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.  I have personally tried to explain this to him but he is unwilling to consider any ideas that are not his own.  And I even use his theory of consciousness in my own work to understand why we have religion.  He is absolutely talking about things that he has no grounds to discuss, totally outside his field.  People do this all the time with religion and as an actual expert it is quite frustrating.  His definition has nothing to do with any scholarly work in the study of religion — and I find it shocking that he makes these claims and astounding that people don’t know better than to listen to ignorance on any subject (even if he is an expert on something else).

Religion is a worldview with a ritual system.  That is the formal definition and it works for all known religion.  The issue you are pointing to is the worldview, and how it is constructed.  Using our naive intuitions to construct a worldview only leads to confusion.  That is true.  But the problem is that the opposite of science is not religion, it is superstition.  Religion can be but may not necessarily be superstitious.  There is no logical reason why the worldview cannot be founded on science.  The trick is the ritual that keeps it religion. [JAC: Not just that, it’s the morality and truth claims (which buttress the morality) that keep it religion.]

The point is religion is not about explaining the world, it is about living in the world.  When people use ignorance to undermine science and claim they are hiding behind religion they are lying.  That sort of thinking has nothing to do with religion, qua religion, it is entirely political. [JAC: I guess this person considers all creationists as motivated by politics, for creationism, he argues, has nothing to do with religion. That’s nonsense.]

The right wants to control people and they understand the science is inherently egalitarian and democratic.  They want to attack science and can use reactionary forms of religious superstition to do this, but that is not about religion, it is about people and politics.

What you need to attack is those who reject science, regardless of their claimed motive.  They are political actors, not religious one.  The religion is cover for the politics.  Don’t get lost in their lies.


I don’t want to get into this in detail, as I am not fond of people who tell me I’m wrong because they are scholars in the field and therefore know more than I. This kind of credential-mongering obviates the real issue: the nature of my arguments. In this case the person takes issue with my definition of religion, which was Dan Dennett’s:

“Social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

OF COURSE that doesn’t hold for all bodies of thought that we see as religions (viz., Buddhism), but I qualified it this way:

Of course many religions don’t fit that definition, but the ones whose compatibility with science is touted most often – the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – fill the bill.

The fact is that for most believers that definition holds well, as you can see from looking at the stuff that Americans actually believe. I’ll quote myself again:

And yet, without supporting evidence, Americans believe a number of religious claims: 74 percent of us believe in God, 68 percent in the divinity of Jesus, 68 percent in Heaven, 57 percent in the virgin birth, and 58 percent in the Devil and Hell. Why do they think these are true? Faith.

This is not “a worldview with a ritual system.” Yes, it’s a worldview, but one propped up and justified by belief in truth claims. My interlocutor also argues, correctly, that the opposite of science is superstition, but fails to recognize that for the vast majority of the world’s believers (I’m not talking about Sophisticated Theologians™ here), religion is a superstition, which is defined this way by the Oxford English Dictionary:

A religious system considered to be irrational, unfounded, or based on fear or ignorance; a false, pagan, or idolatrous religion.

That pretty much holds for all religions—certainly the Abrahamic ones, for all are irrational and are based on ignorance, which is the fount of “faith”.

My correspondent, whom I didn’t answer, claims that religion isn’t about truth but about “living in the world,” not realizing that that kind of living rests on claims about what’s true: that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and will send you to heaven if you believe in him, or that Muhammad received the words of the Qur’an from an angel sent by God. (Most pious Muslims are of course Qur’anic literalists.)

The last paragraph of the email above is peremptory, pompous, and pontifical. I am not just attacking those who reject science; I am attacking those who reject the empirical methods of science as a way to find truth—in other words, those who believe things about the divine based on faith. Or, if you will, I’m attacking faith.

The problem with this writer is that he conceives of religion in a way different from most believers, and can’t conceive of anybody who bases their religion on truth claims. The person is, in other words, a self-styled Sophisticated Theologian™ who thinks that his take on religion is the only one worth considering. Everybody else is just WRONG.


I get emails from theists

December 22, 2018 • 10:00 am

Since my piece on the incompatibility of science and religion was published yesterday at The Conversation, I’ve been bombarded with emails and “requests for interaction” (The Conversation allows readers to contact you this way), with the latter being largely “requests for you to listen to my point of view.”

Here’s an email from someone who found my address and sent me a confusing message masquerading as a request to “engage me in meaningful conversation.” But it doesn’t look like the person (name redacted) wants a meaningful conversation. Rather, the person wants me to absorb his/her/zir views.

I’ve learned two things through bitter experience. The first is that if you try to have a discussion with someone like this, no minds get changed, nor does it wind up as anything besides mutual acrimony.  The second is that I need to learn the lesson given by Christopher Hitchens, who said something like: “Unsolicited emails deserve to go unanswered.” (I’d appreciate it if anyone could give me his actual quote.)

Engagement on social media is pretty much useless with an issue like accommodationism, and my tactic has been to just publish what I think, read some of the comments, and examine my views to see if they need modification. I try not to engage in online catfights or exchanges. The comments posted at The Conversation and, especially, on Pinker’s retweet of my article (see below) are largely ignorant (also ignorant of what I actually wrote), angry, or irrelevant.

Anyway, here’s the email that greeted me this morning.

I appreciate your point of view in the recent article; “Yes, There is a War between Science and Religion” published December 21, 2018. I would like to engage you in meaningful conversation in regards to your view that science and religion are incompatible. I would argue that you are morphing science into a religion in regards to what answers you expect science to be able to produce. I would agree with you that science is the set of tools we as humans use to discover “truth” (a more appropriate term to use in the definition you provide would be facts) about the universe, with the understanding that the truths/facts are provisional rather than absolute. In other words, inductive reasoning allows for the generalization of a set of data or observations to describe the probable way in which the world or some phenomena functions. Repetitive experiments increase the probability of the generalization being true, but there is no possible way in which the generalization could ever be 100% certain, yet alone able to be extended to other areas to make 100% certain predictions in that area. In fact you argue that faith without evidence is a vice. Do you not take many things on faith in performing your experiments? Have you replicated every possible experiment personally and validated its veracity? Of course not, and it is not necessary. However there is some degree of certainty in the uniformity of the universe that allows you to function and to make predications in vastly differing fields. While science has made great and amazing gains in understanding the universe, it still relies on the underlying assumption of uniformity. It would seem to me then that you are suggesting that science would thus be able to function in such a manner distinct from faith? If so, then science has moved beyond science and has become philosophy. What is religion but other than a philosophy? In arguing that science can serve as more than what its capacity as science permits (and subsequently using it to derive meaning) you have made science a religion. You have simply created yet another god to which you adhere to unknowingly.

The reader, as happens so often, mistakes “faith” (the belief in “verities” that lack evidence) with “confidence” (the prior probability you develop from experience). So yes, I don’t assume, when doing an experiment, that a tornado nearby will change the barometric pressure and affect fly behavior. That’s not faith but confidence born of experience.

Likewise, “uniformity” is not a “faith” but an observation that hasn’t been contradicted: the laws of physics operate the same everywhere we know. That’s why we’re able to get probes sent to distant planets, and to confidently make predictions and conclusions based on observing distant bodies. That’s a long way from religious faith, two notions that—at the risk of repeating myself too often—I distinguished in my Slate article “No faith in science.” Thus, the reader’s conclusion that confidence based on experience turns science into a “religion” or “another god” is arrant nonsense.

But the reader went on, immersing him/her/zirself into the quicksand of Sophisticated Theology™. Clearly my definition of religion wasn’t nuanced enough! I’ve put the mindmush in bold:

Moreover your definition of religion is much too simplistic and arguably a straw man. While religion is a social system, it is also much more than what your definition would permit, especially in regards to how it applies to Christianity. You argue for the incompatibility of religion as a belief system in relation to science, I would presume because you view that science is a better belief system. Why else would you be making such an argument as outlined in your article? Religion is at its essence a system of beliefs by which the adherent seeks to come to transcendental truth and meaning. As religion is a philosophy it rests on deductive reasoning. I’m not here to outline the numerous arguments for God. If you are interested, maybe we could have that argument in a future correspondence. I do however want to clarify the view of God that you hold.  From the Aristotelian perspective, God is that which its essence is existence. In other words, God is that which is. Stated another way, God is subsistent being itself. Everything else in the world is contingent upon what we refer to as God (to you it very well may be your assumption of universal uniformity or some other principle). Given that everything in the universe is contingent (nothing sustains itself in being/existence, but can easily perish or go out of existence), we would argue that we are all dependent upon God for existence. Subsequently any action of matter would then be, ultimately, an action of God (through secondary causes). Therefore in relation to your field, evolutionary biology does not explain away God. Once matter is in existence, it has its own set of actions and causes. Therefore life arising from nonliving matter and subsequently changing does not preclude the existence of God. It simply cannot answer, nor can any science fully explain, why there is existence in the first place (even if it is just matter/gravity/universal laws/etc). Science however can detail how the universe works, deepening our understanding and bringing to light the true beauty of God in the universe. Science and religion are absolutely compatible.

This, of course, is the cosmological argument for God, also called the “argument from contingency” or the “first cause” argument. The rebuttals to this claim are numerous and you should already know some of them; I’ll refer you to this section of Wikipedia for the most common ones. Suffice it to say that contingency and first-cause arguments are unconvincing.  The reader’s last sentence, “science and religion are absolutely compatible”, is simply an assertion, apparently resting on his/her/zir bogus argument that science is a religion based on faith.

Here’s a private message I got from The Conversation (name redacted), asking for discourse. How on earth would that be possible here? But I love the last sentence.

Finally, check out some of the 193 comments appended to Pinker’s tweet. I’m pretty sure Steve doesn’t read comments, as he’s busy and most of the comments are pretty nasty.

Here are a few:

Who cares if religion is true if it makes us feel good?

September 29, 2018 • 1:53 pm

Here we go again: a Sophisticated Thinker decides that it doesn’t matter whether the truth claims of religion are really true, and argues that most believers don’t think that they are. Instead, religion is important because it makes us feel good.  The three problems with this are, of course, that it does matter to most people (if there’s no God, is there any sense in religion?), that in fact most believers do accept some supernatural truth claims, and that it’s hard to see how people can be religious, or go to church, unless they believe at least some claims about the universe—especially the claim that a god exists.

Further, the author, Stephen T. Asma, doesn’t worry about the downside of religion: how it controls people in a way that makes them feel bad (the guilt of Catholic children and the brainwashing of Muslim children come to mind), how it leads to a warped morality, and how it inspires bad and immoral acts. Finally, Asma doesn’t worry about whether the increasing secularization of the West (and the near-atheism of northern Europe) has proceeded in the face of increasing despondency of the secularized inhabitants. Are Swedes and Danes really that gloomy and bereft?

Do I need to go any further? Perhaps just for a bit. Read the article below (click on screenshot), whose author is identified this way:

Stephen T Asma is professor of philosophy at Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of 10 books, including The Evolution of Imagination (2017) and his latest, Why We Need Religion (2018).


Asma’s argument:

1.) Religion doesn’t make important truth claims that motivate believers. Some quotes (indented; emphasis is mine):

Religion does not help us to explain nature. It did what it could in pre-scientific times, but that job was properly unseated by science. Most religious laypeople and even clergy agree: Pope John Paul II declared in 1996 that evolution is a fact and Catholics should get over it. No doubt some extreme anti-scientific thinking lives on in such places as Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky, but it has become a fringe position. Most mainstream religious people accept a version of Galileo’s division of labour: ‘The intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.

. . . Religion is real consolation in the same way that music is real consolation. No one thinks that the pleasure of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute is ‘false pleasure’ because singing flutes don’t really exist. It doesn’t need to correspond to reality. It’s true that some religious devotees, unlike music devotees, pin their consolation to additional metaphysical claims, but why should we trust them to know how religion works? Such believers do not recognise that their unthinking religious rituals and social activities are the true sources of their therapeutic healing. Meanwhile, Hitchens and other critics confuse the factual disappointments of religion with the value of religion generally, and thereby miss the heart of it.

Ahh, he’s channeling Stephen J. Gould’s NOMA idea. You can see that taken apart in my book Faith versus Fact, but I’ll give a very abridged version in this post.  But do most people think that religion’s truth claims are bogus, or irrelevant? Here’s what a random poll of all Americans (not just believers) think is true; this was taken by the Harris organization five years ago. These are all metaphysical claims, of course:

A personal God concerned with you  68%
Absolutely certain there is a God  54%
Jesus was the son of God   68%
Jesus was born of a virgin   57%
Jesus was resurrected   65%
Miracles   72%
Heaven   68%
Hell and Satan   58%
Angels   68%
Survival of soul after death   64%

Further, many well known religionists have recognized that religious belief depends on truth claims. Here are three quotes I often use as well:

“I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection  of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.”  —John Polkinghorne

“A religious tradition is indeed a way of life and not a set of abstract ideas. But a way of life presupposes beliefs about the nature of reality and cannot be sustained if those beliefs are no longer credible.” —Ian Barbour

“Likewise, religion in almost all of its manifestations is more than  just a collection of value judgments and moral directives. Religion often makes claims about ‘the way things are.”—Karl Giberson & Francis Collins

Asma needs to get out more.

2.) Religion is really about morality, consolation, and emotional connection. 

Maybe, then, the heart of religion is not its ability to explain nature, but its moral power?

If that’s the case, then give me secularism any day. For religious “morality” is often twisted and warped, more about people’s sex lives than their character. It tells them who to copulate with, what to wear, what to eat, whom to hate, and how often you should pray, and in which direction. How is that good?  And of course here are some results of Catholic “moral power,” a list I often give in talks:

Opposition to birth control (leading to an increase in STDs, including AIDS)
Opposition to abortion
Opposition to divorce
Opposition to homosexuality
Control of people’s sex lives
Oppression of women
Sexual abuse of children
Instillation of fear and guilt in children

If that’s the heart of Catholicism, please do an Aztec-style cardiectomy! But wait, Asma has more! (Emphases are mine.)

Emotional therapy is the animating heart of religion. Social bonding happens not only when we agree to worship the same totems, but when we feel affection for each other. An affective community of mutual care emerges when groups share rituals, liturgy, song, dance, eating, grieving, comforting, tales of saints and heroes, hardships such as fasting and sacrifice. Theological beliefs are bloodless abstractions by comparison.

Emotional management is important because life is hard. The Buddha said: ‘All life is suffering’ and most of us past a certain age can only agree. Religion evolved to handle what I call the ‘vulnerability problem’. When we’re sick, we go to the doctor, not the priest. But when our child dies, or we lose our home in a fire, or we’re diagnosed with Stage-4 cancer, then religion is helpful because it provides some relief and some strength. It also gives us something to do, when there’s nothing we can do.

Asma makes a big deal about how religion can console people facing death, or those whose loved ones have died, implicitly arguing that atheists lack such consolation:

Consider how religion helps people after a death. Social mammals who have suffered separation distress are restored to health by touch, collective meals and grooming. Human grieving customs involve these same soothing prosocial mechanisms. We comfort-touch and embrace a person who has lost a loved one. Our bodies give ancient comfort directly to the grieving body. We provide the bereaved with food and drink, and we break bread with them (think of the Jewish tradition of shiva, or the visitation tradition of wakes in many cultures).

He goes on and on. But I want to point out just one thing. We all know, of course, that much of that consolation does indeed come from religious beliefs that are taken to be true, namely the existence of God and of an afterlife. And Asma even obliquely admits this (my emphases):

Part of our ability to cope with suffering is our sense of power or agency: more power generally means better coping ability. If I acknowledge my own limitations when faced with unavoidable loss, but I feel that a powerful ally, God, is part of my agency or power, then I can be more resilient.

What? But what about those “bloodless theological beliefs”? Clearly God isn’t one of them!

God’s existence is in fact a genuine metaphysical claim, and without that then not even Asma is consoled. And has he considered that we nonbelivers who don’t accept gods on the grounds of no evidence cannot force ourselves to believe, even if we think it would help us? God may make Asma feel better, but I can’t make myself believe in God. I am not so constituted.

All I can say is that Asma seems clueless here, oblivious—in his eagerness to argue that religious makes no truth claims—to how the world really works. And yet he requires God to be consoled! The man is not only clueless, but can’t make a coherent argument. And Aeon doesn’t require that he make one. All they want is endless and sloppy osculation of faith.

To close, I’ll point out that the countries that are the happiest ones in the world are on average less religious (see chart below). Just sayin’. This is a correlation and not necessarily a causal relationship, but it’s the exact opposite of what Asma predicts. So it goes.

What is going on with the online magazine Aeon, anyway? Are they taking Templeton money on the sly?

Stephen T. Asma:

h/t: Ant