Just a bit more on accommodationism

November 7, 2009 • 8:33 am

by Greg Mayer

Although Jerry’s a bit full up with the accommodationism issue, two recent items, by friends of WEIT, are worth noting. Ophelia Benson, well known to WEIT readers, has a piece in the Guardian,  and Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk, editors of 50 Voices of Disbelief, with Russell also being well known to WEIT readers, have a piece in the Guardian as well. (Ophelia recently tangled with the  author of the New Statesman piece that seemed to claim UK courts had declared science to be a religion.)

New human evolution exhibit to open at the USNM

October 14, 2009 • 8:06 pm

by Greg Mayer

The Smithsonian‘s National Museum of Natural History (known to biologists as the USNM) has announced that its new Hall of Human Origins, first announced in 2006 and originally slated to open this year,will open in March of next year. Normally this would be unadulterated good news; WEIT readers will recall the ‘thumbs up’ I gave the USNM’s exhibits in August. But a New York Times article [update 20.iii.2010: link now dead] says that

The museum also is establishing an advisory group called the Broader Social Impacts Committee to foster discussion on how scientific and religious perspectives on human origins can be compatible.

This is a cause of concern. Scientific institutions should not have an official theology. This sure sounds like they want to endorse Catholicism (at least of the John Paul II kind) or mainline Protestantism or some other religion that doesn’t object to science (much). I don’t see any problem in having it pointed out that, “Look, there’s a scientist who’s religious” (e.g. Ken Miller). [Added later: or pointing out, “Look, there’s a religious leader who accepts evolution” (e.g. John Paul II).] But to foster the claim they are “compatible” beyond that simple empirical point is not a scientific endeavor.

Curator Rick Potts is a little more reassuring as quoted in the Times, stressing the evidence of human evolution, saying that the exhibit will be a

place to look at the fossil evidence, to explore the fossil evidence and the archaeological evidence that informs about human evolution.

Jason Rosenhouse on ways of knowing

September 18, 2009 • 9:05 am

Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse analyzes the claim of Joshua Rosenau (don’t get these guys mixed up!) that there are many diverse non-empirical “ways of knowing” that offer truth about the universe. It’s a big “ouch” for Josh:

In short, if Josh wants us to take his comparison seriously, he needs to answer some simple questions. What do we know from religion that we do not know by other means? What lessons can we learn from the alleged insights of the world’s religious traditions that we can not learn more clearly in other ways?

I don’t think Josh, or anyone else, can give a compelling answer to those questions.

Okay, can we drop this “other ways of knowing” stuff now? As Jason says, nobody has yet provided one truth — about the divine or otherwise — that has come from non-empirical ways of knowing.

This whole discussion would be purely philosophical save for the efforts of the National Center for Science Education (Rosenau is Public Information Project Director), which promulgates the view that science and faith are nonoverlapping “ways of knowing.” This position, of course, is meant to assure the faithful that they can have their God and Darwin too. But it undercuts the very fabric of rationality.

Just in: Here’s what the religious “way of knowing” tells you: Iranian President Ahmadinejad has just pronounced that the Holocaust was “a lie.”

And, over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson has two new posts on the “ways of knowing” issue: here and here.

Response to Robert Wright

September 18, 2009 • 7:10 am

Note to the reader: Unless you’re intensely interested in my to-and-fro with Robert Wright, you probably won’t want to read this, as a shorter version has been published in The New Republic (note: there are two pages). But for those who want to follow the debate to the bitter end, I proffer this long rebuttal.

Robert Wright has responded to my review of his book, The Evolution of God, by posting a long rebuttal on his website.  But rather than deal with the forest of his problematic thesis, he argues about trees – indeed, leaves. For Wright’s response completely neglects with my main criticism: that there is no evidence for his idea that natural selection and evolution could have been set up by God to produce not only the evolution of our own species, but also the social development of our species towards increasing morality. In his last book, NonZero, Wright argued that morality was the inevitable byproduct of increasingly complex societies: as different peoples interacted more and more often, they found it in their mutual interest to become more tolerant. He also floated the idea that both evolution and natural selection were created in such a way that they would yield a predetermined outcome: our own species.

In The Evolution of God, Wright goes further: asserting that, in response to increased social complexity, religions changed in a way to make their scriptures more amiable, more tolerant of other faiths.  And, according to Wright, these ideas are more than mere conjectures: he argues that “facts on the ground” and “scientific evidence” point to a divine hand guiding human biological, social, and theological evolution.

In his response, Wright claims that I have either misinterpreted some of his theological points, or ascribed to him positions that he does not hold.  But a fuller reading, going beyond the quotes Wright trots out of his book, shows that I have not misinterpreted anything.

Wright’s rhetorical strategy in defending his book is a tactic I call The Waffle of Wide Appeal.  In The Evolution of God, he’s constantly straddling the fence (indeed—pirouetting on the fence) between a secular and a divine interpretation of biology and history.  He defends both points of view simultaneously, knowing full well that rationalists will fix on one interpretation and religious people on the other. That’s a good way to sell books.  It’s also great for defusing criticism, for when called out for promoting the action of “transcendent forces” in history, Wright can merely trot out a few of the pro-secular sentences (or vice versa). In this way he can claim that any review is misguided!

Rather than reprise my main criticisms of Wright’s book, I’ll address in order the six “false or misleading things” of which Wright accuses me.  To help the reader I’ve put Wright’s own words, from his website, in italics, while my response is in Roman type.  Quotes from his book are indented.

Misrepresentation #1:My beliefs about God

Coyne writes, “Wright suggests that the moral sentiments themselves may have come from an evolutionary process guided by God.” And: “Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God.”

Guided by God? Driven by God? Here’s what my book says (p. 448):

“This book’s account of the moral direction of history has been a materialist account. We’ve explained the expansion of the moral imagination as an outgrowth of expanding social organization, which is itself an outgrowth of technological evolution, which itself grows naturally out of the human brain, which itself grew naturally out of the primordial ooze via biological evolution. There’s no mystical force that has to enter the system to explain this, and there’s no need to look for one.” And (on p. 401): “We can explain the complex functionality of organisms without positing a god.

In other words, if there’s a God involved, it’s a God of a deistic sort, who set the whole system, including natural selection, in motion and then kept his paws off. The process would be “guided” by God, and “driven” by God, in the sense that every Ford is “guided” and “driven” by Henry Ford.

This shows Wright’s chameleon-like approach to not only his book, but to his interpretation of scripture, an approach that involves selective quotation. Here he claims that his thesis does not invoke  a “mystical force,” and at best he’s adducing a deistic, hands-off God.  But if you look elsewhere, you’ll find that Wright sees the deity as having done far more than simply created the universe and then withdrew. Wright’s reconciliation between faith and the facts involves not just a deistic God, but one who created natural selection and evolution along with the universe and, more than that, built into those processes (and into the progress of human society) a preordained outcome: rational, moralistic humans whom God, via social and theological change, would pull toward morality:

The suggestion of scientific evidence for God is first raised on the book jacket:

Wright shows that however mistaken our traditional ideas about God or gods, their evolution points to a transcendent prospect: that the religious quest is valid, and that a modern scientific worldview leaves room for something that can meaningfully be called divine.

And then, of course, in the book itself:

It is this moral order that, to the believer, is grounds for suspecting that the system of evolution by natural selection itself demands a special creative explanation. . . . And if the believer, having concluded that the moral order suggests the existence of some as-yet unknown source of creativity that set natural selection in motion, decides to call that source “God,” well, that’s the believer’s business. After all, physicists got to choose the word “electron.”

. . . .Maybe the growth of “God” signifies the existence of God. That is: if history naturally pushes people toward moral improvement, toward moral truth, and their God, as they conceive their God, grows accordingly, becoming morally richer, than maybe this growth is evidence of some higher purpose, and maybe—conceivably—the source of that purpose is worthy of the name divinity.

What might qualify as evidence of a larger purpose at work in the world? For one thing, a moral direction in history. If history naturally carries human consciousness toward moral enlightenment, however slowly and fitfully, that would be evidence that there’s some point to it all. . . . .The possibility persists that this growing non-zero-sumness was itself set in motion by something else—conceivably an old-fashioned god, as traditionalists might hope, and conceivably something more abstract, more philosophically modern; but in any event, something deeper.

(What, by the way, could be “deeper” than an old-fashioned god?)

In NonZero, Wright suggested some teleology in the evolutionary process itself:

I’m not saying there is proof that biological evolution has a purpose and is the product of design. I’m just saying that it’s not crazy to believe this. Biological evolution has a set of properties that is found in such purposive things as animals and robots and is not found in such evidently purposeless things as rocks and rivers. This isn’t proof of teleology, but it’s evidence of it. . . . Like those biological developments, this cultural development [of increasing complexity] is closer to being evidence of divinity than its opposite would be.

Wright is a bit more explicit about it in The Evolution of God:

If you watched evolution on this planet unfold from a distance (and on fast-forward), you would find it strikingly like watching the maturation of an organism: there would be directional movement toward functional integration. So why can’t the part of Paley’s argument that can be validly applied to an organism’s maturation—the idea that it suggests a designer of some sort—be applied to the whole system of life on Earth?

Contra Wright, what he describes above is very different from what Henry Ford did with his cars.  Ford built his cars, but it was up to the driver to determine where they went.  For Wright, God not only built evolution and human societies, but did it in such a way that where they went was inherent in their design. God apparently made his cars with built-in autopilots and GPSs.

Does Wright really disavow a mystical force?  If so, why does he keep invoking a “larger purpose,” a “special creative explanation,” a “source of creativity”?  If he is so sure that no mystical force enters the system, why is he so anxious to show people how a such a force could have designed humans and their society and pushed them in a predetermined direction?  And what of Wright’s claim that there is “no need to look for a mystical force”? If he really thinks that, then why does he devote so much space in this book (and in NonZero) to claiming that there are plenty of “scientific” facts on the ground for such a force, and then laying out precisely what those facts are?

As I note in my review, quoting Wright:, “An appraisal of the state of things from a scientific standpoint,” he asserts, “yields more evidence of divinity than you might expect.”

Wright continues his rebuttal:

Moreover, I’m agnostic on the question of whether there’s even a deistic sort of God. But, you may ask, if I’m agnostic, then how can Coyne quote me saying things like this: “God was so wise that he set up a world in which the rational pursuit of self-interest leads people to wisdom.”?  p 272

Answer: By taking that quote out of context. That passage characterizes not my view, but the theology implicit in the Hebrew wisdom literature. To fully appreciate how negligent a reviewer would have to be to miss this fact, I recommend reading the quote in context. It’s in the final paragraph of this passage. [See link on Wright’s webpage.]

Whether this is an interpretation of Hebrew literature is not the point: for this quote precisely represents the view that Wright offers the faithful in both NonZero and The Evolution of God. To repeat: both books aver that religious people can find evidence for a divine force in the process of evolution and natural selection, processes that can be seen as designed to culminate in humans, in their complex societies, and in theologies that increasingly grow more moral.  In fact, the whole confection that Wright offers the faithful is perfectly summed up in the quote, “God was so wise that he set up a world in which the rational pursuit of self-interest leads people to wisdom.”

Wright continues:

If faced with these misrepresentations of my views, Coyne’s alibi might be that at the end of his review he sets the record straight by noting (indeed, complaining) that I don’t profess to know whether any god exists. And, indeed, the closing paragraphs of his review do contain a refreshingly accurate portrayal of my position. But how does Coyne reconcile this portrayal with his earlier assertion that God’s existence is a “claim” that I make?

The reconciliation involves the whole tension of Wright’s book: he spends much of The Evolution of God showing believers the clear “empirical” evidence for God (or transcendent force—who cares?). That evidence involves both evolutionary change and sociological progress. Wright himself repeatedly claims that there’s scientific evidence for a transcendent force — but avoids explaining why he doesn’t buy this evidence himself.

Then, at the end of his book, Wright finally grapples with the crucial question of whether God, or a god-like force, really exists.  He admits that he’s not sure whether it does, because he’s “not qualified” to answer that question. (He doesn’t tell us who is.)  But his retreat doesn’t square with all the “evidence” that he’s given to buttress the faith of believers. I described Wright’s bizarre admission at the end of my review precisely because he avoids it until the end of his book.

Going through The Evolution of God, the reader continually gets the impression that Wright really believes what he’s saying.  But then we discover that, on the most crucial question of all, Wright ultimately punts.  Rather than hiding Wright’s equivocation about God: I singled it out as the culmination of my review, precisely to underscore that The Evolution of God ultimately appears as an exercise in cynicism.

Misrepresentation #2: The evolution of monotheism

Coyne says I posit a “relentlessly progressive evolution of religion” and depict “theology’s linear march toward goodness and light.” (He doesn’t provide any quotes from my book that say anything like this, and I can guarantee that he never will.) He then writes “One can in fact make a good case that, contrary to Wright’s claim, ethics went downhill as religion evolved—specifically, that it declined in the transition from polytheism to monotheism.”

An ethical decline in the transition from polytheism to monotheism is contrary to my view? I encourage Professor Coyne to dip into chapters 6 and 7, “From Polytheism to Monolatry” and “From Monolatry to Monotheism.” The core argument is that ancient Israel moved from a polytheism that reflected a tolerant cosmopolitanism (sponsored by kings with internationalist foreign policies) to a monotheism that was, at its birth during the Babylonian exile, belligerent and retributive (and whose emergence had been abetted by highly nationalist kings, notably the brutally authoritarian Josiah). I expressly dismiss (p. 173) the view that monotheism was “morally universalistic from its birth,” saying, “a candid reading of exilic texts leads to a less heartwarming conclusion—that the universalism present at monotheism’s birth may not deserve the qualifier ‘moral.’” I add, “If you look at the earliest biblical texts that plainly declare the arrival of monotheism and you ask which of their various sentiments seems to most directly motivate that declaration, the answer would seem closer to hatred than to love, closer to retribution than to compassion. To the extent that we can tell, the one true God—the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims—was originally a god of vengeance.”

How could Professor Coyne have actually read chapters 6 and 7 of my book and come away thinking that I believe the transition from polytheism to monotheism involved moral progress? Again, this seems to be an honest mistake—but it’s a big one.

Wright’s thesis is indeed that religion is relentlessly progressive, but over the long term. This progression, he says, can be seen as evidence that God (or the “transcendent force”) is pulling humanity toward greater morality.  Yes, there are short-term reversals, but the long-term trend is the leitmotif of his book, the “scientific” evidence on which his entire thesis rests!

And if you read not just chapters 6 and 7, but also chapters 4 and 5, you’ll see that although Wright agrees that the transition from monolatry to monotheism involved short-term Jewish separatism and identity politics rather than inclusiveness, he also asserts repeatedly that the transition to monotheism was a big moral improvement in the long run —precisely what I claimed. Here’s what The Evolution of God says about this transition:

To the extent that we can tell, the one true God–the God of Jews, then of Christians, and then of Muslims — was originally a god of vengeance. Fortunately, the previous sentence has an asterisk: but it doesn’t matter. The salvation of the world in the twenty-first century may well hinge on how peaceful and tolerant Abrahamic monotheism is. But it doesn’t hinge on whether these attributes were built in at monotheism’s birth.  That’s because monotheism turns out to be, morally speaking, a very malleable thing, something that, when circumstances are auspicious can be a fount of tolerance and compassion.  As well see in subsequent chapters, this fact is manifest in the subsequent history of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Even though one driving force behind monotheism’s emergence seems to have been hostility, the God that emerged needn’t remain hostile toward Israel’s neighbors. Even if the ‘universalism’ so often attributed to the God of the exile is partly a euphemism for far-flung retribution, this God was capable of moving toward moral universalism, toward universal compassion. .  .What’s more, even if there is backsliding, every burst of moral growth God exhibits, once etched in scripture, can be revived later, even amplified, when circumstances are conducive.

With P [the Priestly source of the Bible], it seems, Abrahamic monotheism has been converted from a fiercely nationalistic and exclusive theology — the theology present at its creation — to a more international and inclusive one.  If so, this is yet another tribute to the malleability of God. Monotheism had emerged as a tool for elevating Israelites above their neighbors, and now it was becoming a way of putting Israel on the same platform as its neighbors. The Abrahamic God was growing.

Misrepresentation #3: Christian inclusiveness

Coyne says I characterize the Apostle Paul’s teachings as “a momentous change in Christian theology: an extension of love to non-Christian foreigners.”

Once again, we don’t have to worry about Coyne ever providing a quote from my book that supports this claim, because there isn’t one. What I say is that Paul extended love across ethnic and national bounds, not across religious bounds. In fact, I emphasize that if you read Paul’s fine print, you see that “brotherly love” is meant to apply to Christians of the various ethnicities and nationalities. I underscore the distinction in such Pauline passages as “Let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” I write (p. 280), “This is the kind of love Paul usually preaches—love directed first and foremost toward other Christians.” And I note that, once Christianity became the official Roman church, the line drawn by Paul between Christian and non-Christian became even starker; there was now (p. 298) government-backed “intolerance of non-Christians. So, in moral terms, it isn’t clear that Paul’s mission culminated in progress.”

So when Coyne spends a paragraph triumphantly establishing that “Paul is not promoting love among those of different faiths,” and says that this fact calls into question my “sunny view of the progress of theology,” it isn’t clear whom he’s arguing with. Not me.

Again Wright uses selective citation to tell only half the tale. Yes, Paul extended love to Christians from other nations, but, as Wright makes palpably clear, Paul’s other great achievement was to extend Christian amity to their non-Christian opponents, an important tool in promoting the growth of his faith via conversion.  A few Wrightean quotes to this effect:

On the one hand Christianity made a name for itself by extending generosity to non-Christians. Some of those it befriended joined the church, others no doubt spoke highly of it thereafter, and various observers were impressed by the church’s sympathy for the unfortunate. Yet Christianity couldn’t extend generosity to non-Christian infinitely . . . The key to Christianity’s growth was to be nice to outsiders, but not endlessly nice  — unless, of course, they became insiders, after which they were expected to give and not just get.

There is one kind of Christian love that doesn’t fit into this formula, and so can’t be explained in terms of intra-congregational or inter-congregational bonding. In two of the gospels Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” What is the practical logic behind that kind of love?  And if there is a practical logic behind it, why isn’t the logic sensed by Paul, who never utters these words.

Actually, though Paul doesn’t say “Love your enemies,” he comes pretty close. So close, in fact, as to suggest that he did sense the logic behind it – that in fact he may be the one who injected the idea into Christian literature. Only later, perhaps, was it attributed to Jesus, if in fuller and richer form.

Actually, Paul wasn’t the first to figure out that befriending an enemy can be a potent counterattack.  His “burning coals” line comes from Proverbs, where it is preceded by this advice: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink.” Paul, in injecting the doctrine of kindness toward enemies into Christianity, wasn’t just being wise; he was being wise with the guidance of the Hebrew wisdom literature.

Misrepresentation #4: Belligerence and Tolerance in the Koran

By now one pattern should be clear: Coyne often attributes to me views that I don’t in fact hold, then attacks those views with arguments that I myself make.

Nope.  What I’m pointing out is malleability of Wright’s thesis, his ability to cite facts that seem to refute his thesis (without seeming to realize this), and a discursiveness of prose that enables one to demonstrate almost anything by judiciously selecting quotes from his book.  Wright continues:

Here goes:

As if in refutation of me, Coyne writes: “Moreover, there is no evidence for an increase in morality in the Qur’an over the years of its composition between 610 and 632 C.E. On the contrary: as Islamic scholars recognize, the later chapters, written after Muhammad’s famous flight from Mecca to Medina, display decidedly less tolerance than the earlier ones.”

No kidding! I guess that would explain why I write, on p. 382, that “the earlier suras, revealed in Mecca, tended to be more tolerant.” It would also explain why Chapter 15 is titled “Mecca” and features a number of tolerant verses—and ends with the ominous sentence, “Muhammad was about to acquire real power, and things were about to change”—whereas Chapter 16 is called “Medina” and features a number of belligerent verses.

The growing belligerence of Koranic verses over time has an implication that Coyne underscores: “according to Islamic tradition, theological disparities between early and late verses—which occur many times in the Qur’an—are resolved by giving precedence to the later ones.” Though Coyne seems to think that this fact would be news to me, and certainly seems to want his readers to think as much, I myself describe, on pp. 381–382, “a crucial decision by Islamic jurists about how to resolve internal contradictions in the Koran. They decided that the more recently Muhammad had uttered a Koranic verse, the more likely it was to reflect the enduring will of God. This skewed interpretation toward belligerence.”

Yes, of course Wright recognizes the difference between Meccan and Medinan verses of the Qur’an—this book is in fact where I first read about this dichotomy of tone.  But Wright doesn’t seem to recognize that, in contrast to his thesis, this difference and its interpretation by later Muslim theologians shows that Islamic theology has gotten more belligerent over time – not just over the short term, but over the long term. Not only is the Qur’an less amiable in its later-written parts, but Islamic theologians have decided that the less amiable parts take permanent precedence over the more amiable ones. Nor did the hadith (the sacred collected sayings and stories about Muhammad), compiled after the Qur’an, make things better, for the hadith are even less conciliatory than the Qur’an.  Over the long term, then, Islamic theology has created a less conciliatory God – the opposite of Wright’s thesis.

Wright continues:

That my book acknowledges any belligerence in Koranic verses at all may surprise readers of Coyne’s review. Coyne says I find “tolerance of Christians and Jews” in the Koran by using a “needle-in-the-haystack” approach, and he then sets out to enlighten me about the many intolerant passages in the Koran. His first example is this: “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other.”

As it happens, the same passage can be found in my book (p. 367). Why didn’t Coyne know this? Maybe he was confused by the fact that I used a different translation: “O Believers! take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends.” Or maybe he just didn’t read my book as carefully as he might have.

Anyway, more consequential than this minor oversight is the larger impression that every reader of Coyne’s review will come away with: That I quote only the sunny verses from the Koran. Here are some verses I quote in the aforementioned chapter 16: “When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them.” And “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” And “think not that the infidels shall escape Us! Make ready then against them what force ye can, and strong squadrons whereby ye may strike terror into the enemy of God and your enemy.”

I disagree. Wright does indeed quote some of the un-sunny verses, but definitely downplays them. After all, he has to show that, like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is being pulled toward greater tolerance and morality.  Rather than arriving at his thesis from considering the facts, Wright uses the decidedly unscientific tactic of deciding what he wants to show beforehand, then presenting only those facts (or pieces of scripture) that support it.

Indeed, Wright admits that on the whole the Qur’an is a belligerent document:

This is the moral irony of the Koran. On the one hand, it is vengeful; people who read it after hearing only whitewashed summaries are often surprised at the recurring air of retribution. Yet most of the retributive passages don’t encourage retribution; almost always, it is God, not any Muslim, who is to punish the infidels.  And if we confine ourselves to the Meccan years – most of the Koran –Muslims are encouraged to resist the impulse of vengeance.

Here, as in much of his reply, Wright seems oblivious about the disparity between what scripture actually says, and how it bears on his main thesis.  He admits that the Meccan verses are not only written earlier than the Medina ones, but are also superceded by the Medinan verses (in light of this, it’s completely irrelevant which verses make up “most of the Koran”). So what’s the point of emphasizing the sunny verses if they’re rendered obsolete by darker ones? And who cares whether it is God rather than the Muslims who is to punish the infidels? As Wright insists throughout The Evolution of God, it’s how the scripture is interpreted by humans that’s important. If Muslims, in the end, see the Qur’an as mandating vengeance, then Islamic theology has grown less moral.

Wright continues:

Now, I do argue that these verses, when read in context, are less indiscriminately belligerent than they may sound. Coyne probably disagrees (judging by his attitude toward Islam generally), and it would be interesting to hear his counterarguments. But since forming an interesting counterargument would involve comprehending my argument in the first place, maybe we should assign this job to someone other than Jerry Coyne.

No counterarguments are necessary, or even useful; the reader can judge for herself whether those verses – and the Qur’an as a whole — are “indiscriminately belligerent.”  Go, for example, to the Qur’anic section of  “The Scripture Project”  (http://www.reasonproject.org/scripture_project/), where you can browse the entire Qur’an, with verses conveniently labeled as to whether they express “good stuff” like amity, or “bad stuff” like intolerance, injustice, cruelty and violence.  Notice the preponderance of the latter.

Misrepresentation #5:The Islamic doctrine of salvation

Coyne writes, “And yet, despite all odds, Wright manages to find ‘growing salvific inclusiveness’ in Islamic doctrine.” Actually, no. Here’s what I write about a Koranic verse that declares Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans, in addition to Muslims, eligible for salvation: “It seems to represent the peak of a growing salvific inclusiveness.” Now, since the history of Islamic doctrine is just beginning when the Koran solidifies, to say that a verse in the Koran represents the “peak” of a trend is to say that almost all of the history of Islamic doctrine doesn’t feature a continuation of that trend. In other words, Coyne has once again attributed to me something that is closer to the opposite of what I say than to what I actually say.

Well, Wright is technically correct, but he changed that critical word “peak” from a different word, “culmination,” that appeared in the material I reviewed: the bound galley proofs (I’ve only now received the final book).  The original paragraph says this:

Whether the verse is from Muhammad’s time or after it seems to represent the culmination of a growing salvific inclusiveness.  There are many verses in the Koran suggesting that Jews and Christians are eligible for salvation. Three of those verses add Sabeans to the list, and of the three, this one verse adds Zoroastrians as well. . . It’s possible that all three verses carrying salvation beyond the Abrahamic compass were indeed uttered by Muhammad. Maybe near the end of his career he found small pockets of Sabeans and Zoroastrians within the ambit of his conquests, or maybe he found himself in alliance with towns populated by these non-Abrahamics.  But, regardless of whether these verses come from Muhammad’s time or later, the best explanation for them is an expanded scope of non-zero-sumness. Whether by allying with non-Abrahamics or governing them, Islamic leadership seems to have acquired an incentive to stay on cooperative terms with them.  This is reminiscent of the growing inclusiveness we saw in the Hebrew Bible.” [my emphases in bold]

“Culmination,” of course, can mean something very different from “peak”: culmination means “fulfillment” or “completion,” lacking the idea of a later downhill slide. “Peak,” as Wright notes, means an apogee, a high point.  I apologize for missing this one-word change, as I saw only a penultimate version of the book, and, of course, did not quote the “peak” sentence in my review.

But this quibbling is just that – quibbling.  For nowhere in his book does Wright assert directly that Muslim theology reached its high point with this one verse from the Qur’an.  Does he really believe, as he implies in his response, that Islam has gone morally downhill since  the composition of verses 22:16-17?  And why does he claim in his rebuttal that Islamic morality “peaked” with this verse, but writes in his book that the course of Islam is “reminiscent of a growing inclusiveness”? I seriously doubt that Wright sees Islamic theology as having degenerated in the 1300 years since the Qur’an was written. That would, of course, refute his main thesis.

Wright continues:

In addition to misunderstanding me, Coyne misunderstands the Koran. He writes:

“It is nice of Wright to remark that Jews and Christians will gain salvation so long as they believe in God, but he fails to mention that this saving God is the Islamic god, Allah. The Qur’an is quite explicit that salvation is gained only through adherence to Islam:

Those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans—whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right—surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve.”

Coyne’s assumption that Muhammad thought of Allah as different from the God of Christians and Jews is popular among laypeople (especially on the right), but it’s not very popular among scholars of Islamic history. In the Koran Muhammad explicitly says he’s talking about the God of Christians and Jews. (e.g. “We believe in what hath been sent down to us and hath been sent down to you. Our God and your God is one.”) And he repeatedly grounds the history of that God in the Torah and the Gospel. And in the various theological arguments Muhammad had with Jews or Christians—such as whether Jesus was the son of God or merely a great prophet—there’s no evidence of any disagreement over the identity of God himself.

Indeed, chances are good that Arab Christians and Jews themselves referred to God as Allah. To this day that’s the word for God used by Arab Christians.

Oh dear – another rhetorical diversion.  Yes, Wright has cherry-picked one verse from the Qur’an to show that Mohammed accepted what he saw as the Judeo-Christian god.  But what Wright neglects to add is the crucial fact that only Muslims  — and not Christians or Jews –worship this God correctly! Over and over again the Qur’an says that accepting Islamic dogma is essential for salvation. It is a fundamental tenet of Christianity, for example, that Jesus was the son of God – a divine as well as a corporeal being.  Indeed, many Christians feel that salvation absolutely hinges on accepting this tenet.  But the Qur’an makes perfectly clear — twice — that belief in the divinity of Jesus will send you straight to hell:

5:72-75    They do blaspheme who say: “God is Christ the son of Mary.” But said Christ: “O Children of Israel! Worship God, my Lord and your Lord.” Whoever joins other gods with God,  God will forbid him the garden, and the Fire will be his abode. There will for the wrong-doers be no one to help.

They do blaspheme who say: God is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One God. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them.

Why turn they not to God, and seek His forgiveness? For God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.

Christ the son of Mary was no more than an apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how God doth make His signs clear to them; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth!


19:35-37.  It is not befitting to (the majesty of) God that He should beget a son. Glory be to Him! when He determines a matter, He only says to it, “Be”, and it is.

Verily God is my Lord and your Lord: Him therefore serve ye: this is a Way that is straight.

But the sects differ among themselves: and woe to the unbelievers because of the (coming) Judgment of a Momentous Day!

Wright even admits this incompatibility in another passage of his book:

Yes, he [Muhammad] was willing to accept the virgin birth of Jesus, to call Jesus the Word and the Messiah. But, at the end of the day, he wanted Jews and Christians to accept his religion—to accept that their own scriptures, however sacred, had been a prelude to the Koran; that their own prophets, however great, had been preludes to himself.

Indeed.  It takes a great feat of intellectual gymnastics to see the Qur’an as saying anything other than this: the road to salvation depends completely on accepting the doctrine of Islam, and if you don’t you’re barbeque. (And of course that’s the way many Muslims interpret their scripture.) But Wright has done the requisite back flip. I stand completely behind my assertion that “the Qur’an is quite explicit that salvation is gained only through adherence to Islam.”

Misrepresentation #6: The geographic scope of progress

Anyway, though Coyne’s general pattern is to overstate my claims (i.e. to evince comprehension of little in the preceding paragraph), he in one sense understates them. He seems to think I’m confining my expectation of moral progress to western religion. He asks, “What about other faiths? In his zeal to pull societies toward moral perfection, did the Lord of the Universe forget the Hindus, aboriginals, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Scientologists?”

Well, my book is about the evolution of the Abrahamic god, so you wouldn’t expect me to touch on all religions.

But I do make it clear that, yes, eastern religions are subject to the same logic as western ones: “All told, the first millennium BCE brings a strikingly broad pattern: across the Eurasian landmass, from the Pacific to the Mediterranean, sages argue for expanding the circle of moral concern, for harnessing sympathy and hindering antipathy.” I go on to cover the work of the Buddha, Confucius, and Mozi in a discussion that covers pp. 236–40.

Well, on pp. 236-240 you will find this:  a couple of statements from Confucius, Mozi, and Buddhist scripture expressing tolerance (e.g., Confucius: “love your fellow man”).  There is no documentation that these religions were, or are, becoming more tolerant over time. There is only Wright’s assertion that there is a “strikingly broad pattern” of tolerance in the first century BCE.  Well, did Buddhism, Confucianism, or Mozi become more moral over time? Did their theologies develop in a loving direction?  On these questions – the ones critical for Wright’s thesis — he is silent. Citing a statement of amity from each of these three faiths hardly constitutes “covering the work of Buddha, Confucius, and Mozi.” Picking one or a few conciliatory statements from a faith says absolutely nothing about whether that faith is growing increasingly moral.

And Wright says nothing about the world’s 1.2 billion Hindus.  Why is nearly all of his analysis confined to Abrahamic faiths, when he’s purporting to show a pattern that should apply to every religion?

Wright continues:

And, by the way, I don’t argue that religious belief is a pre-requisite for this moral progress; atheists are presumably just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers. The values system in question—religious or secular—is a kind of “neutral medium” through which underlying social dynamics find their moral manifestation.

Nowhere did I say that Wright sees religious belief as a pre-requisite for moral progress.  What I said is this:

“Wright sees faith as a moral lever: ‘Certainly there has been a kind of net moral progress in human history. . . . And certainly religion has played a role in this progress.’ But how much of a role? And if not a decisive role, then what is left of Wright’s belief in the beneficent power of religion?”

As for “atheists being just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers,” well, Wright never deigns to admit that in his book.  But that’s not surprising, for his point is that transcendent “purpose” in the world is revealed through the increasing morality of Abrahamic theology. If those who reject all theology are “just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers,” then religion has apparently contributed little to humanity’s moral improvement.

But how can atheists be “just as responsive to the underlying dynamic as believers” if an important part of the “underlying dynamic” is the evolution of theology?  Again, Wright seems willing to contradict himself to prove his critics wrong.

How many “ways of knowing” are there?

September 8, 2009 • 6:56 am

I’ve become rather ambivalent about Eugenie Scott — and, indeed, about some of the policies of the organization she heads, the National Center for Science Education.  On the one hand, Scott is a really nice person (I used to count her as a friend, though I’m not sure she feels that way about me now!), and, more important, she and the NCSE have done absolutely terrific — and award-winning — work battling creeping creationism in America.  The NCSE’s intercession in the Dover intelligent-design trial, for example, was critical in the victory.

But Scott also travels around giving strongly accommodationist talks, reflecting the NCSE’s policy that science and religion, when properly conceived, are harmonious.  This is, of course, the NOMA stance.  The NCSE has made a tactical decision that selling evolution is most efficacious if you proclaim — never mind what you really think — that religion and science are compatible, occupying their own magisteria.

Over at Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, Russell Blackford reports on a talk Scott gave yesterday at Dragon*Con.  To be fair, Blackford didn’t take notes, and I haven’t heard the talk.  But if his memory is accurate, Scott told the audience that there are many valid “ways of knowing” beyond science.  As Russell reports:

. . . In any event, it was the first part of the speech that worried me. This emphasised the claim that science (Scott said “science”, not “reason”) is only one way of knowing. The others that she mentioned were personal insight and authority (I don’t think she was saying that these three are the only “ways of knowing”). She appeared to be happy to count all sorts of ideas gained from personal insight, perhaps assisted by rituals or drugs, as “knowledge”, which is rather odd, since knowledge is, at the least, justified belief. She counted revelation, including the words of holy books, as a sub-set of authority, and explained that the problem is when empirical claims are based on revelation.

Scott also said that science is a limited way of knowing because it can only investigate natural phenomena and can only offer natural explanations for them, and so cannot deal with supernatural claims. She offered no argument for this claim. Indeed, she gave an example of scientific study of truth claims that appeared to refute it. This was a description of a controlled experiment to see whether people really can perform better than chance at dowsing for water. Clearly, if the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water” is refuted by scientific investigation, it follows, a fortiori, that the claim “I can perform better than chance at dowsing for water by using supernatural means” is also refuted.

Oh dear dear dear.  Russell, I, and others have addressed the idea of science and the supernatural many times before (see here, here, and here, for example), dispelling the soothing idea that “science has nothing to say about the supernatural.”  That is, of course, hogwash.  Science has plenty to say about the Shroud of Turin, whether faith healing works, whether prayer works, whether God seems to be both beneficent and omnipotent, world without end.  Science can, as we’ve repeated endlessly, address specific claims about the supernatural, though it’s impotent before the idea that behind it all is a hands-off, deistic Transcendent Force.

Scott admits that there is a problem when empirical claims are based on revelation, but seems completely unaware that empirical claims derived from revelation form the basis of nearly every faith.

I am absolutely sure that Scott is aware of these arguments. But she ignores them, and goes around spreading the same old accommodationism.  In this sense she’s like the Twins: she’s heard the counterarguments, but not only has she failed to answer them, she ignores them. What is even more distressing is that Scott is an atheist, so for her, at least, there are no supernatural ways of knowing.  Does she think she’s missing out on a kind of knowledge that only the faithful have? I doubt it.

As for “ways of knowing,” my response is always, “What do you find out? What do you “know”?  And how would you know if you were wrong? Was Jesus the son of God?  Christians’ “way of knowing” tells them, “Yes, of course!” But Islamic “ways of knowing” say, “No, of course not, and you’ll burn in hell if you believe that.”  Revelation, dogma, and scripture are not in fact ways of knowing; they are ways of believing.  There are no “truths” that religion can produce which are independent of truths derived from secular reason.

With his usual acumen, Russell dissects the problem in detail.  Read his post.  And I agree completely with his conclusion:

I am not suggesting that the NCSE enlarge its remit to attack religion more generally. That is not its raison d’etre at all. But it can be neutral about such questions as whether science undermines a large amount of religious thinking, far beyond the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. It can stop relying on an unnecessarily narrow (and very dubious) view of scientific epistemology, designed to leave as much authority with religion as possible. It can stop selling Gould’s intellectually bankrupt principle of Non-Overlapping Magisteria on its website.

It’s perfectly clear by now that neither Scott nor the NCSE will ever deal with the ideas that 1) the other “ways of knowing” don’t produce truth, 2) science can indeed address the supernatural, at least some aspects of it, and 3) a lot of people DO NOT find science and faith compatible. By enabling superstition, and giving credibility to irrationality, Scott and the NCSE’s NOMA-ism will, I think, hamper the evolution of a rational America.  Yes, we’re on their side vis-a-vis creationism, and yes, I’ll be more than glad to join hands with them in fighting that scourge of rationality.   But so long as our allies keep spouting half-truths and untruths about the relationship between science and religion, we’ll keep calling them to task.

Where's the beef?

Fig. 1. Other ways of knowing: I can’t has cheezburger.

Robert Wright: Pirouetting on the fence

August 24, 2009 • 5:28 am

When my advisor Dick Lewontin’s book, The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, appeared in 1974, one reviewer criticized him for equivocating about the significance of genetic variation. In his text, Lewontin seemed to vacillate endlessly between the “neutral theory,” which saw variation at the DNA level as of no selective consequence to the organism, and the “selection theory,” which claimed the opposite. The reviewer noted that Lewontin did not so much sit on the fence as pirouette on it.

A similar feat of posterior rotation has been performed by Robert Wright, who has specialized in trying to harmonize two contradictory positions: materialistic evolution and divine, teleological purpose. In his recent book The Evolution of God, which I’ve reviewed here, Wright makes the case that while evolution and natural selection may have indeed molded human behavior, behind it all we see “scientific evidence” of a divine purpose. This evidence is, according to Wright, the fact that the theologies of Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have over centuries become more inclusive, more tolerant of other faiths. Wright claims that the inclusiveness results from increasing interactions between human societies, so that each perceives a “nonzero-sum” relationship with others and decides to go along to get along. And so theology changes over time (that’s what Wright means by the “evolution of God”) ultimately promoting greater morality. I guess this much is plausible, although, as I noted in my review, there are other plausible theories that can explain the growing morality of our species.

What took Wright over the top was his claim that driving the increase in morality was a transcendent “purpose” — some unspecified but apparently divine force pulling societies towards ever-increasing goodness. And so believers can find “facts on the ground” that support the existence of a higher being. Wright did admit in his book that he “wasn’t qualified” to pass judgment on whether God existed, but he surely gave his readers plenty of “scientific evidence” for it. And indeed, that’s how many reviewers perceived The Evolution of God: as a welcome guide to how religious people can buttress their faith against the attacks of the “new atheists.”

My critique of Wright’s book concentrated on his theology, on the structure of his argument (which I consider unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific), and above all on the supposed “empirical evidence” for divine guidance of human biological and moral evolution. Wright has complained about some of my critiques of his theology, and I will post a response here soon.

Wright’s dizzy pirouetting is on display in a long and messy op-ed piece he wrote in yesterday’s New York Times: “A Grand Bargain Over Evolution.” It’s basically a précis of his book, and offers what I call the “Certs Gambit.” (If you’re of a certain age you’ll remember the television commercials for Certs mints, in which two people argue about whether the product was a breath mint or a candy mint, with the argument finally ended by a voice from above booming, “STOP! You’re both right.”) Wright’s Certs Gambit in the Times involves reconciling atheistic evolutionary biology with religious belief, showing how both can find support from understanding how natural selection molded human morality. It is a return to eighteenth-century deism:  God made the universe and then went permanently to lunch, certain (because he built it into the process) that natural selection would eventually cough up his favorite species.

Like Jesus, Wright sees himself as a harbinger of universal harmony:

I bring good news! These two warring groups [atheists and religious believers] have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.

[Note the insertion of the annoying word “militant.” I guess nonmilitant atheists properly appreciate the creativity of selection.]

Here’s his solution: harmony (and maybe a Templeton Prize for Wright) will arrive when religious people give up the idea of God’s constant intervention in evolution and the affairs of the world, and when atheists accept that science is compatible with a transcendent purpose. The harmony devolves from accepting the “creative power” of natural selection.

If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.

[Note the use of the loaded words “accept that” here, words Wright uses throughout his piece.  All of his pirouetting is concentrated in that phrase.  “Believe that” would be epistemically neutral; but “accept that” means acquiescence to a true state of affairs.]

So where’s the evidence for a higher purpose in evolution? As in The Evolution of God, Wright sees “purpose” in the development of increasing morality in human affairs – indeed, in the fact that we have a moral sense in the first place. To many, like C. S. Lewis, it’s hard to see how natural selection could yield morality:

The inexplicability of this apprehension, in Lewis’s view, was evidence that the moral law did exist — “out there,” you might say — and was thus evidence that God, too, existed.

But Wright brings good news! Atheists and the faithful are both right! Evolution is both a God-driven and a materialistic process — two processes in one!  Yes, as Wright admits, there do exist purely secular explanations of morality: evolutionary hypotheses involving reciprocal altruism as well as non-evolutionary theories based on people’s ability to recognize and build a harmonious society. But Wright’s kicker is that God still lurks beneath the surface:

. . .But they may not have to stray quite as far from that scenario as they fear. Maybe they can accept this evolutionary account, and be strict Darwinians, yet hang on to notions of divinely imparted moral purpose.

The first step toward this more modern theology is for them to bite the bullet and accept that God did his work remotely — that his role in the creative process ended when he unleashed the algorithm of natural selection (whether by dropping it into the primordial ooze or writing its eventual emergence into the initial conditions of the universe or whatever).

[Note again the words “accept that” instead of the epistemically neutral “believe that.” Here Wright is again smuggling God into the picture!]

This goes along with Wright’s postulate in The Evolution of God that natural selection itself might have been devised by the “transcendent force” (let’s stop pussyfooting around and just call it “God”). But of course such a view is NOT consistent with scientific materialism, for there is not the slightest evidence that natural selection is anything other than the ineluctable consequence of genes competing with each another for representation in future generations. That the whole process might have been designed by God to achieve certain ends is a bullet that I, for one, am not prepared to bite. Certainly evolution is consistent with a deistic view that God made the Big Bang and then took his hands off the universe, letting everything unfold naturally and materially. But that’s not quite the same as asserting, as Wright has done repeatedly, that God designed natural selection as a way to build moral beings. The latter supposes that evolution has somehow been directed.

To show that natural selection is indeed a teleological process designed by God, Wright resorts to the “convergence arguments” familiar from the writings of Kenneth Miller and Simon Conway Morris. These assert that built into the evolutionary process was the consequence that selection would produce rational, moral beings capable of apprehending and worshiping their creator — in other words, us. The argument rests on “evolutionary convergence”: the observation that natural selection has sometimes produced similar results in completely independent lineages (a classic example is the physical eye, which has evolved several dozen times).

Of course, to say that God trusted natural selection to do the creative work assumes that natural selection, once in motion, would do it; that evolution would yield a species that in essential respects — in spiritually relevant respects, you might say — was like the human species. But this claim, though inherently speculative, turns out to be scientifically plausible.

For starters, there are plenty of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution, given long enough, was likely to create a smart, articulate species — not our species, complete with five fingers, armpits and all the rest — but some social species with roughly our level of intelligence and linguistic complexity.

I have criticized elsewhere the assertion that the evolution of a fully moral, religious “humanoid” species was inevitable. All we can say is that such a species did evolve — but only once, so that convergence arguments are completely irrelevant. It’s just as plausible — indeed, I think more plausible — to argue that such beings were not inevitable consequences of evolution, and might very well have failed to appear were the tape of evolution to be rewound and replayed.

Here’s why Wright sees morality as inevitable:

And what about the chances of a species with a moral sense? Well, a moral sense seems to emerge when you take a smart, articulate species and throw in reciprocal altruism. And evolution has proved creative enough to harness the logic of reciprocal altruism again and again.

Vampire bats share blood with one another, and dolphins swap favors, and so do monkeys. Is it all that unlikely that, even if humans had been wiped out a few million years ago, eventually a species with reciprocal altruism would reach an intellectual and linguistic level at which reciprocal altruism fostered moral intuitions and moral discourse?

But the truly scientific answer to Wright’s question is “we don’t know how unlikely it is.” Yes, we see the rudiments of morality in other species, but only one species went all the way to developing an explicit moral code.  We cannot assume that just because we see rudiments of some trait in some species, its full evolution was inevitable. That’s like saying that evolution must produce fully volant fish because flying fish have already gone part of the way by evolving the ability to glide.   It doesn’t take an intellectual giant to see that just because something evolves, its appearance need not have been inevitable were life to begin again.

Wright also claims that repeated evolution of “moral behaviors” is evidence for the preexistence of moral rules – i.e., the Transcendent Purpose formerly known as “God.”

If evolution does tend to eventually “converge” on certain moral intuitions, does that mean there were moral rules “out there” from the beginning, before humans became aware of them?

His implicit answer is “yes,” but it’s Wright’s intellectual style to make his points in the form of questions whose answer is rather obvious. In that way he can claim that he’s on the side of both atheists and the faithful without having to take a stand himself.  This is the same thing he’s doing by using the weasel-word “accept” rather than “believe”.

I’m not convinced that such convergence of altruism says anything about its “out there” existence. Instead, it is evidence only for the following proposition:

If a species evolves to be social, and individuals interact repeatedly with one another, natural selection may (but need not) mold individual behavior in a way that leads to reciprocal altruism.

Although Wright cites Steve Pinker as accepting the possibility of pre-existing moral rules, I think Pinker probably meant something closer to the proposition I constructed above.  Altruism isn’t really a pre-existing “thing” out there, it’s a solution that selection can arrive at if 1) the conditions of sociality and repeated interactions among individuals are of the right type, and 2) the relevant genetic variation exists.  Without that, altruism can’t evolve.

Indeed, you can make another proposition about “immoral rules” as well:

If it is to the reproductive advantage of individuals of a species to kill the young of other individuals, or to engage in other behaviors that violate what humans see as morality, then “immoral” behaviors like infanticide can evolve.

Indeed this is exactly what happened in lions and langur monkeys. (Some evolutionary psychologists have claimed that these behaviors are “rudiments” of an immorality that we find in humans: the murder of step-offspring by their adoptive parents, but I won’t address that here.) Does this mean that infanticide is an immoral rule floating out there in space?  The point is that in some cases natural selection produces behaviors that we see as “moral”, but in other cases behaviors we find “immoral.” It all depends on the circumstances. This is not evidence for pre-existing “rules”, but simply for the multifarious ways that natural selection can mold the behavior of social species.

And here’s a third proposition:

If members of a species gain a reproductive advantage by helping members of a second, unrelated species, then we could see the evolution of two species helping each other.

This, of course, is why we have mutualisms between organisms like algae and fungi (lichens), between leafcutter ants and fungi, and between termites and their gut symbionts. These mutualisms could be considered interspecific “moral” behaviors, since they merely extend the principle of “selfish altruism” (aka the “golden rule”) towards members of a different species.

Natural selection can create all kinds of behaviors, including those that humans would find immoral were they to occur in our culture. All that matters is that the behavior gives individuals a reproductive advantage and the right kinds of mutations are around. Indeed, humans may well have evolved some immoral behaviors, such as the propensity to cheat when you can escape detection.

At any rate, the evolution of altruistic behaviors in some animals does not count as evidence that that somehow morality pre-dated those behaviors. How could it? It’s like saying that the “goal” of detecting vibrations in fluid somehow pre-dated the evolution of hearing and lateral lines. Would we have been able to predict that hearing would some day evolve had we been present at the formation of the first primordial replicator 3.4 billion years ago? I don’t think so. The “prediction” is made retroactively! As in the theological and biological changes described in The Evolution of God, Wright has a tendency to see whatever has happened as inevitable.

Thus, the “good news,” as Wright calls it, is merely an attempt to make a theological virtue of empirical necessities, which, of course, is the basis for all apologetics.

. . . natural selection didn’t “invent” human moral intuitions so much as “discover” them? That would be good news for any believers who want to preserve as much of the spirit of C. S. Lewis as Darwinism permits.

But the point is just that these speculations are compatible with the standard scientific theory of human creation. If believers accepted them, that would, among other things, end any conflict between religion and the teaching of evolutionary biology. And theology would have done what it’s done before: evolve — adapt its conception of God to advancing knowledge and to sheer logic.

Of course these godly speculations are compatible with the “standard scientific theory of human creation”!  This is just the standard idea that God designed evolution to achieve a certain aim — in this case, morality.  What is new here? Nothing; it’s the same 200-year-old deism — a deism that didn’t harmonize science and religion for most people then, and won’t now. Many religious people like to see their god as continually acting in the world rather than having gone to lunch after the Big Bang.  I don’t, therefore, see devout Muslims, fundamentalist Protestants, or Orthodox Jews accepting these speculations and ending their conflicts with science.

And what are we atheists to do? Wright says we must admit the possibility of a Higher Purpose:

But believers aren’t the only ones who could use some adapting. If there is to be peace between religion and science, some of the more strident atheists will need to make their own concessions to logic.

They could acknowledge, first of all, that any god whose creative role ends with the beginning of natural selection is, strictly speaking, logically compatible with Darwinism. (Darwin himself, though not a believer, said as much.) And they might even grant that natural selection’s intrinsic creative power — something they’ve been known to stress in other contexts — adds at least an iota of plausibility to this remotely creative god.

[Note the word “grant,” which, like the word “accept”, presupposes a pre-existing truth that we must acknowledge.]

And, god-talk aside, these atheist biologists could try to appreciate something they still seem not to get: talk of “higher purpose” is not just compatible with science, but engrained in it.

Engrained in it? Sorry, Mr. Wright; I’m not willing to acknowledge that any god had a hand in designing the process of natural selection. There’s just no evidence for that. Natural selection is simply what happens when replicators compete for representation in the next generation. Yes, it’s formally possible that God brought the whole complicated process into being, but why complicate matters by positing an unnecessary layer of divinity atop a process that works fine on its own?

And I’m even less willing to grant that “natural selection’s intrinsic creative power” adds any plausibility to this “remotely creative god” (note how Wright sneaks “god” in there!). If we’re going to quote Darwin on the role of divinity in natural selection, here’s a place where he definitely abjures celestial intervention or any “principle of improvement”:

I entirely reject, as in my judgment quite unnecessary, any subsequent addition “of new powers and attributes and forces,” or of any “principle of improvement” except in so far as every character which is naturally selected or preserved is in some way an advantage or improvement, otherwise it would not have been selected. If I were convinced that required such additions to the theory of natural selection, I would reject it as rubbish. . . . I would give absolutely nothing for the theory of Natural Selection, if it requires miraculous additions at any one stage of descent.

Finally, Wright tries to give believers solace by saying that organisms do have a purpose: to spread their DNA.

And, actually, even once you accept that natural selection, not God, is the “designer” — the blind watchmaker, as Mr. Dawkins put it — there is a sense in which these organs do have purposes, purposes that serve the organism’s larger purpose of surviving and spreading its genes. As Daniel Dennett, the Darwinian (and atheist) philosopher, has put it, an organism’s evolutionarily infused purpose is “as real as purpose could ever be.”

So in a sense Paley was right not just in saying that organisms must come from a different creative process than rocks but also in saying that this creative process imparts a purpose (however mundane) to organisms.

As I noted in my New Republic review, this is truly creationism — or intelligent design — for liberals. This would all sound very different if Wright used the word “function” instead of “purpose”. “Purpose” sounds, well, so . . . intentional!  And of course that is what Wright want the reader to think. In my dictionary, the definition of “purpose” is “the reason why something is done or created or for which something exists.”  Again, Wright is using words to sneak God into his argument. This is the same tactic used by Kenneth Miller when he lectures about how natural selection produces “design” instead of saying it produces apparent design.

But Wright is asking a lot of the faithful here. I doubt that many believers will be satisfied in learning that their “purpose” is to spread their genes. For that is the “purpose” of every species, be it fungus, gnat, or tortoise. A theology based on propagation of DNA leaves nothing special for humanity. How many believers will find comfort in that?

Wright is a cagey man. He ends his op-ed piece with some furious pirouetting, as he did in the final chapter of The Evolution of God. Note how, in the following passage, he simultaneously claims that God is not necessary but at the same time invokes a “higher-order creative process.”

There are two morals to the story. One is that it is indeed legitimate, and not at all unscientific, to do what Paley did: inspect a physical system for evidence that it was given some purpose by some higher-order creative process. If scientifically minded theologians want to apply that inspection to the entire system of evolution, they’re free to do so.

The second moral of the story is that, even if evolution does have a “purpose,” imparted by some higher-order creative process, that doesn’t mean there’s anything mystical or immaterial going on. And it doesn’t mean there’s a god. For all we know, there’s some “meta-natural-selection” process — playing out over eons and perhaps over multiple universes — that spawned the algorithm of natural selection, somewhat as natural selection spawned the algorithm contained in genomes.

I’m not sure what Wright is trying to say here, unless he’s invoking a kind of anthropic principle: in some universes natural selection gave rise to beings who, through evolved rationality, evolved altruism, or both, became moral. And we live in such a universe. (But of course it is conceivable to have a universe containing smart, rational beings that lack sophisticated moral codes.)  But this scenario doesn’t offer much solace to believers. Where is God, Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed in this process? What about heaven, or an afterlife? Are prayers answered? If there’s nothing “mystical or immaterial going on,” what becomes of the billions of believers whose faith rests firmly on those “mystical phenomena”? As Many Christians have recognized (C.S. Lewis among them), if Jesus wasn’t actually the son of God, the whole structure of Christianity collapses.

In his peroration, Wright claims (somewhat cynically, I think) that even if there’s no god, believers can nevertheless shoehorn one into his scenario:

Clearly, this evolutionary narrative could fit into a theology with some classic elements: a divinely imparted purpose that involves a struggle toward the good, a struggle that even leads to a kind of climax of history. Such a theology could actually abet the good, increase the chances of a happy ending. A more evolved religion could do what religion has often done in the past: use an awe-inspiring story to foster social cohesion — except this time on a global scale.

Such is Wright’s intellectual style. Without ever admitting what he himself believes, Wright weaves a narrative in which he sees both atheists and the faithful attaining philosophical harmony. But that won’t do. This is not a “grand bargain over evolution,” but a Faustian bargain for both scientists and the faithful. The price of Wright’s bargain is that both scientists and believers must abjure critical elements of their craft and belief. The faithful must abandon most of the trappings of conventional religion: the belief in a divine and providential power who interacts with the world and listens to prayers, and belief in an afterlife and divinely ordained prophets and scriptures. Wright’s church is Our Lady of the NonZero Sum, the Power That Drives Morality. Gone are Jesus, Mohammed, and Moses, replaced by the “awe-inspiring story” that through our Purpose of Spreading Genes, an undefined transcendent source has pulled us all towards the good.

And we scientists – well, we must give up our crazy notion – and all the supporting evidence — that evolution is a blind, contingent, materialistic process that is not externally directed toward certain goals. We must “accept” the idea that there is “scientific evidence” for a higher purpose/higher order/transcendent reality. We must accept the idea that natural selection and evolution give real evidence for a “remotely creative god.”

This is nonsense. Wright’s utopian solution fails for the same reason that accommodationism always fails: any genuine harmony between science and faith requires that the faithful give up essential elements of their supernatural beliefs, and that scientists accept some elements of the supernatural. The Certs Gambit for science and faith may sound warm and fuzzy in the liberal columns of the New York Times, but in practice it doesn’t work.  Still, it may just earn Wright a Templeton Prize.


Update: Other critiques appear at PharyngulaThe Mermaid’s Tale, and The Apple Eaters.

Michael Ruse’s WhingeFest: atheists very, very bad for evolution

August 14, 2009 • 9:21 am

As the the season of atheist-bashing proceeds, faitheist Michael Ruse continues to whine about us on — of all places — the religious “Science and the Sacred” website, a venue for “leaders of the BioLogos Foundation.”  Ruse’s article is called “Why I think the new atheists are a disaster,” and you could write it with your eyes closed.  It’s full of the usual accusations, including Ruse’s speciality: the claim that atheists are as big a disaster for the pro-evolution movement as are fundamentalist creationists:

. . Secondly, I think that the new atheists are doing terrible political damage to the cause of Creationism fighting. Americans are religious people. You may not like this fact. But they are. Not all are fanatics. Survey after survey shows that most American Christians (and Jews and others) fall in the middle on social issues like abortion and gay marriage as well as on science. They want to be science-friendly, although it is certainly true that many have been seduced by the Creationists. We evolutionists have got to speak to these people. We have got to show them that Darwinism is their friend not their enemy. We have got to get them onside when it comes to science in the classroom. And criticizing good men like Francis Collins, accusing them of fanaticism, is just not going to do the job. Nor is criticizing everyone, like me, who wants to build a bridge to believers – not accepting the beliefs, but willing to respect someone who does have them. For myself, I would like America to have a healthcare system like Canada – government run, compulsory, universal. It is cheaper and better. But I engage with those who want free enterprise to be involved in the business. Likewise I engage with believers – I don’t accept their beliefs but I respect their right to have them.

Most importantly, the new atheists are doing terrible damage to the fight to keep Creationism out of the schools. The First Amendment does not ban the teaching of bad science in publicly funded schools. It bans the teaching of religion. That is why it is crucial to argue that Creationism, including its side kick IDT, is religion and not just bad science. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If teaching “God exists” is teaching religion – and it is – then why is teaching “God does not exist” not teaching religion? Obviously it is teaching religion. But if science generally and Darwinism specifically imply that God does not exist, then teaching science generally and Darwinism specifically runs smack up against the First Amendment. Perhaps indeed teaching Darwinism is implicitly teaching atheism. This is the claim of the new atheists. If this is so, then we shall have to live with it and rethink our strategy about Creationism and the schools. The point is however that the new atheists have lamentably failed to prove their point, and excoriating people like me who show the failure is (again) not very helpful.

I think that P. Z. Myers and his crew are as disastrous to the evolution side – and people like me need to say this – as Ben Stein is disastrous to the Creationism side – and the Creationists should have had the guts to say so. I have written elsewhere that The God Delusion makes me ashamed to be an atheist. Let me say that again. Let me say also that I am proud to be the focus of the invective of the new atheists. They are a disaster and I want to be on the front line of those who say so.

In the immortal words of Clara Peller, “Where’s the beef?” Where is the evidence that vocal atheists are setting back the cause of evolution? This is only an opinion, and no better than the opinion that by pushing back the influence of religion, the new atheists are actually promoting the acceptance of evolution. I agree with P.Z. Myers that we should “let a thousand critics blossom,” with each of us supporting evolution in the way we know best.

And Ruse, who seems to pride himself on his sophisticated knowledge of theology, runs completely aground when he equates teaching Darwinism with teaching atheism.  I don’t know of a single evolutionist who teaches atheism in their classrooms, or who even says in the classroom that Darwinism is tantamount to atheism. Show me, Dr. Ruse, one atheist who violates freedom of religion by saying, “God does not exist” in the public school (or even the university) classroom.   Yes, teaching evolution may have the side result of eroding some peoples’ faith, but, as I’ve pointed out before, the erosion of faith can occur in the geology classroom, the astronomy classroom, the ethics classroom, and even in the theology classroom! (How many believers have lost their faith when learning about how the Bible was actually put together?) As the respect for rational discourse increases, as it should with a good education, the respect for religion will erode.  But that doesn’t mean that a good education violates the First Amendment.

Behind all this, I think, is Ruse’s anger at having been attacked by atheists, something he makes pretty clear in the article:

I am not a devout Christian, yet if anything, the things said against me are worse. Richard Dawkins, in his best selling The God Delusion, likens me to Neville Chamberlain, the pusillanimous appeaser of Hitler at Munich. Jerry Coyne reviewed one of my books (Can a Darwinian be a Christian?) using the Orwellian quote that only an intellectual could believe the nonsense I believe in. And non-stop blogger P. Z. Myers has referred to be as a “clueless gobshite.” This invective is all because, although I am not a believer, I do not think that all believers are evil or stupid, and because I do not think that science and religion have to clash. (Of course some science and religion clashes. That is the whole point of the Darwinism-Creationism debate. The matter is whether all science and religion clash, something I deny strongly.)

Ruse also goes after Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, and other new atheists for their lame and unsophisticated arguments against religion.  This is again standard fare, but if there’s a better theological argument for the existence of God than has been criticized by these people, I don’t know it.  For someone who touts his sophistication in theology and philosophy, Ruse shows himself appallingly dense about the relationship between teaching evolution, teaching atheism, and the First Amendment.  And it’s sad that a philosopher with any pretension to intellectual rigor must consort with the mushbrained BioLogos Foundation.

NOTE:  As the evisceration of Ruse proceeds at the Science and the Sacred website as well as at RichardDawkins.net, I want to highlight one comment made by “Mr. Forrest” (comment 45 on the Dawkins.net thread), especially the part in bold (my emphasis).  As Mr. Forrest notes, the ontological argument, which Ruse sees as badly treated by Dawkins, is just plain stupid.

Holy crap… the ontological argument is the one that goes approximately:

1. I can imagine a perfect God
2. One of the attributes of perfection is existence

God exists.

I just vaguely remeber this one from religious studies. Apart from being WILDLY idiosyncratic AND a logical and empirical train-wreck, I would like to challenge the theists to come up with a specific morally perfect god and have them answer a couple of moral dillemas. Then we’ll see how “perfect” their god is.

Oh and the article was fucking awful. I think its insulting in the extreme to presume that people are incapable of having a discussion in frank terms.
Calling the new atheists violent or strident serves EXACTLY the same function as calling an african-american “uppity”. We’re standing up for our views and being really insanely polite about it considering the effects of religion.

Do we really need million man marches, riots, decades of civil rights activism etc. to be granted the right to speak our minds?

Accommodationism: onward and downward

June 28, 2009 • 7:03 am

Well, God may have rested on Sundays, but atheists don’t. A mini-kerfuffle has begun with yesterday’s posting of science postdoc John Wilkins at his website Evolving Thoughts.  Wilkins listed six “points” for discussion, these being reasons why accommodationism is the proper strategy for addressing the faith/science dichotomy.  They are the usual mix of I-am-a-nice-guyness, religion-and-science-both-find-truth-ness, and the-atheists-are-so-uncivil-ness.

Over at Pharyngula, P. Z. Myers throws cold water on the feebly smoking embers of  Wilkins’s arguments, writing with his usual pungency:  “I may not be perfectly rational, but my magic invisible monkeys are!” He takes Wilkins down point by point; here are my two favorites (Wilkins’s arguments in bold, P.Z.’s responses in plain type):

2. The usual excuse that making nice with religion is strategic, coupled with the claim that religion is always going to be around. Other people can be strategic. Scientists just ought to be honest. As for the tired argument that religion will always be around — no. Some of us have shed the old myths. More will follow. I don’t have any problem seeing a coming future where religious belief is an irrelevant minority position. Of course, if you start out with a defeatist attitude, it becomes a bit more difficult.

Frankly, this is one of the more ludicrous arguments made by accommodationists. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would imply that we shouldn’t work to change any long-standing human behavior for, after all, it’s always been with us, so we should just learn to deal with it.  Had the accommodationists been around at the turn of the last century, they might have counseled us to forget trying to get equal rights for minorities and women: people have always discriminated, and we can’t do anything about it.  (And don’t tell me that this comparison is invidious because faith is much nicer than discrimination, because that’s not relevant. Anyway, faith continues to cause dissent, fighting, and murder throughout the world, not to mention the more passive forms of destruction like fighting against condoms in HIV-plagued countries.)

At any rate, we have ample evidence that societies can indeed become less religious: it’s happened over and over again in Europe.  Sweden and Denmark are now virtually atheistic countries, but they didn’t used to be.  France and Germany are on the way.  Don’t tell us that religion will always be with us.  I have faith — if that’s the right word! — that some day grownups will put away their childish faiths.   A corollary to the faith-will-always-be-with-us view is that atheists need to show the faithful how they can survive without religion. Well, that’s really not our responsibility, but clearly people can have full and meaningful lives without religion. See Ophelia Benson on this issue over at the Guardian website Comments are Free.

5. Religion has always been wrong about the natural world, but religion is seeking knowledge of something different. Again, first part fine, second part weird. What knowledge? Can you even call it “knowledge” if it’s nothing that anyone can know? Why should we accept any claims by religion?

Indeed.  Some time ago I ran a contest on this site, offering a free autographed book if anybody could come up with a “truth” about the world that was revealed uniquely by faith.  Nobody won — and it wasn’t for lack of trying!  The “truths” that are supposedly found by faith turn out to be nothing more than moral dictums like the Golden Rule.  This is not, of course,  a truth, but a guide to behavior (and rules like this come from secular ethics as well).  Religion is neither constructed in a way to promote the discovery of truth, nor is particularly good at finding it (think of the “truths” of Adam and Eve, the great flood, and the 6,000-year-old universe). And for every Golden Rule, there’s a “truth” like “adulterers should be stoned to death.” Finally, most of the “truths” of different religions are in irreconcilable conflict with one another.  Was Jesus the son of God? Christians adamantly agree; Muslims think that anyone holding that belief is doomed to eternal torment. Let me say it again:  asserting that science and faith are merely different ways of finding “truth” debases our very notion of what “truth” is.

In their more lucid moments, accommodationists recognize this, but you never see them attacking the common claim (made by, among others, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Center for Science Education, and others) that science and religion are merely different ways of seeking truth.

On his website Metamagician and the Hellfire Club, philosopher Russell Blackford has two relevant posts.  The first is an analysis of Chris Mooney’s position on the faith/science dichotomy.

Chris Mooney is an atheist. Indeed, he is a philosophical naturalist – it’s difficult to be sure what this really means, but for present purposes the point is that Mooney does not believe in the existence of any spooky beings such as gods, ghosts, ancestor spirits, angels, demons, and so on. He is not just a methodological naturalist who, as a matter of policy or practice, avoids explaining the world’s phenomena in terms of the existence of spooky beings. He actually denies that these beings exist. He takes this position because he sees no evidence for the existence of such beings and because the claims made by people who claim to encounter them are so contradictory. It is more rational to explain the experiences of these people by means of some kind of psychological thesis, he thinks, than to think that the experiences are veridical . .

Chris Mooney is an atheist, taking – as far as I can work out – the position described in my first paragraph above. But he thinks it’s bad form for atheists to spell out their positions or to criticise religion in public. Instead of explaining and defending his own substantive position in a consolidated way, he prefers to write posts in which he tells other atheists to shut up . . .

Nonetheless, he calls for other atheists to shut up, in the sense that calls for them to engage in self-censorship, to stop offending and scaring the religious. He seems to imagine that this is a moderate position to take, and indeed it is more moderate (or less radical) than if he took the position of attempting to stop atheist discourse by an exercise of state power. However, this is not a moderate position. Even if he insisted on strict civility, that would not be a moderate position: we do not have to engage in strict civility when we criticise economic theories, political ideologies, or any other non-religious ideas – so why are religious ones sui generis in this regard? There is a long tradition, going back beyond Voltaire, of subjecting religious ideas to satire and ridicule. Satire and ridicule are often needed to convey what is truly absurd about an idea to people who may begin with different premises and are almost immune to argument. . .

I’ve given up on trying to explain this to Mooney. He seems to be dogmatically convinced that his position is the moderate one. Anyone who thinks that religious ideas merit scrutiny and, where we disagree with them, even criticism (let alone satire or ridicule) is taking an extreme position in Mooney’s judgment.

Yes, that’s right.  Although Mooney has repeatedly claimed that he’s not telling any atheist to shut up, I can’t see that he’s saying anything else.  As far as I can make out, Mooney wants the atheists who dislike faith/science accommodationism to simply keep quiet about it, as it’s strategically bad. If he is saying something else, what is it?

In another post, Blackford, who has always been properly concerned with definitions, goes after Wilkins’s characterization of “accommodationism” and “anti-accommodationism,” and suggests definitions that seem reasonable, at least to me.

Anti-accommodationists hold, for various reasons, that when defending science, such as evolution (but not always), defenders should not assert that science is compatible with religion. Instead, they should merely defend science.

Accommodationists, on the other hand, hold that even if science and religion are incompatible, it is politically expedient to deny this incompatibility when defending science. Moreover, for reasons of political expediency, no one should bring up the incompatibility even while doing things other than defending science.

And then Blackford notes that although Chris Mooney and others deny that they were practicing a form of intellectual censorship, they really were:

John laments that the debate got nasty very quickly, but he blames this on the so-called exclusivists. Again, I just can’t see it. The recent phase of the debate began when Jerry Coyne wrote a civil, substantial, and very thoughtful review of books by Karl W. Giberson and Kenneth R. Miller in The New Republic. Jerry has also criticised science organisations for at least hinting at the compatibility of science of religion (John agrees with Jerry on this point; i.e. John agrees that science organisations should not do this).

For his pains, Jerry was attacked very trenchantly by Chris Mooney. Worse, Barbara Forrest said that Coyne should shut up. She said that “secularists should not alienate religious moderates” and gave Coyne’s book review as an example of alienating the these people. If that is not telling someone to shut up, I don’t know what is. Chris Mooney expressed full agreement with Forrest (as he represented her – I’m relying on his representation of what she said).

If Forrest said what she is represented as saying, then she believes that Coyne should not have reviewed the books by Giberson and Miller the way he did. Only a completely favourable review would have been appropriate, and Coyne should have self-censored. If that is so, I could not have written my review of Francisco Ayala’s recent book in the way I did in Cosmos magazine last year. I should have censored myself. We would all have to censor ourselves, and not express reservations, whenever reviewing a book by what Forrest calls a religious moderate. Surely it is not unreasonable when we anti-accommodationists point out the absurdity of such a position.

Mooney also headed his post in a way that suggested that the people who thus “alienate” the faithful are not civil, though he later disclaimed the implication that Jerry Coyne had been uncivil in his review. But the clear implication was that Coyne’s review was an example of incivility (and it also follows that my review of Ayala’s book would be such an example).

I have to agree here (surprise!).  What is Mooney asking me to do?  I have tried long and hard to figure it out, but have failed.  If it’s something other than keeping my mouth shut about the irreconciliability of science and faith, I’d like to hear it. I can’t engage in debate when I don’t know what the other side is saying.

(n.b.  Chris Mooney thinks that Wilkins’s post is “brilliant”)