Saturday, June 19, 2010

nothing personal: a first response to Mooney

I've been a bit preoccupied, but at last I've read Chris Mooney's first response to Jerry Coyne, and I must say I'm not particularly impressed, though not being a citizen of that horribly divided and over-heated nation, the USA [or so it seems from here], I'm more relaxed about critiquing the empirical or quasi-empirical claims of the religious.

Mooney's essay of over a year ago has evoked over 100 responses, which deepen the debate, but for now I'll focus only on the essay itself. He begins with what seems to me a bit of bluster - claiming that he'd be the first to join an alliance of believers and non-believers for the promotion of evolution. My immediate response, considering that I've joined a few alliances in the past, is - what if members of that alliance start saying things about evolution that I can't agree with, or that are just plain wrong? Which then raises the question - and Coyne and others raise it too - when do believers ever get evolution right? For example, the claim that humans and humans alone have a soul, a claim common to the Judaic, Christian and Islamic religions I think, just can't be reconciled with the theory of natural selection. I really think the theory refutes this belief. I therefore think that anyone holding this view cannot at the same time, without contradiction, hold the view that natural selection accounts for the diversity of species, including homo sapiens. 

Mooney considers it important to distinguish between religions, but we all know that it's the politically powerful religions, notably Christianity in the US, but also Islam, that constitute a threat to science education and the spread of scientific knowledge. Of the other religions, I'd suggest they all base themselves on supernatural explanations for real world phenomena, and as such, are in opposition to scientific thinking and methodology. Many of the more intellectual believers profess a vague deism in public and never address the particular problems of their particular religions - Charles Taylor, for example, or Howard Smith, a leading astrophysicist and a 'self-described observant Jew', whose defensive response to the 'new atheists' is this: 'I'm not religious because I'm ignorant: I'm religious because I'm in awe'. Now 'awe' might be a necessary condition for religious feeling but it's hardly a sufficient one, and it's certainly not a sufficient condition for believing in a particular god, with a particular and frankly bizarre history tied up with a so-called chosen people, whose history as related in the Tanakh seems to bear very little resemblance to the facts uncovered on the ground. How people like Smith reconcile scientific methodology and analytic reasoning with such a bizarre and largely counterfactual belief system is the real problem. All religions are particular, and it's with these particularities that many non-believers take issue. Clearly it's not so much about awe as about maintaining a cultural tradition which many people feel lost, identity-less, without. In my view, awe, which I personally feel on a regular basis, just doesn't cut it as a basis for religion.

This, of course, takes us into areas of religion and its relation to cultural identity, a minefield I'll avoid for now, while acknowledging that it's probably the key issue in understanding the persistence of religious belief.

So returning to Mooney, he quotes from Coyne's original essay and takes him to task for daring to criticize coalitions intended to achieve shared goals. Yet he fails to acknowledge that the cobbling together of such a coalition means smoothing over areas of real dissent, and the excluding of those scientists - more than a few - who see no value in such a coalition,or who know a thing or two about history, and how organised, powerful religion has sought to block every step of scientific progress over the years. Here in Australia, for example, there's no serious threat from creationism, despite the occasional wild rumour coursing through atheist circles. So we're free to focus on what divides us rather than on what unites us.

Mooney fares much worse, it seems to me, when he attempts a deeper criticism of the paragraph he quotes from Coyne. Here are his first remarks:
First, I don’t see anything particularly “philosophical” about the accommodationist stance. Rather, holding that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science is an empirical matter:  There are a vast number of different religions traditions in the world, and a still more vast number of ways in which different people profess and live out their faiths. In some of these traditions, and for some of these people, there is stark conflict with science; in other traditions, and for other people, there isn’t. That’s just a fact, and one that can be demonstrated simply by identifying any number of scientists who are religious, any number of religious leaders and denominations which embrace evolution, and so on.
It's true, of course that there are many different religious traditions, but along with many other non-believers, I think it's fair to single out Judaism, Christianity and Islam as the main causes for concern, and especially the last two, as they are the only religions, in my part of the world at least, politically powerful enough to interfere in any way with scientific advancement. It's also true, of course, that within those two religions, people profess and live out their faiths very differently, many of them completely ignoring the defining dogmas of their particular denominations. Bully for them. Yet there are defining dogmas, and I have already written about them with regard to Christianity, and to Judaism in passing. Interestingly, and I think unsurprisingly, those Christian denominations that have most readily embraced evolution have weakened themselves thereby. One feels a sense of drift with them, or retreat to a vague deism. On the other hand, Catholicism, which to me has only pretended to embrace evolution, and the more conservative side of the Anglican church, still have some political power in this country at least, and Catholicism is making great strides in Africa and rural China, where evolution has no purchase. The sexier Pentecostal-type churches don't seem to have lost any popularity by appealing to the lowest common denominator with regard to evolutionary understanding.
The official Catholic position on evolution is full of claptrap, and any biological scientist worth her pay would surely be happy to point this out. It may well be that there are many practising Catholics who have a sophisticated and accurate understanding of evolution which contradicts the official line, and that is all well and good, but rather odd. It would surely mean no belief in the exclusively human soul, and no belief in souls in general, because I don't see any place for disembodied souls in a genuinely correlated scientific understanding of our world. With these beliefs and many others shredded by a commitment to coherent scientific understanding of what we are, I don't really see what these practising Catholics would have left to practice.

In short, the numbers of the religious who embrace evolution and science are of no consequence. Coherence is all. That's a scientific criterion of course. Who cares how many people embrace the theory of general relativity? Its coherence, its testability and its fruitfulness, these are the measures. Those who question the compatibility of science and religion do so on these grounds. It's nothing personal.

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