The Sciences

Atheists for Common Cause With the Religious On Evolution

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyApr 27, 2009 4:43 PM


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Why doesn't such a group exist? After reading the latest from the latest New Atheist to start making a ruckus, Jerry Coyne, I wonder if we don't need to start it up. And I would be the first to join. Coyne, a prominent defender of evolution based at the University of Chicago, engages in a counterproductive attack on three major allies--the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and above all, the National Center for Science Education. Nobody does more than these three groups (and especially the last) to promote and defend the teaching of evolution in the United States. So how could any evolutionary scientist be upset with them? Coyne's charge against NAS, AAAS, and NCSE is that they're too moderate on the extremely divisive subject of religion. They take the wishy-washy position that you can fully accept evolution and yet not in some sense turn into an atheist. Or as Coyne puts it of these groups:

By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one. By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist. Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.

"Seeking union"? "Consorting"? How dare these organizations build diverse coalitions to achieve shared goals?!? Allow me to make a few points in response to Coyne's summarizing paragraph, above. 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. Coyne, however, seems to think it is possible to more or less ignore this religious diversity. He says there is "significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled"--but which "religion" are we talking about here? It makes all the difference. Again, it is irrefutable that for some people, religion and science can definitely be reconciled. Forget for the moment how it is that they perform such a reconciliation in their minds--the point is, these people exist, and in large numbers. Are NAS, NCSE, and AAAS supposed to ignore this? As for "dissent": I don't think any unanimity on science and religion is being implied by NCSE or the rest; rather, I merely suspect these leading organizations of American science are taking stances that, in addition to being realistic, are in the best interests of their members. After all, consider the massive importance of the reconciliationist stance on science and religion from a legal perspective: The pro-evolution courtroom strategy has long turned on recognizing that while creationism is just thinly veiled religion, evolution does not entail atheism. Does Coyne want us to give up the Dover case, and many others before it? Because they are strongly premised on this logic. The charge that accomodationists are guilty of "philosophy" is also pretty gutsy in light of Coyne's last sentence: "Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory." Is Coyne not himself making an explicitly philosophical move here, by saying that evolution must be understood in an exclusively naturalistic/materialistic way? It's true that we shouldn't invoke supernatural "causes" (whatever those are) in science; but it's also true that science can't prove they don't exist. Provided that one does not appeal to miracles to explain how things happened, then, a kind of "supernaturalism" may certainly co-exist with evolution: You can simply say that God created everything and then evolution happened in a God-created universe, governed by God's laws, which are also the laws of nature. There's a far bigger point here: In my view, we're not nearly so secure in our defense of evolution in this country that we can indulge in the luxury of alienating the vast number of evolution defenders who hold something like the above belief. In this light, I find Coyne's piece deeply misguided on a strategic level, as Richard Hoppe points out here in a post aptly titled "Generals who don't know the nature of war." (Alternative suggested title: "University professors who should never be allowed to lead armies.") As for me: I'm happy to "consort" and to "seek union" with any and all religious folks who also wants to help defend the teaching of evolution. They're powerful allies, and joining forces with them is the only way we'll ever put this divisive fight behind us.

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