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The Sciences

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyJune 3, 2009 6:29 PM


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I will be responding in some detail to this post by Jerry Coyne, which is itself a response to my recent arguments on the subject of science and religion (a major topic, and developed in considerably more detail, in Unscientific America). But for now I just want to clear one point out of the way, concerning my previous writings on this subject. At the intro to his post, Coyne notes that way back when I had a Slate article--a review of the 2001 PBS series Evolution--which pretty much argued that it's bogus to pretend that evolution is not corrosive to religious belief. The piece (as I read it today) really only had one paragraph that substantively makes this argument, but here it is:

Evolution’s attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive. Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and emphasizes a cruel and violent process of natural selection that is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God. Because of this, many students who study evolution will find themselves questioning the religions they have grown up with. What’s insidious is that Evolution allows fundamentalists to say this, but not evolutionists. The miniseries interviews several experts who could be expected to oppose the reconciliation outlook, notably Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and the Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, who has written, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” But neither Dennett nor Dawkins gets much of a say on the topic of religion.

I don't entirely disagree with this--especially the observation that "Many students who study evolution will find themselves questioning the religions they have grown up with." I think that's very true, and all to the good. Still, I would not have written the Slate piece today.... ...indeed, I find my work from 2001 on this topic pretty unsatisfying. I guess you could say I've changed my view; certainly I've changed my emphasis. A lot more reading in philosophy and history has moved me toward a more accomodationist position. So has simple pragmatism; I don't see what is to be gained by flailing indiscriminately against religion, other than a continuation of the culture wars. That's especially so when those who flail against religion do so in philosophically or historically unsophisticated ways, or (worse still) with the bile, negativity, and even occasional intolerance that I have encountered in such discussions. I am as much an atheist as I have ever been--and I have been one essentially since birth. But I am also much more interested in liberal tolerance (in the classical sense) and in finding common solutions than I am in eradicating religion (if that's even possible) or in making other people think like I do. I'll have more on all of this soon as I respond to Coyne. P.S.: From here on out I'm arguing just for me--these are not Barbara Forrest's arguments. I believe I accurately summarized her talk in my last post--and I hope that when it's published or otherwise available, folks will read her excellent paper--but she's not to be held responsible for anything I say. P.P.S.: I also note that that Slate piece was published just 13 days after 9/11, an event that gave considerable force to the "New Atheist" movement, for obvious reasons. I know that at the time I was also feeling many of the same things that Sam Harris would soon articulate in The End of Faith; but again, my views have since tempered and changed.

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