Michael Zimmerman, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, in which liberal theologians proffer testimony that their faith has no beef with evolution, has just put up a brickbat post at (gulp) HuffPo: “Science and religion aren’t friends, but they could be.” He’s exercised by my USA Today piece arguing that science and faith are incompatible, and offers another take.
It’s a “brickbat” post because Zimmerman goes way out of his way, almost embarrassingly so, to praise my great talents as a scientist and writer. But he’s just softening me up for the body blow: the familiar claim that I’m forcing people to choose between science and faith and, by so doing, turning them away from science. In the end, it’s just a nicely worded but Mooney-esque call for me to shut up about religion.
Like religious fundamentalists, Coyne is arguing that people must choose between religion and science, that they can’t accept both. There are, I believe, two problems with this position. First, pragmatically, studies have clearly suggested that in the United States, when people are given this choice, they will more often than not opt for religion. Now, I’m not suggesting that Coyne, or any of us who care deeply about science, should pervert our understanding of the discipline simply to make converts. No, I’m arguing that there is a way to promote the principles of scientific inquiry fully while not alienating many who are likely to be supporters by belittling their sincerely held beliefs.
Let me reiterate that I’ve never said that people must choose between religion and science, although I’ve argued that a philosophically consistent scientist should eschew superstititon. What I’ve said—and argued in the USA Today piece—is that the way science and faith try to find truth are incompatible—and, indeed, that there is scientific truth but no real religious truth. If people think that this means they have to choose, fine. I do think they should give up superstition in favor of naturalism, but if they want to entertain incompatible views in their brain, so be it. What Zimmerman really hates is that by making people think about the issue, I could turn some away from evolution. What a patronizing idea! And we all know that there’s no evidence for this claim. The thinking could easily go the other way—I have made a few converts to science.
More important, Zimmerman fails to understand that my goal is more than just getting people to accept evolution and science. As I repeat endlessly (and wish I could stop repeating), my goal, and that of the Gnus, is the promotion of reason. Sam Harris, responding to the mush-brained accommodationism of Unscientific America, said it best:
The first thing to notice is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.
Please, Dr. Zimmerman, try to understand this simple idea: we have more than one goal! And if I had one wish, it would not be that everyone would magically accept evolution; it would be that religion and superstition would vanish from the face of the Earth. The evolution acceptance would shortly follow. Does anyone doubt that?
Zimmerman goes on to claim, as he has before, that the kind of religion with which he rubs elbows is not incompatible with science. Of course you won’t find him in the megachurches or in the congregations of the South or the south side of Chicago.
. . .the extreme position Coyne has articulated is at odds with much of religion as well as with the basic precepts of science. In fact, religion isn’t the monolithic, dogmatic enterprise Coyne describes, while science can’t provide answers to every question humans can imagine.
Note the gratuitous slur on science: that it doesn’t provide answers to every question humans can imagine. Well, Dr. Zimmerman, does religion? And does religion do it better than secular philosophy?
Never mind. Zimmerman makes the claim, as he’s wont to do, that for the vast majority of American “religious leaders” (note: he’s not talking about religious people), science already trumps faith. So what’s there to worry about?
Perhaps most importantly, he [Coyne] makes the case that when religions make empirical claims about the natural world, scientific knowledge has to trump faith. Every scientist I know would likely agree with this statement. Similarly, though, the vast majority of religious leaders I know would also likely agree. The only religious leaders apt to argue are those extreme fundamentalists who believe that their faith traditions are designed to teach us about the workings of the material world. Yes, people like Ken Ham, Albert Mohler and Pat Robertson espouse such dogma, but to imply that they are representative of the majority of religious leaders is ridiculous and gives them power that they don’t deserve.
(I’m not sure why they deserve their power any less than does teh Pope.)
Ken Ham? Pat Robertson? Let’s talk not about leaders, but about people. Have you forgotten, Dr. Zimmerman, these dire statistics: 81% of Americans believe in heaven, 78% in angels, 70% in Satan, and 70% in hell. Aren’t those beliefs incompatible with science? Zimmerman’s pulling a fast one here by concentrating on the beliefs of liberal religious leaders believe rather than on the rank and file. But of course Zimmerman feels that religious leaders are like border collies who can drive their flock in any direction. And what do those collies believe?
Many, many religious leaders understand that religion is not dependent upon a single interpretation of any text. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the religious leaders with whom I interact regularly believe that religion is about morality and spirituality rather than science. They want to make the world a better, a fairer and a more just place and they believe they can accomplish that within a spiritual community.
Yes, I agree that they want to make the world a better place. But if they’re all on about morality and spirituality, why do they need to talk about Jebus, heaven, and sin? Why do the Catholics proffer crackers and wine, claiming that they’re the body and blood of Christ? Why the crosses, why the prayers? Why the insistence on the empty tomb, and the idea that somebody is really up there listening to us? Do these have nothing to do with empirical claims about the world?
Zimmerman, though seemingly a nice man, is also a deaf one. I am with him on promoting evolution and fighting creationism. I’m not with him on enabling the superstitious nonsense that causes so much trouble in this world. And, in the end, he oh-so-politely asks me to shut up:
Coyne and other “new atheists” share many values with religious leaders. If he would stop picking fights with those most likely to be his allies, he would dramatically improve science literacy. And he wouldn’t have to sacrifice any of the principles of science to do so.
What he means by “picking fights with allies” is, of course, pointing out that science and faith are incompatible. Are you really asking me to stop that, Dr. Zimmerman? And what is your evidence that my doing so would “dramatically improve science literacy”? I’m a small fish, and while I may have a tiny impact on science literacy, it’s surely not a dramatic one.
But please, Dr. Zimmerman, stop playing Mooney and claiming that my atheism is hurting science education. You don’t have a lick of evidence for that. Or, if that claim is something more than an unsupported opinion, give us the data. While I’m flattered by your description of me as a “world-class scientist and a fabulous writer,” I’d much rather that you quit telling me put a sock in it.
What Zimmerman refuses to acknowledge—he’s not dumb, so I can’t believe he doesn’t recognize it—is that people can come together for some causes but not others. I’m with Obama on heath care, for instance, but dead against him on prohibiting gay marriage. And I’m with Zimmerman on evolution, but against him on faith. But I’m not telling him to shut up.