A colleague argues that my atheism turns people away from evolution

Austin Hughes, an molecular evolutionary biologist at the University of South Carolina at Columbia, has penned a critique of my recent evolution talk in The State, apparently a local paper. (You may remember Hughes as the author of a piece in The New Atlantis, “The folly of scientism,” which I critiqued on this site.)

In Columbia last week, I gave a talk on the evidence for evolution, finishing up with 15 minutes of discussion of why Americans won’t accept evolution. My take was that religion is the proximate cause of antievolutionism, for evolution is inimical to many religious people’s view of themselves, and all opposition to evolution is palpably  motivated by faith. But the ultimate cause for antievolutonism must also be the cause of religion, which I provisionally take to be, in modern life, dysfunctional societies that require people to find succor in faith. Without such dysfunctionality, I argued, faith would ultimately disappear.

Hughes apparently attended my talk, but didn’t like it—at least the last part of it—and he registers his disdain in a longish op-ed in The State, “Stop treating evolution, religion as incompatible.

I’ll comment briefly on some of his criticisms. Hughes:

Unfortunately [Coyne] veered off course when he ventured into sociology. When Coyne lamented the fact that the American public seems more reluctant to accept evolutionary theory than other well-established scientific theories such as atomic theory or germ theory, he based his analysis on the assumption that no one who accepts evolution but also believes in God can be said to accept evolution.

Hughes is simply dead wrong here.  It is a palpable fact that rejection of evolution comes from religion.  Further, I claimed that “theistic evolution”—the form of God-guided evolution that is what most Americans “accept” when they accept evolution (although about 40% of Americans accept evolution, only 16% see it as an unguided materialistic process, which is how evolutionists also see i)t.  Theistic evolution is not deistic evolution (i.e., God created the universe and evolution was an inevitable consequence), and deistic evolution does not conflict nearly as much with scientific evolution as does theistic evolution.

For Coyne — like too many in our society today — the term “evolution” stands for a package consisting of the scientific theory of evolution plus a metaphysical commitment to atheism. If you don’t accept both aspects of that package, you are anti-evolution.

I have never claimed that science, much less evolutionary biology, requires a metaphysical commitment to atheism. Hughes is simply lying when he states this. I have always argued that most scientists, including myself, take the absence of God as a provisional working hypothesis based on the history of science, for, like Laplace, we have never needed the assumption of God. I am, and have always been, willing to entertain evidence for the presence of a divine being. I just haven’t seen any. And there’s no evidence that God has guided evolution, either, since that process appears to be without direction. It’s purely unguided and materialistic nature comes from both empirical observation and a knowledge of how evolution works. Hughes continues with a familiar argument:

This view is particularly ridiculous given that the modern theory of evolution owes so much to biologists who were also religious believers, including such seminal figures in evolutionary biology as R.A. Fisher, Theodosius Dobzhansky and David Lack. By this logic, modern evolutionists are defending a theory developed by people who did not accept their own theory. The same logic would seem to imply that Isaac Newton did not really believe in his own theory of gravitation, since he also believed in God.

This is ridiculous.  Of course biologists who believe in God have made contributions to science, and some of them, early on, were actually motivated to do science as a way of understanding God’s plan. That tactic stopped about 150 years ago. Religious scientists still contribute to evolution, but there is not the slightest iota of evidence that religion has contributed to those contributions.  I would claim, for instance, that evolutionary biologists who are theistic evolutionists—who think that God guided the process—are in cognitive dissonance, just as much as are physicists who do physics while thinking that God guides every electron.

. . . In reality, evolution is a scientific theory, whereas arguments for or against the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics. Evolutionary biology no more requires a metaphysical commitment to atheism than does any other scientific theory.

One way to illustrate the difference between science and metaphysics is to consider two hypothetical theories. The first includes all the statements of modern evolutionary theory, plus the statement that God exists. The second includes all the statements of modern evolutionary theory, plus the statement that God does not exist.

In science, we decide between alternative theories by comparing their predictions to what we observe in nature. But in the case of these two alternative theories, there is no way to decide. Both theories make exactly the same predictions. The metaphysical add-on (whether or not God exists) has no effect on the predictions of the theory.

Again, ludicrous.  Metaphysical naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a provisional conclusion from observing the consistent absence of divine intervention in natural phenomena.  I would gladly accept the existence of God if I saw convincing evidence for it. I haven’t seen any. Has Hughes? “God exists” is not the same thing as “God exists and intervenes in the evolutionary process.” Got that, Dr. Hughes?

Coyne ended his talk with a political diatribe, revealing his distaste for religious freedom and apparently for America in general, as well as a fondness for big-government-style socialism. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it was hard to see what connection they had to the subject of his talk.

Since Hughes touts himself as a respected scientist (see below), I’m puzzled that he didn’t see the connection.  What causes Americans to be the most anti-evolutionist people among First World countries? It’s because we’re the most religious of First World countries! Why are we the most religious First World country? Because we’re the most socially dysfunctional First World country. Or so my argument went. You might not accept the last bit, but the ultimate explanation for creationism in the U.S. has to tell us why America is so damned religious.

As for my distaste for religious freedom, Hughes is again lying. I said nothing in favor of abrogating that freedom. In fact, I was exercising that freedom by criticizing religion. My distaste for America in general? Give me a break—that argument smacks of the “love it or leave it” arguments of the sixties, and Hughes does himself no credit by making it.  I happen to love living in the U.S., even though much of it is imbued with reflexive sympathy for superstition.

Finally, “big-government-style socialism”?  Really? Well, if that means public health care for all, I’m all for it.  I also argued we need to reduce incarceration rates, child mortality, and other things that make America dysfunctional, and that doesn’t involve “big-government-style socialism.”

What is Hughes going to complain about next: that I’m trying to take away his guns? Perhaps he doesn’t like Medicare or Social Security, either, since they’re both “big-government-style” socialistic programs.

Finally, Hughes make the inevitable argument that if an evolutionist happens to be a vociferous atheist, he or she turns people away from Darwinism:

As a scientist with more than 300 peer-reviewed publications in the field of evolutionary biology, I cringe at such arguments, which do real harm to the cause of public understanding of evolution and of science in general.

When evolution is presented as part of a metaphysical package that many Americans find repugnant, is it surprising that so many are unwilling to examine dispassionately the scientific evidence in favor of evolution?

Yes, Dr. Hughes, I admire your parade of publications, but give me a break!  BioLogos has been trying to connect evolution with evangelical Christianity for a long time, and it hasn’t worked.  Creationists are not going to accept evolution simply because they’re told it can be compatible with their faith.  If that were true, then the rise of New Atheism in the last decade should be coincident with a sharp downturn in public acceptance of evolution. In fact, that hasn’t happened.

As the following graph based on a Gallup poll up to 2008 shows, acceptance of creationism and theistic evolution have been pretty much static over the past 25 years, but acceptance of “scientific evolution,” not guided by God, has increased. Granted, it’s only a 5% increase since 2000, but that’s about 50%.  At any rate, Hughes’s Theory would predict that since New Atheism arose, acceptance of evolution would plummet. This graph doesn’t show it.

Picture 1

Actually, P. Z. Myers recently wrote about this same specious argument on Pharyngula, in a piece called “Atheists are responsible for creationism.” There he took apart the Hughes-style argument that we atheist evolutionists should shut up about God, for that hurts our cause. Myers’s language is, as usual, pungent, but his point is similar to mine. P. Z.’s conclusion:

The recent rise of public atheism can be traced to a number of influential books. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, by Susan Jacoby, published in 2004. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in 2004 and Letter to a Christian Nation in 2006, by Sam Harris. The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins in 2006.

It’s been less than ten goddamned years.

And we’ve still got idiots claiming they see a correlation between creationism/public religiosity and outspoken atheists.

Listen, whenever you see someone making that claim, you know you’ve found an idiot talking out of their ass. Give them a look of contempt and walk away.

Well, I won’t argue that Dr. Hughes is speaking from his nether parts, but I am contemptuous of his careless arguments, his accusation that I hate America and religious freedom, and his insupportable claim that atheism turns people away from evolution.

So, Dr. Hughes, as I walk away from your ill-conceived editorial, I leave you with the opposite thought: it’s religion, not atheism, that turns people away from evolution, and we’re not going to boost American acceptance of evolution until we get rid of theistic religion.

A last thought: when people like Hughes go after me, I know I’m doing something right.

101 Comments

  1. Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    One observation: unfortunately, “lying” is an effective political strategy; saying “of course you can keep your faith and accept evolution” will enable some people to at least learn some evolution and give it a chance.

    And some of us (myself, at least) started our acceptance of evolution by passing through a “theistic evolution” stage. It was a bridge away from superstition.

    Of course, scientists (the ethical ones anyway) aren’t good liars and don’t see lying as a virtue. :-)

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      I would agree that most believers don’t jump from whatever they grew up with to atheism in one big step, that they back off their beliefs in stages and try at each stage to hold onto what they can before realizing that, no, that doesn’t work either. I am less sure if it really matters much whether or not there is someone around to tell you that these stages are OK, to assure you that you can have your cake and eat it too. You’re going to go through stages regardless. You start down the path because something doesn’t work about your faith, because it doesn’t fit reality somehow and you’ve noticed enough for it to bug you. Whatever precipitates that shift I think it may tend to have a force of it’s own afterward.

      I was trying to think in my own case if any theistic evolutionist influenced me as I left my faith and I realize that at that time I didn’t even know of anyone who adopted that position. When I was starting to accept evolution, say around 1990, Francis Collins was not the well known figure he is now. Everyone I knew of at the time who accepted evolution was, or I assumed they were, atheists: Azimov, Sagan, Dawkins, Hofstadter, Dennett, etc. I found atheism scary at the time, sure, but it didn’t matter. The pull of reality overwhelmed my fear.

      • derekw
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        You had Howard Van Till back in the 80s. And of course you had Christians supporting Darwin in the day like Asa Gray and a bit more recently Theodore Dobzhansky. Today you’ve got the BioLogos folks…Ken Miller etc.

        • gluonspring
          Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          In the 90’s, I had heard of none of these people. I mean, literally never heard their name once. I know that Christians supporting Darwin have always existed, of course. That’s not my point. I’m just saying that the existence of such people was invisible to me, and I think many people, at the time I was losing my faith. It is much different now. Now even my mom, who is still a fundamentalist and no science buff, can rattle them off. I don’t pretend to explain why this change has happened. Lots of changes have happened in those years, bigger bookstores with wider selections, the internet, and so on. It doesn’t seem like a deep mystery. But my humble anecdote is simply that I lost my faith,largely to evolution, without knowing a single non-atheist advocate of Darwin.

          • Marella
            Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

            Three things, religious terrorism, clerical child rape and the internet to tell us all about these things. This is what has spurred people to write and speak up, and given them a platform to be heard that can’t be shut down.

  2. gbjames
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    typo: “i)t”

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think that’s the only think wrong with that para.

      /@

  3. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    One wonders how much of Hughes’ research is supported by “big-government-style” grants.

    • Christopher
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      See post #16 by randomactsofreason!!!

  4. neil
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    There is no such thing as bad publicity. An op-ed attacking you and atheism in a SC newspaper is pure gold. Keep up the good work.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      Good point.

    • Marella
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

      This is so.

  5. JJG
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Ugh — what a load of accommodationist tripe from Mr Hughes.

    I have been labelled anti-American too many times to count. Why? Simply for asking for evidence when outrageous claims are made. A rather sad state of affairs I fear.

  6. NewEnglandBob
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I hope you send this website post to the newspaper where he told his lies.

    • Marta
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      Jerry responded at the original post by Hughes at The State, including a link to this rebuttal here at WEIT.

      • Marta
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

        I should add, if y’all’ll forgive me for replying to my own comment, that I sincerely hope that Jerry’s posting of the link to WEIT at The State encourages Dr. Hughes to use it.

  7. Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Yes. When you have determined that the butler could have done it, with the candlestick in the hall, there simply isn’t any need to propose complicated solutions involving powers from other dimensions or other fanciful solutions that haven’t an iota of evidential support.

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

      Hughes hasn’t got a Clue!

      /@

      • HaggisForBrains
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Doh!

  8. @eightyc
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    lol.

    Well theistic evolution is even dumber than magic-based young-earth creationism. At least YEC’s rely on magic!

    Theistic evolutionists put on the guise of science but ultimately their explanation also is magic-based! At least YEC’s don’t pretend to rely or to even understand science. They believe in their magic and that’s all there is to it.

    Theistic evolutionists like to pretend they’re scientists but ultimately they subscribe to magical thinking as much as the YECs.

    lol.

  9. Sastra
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    When Coyne lamented the fact that the American public seems more reluctant to accept evolutionary theory than other well-established scientific theories such as atomic theory or germ theory, he based his analysis on the assumption that no one who accepts evolution but also believes in God can be said to accept evolution.

    Although he may not have made this point explicit, I daresay Jerry also drew his conclusion that religion is the primary motivating factor here from the fact that virtually no one who rejects evolution doesn’t also believe in God.

    . . . In reality, evolution is a scientific theory, whereas arguments for or against the existence of God belong to the realm of metaphysics.

    They say this over and over again as if repetition will establish truth. WHY can’t the existence of God be considered a hypothesis based on evidence, experience, and reasoning? After all, that’s how and why believers say they believe in God: they see certain kinds of evidence, they have certain kinds of experience, and they draw a reasonable conclusion which explains and connects these things to a model of reality. People don’t believe in God — they don’t think they believe in God — they don’t admit they believe in God — for no reason at all other than flipping a metaphysical coin and making a prior metaphysical “commitment” based on nothing.

    Hughes is wrong about atheism and theism making ‘no predictions.’ If the evidence really did show a 6,000 year old earth — or a 60 year old earth — then atheists would not be able to account for what would have to entail magic. Naturalism is falsifiable.

    So is theism. Hughes is mistaking an immunizing strategy (“find a way to keep believing”) from something which is inherent to a claim. If God is not necessary to explain the theory of evolution then God is not compatible with the theory of evolution in any meaningful sense. It’s only “compatible” in the loose, flabby sense that a belief in homeopathy is compatible with modern chemistry if you invoke Mysterious Things We Might Not Know lying beneath the level of what we can know we know about.

    • @eightyc
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

      lol.

      Actually to me, I believe the Earth is only 25 years old cuz that makes the most sense to me since that’s the length of time I’ve been acutely observing that it actually does exist.

      So I think God only created everything that I know 25 years ago.

      lol. That’s what creationist logic boils down to.

      • @eightyc
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        Plus, I’ve never seen a poodle evolve from a wolf. Ergo God only created poodles 25 years ago as well.

        lol

        • JBlilie
          Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

          … or 5 seconds ago and planted all our memories and artifacts, buildings, fossils, the whole shooting match. And there’s no way to disprove that either!

          The simple facts that all religions are provincial and are cock-sure they are right shows that they are all fictions.

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      virtually no one who rejects evolution doesn’t also believe in God

      Poking at GSS polling data, of those who reject human evolution from earlier species, approximately 1% say they “don’t believe in God”. If you limit it to those ALSO religiously unaffiliated, it’s down to 0.25% or so of those rejecting evolution.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

      “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

      Almost all Christians assent to this verse, which explicitly claims that there is evidence. Game on.

      • Larry Cook
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

        “God’s invisible qualities have been clearly seen.”

        If I had only known this, I would have been spared so much grief. All that time I spent looking for actual reasons to believe and there they were, invisible right in front of my eyes.

  10. jimroberts
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    sub

  11. Sastra
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    So, Dr. Hughes, as I walk away from your ill-conceived editorial, I leave you with the opposite thought: it’s religion, not atheism, that turns people away from evolution, and we’re not going to boost American acceptance of evolution until we get rid of theistic religion.

    I don’t think we’d necessarily need to “get rid of theistic religion” in order to boost acceptance of evolution. I think we just need to get rid of the incredible cultural significance our culture has placed on religion — the idea that faith is a virtue, that religion defines you, and that religious claims are not like any other empirical claims, they’re special and completely meshed up with being a moral person. As long as people are encouraged to think that beliefs about God are the starting point for whatever else you believe, they will only accept evolution as long as it just happens to comport with their faith. Flip a coin, see what you get. That’s a lousy way to promote scientific thinking.

    If people are terrified of the theory of evolution because they’re afraid that if they believe in evolution then they’ll turn into atheists, the single best response to this may not be reassuring them that no, no, they need not fear this horrible fate. Surely we can rescue God, re-enchant the world, and stick our science on the side of a supernatural-friendly- but-not-explicitly-so theory of evolution, can’t we? You need not succumb to the dreadful, scum-sucking soul-destroying pit of godless despair and nihilism which is atheism! (And oh — no offense to any atheists intended, of course: the nice ones keep it to themselves.)

    Maybe the best response is that they have to deal. Evolution happened. And if this means you’re going to lose God — you can STILL deal. So what? It’s not the end of the world. It’s not the end of you.

    Helpful evolutionists need to stop helping theists believe that it would be. They need to stop fighting creationism by helping people hold on to the importance they place on God and on believing in God and on believing in belief in God.

    They’re not helping.

    • SmoledMan
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      Telling Christians they have to stop believing in god is a NON-starter.

      • gbjames
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think anyone is saying they “have” to stop believing. What they are being told is the reasons such beliefs are unwarranted.

        • Posted February 14, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

          Exactly so.

          All we are suggesting is that they might need to modify their beliefs to comport a little better with reality. Nor should they flaunt beliefs that flout reality.

          /@

          • M Janello
            Posted February 14, 2013 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

            50 points to you for correctly using both “flaunt” and “flout” in the same sentence.

            • Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:04 am | Permalink

              Thanks for noticing! :-D

              /@

            • gbjames
              Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:39 am | Permalink

              It was nice to see them correctly used. But let’s add some spice! The fools flaunt fallacies while flouting facts!

            • lisa
              Posted February 15, 2013 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

              So nice to see there are still a few out there that have some notion of grammar AND vocabulary. I’m not sure of the scale, but in my book, you deserve more than 50 points.

      • jimroberts
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

        But telling their children that the world makes better sense without gods is quite a promising approach.

      • raven
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        They don’t have to stop believing in anything.

        It’s a free country, after all.

        What they do have to stop doing is imposing their views on the rest of us.

        It isn’t legal. It isn’t moral or ethical either. It’s a free country, after all and that works both ways.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      “Surely we can rescue God, re-enchant the world, and stick our science on the side of a supernatural-friendly- but-not-explicitly-so theory of evolution, can’t we? ”

      No.

  12. Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    “Coyne ended his talk with a political diatribe, revealing his distaste for religious freedom and apparently for America in general, as well as a fondness for big-government-style socialism. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it was hard to see what connection they had to the subject of his talk.”
    _____

    Hughes, like Haught, just can’t see how facts have anything to do with correlative reality. Hughes labels statistics that show America in a bad light as off topic just as Haught also regards similar statistics especially those that ‘tar’ his brand of religious superstition, CCC (Creepy Catholic Church) as off-topic and dirty tactics.

    You got these guys squirming! :-)

    • truthspeaker
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Anytime someone equates distaste for American government policies with distaste for America, you know you can stop listening to them altogether.

  13. Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I’ve seen several arguments lately that atheism drives believers away from science because in the mind of the theist science is an atheist idea. This has been discussed for several years but I can remember when it was simply predicted that this would happen … as religion was in its death throws. Now I see it happening as was predicted.

    Thankfully there are more bloggers and vloggers who are strutting their science stuff for the world. The idea that science is cool is starting to catch on. While idiots claim that atheism drives believers away from evolution they don’t bother to explain what that has to do with young people leaving their faiths in large numbers. There is more than one dynamic at play and they _DO_ interact.

    If the ‘nones’ are believers in science the remaining church members will view atheism as part of science and vice versa. This is not the fault of the atheists save for what part they play in providing evidence and discussion which helps young people make up their minds about god and creationism. The graph you show needs to be broken down by age demographic to get a more clear picture.

    The closer that the incompatibility between science (modern life) and religion comes to the faces of hard core theists, the more repelled they will be. Accepting that there is no need for a god and no evidence for one (as evolution removes the beauty/complexity evidence) they will recoil hard. It’s called denial. Denial of the fact that they have believed in the wrong things all their lives as did their parents and grandparents and all their friends etc. They are also faced straight in the eye with the fact that they are not smart enough to participate in the conversations of science. Learning evolutionary biology is not trivial. Just getting to grips with DNA is a whopper for someone that has 10-20 years between them and the last time they studied anything. They don’t even study their holy text for the most part.

    Science and evolution are becoming to modern humans what the television remote control was to your grandma – evidence that they have lived too long, they have been made irrelevant by an idea.

    • JBlilie
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      (US Senator and one-time presidential candidate and fervent, demonstative Catholic) Rick Santorum was correct (just foolish to say it in public): A [proper] university education is the surest path to doubt and abandoning religion.

      University teaches you how to think, and, most especially, exposes you to the world in a way that (most of us) had never experienced before: Different people, different subjects, removes you from your familial bubble of knowledge and norms.

      I about fell over recently when my Mom (in her late 70s) told me how she lost interest in religion after going to university. Unfortunately she got it back from my Dad …

      • Marella
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Religion is catching.

      • raven
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

        A [proper] university education is the surest path to doubt and abandoning religion.

        Satanorum also has three degrees from good public universities, one in law. He makes well over a million USD a year with those degrees.

        Guy is a raging hypocrite.

  14. darrelle
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    Hughes’ aim was not to counter your arguments, it was to belittle and insult you. Unfortunately for him his emotions got the better of him and he made several foolish claims, came off as juvenile and generally revealed himself to be an ass.

    I wish I were amazed that Hughes could have accomplished what he has, academically, and yet still be clueless enough to make arguments like the “there are/have been religious scientists” arguments as a counter to the claim that religion and science are incompatible. Even after sitting through your talk and listening first hand to what you mean by that.

    At what point does willful ignorance slip over into willful idiocy?

  15. Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    More minor quibbling about the numbers….

    While you may make a philosophical distinction between theistic evolution and deistic evolution, and while your claim about the relative levels within the category seems superficially plausible, given that the Gallup question empirically appears to functional fail for distinguishing Old-Earth versus Young-Earth creationism (based on comparison to the more nuanced regional poll of the Cleveland Plain Dealer), the available polling data do not appear provide empirical basis for conclusively asserting relative frequency of the two attitudes within the broader category.

    Also, given that approximately a sixth of those giving (2004 GSS) the “unguided materialistic process” response class themselves strongly religious, I suspect a more nuanced question that modified the CPD poll to also distinguish Theistic Evolution vs Deistic Evolution would have some of the Deistic Evolution support come from what would be the circa 15% “unguided” response on the Gallup poll question.

  16. religiouscriticism
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    You make an interesting point. I’ve been saying for years that it is simple education that’s lacking; increase education, and faith would no longer be needed.

    But it’s more than that. Lack of education is just one symptom of a dysfunctional society. We need to address that dysfunctionality on all fronts. Education is but one piece of the puzzle.

  17. JBlilie
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I have what I think is a tough question for a “theistic evolutionist” to answer. To wit: If your God guided evolution, why are there fully aquatic mammals? [When fish were there first, filling the same niches.]

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      I like this. Must remember it.

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

      Ah, but, it’s all to do with God’s porpoise of grace…

      /@

      • JohnnieCanuck
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

        Bad ant, bad ant, but funny.

        Bad um, tish.

      • JBlilie
        Posted February 15, 2013 at 6:35 am | Permalink

        hahahaha! Good one!

    • BillyJoe
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      The most common reply in my experience is that god is simply testing your faith. The stronger the evidence against your belief in god whilst still maintaining your belief in god, the stronger your faith and the greater will be your reward.

      • Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

        See, eg, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience.

        /@

        PS. I wouldn’t say reading science fiction made me an atheist, but it surely helped me along.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      Humor?

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      Backup plan? ; )

  18. Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    A quick google search on Hughes uncovers this essay on “The Folly of scientism” as the top hit:
    “http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-folly-of-scientism”

    In which he manages to cram Social Darwinism, eugenics, and attacks on Dawkins and Harris into a long screed that first excoriates natural scientists for presuming to lecture about philosophy and ethics, and then… procedes to lecture about philosophy and ethics.

    The article appeared in The New Atlantis magazine, which “is published by the Center for the Study of Technology and Society in partnership with the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Witherspoon Institute.”

    The Center for the Study of Technology and Society, in turn, seems to be a shell nonprofit whose only purpose is to publish the New Atlantis.

    The Center’s mission is “to improve the nation’s understanding of the crucial moral and political questions raised by modern science and technology.” which apparently includes, as the first listed priority, “to promote American strength and competitiveness and to defend American values”.

    The Ethics and Public Policy Center is “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy. From the Cold War to the war on terrorism, from disputes over the role of religion in public life to battles over the nature of the family, EPPC and its scholars have consistently sought to defend the great Western ethical imperatives — respect for the inherent dignity of the human person, individual freedom and responsibility, justice, the rule of law, and limited government.”

    Its board & advisors are a who’s-who of Neocon and/or theocon politics, from Michael Novak to William Kristol, backed by megacorp CEOs like the head of Scribbs.

    One of its directors is the notorious Kenneth W Bickford, who is a regular “guest essayist” for “What’s Wrong With The World: Dispatches From The 10th Crusade”, which “is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: The Jihad and Liberalism.”

    A “personal friend of the editor”, Bickford’s contributions include a defense of Austrian economics and Wall Street against “Lenin” ideologies.

    In a particularly odious essay following the mass=murders in Norway by Anders Breivik, Bickford blames not only liberalism but a new crop of inferior “immigrants”:

    “unlike today—early examples of “successful immigrant societies” to the U.S. consisted of peoples drawn from the same Western Civilization, or who shared a common religious or military telos.”

    “My own take—armchair psychologist as I am—is that tolerance is the wrong virtue upon which to build a society.”

    His conclusion:
    “A stark choice must be made: You may have multiculturalism, tolerance and openness, or you may have community and hospitality. You may not have both.”

    It is worth noting that the Center’s board of directors, advisors and staff include *no* one with a science background, let alone a practicing scientist.

    And, what about the Witherspoon Institute? It “promotes the application of fundamental principles of republican government and ordered liberty to contemporary problems through a variety of research and educational ventures” with programs includings “Religion and Civil Society” and “Family, Marriage and Democracy”.

    Recent publications include:
    “What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” and “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life”.

    Basically, you have stumbled upon one of the many, well-funded under-the-radar ideological propaganda arms of the Far Right.

    With no apparent sense of irony, Hughes publishes his McCarthyesque screeds condemning the political biases of other scientists in a publication expressly created to promote a political agenda, backed by an organization funded expressly to promote a political agenda. He is a political hack, and his “300+” papers are used to provide his expressly irrational political agenda with a cover of mainstream respectability.

    • Christopher
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Why do I ever comment when chaps like you blow me out of the water with your observations? Nice job!

      These two passages were most chilling to me:

      “My own take—armchair psychologist as I am—is that tolerance is the wrong virtue upon which to build a society.”

      His conclusion:
      “A stark choice must be made: You may have multiculturalism, tolerance and openness, or you may have community and hospitality. You may not have both.”

      YIKES!!! Is he a white supremacist?

    • gbjames
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for taking the time to look this background info up.

      • JBlilie
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

        +1

    • SLC
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      The Witherspoon Institute was founded by Princeton Un. professor Robert George, a far right wing law professor at that institution. Here’s a link to a post by Ed Brayton commenting on an appearance George made with right wing whackjob Phyllis Schlafly in he makes a ridiculous argument against same sex marriage. This piece of filth is a disgrace to an institution like Princeton, alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. The fact that Hughes is in any way associated with this neofascist is very much to his discredit.

      http://freethoughtblogs.com/dispatches/2013/02/07/george-waxes-absurd-on-marriage-equality/

    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      I’ve maintained for quite a while that our peer-review system is lacking. I wonder how many of the 300+ papers I’d reject if I was reviewing them.

  19. Christopher
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    In the word choices Mr. Hughes makes, I smell a conservative Republican in hiding with the nearly snearing use of catch phrases such as “big- government-style socialism”, “distaste for religious freedom and apparently for America in general”. I see that wording as trying to get the cheapest “amens” from your flock.

  20. Brygida Berse
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    When evolution is presented as part of a metaphysical package that many Americans find repugnant, is it surprising that so many are unwilling to examine dispassionately the scientific evidence in favor of evolution?

    So Hughes first claims that religion is not a factor in rejecting evolution, but then he insists that atheism as part of this supposed “package” suddenly becomes a factor? He can’t have it both ways.

  21. Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    arrgh, when are these apologists going to realize that, as long as theists claim tht their god affects the world in what should be very measurable ways, the whine that God should only be considered part of the metaphysical is simply bullshit?

  22. Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    “Metaphysical naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a provisional conclusion from observing the consistent absence of divine intervention in natural phenomena.”

    Well put, bravo!

  23. Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Reading this, I only just realized how strange it really is that compatibilists manage to make the following two arguments at the same time:

    1. Religion and science are not incompatible because look, many scientists were religious, yeah even started the scientific enterprise under the assumption that they could demonstrate and illuminate god’s handiwork.

    2. Science has nothing to say on religion because it has the assumption of materialism / atheism built into it.

    Well, to me that sounds like a direct contradiction. It could only be solved by admitting either that (2) is false or that the religious scientists were scientists to the degree that they were atheists in practice.

    • Posted February 15, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      Moreover, as bears repeating, if they are so compatible, why are all the founding greats (not to mention the contemporary greats) so heretical? *And recognized as such at the time*, too, in many cases. The 2010 biography of Galileo is crystal clear on this, as are recent biographies of Newton (who was more hidden than some), Descartes and even Leibniz. Boyle *himself* worried endlessly that his science would be viewed as heresy.

  24. @eightyc
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    If evolution is true, then a house cat should be able to give birth to a tiger and vice versa!

    lol. See that! You don’t even observe animals giving rise to their own kind!

    • notsont
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      Sarcastic? I hate to ask but I can’t really tell.

  25. Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    I don’t really understand the feeling of evolution in the USA. I am from Spain and mostly everyone in Europe believes evolution it’s true even if they are religious. Why evolution is true? It is true because we exist, it is true because other species exist, it is true because life is not only what we see but also the millions and millions of cells than simply makes you be alive, breath, obtain energy, allows you to think. Why do we have to ask such question when we already know the answer?

    • el_slapper
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:14 am | Permalink

      Simple : look at their history. Americans first settlers :
      (1) were religiously persecuted in Europe.
      (2) did have a lot of place to expand(locals were no match for guns or germs).
      (3) were not confronted to other ways of thinking for long.

      So, especially in the mostly agricultural areas(read : Bible Belt), they had plenty of time to think about God. Far too much time. They’ve built their culture around 2-3 core values shaped by the conditions : rugged independance, autonomy, adaptation, and the Bible.

      When you are raised like me in secular France, even if you go weekly to the church, you just have a superficial view of what the Bible is. And you don’t even know – or notice – there is contradiction between it & the evolution taught to you at school. When finally someone tells you, you just think that he’s probably right, but that’s not that important. For me it was not.

      When you are raised in the middle of an endless plain of corn or wheat, with no other distraction than going to the church & reading the Bible, your identity builds differently. The Bible is true because it is part of your identity. Denying it is awfully painful because it is denying yourself. That’s why creationism is so strong in the USA : it is part of religiosity, which is part of many people’s indentity.

      in http://www.paulgraham.com/identity.html , Paul Graham explains better than I could why having a strong, religious identity is harmful.

      And that’s why the topic raised here should not be dismissed without a thought. When you attack people’s identity(that’s what evolotion is to people defining themselves as fully religious), a direct attack is doomed to failure. IMHO, you have to plant the seed of doubt in their heart. Then they will advance towards more doubt – base of any science.

      They may stop in the middle of the way, but that’s already a half victory, as full-belivers are now surrounded but people who don’t fully buy YEC. More, you have to come back to the root of the fight : usefulness. Evolution is better than Creationism, not because it is true(even if it is), but because it is useful. It teaches us understanding & scientifical approach. It teaches us biology & helps medecine to improve. And a distorted-by-god evolutionism, to that view, is much more useful than plain magic-wand Creationism.

      • Posted February 15, 2013 at 10:07 am | Permalink

        I could’t agree more with you. I suppose we have a different culture. It’s difficult for me to understand this religious feelings. When I was young I used to be very religious, not so young about 12 or 13 years old, since I was raised on religious beliefs (My mother is very religious). But when I began to study more I began to leave those beliefs behind. I can understand religious beliefs, but I really don’t understand how can anyone belief the earth is about a thousand years old, for example…I suppose everyone is free to believe in anything but …

  26. Larry Gay
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Why am I not surprised this guy is at home in South Carolina?

  27. Dan
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    “A last thought: when people like Hughes go after me, I know I’m doing something right.”

    =]

  28. Peter Ozzie Jones
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    OP quoting Hughes:

    The same logic would seem to imply that Isaac Newton did not really believe in his own theory of gravitation, since he also believed in God.

    Newton used God to explain the stability of the orbits of the planets. It was left to later scientists using perturbation theory (Laplace, Lagrange …) to explain the stability.

  29. raven
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I’d be more impressed if Austin Hughes pointed out that shooting MD’s and insisting the earth is 6,000 years old turns people off from xianity!!!

    Which did it for me. I went from a life long xian to an anti-xian because of the fundies.

    Hughes also apparently can’t count very well. The US churches are losing 2-3 million people a year. US xianity is slowly dying while milliions cheer them on.

  30. BillyJoe
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    In my opinion, the most important reason not to be an accommodationist is that it is dishonest. You may not be saying things that are false but you are avoiding saying things that are true. I believe this is a dishonest tactic which, in the long run, will prove counterproductive.

    The second most important reason is that we may not have much influence on the older generation of dyed in the wool theists, but we can certainly influence the younger generation. Accommodating religion makes it easier for the younger generation to just slip into the unquestioned beliefs of their parents. Their parents’ views much be directly challenged to make is less likely that this will happen.

    This is why I support the efforts of people like Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

    • articulett
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

      I agree. The realm of science is everything that is real. If souls (or gods or demons or afterlives) were real, scientists would be testing, refining, and honing that evidence for their own benefit. The fact that they are not should be a clue to believers that their supernatural beliefs are on as shakey ground as the supernatural beliefs they reject– that is why scientists treat them the same way. If scientists cannot know more about a subject, there is no good reason to think that anyone else really can either!

      When accommodationists kowtow to religion, it gives the impression that there’s something respectable about believing nonsense. I don’t think you can be a “candle in the darkness” while giving the impression that magical thinking… er…”faith” is a virtue.

    • gluonspring
      Posted February 16, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Permalink

      “In my opinion, the most important reason not to be an accommodationist is that it is dishonest.”

      I couldn’t agree more. When I was young and struggling with these things, one of the persistently most striking things to me was the honesty gap between scientists and the religious leaders I was surrounded by. The religious leaders didn’t seem to care much what was true, only if it scored points with the audience. Whether it is slandering Darwin’s character, or distorting the views of scientists, or making up their own version of the second law of thermodynamics, they just weren’t accuracy and honesty based. Even as a kid, the dishonesty was palpable. It really served to undermine the authority of religion in my mind and to bolster that of science.

  31. Leon Cejas
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    Personally, I am a scientist. That makes me an atheist, for the simple reason that I have seen no evidence for God’s existence. I could however imagine someone who accepted modern science and still posited a first cause, before the Big Bang if you will. I will simply live with the knowledge that there are curtains I will never know. Divine mysteries, I might say, we’re I a poet.

    • articulett
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

      I agree– I have no problem with deisty sorts of beliefs– or hypothetical uncaused causes named “god”.

      It’s the idea that there’s a god who wants to “be believed in” and rewards “faith” (and punsishes doubt) that I have problems with.

      Believers in such gods are the ones who have a problem with evolution– these are the ones who push the idea that faith is a virtue– and that it’s mean and wrong to criticize faith. These are the creationists who are proud of their ignorance– proud that they reject evolution.

    • Posted February 15, 2013 at 4:51 am | Permalink

      Mysteries? Yes.

      Divine? No.

      “… there are curtains I will never know.”

      It’s a good job cosmologists don’t think like that!

      /@

  32. Cremnomaniac
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    JC – “Because we’re the most socially dysfunctional First World country. Or so my argument went. You might not accept the last bit…”

    The truth of this statement is supported by some very good research that you may have forgotten about.

    Gregory S. Paul has published several studies demonstrating the correlation between social dysfunction and religion.
    Here are two of those studies.
    Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health
    with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous
    Democracies

    High Religiosity and Societal Dysfunction in the United States during the
    First Decade of the Twenty-First Century

    A couple quotes from the articles –

    Increasing adolescent abortion rates show positive correlation with increasing belief and worship of a creator, and negative correlation with increasing non-theism and acceptance of evolution; again rates are uniquely high in the U.S. (Figure 8). Claims that secular cultures aggravate abortion rates (John Paul II) are therefore contradicted by the quantitative data.

    In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9). The most theistic prosperous democracy, the U.S., is exceptional, but not in the manner Franklin predicted. The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so…

    Dr. Hughes is ignorant of the topic and is in fact talking “out the side of his neck” as we say around here.

    • Gary W
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 11:08 pm | Permalink

      I agree with Delamontagne that religion is harmful, but his attempt to support that view through a comparison of the U.S. and other nations is baloney. His argument rests on a cherry-picked set of measures of dysfunction. Most of these measures have little or no causal connection to religiosity but are instead the product of exceptional secular features of American politics and culture, most obviously its emphasis on the values of individual rights and self-reliance. And Delamontagne simply ignores the benefits of those values. He says nothing about the positive effects of America’s emphasis on individualism and autonomy — its robust democracy, its lack of a class system, its openness to immigrants, its strict separation of church and state, its innovative and entrepreneurial economy, its highly creative and productive popular culture, its strong protection of freedom of speech, and so on.

      • Posted February 16, 2013 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

        There is a great deal of truth in your examples but when visiting Europe I find far more agreement on the tenets of government. This is very telling because without a ground level agreement about why we have government and gov’s nature, little can be accomplished. Here, there is a delicate balance between centrifugal and centripetal forces. I think that that is a fair description of our (otherwise) great nation.

  33. Larry Cook
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 11:01 pm | Permalink

    Creationism 44 – Naturalist Evolution 14. Pretty obviously, religion is turning 44% of Americans away from evolution since Atheism and Creationism are by definition mutually exclusive. It’s hard to imagine anyone who is capable of scientific reasoning who can blame Atheism for American rejection of evolution. If I think too long about the convoluted logic used to conclude that, my head begins to spin around.

  34. Posted February 15, 2013 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    The test of hypothesis Hugges propose is one of nested models: Evolutionary Theory vs. Evolutionary Theory + God.

    Does adding God to the model give any additional predictive power? No, repetitively… therefore, we can be safe in saying “God actions are insignificant or, maybe, it just does not exist”.

    Those are not independent hypothesis with equal predictive power, they are nested hypothesis and the one with fewer parameters -the one without god- works at least as good as the other one (and arguably better). The hypothesis with fewer parameters should be chosen by any scientist!

  35. Vaal
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Ugh!

    Among the many points Hughes does not seem to understand:

    Most theists don’t believe in the metaphysical proposition “God exists” as some hermetically sealed concept. The God most monotheists believe had some guiding input SOMEWHERE during our “creation” and this is not compatible with evolution which explicitly posits the mechanisms involved. God is not one of the mechanisms. If you believe God was necessary at all, then you are not believing in the SCIENTIFIC theory of evolution.

    More important, the point that Prof. Coyne, everyone here and many public atheist keep making is this: It doesn’t matter that the proposition “God exists” could be logically compatible with (doesn’t directly contradict)
    the science of evolution, what matters is the incompatibility of the BELIEF IN GOD with BELIEF IN THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD.
    (Where “belief in the scientific method” equates to accepting the methods of science as a way of knowing the world).

    If you accept science, you are accepting a number of epistemological virtues that help decide where you ought to place confidence in a proposition, and where you ought not have confidence. Believing in a God for which there is no justifiable evidence, and believing it with disregard for all the variables you are not accounting for, is in contradiction with all the epistemological cautions one has accepted in order to justify science.

    Basically, saying belief in God and science aren’t in contradiction is like saying being irrational isn’t in contradiction with being rational.

    Vaal

    • derekw
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 8:59 am | Permalink

      what matters is the incompatibility of the BELIEF IN GOD with BELIEF IN THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD. (Where “belief in the scientific method” equates to accepting the methods of science as a way of knowing the world)
      Not true…Dawkins, Mr. Coyne other public atheists have stated (paraphrasing) if one could give them convincing evidence for god/supernatural they’d accept it. So belief in the scientific method doesn’t preclude belief in god…it would just arrive at the conclusion that naturalism would be insufficient for fully knowing all ‘truth.’ Scientists who are theists feel that the evidence is strong enough..atheists don’t.

      • Vaal
        Posted February 15, 2013 at 9:27 am | Permalink

        Yes, absolutely I think belief in a God is in principle justifiable IF it is done in concert with the scientific method. But we are talking of theism as it actually exists at this point and the claims by theists (and atheists) that someone can hold a belief in a God RIGHT NOW that isn’t in conflict with science. This is the claim we deny, which is why I wrote:

        “Believing in a God for which there is no justifiable evidence, and believing it with disregard for all the variables you are not accounting for, is in contradiction with all the epistemological cautions one has accepted in order to justify science.”

        Is it in principle possible that good evidence – of the type we recognize scientifically – may arise in the future for a Creator God? Sure. But that’s not the case now, and we are dealing with the claims that EXISTING theistic beliefs might be consonant with accepting science, which isn’t the case.

        Vaal

      • gluonspring
        Posted February 16, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        “Scientists who are theists feel that the evidence is strong enough”

        I bet they don’t. If they did, they’d present their evidence in Nature and win an award or something. What they feel is that their feelings are strong enough to believe in the face of the lack of evidence. OK. But, they aren’t wearing their science hats when they do that.

  36. Catherine
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Oy another South Carolinian upset about the Utter Incivility of not having an a priori assumption of god. That is not proper Southern behavior! This is still a state where when introduced to someone in the neighborhood, the next question is “What churchayou go to?” It’s hard to break through here..as you said, the unfortunate adjective of “benighted” comes to mind at times….but I am a recent transplant here, and I will do my best. Thank you so much for visiting, sorry about the grouchy old white men who can’t see past their privilege.

  37. Posted February 16, 2013 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Can it be true that one is better measured by enemies than friends? (Both meanings apply.)


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