Chris Mooney hasn’t been on my radar screen for a long time, and I thank Ceiling Cat for that. But I gather that he’s still busy “framing,” at least judging from his new piece in Mother Jones, “7 reasons why it’s easier for humans to believe in God than evolution.” We could quibble about using the word “believe” with respect to evolution—many of us prefer “accept”—but let’s not quibble. What is distressing about Mooney’s piece is its weaselly avoidance of the real problem: rejection of evolution in America—and elsewhere—is due almost entirely to embracing religion. As I often say, you can have religions without creationism, but you never have creationism without religion. (I know in fact of only one nonreligious creationist—David Berlinski—although there are surely a few more.)
Mooney has historically been an accommodationist, athough once he was a pretty vociferous atheist. Then, along with Matt Nisbet, he discovered “framing,” and decided that—along with the National Center for Science Education, the National Academies of Science, and other accommodationist groups—that you couldn’t sell evolution to the American public if you either touted atheism or blamed creationism on religion. No, we must at all costs avoid raising the hackles of the faithful, for they are as little children: if they sense that their faith is attacked, they become completely immunized to Darwin.
But of course creationism is one of the smallest problems created by religion, and at any rate if we really want creationism out of our schools and our country, we must first weaken the grip of those religions that reject Darwinism. (And don’t be fooled by thinking that only fundamentalists are creationists. Although the Catholic Church officially endorses evolution, it’s a form of theistic, God-guided evolution claiming that God inserted a soul into the hominin lineage. Further, fully 27% of Catholics are young-earth creationists, rejecting Church doctrine on this issue.)
Over at Sandwalk, Larry Moran took Mooney’s piece apart on the same grounds: Mooney’s avoidance of religion, but I’ll add my two cents.
Although Mooney opposes evolution and religion in his title, he will claim (see below) that they’re still compatible. And he’s not suggesting in that title that belief in God promotes rejection of evolution, even though that’s the fact of the matter, a fact one can glean from Mooney’s analysis. What he’s suggesting is, in fact, that humans have hard-wired psychological traits that prevent them from accepting evolution. Although it’s not a coincidence that many of these features are those that promote religion, Mooney doesn’t emphasize that conclusion.
We already know why embracing a theistic religion, especially an Abrahamic one, makes evolution repugnant. Here’s a list of reasons that came to mind just as I wrote this:
- Evolution shows that humans aren’t special since we evolved by the same processes as all other species.
- Evolution doesn’t give any evidence for special, non-materialistic aspects of human mentality, e.g., the soul.
- Evolution is a purely materialistic and naturalistic process, not requiring God’s intervention.
- Evolution suggests that at least some of human morality is evolved, and is certainly not given by God. That makes people think that if we’re just beasts, we should “behave like beasts.”
- The fact of evolution definitively shows that the creation story of Genesis is a fiction, casting doubt on many other claims of Scripture.
- The mechanism of adaptive evolution, natural selection, is harsh and cruel. That doesn’t comport with a loving and omnipotent God.
There are other reasons, of course, but I’ll let that list stand. In effect, the faithful find evolution odious because it removes the specialness of humans vouchsafed us by scripture, and also removes a God-given basis for morality.
Well, you won’t arrive at those conclusions, at least in that blatant form, from Mooney’s piece. Instead, he suggests the following seven features of human psychology make us resistant to the truth of evolution. (The characterization of each feature is mine, not Mooney’s.):
- Biological essentialism. If we think of species as “essences”, that makes it hard to see how one species could evolve into another.
- Teleological thinking. We tend to think of processes as having purposes, and purpose implies an intelligence behind it. That, according to Mooney, makes people less favorable toward purposeless evolution and more disposed towards purpose-driven theories like Intelligent Design.
- Overactive agency detection. This is the notion, proposed by Pascal Boyer and others, that we tend to see an agency behind natural features like lightning and disease. Ergo we see an agency behind evolution, so that even if we accept evolutionary change, we think that God guided it. It is in fact true that more than twice as many people who accept evolution accept a theistic as opposed to a naturalistic form of evolution.
- Dualism. A distinction between mind and body not only promotes belief in God, but also direct resistance to evolution, for the latter process can’t explain how we get a soul.
- Inability to comprehend vast time scales. This causes us to resist evolution because we can’t comprehend how much change could occur over such vast time spans. We are unable to see that tiny changes over such spans can add up to big evolutionary changes—in both morphology and numbers of species.
- Group morality and tribalism. Here Mooney does mention religion, arguing that our (probably evolved) tendency to live in interactive social groups makes us fear anything that could dissolve those groups. In the case of religious groups, the solvent would be evolution (Mooney mentions only “fundamentalist Christianity,” but of course many, many Americans who are not Biblical fundamentalists still reject evolution (see the reference at bottom).
- Fear and the need for certainty. Again, Mooney connects religiosity with evolution, but does it by saying that religion arises as a solution to fear and doubt, and we tend to reject those factors, including evolution, that reawaken our doubts).
What Mooney has done, then, is to list psychological tendencies that promote the rejection of evolution. He also emphasizes, rightly, that religion itself may not be an evolved phenomenon, but a byproduct of some other adaptive psychological traits. What he doesn’t emphasize is that many of these psychological tendencies are those that promote religion, and then religion promotes rejection of evolution. That message can be gleaned from his list, but he tiptoes around it. It’s no coincidence that the traits that promote rejection of evolution promote acceptance of religion.
And, at the end, Mooney undermines the whole religious issue by listing a “few caveats,” especially this one:
Such is the research, and it’s important to point out a few caveats. First, this doesn’t mean science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. The conflict may run very deep indeed, but nevertheless, some individuals can and do find a way to retain their religious beliefs and also accept evolution—including the aforementioned biology textbook author Kenneth Miller of Brown University, a Catholic.
So after he says that there is a deep conflict between science and religion, he backtracks and says that maybe there isn’t, really, because people like Ken Miller can accept both science and religion. That is infuriating. Mooney has been an accommodationist for a long time, but apparently hasn’t listened to the rebuttals of the “some scientists are religious” argument for compatibility. (He’s heard that rebuttal a lot; I mentioned it in a review of his book that I published in Science.) Mooney might as well say, “The conflict between Catholicism and child rape may run very deep indeed, but nevertheless, some individuals can and do find a way to be both a Catholic and a child rapist, including Angel Perez, a Catholic priest.”
Why does Mooney come so close to indicting religion but then backs away at the last minute? It’s “framing,” of course. Unless he’s a total fool, which he isn’t, he knows that religion is the proximate cause of creationism, and that the battle against religious theories of biology won’t end until religion backs off. He also knows that the incompatibility between science and religion, based on their different ways of perceiving “truth,” is a real one, and is not resolved by pointing out some scientists who are religious. Ceiling Cat knows, Mooney’s commenters have told him this dozens of times.
But Mooney wants to be perceived as religion-friendly, and has the misguided idea that by coddling faith, he’ll make it easier for the faithful to have their Jesus and Darwin, too. This misguided tactic has become so common that I’m going to name the “The BioLogos Fallacy.” It just doesn’t work.
Finally, as Larry Moran points out, if resistance to evolution is hard-wired, it’s not so hard-wired that it can’t be changed over a relatively short period of time. The people of northern Europe, for instance, don’t seem to have much trouble accepting evolution Larry gives a bar chart from Science showing how America is next to last on a list of 34 countries surveyed for acceptance of human evolution. (It runs 75% or higher in countries like France, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and Japan, but only 40% in the U.S., next lowest to Turkey, which has 27% acceptance. In fact, if you include “naturalistic” rather than God-guided evolution, the US figure would drop to about 15%.) Presumably the French, Japanese, and Scandinavians share the same psychological traits of humans (evolved or otherwise) listed by Mooney.
There is a strong negative correlation among both countries and US states between religiosity and acceptance of evolution; here are data from 34 countries that I compiled in a paper published in Evolution last year. Of course a correlation doesn’t prove causation, but in this case I think one can make a strong case that if there is causation here, it’s that belief in God that confers rejection of evolution (see discussion in my paper). Why is there such a difference in religiosity among countries? I discuss that in the paper, too, and argue, based on sociological data, that the most religious countries are the most dysfunctional ones, and dysfunctionality of a society makes its inhabitants more religious.
The paper is free, and you can read it at the link below. I must say that I experienced a bit of resistance publishing it. It was an invited submission because, as president of the Society for the Study of Evolution, I get a “free” slot in the journal, but I insisted on having my contribution refereed so that I could publish an indictment of religion as a cause of creationism and say it was peer-reviewed, which it was. Religiosity is an obvious cause of creationism, yet people like Mooney are so resistant to hearing that simple fact that they avoid mentionng it at all costs. Such is the nature of religion in America, which must never be criticized, even for obvious transactions. In fact, one of the three reviewers of my paper noted that he/she liked the paper and agreed with my analysis, but was worried about what would happen if its “antireligious” message was published. That reminded me of the old (and probably apocryphal) story of the bishop’s wife:
On hearing, one June afternoon in 1860, the suggestion that mankind was descended from the apes, the wife of the Bishop of Worcester is said to have exclaimed, ‘My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.’
Yes, the antievolutionism of Americans is a direct result of their high religiosity, but people like Mooney try to ensure that this does not become generally known.
Coyne, J. A. 2012. Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America. Evolution 66:2654-2663.