Natalie Angier on her God problem

Perhaps the most eloquent critique of accomodationism available is “My God Problem“, an essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier. (It’s on the Edge website, and the piece proper begins after the “Introduction”).

When researching her book The Canon, a tour of all the sciences, Angier was dismayed to see how many scientists, though nonbelievers themselves, soft-pedal religion to keep their necks (and grants) intact. And this despite the fact that scientists have no compunction about vigorously criticizing other forms of superstition. The essay embodies her dismay.

Many of you have probably read it, but if you haven’t you must—immediately.  It’s pretty short, and full of snark, humor, and truth. It originally appeared eight years ago in The American Scholar, the magazine of the Phi Beta Kappa academic fraternity.

I’ll give you just a few excerpts. I love this piece.

So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more—that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry. You, the religious believer, may well find subtle support for your faith in recent discoveries—that is, if you’re willing to upgrade your metaphors and definitions as the latest data demand, seek out new niches of ignorance or ambiguity to fill with the goose down of faith, and accept that, certain passages of the Old Testament notwithstanding, the world is very old, not everything in nature was made in a week, and (can you turn up the mike here, please?) Evolution Happens.

. . . So why is it that most scientists avoid criticizing religion even as they decry the supernatural mind-set? For starters, some researchers are themselves traditionally devout, keeping a kosher kitchen or taking Communion each Sunday. I admit I’m surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph. D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like “Resurrection from the Dead,” and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn’t the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?

There’s a lot more, and the ending is great.

58 Comments

  1. truthspeaker
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    subscribing

    • Cruella deVille
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      Angier wrote her article in 2004, and it appears the situation is worsening:

      http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2012/06/devolving-by-davidoatkins.html

      To save you the click, the latest Gallup shows that:

      - The percentage of Americans who think that “God created humans in present form” has spiked to 46% (from 42% a year ago).

      - The percentage of Americans who think that “Humans evolved, with God guiding” dropped to 32%, the lowest in 30 years.

      - The percentage of Americans who think that “Humans evolved, but God had no part in the process” is 15%, marginally higher than a year ago but significantly higher than 30 years ago (9%).

      We do not appear to be making progress.

      • Cruella deVille
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

        ETA: I should correct to say “we are making SOME progress,” if we look only at the % who think that God had no part. The first two numbers are the dispiriting ones.

        BTW, I love how Gallup just can’t get “God” out of even their godless option.

      • DV
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        Both the creationists and the atheists are taking from the theistic evolutionists’ camp. It seems to me that theistic evolution is not a stable proposition – their numbers will continue to dwindle and seep over to the other two camps when their members being applying consistent logic. It’s a race where they will end up, and the contest depends on whether they use bad premises our sound premises.

  2. Kevin
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Gee whiz, how is it that I had never heard of The Canon before today?

    Natalie Angier is a terrific writer.

    • Neil
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:18 am | Permalink

      I love The Canon. Not only did I learn something about fields I do not follow, like chemistry, but her elegant and witty style is consistent throughout the book.

      • Greg Peterson
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:39 am | Permalink

        Neil, I’m not really disagreeing with you, but I found “The Canon” exhausting to read. What works so incredibly well in her essay-length prose–the sparkling wit and wondrous cleverness–turns out to be too much of a good thing in longer forms. My wit-sensor has a refractory period, too, it seems, and she wore mine the hell out.

        Having said that…in general, I will take her science writing over just about anyone’s, with the possible exception of Carl Zimmer, who manages to be engaging and informative at the level I can understand, and while more understated than Angier, still highly entertaining.

        • JT
          Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          You should try Simon Singh, who, in my opinion, is at least as engaging as Carl Zimmer. But yeah, I agree with you about Zimmer, he’s great.

        • Neil
          Posted June 8, 2012 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

          I don’t describe it as light reading. In fact, I had to read it twice. Angier writes serious science.

      • bad Jim
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

        I thought her “Woman, an Intimate Geography” was great, with the caveats that a) I don’t share that anatomy, which puts me in a poor position to judge, b) it needed illustrations, not withstanding her vivid description, and c) it requires patience. I started with the chapter on popular versions of evolutionary psychology, anticipating a quick and bloody kill, and at first was impatient as she sliced and diced and marinated and grilled and thoroughly masticated the subject.

  3. Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Safe to say, she gets it.

    On a scale of absurd to insane, creationism is at the one end and wrathful zombie worship at the other…and it’s the latter we really have to worry about.

    b&

  4. ManOutOfTime
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Wow! “Spockian eyebrow of doubt” indeed … ! JC is right – the punchline at the end is awesome!

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      Wonderful! You picked up the same beautiful pebble as me to quote but there are other lovely metaphors on the beach.

      Truly, today is a good one.

  5. denniskeane
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Read the essay.

    That was awesome!

  6. matt
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:49 am | Permalink

    brilliant writing here. thanks, for digging this up and sharing it!

  7. Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    WOW! Excellent piece.

  8. edward hessler
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Thank you for reminding me of this essay. It has been a while since I read it and I’m embarrassed that I’d forgotten about it. It is one of those glorious essays that deserves a re-read every now and then.And it needs to be widely shared. There is also another reason for reading it, too: to be in the presence of a world-class writer. I loved your description : snarky, humorous and truth to which I’d add intelligence. Again, my appreciation.

    • Christian
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Seconded.
      I also remember reading this essay some time ago but then forgetting about it, which is a pitty since it definitely needs to be reposted more often.

  9. Christian
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    I think Dr. Kornreich needs to read more about Sophisticated Astrology ;)

    • denniskeane
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink

      Ha!

    • Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      Good point. Let me try my hand at offering some, in the spirit of a certain sophisticated theistic evolutionist:

      Certainly we do not actually view the positions of planets against the backdrop of constellations in the same way as the ancients did. Science has given us a more accurate understanding of all the mechanics behind astrology. Yet all too many scientists fall into the trap of discarding astrology’s ancient wisdom simply because they “know better” about elliptical orbits and the configurations of other stars in our corner of the Milky Way.

      Scientism tries to extend its knowledge of Newtonian (and now, Einsteinian) motion into the astrological field, despite the astronomers having no astrological training. Without it, however, how can they hope to appreciate the urgent, other-than-mechanical drama of human affairs portended, for example, by Mars being in conjunction with Orion’s belt? The orbits and appearances of the stars and planets are not “merely” mechanical and positional, but astrological, too, once the crass limitations of scientism are put aside.

      Etc. etc. etc., until sufficient pages have been this filled to warrant the next Templeton grant…

      • jwthomas
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        Um…the constellation Orion is not in the Zodiac and therefore Mars can not be in its belt, much less any place more intimate. Not that such an error would cost anyone their Templeton, but basic astrological correctness looks more professional.

  10. FastLane
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    I loved this paragraph:

    I may be an atheist, and I may be impressed that, through the stepwise rigor of science, its Spockian eyebrow of doubt always cocked, we have learned so much about the universe. Yet I recognize that, from there to here, and here to there, funny things are everywhere. Why is there so much dark matter and dark energy in the great Out There, and why couldn’t cosmologists have given them different enough names so I could keep them straight? Why is there something rather than nothing, and why is so much of it on my desk? Not to mention the abiding mysteries of e-mail, like why I get exponentially more spam every day, nine-tenths of it invitations to enlarge an appendage I don’t have.

    And yes, the ending was great. Thanks for pointing it out!

  11. Tim
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    I too read this years ago, but I immensely enjoyed reading it again. I love the humorous asides and snark.

    I checked out the Amazon reviews and The Canon doesn’t seem to be all that popular. For once, I could see how the 1-star reviewers might have a point. Angier’s style is perfect for the essay format, but quite a few readers found it to be grating when extended over an entire book.

    • Posted June 8, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

      Exactly my feeling, and that of Steven Pinker in his review of The Canon. Her style is great for a short essay but becomes tedious in a book where her constant reaching for witty puns becomes tiring. But I loved her My God Problem article and have read it more than once.

      • DV
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        I wonder how her book compares to Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I enjoyed Bryson’s book – it was a fascinating tour of what we know from Science, without an excess of witticisms.

        • Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

          I second the recommendation of Bill Bryson’s book. Reminded me a bit of John McPhee’s great writing.

        • HaggisForBrains
          Posted June 10, 2012 at 3:25 am | Permalink

          +1

  12. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    “Doesn’t the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?”

    Oh, wow, yeah. L

  13. Cathy
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Loved it! Some wonderful LOL moments in a piece that’s deadly serious about the effects of science accommodating religion. Probably some lessons here about the effectiveness of writing with sharp, well-place wit. “How can a bench-hazed Ph. D., who might in an afternoon deftly purée a colleague’s PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like ‘Resurrection from the Dead,’ and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn’t the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?”

    • KP
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      That’s my favorite part too.

  14. Sastra
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Yes, I love this essay. She really captures the switch in tone, method, rigor, and curiosity which seems to occur whenever someone who values “faith” hits some fact claim they think falls within its domain.

    It becomes like you’re dealing with small children — or that you are the small child yourself. Instead of a hypothesis or proposed explanation which ought to be taken seriously on its merits, suddenly “dis is sumpthin vewwey vewwy important to me.” Awwwww okay. In that case it’s like when you know your mommy loves you but you can’t prove it — or when you feel how pretty the rainbow is and want to say Thank You. That’s so sweet. Nobody is going to try to take this away from you. I don’t want anyone to lose this emotional capacity.

    If they weren’t the majority, in power, and contemptuous of those who don’t (won’t!) believe, it might almost be a bit sad.

    By the way, people who believe in astrology often do so as part of their “spiritual world view.” The cosmos is interconnected through an underlying cause and effect of morals and meaning. In areas where these people make up enough critical mass – or where people are trying to be especially sensitive to not insulting “faith” — the belief in astrology is tip-toed around delicately, too.

    • Christian
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

      In areas where these people make up enough critical mass…

      Like India, for instance. I’d bet dollars to donuts that the accommodationism towards astrology is on the same level as it is in the US towards religion.

      • truthspeaker
        Posted June 8, 2012 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

        Or numerology in China, or even in communities of people of Chinese descent in other countries.

  15. emmageraln
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on emmageraln.

  16. Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    For years, I subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer magazine. In all those years (and last I checked), they had a hands-off policy toward mainstream religion — the elephant in the room — while skewering non-religious nonsense in every issue. I stopped subscribing, largely because of that double standard.

    • jay
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      They had a split personality, Free Inquiry for athiesm,SI for all else.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted June 9, 2012 at 12:34 am | Permalink

      Why didn’t you just subscribe to Skeptical Inquirer AND Free Inquiry?

      • Posted June 9, 2012 at 4:37 am | Permalink

        But that’s my point (and Angier’s point too). Why have separate magazines? Why enshrine the false notion that mainstream religion belongs in a different category than astrology?

  17. Ken Pidcock
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    I’ve long admired My God Problem. It helps to be reminded of our hypocrisy in going after various strains of woo while carefully standing back from religion.

    Somewhere else on the Edge site is a conversation Angier had with David Sloan Wilson.

  18. Diane L
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    Enjoyed this so much and now downloading 2 of her books – The Canon and Woman. Also read the debate at the same site with David Sloan Wilson. The contrast in clarity is striking. Thanks for this!

  19. jay
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Amen Sister Angier!
    Excellent and incisive. Should be required reading.
    Sometimes I wonder about the intellectual cowardice of people who should know better.

  20. KP
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Printed that off some time ago and always keep it nearby. I also send it to anyone who needs to understand why I gave up on accommodationism.

  21. mikespeir
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I had never head of Natalie Angier, and I like her. :-)

  22. Posted June 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Looks like I’ve found yet another book to add to my ever growing list of ‘must read before I die’.
    Thanks

  23. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    What do you know, that was on my “to read” list. Duly read and checked.

    Strong ending!

  24. Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Funny, I keep reading her name as Natalie Angrier.

    Book duly snagged and on the top of the pile…

  25. Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    We just got kicked out of a Linked In Science Writers discussion group for posting the young earth believer numbers.

    So much for journalistic integrity when it comes to pandering to magical beliefs.

  26. Don
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Natalie Angier wrote the NY Times review of Harris’s THE END OF FAITH in 2004. It’s worth reading.

    Her excellent exploration of femininity, WOMEN: AN INTIMATE GEOGRAPHY, is really a must-read for every young (and older) woman.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/05/books/review/05ANGIERL.html

  27. articulett
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I just want to say I love this piece to and have linked it often.

  28. abrotherhoodofman
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Many of you have probably read it, but if you haven’t you must—immediately.

    Is homework now being assigned on WEIT?

    Oh, very well. (Strident atheist professors.)

  29. jose
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Great read thanks for the link. It’s about power. A crazy rich man isn’t crazy, it’s adorable. Devoid religion of power and everybody sees it as it is – a bunch of superstition not unlike the fear of black cats. It becomes as easy to attack as Uri Geller. But how?

    The problem is religion in America is grassroots (as opposed to the unashamedly top-down European model which is based on deals the Vatican makes with the different governments). It’s a community thing. Your pastor is also your friend and your neighbor. Very different. If people don’t care about religion, they will see openly religious politicians as nutty and won’t vote for them, which in turn will gradually weaken the link between the vatican and the governments. That has been happening in the last decades. But in America they do care because religion doesn’t come from the top but from their equals, there’s identity and belonging involved, so the problem self-perpetuates.

  30. Kevin
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 3:25 am | Permalink

    Materialists should also decry the practise of law, given the apparent incompatibility of moral responsibility with the selfish gene theory.

    Theistic scientists, on the other hand, would disagree with an empirical conclusion that something can come from nothing, or with the use of inductive reasoning to infer a historical impossibility rather than improbability.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Poe?

      “Theistic scientist” is an oxymoron, I think you mean “part time theist, part time scientist”.

  31. Posted June 9, 2012 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    We are of course dependent on the granting system and that is a powerful reason for the accommodationism of the scientific establishment in the USA. Artists and musicians, as well as many scientists, need to have day jobs for the most part. It is only the elite of the elite who can make a good living as singers or trumpet players, painters or sculptors. Was it Mencken who called America a boobocracy? Or did he just denounce the “booboisie?” Textbooks of biology tread lightly here too. Not quite done, to rub students’ noses in the implications of evolution.

    I am guilty too. I wrote a piece on the current debate about science vs religion, partly inspired by what I have been reading on this site: http://wp.me/p20XCb-40

  32. Stonyground
    Posted June 9, 2012 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    This is a wonderful essay, many thanks for linking to it.


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