UPDATE: Victor Stenger has just published a response to Tegmark at HuffPo, emphasizing the nonscientific attitude of the Catholic church toward evolution.
I found a curious article at HuffPo (where else?) about why there isn’t really a conflict between evolution and religion. The piece is by Max Tegmark, a Swedish physicist who is now a professor at MIT, and is called “Celebrating Darwin: religion and science are closer than you think”. Closer than who thinks?, I wondered. It turns out that the piece gives a grossly distorted view of how compatible Americans consider evolution and faith to be.
Besides his activities as a cosmologist, Tegmark is also the founder of the MIT Survey on Science, Origins, and Religion. And it’s this project, claims Tegmark, that shows how Americans grossly overestimate the conflict between science and faith. Tegmark notes:
We found that only 11 percent of Americans belong to religions openly rejecting evolution or our Big Bang. So if someone you know has the same stressful predicament as my student, chances are that they can relax as well. To find out for sure, check out this infographic.
So is there a conflict between science and religion? The religious organizations representing most Americans clearly don’t think so. Interestingly, the science organizations representing most American scientists don’t think so either: For example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science states that science and religion “live together quite comfortably, including in the minds of many scientists.” This shows that the main divide in the U.S. origins debate isn’t between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.
Well, right off the bat you see the problem here: Tegmark is taking as his criterion of conflict the official positions of scientific bodies and churches rather than that of scientists or believers themselves. For instance, as I documented in my recent paper in Evolution, while the official position of the National Academy of Sciences is that there is no conflict between science and faith, 93% of the members of that Academy—the most elite body of scientists in America—are atheists or agnostics. As for scientists as a whole, I noted that:
“While only 6% of the American public describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, 64% of scientists at “elite” American universities fall into these classes (Ecklund 2010; similar results were found by Larson and Witham 1997).”
And take a look at these figures from a 2009 Pew Survey:
No conflict? Why is atheism among scientists tenfold more common than among the American public, and even higher among scientists at more elite universities or those who are members of more elite organizations? The answer surely involves atheists going into science more often, but almost certainly the main reason for the discrepancy is simply that practicing science erodes one’s religious belief. I needn’t explain why in this forum.
What about the believers? Tegmark claims that among these folks the conflict isn’t between science and faith, but between a “fundamentalist minority” and mainstream accommodationists. Here he is simply wrong. His error comes from his taking as his view of the “mainstream” to be the official statements of churches, not the beliefs of their adherents:
So why is this small fundamentalist minority so influential? How can some politicians and school-board members get reelected even after claiming that our 14 billion-year-old universe might be only about 6,000 years old? That’s like claiming that 90-year-old aunt is only 20 minutes old. It’s tantamount to claiming that if you watch this video of a supernova explosion in the Centaurus A Galaxy about 10 million light-years away, you’re seeing something that never happened, because light from the explosion needs 10 million years to reach Earth. Why isn’t making such claims political suicide?
Part of the explanation may be a striking gap between Americans’ personal beliefs and the official views of the faiths to which they belong. Whereas only 11 percent belong to religions openly rejecting evolution, Gallup reports that 46 percent believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago. Why is this “belief gap” so large? Interestingly, this isn’t the only belief gap surrounding a science-religion controversy: whereas 0 percent of Americans belong to religions arguing that the Sun revolves around Earth, Gallup reports that as many as 18 percent nonetheless believe in this theory that used to be popular during the Middle Ages. This suggests that the belief gaps may have less to do with intellectual disputes and more to do with an epic failure of science education.
What? A failure of science education? That’s crazy, for although there is some correlation among Americans between level of education and acceptance of evolution, the main obstacle to accepting evolution, as I document in my paper (link above) is religion. I have met many intelligent people who reject evolution, but I’ve never met a single creationist whose views aren’t impelled directly by faith. As for the fact that we no longer believe in a earth-centered solar system, but still reject evolution, that’s because a heliocentric solar system doesn’t pose nearly the problems for our self-image, and our view of meaning, purpose and morality, that evolution does. If it were merely a matter of education, there would be as few American believers in creationism as in an earth-centered solar system or a flat earth.
Tegmark gives this graph to show the comity of science and faith:
Look at that deceptive figure: NO conflict between Catholicism and evolution, or between Methodists and evolution! (You can click on the original to see official statements by the organizations approving of evolution.) But that’s specious, and Tegmark knows it. Instead of looking at the official positions of churches, let’s look at the statistics on members of churches. The blue bars show the proportions of adherents to each faith who are young-earth creationists:
Those Catholics, then? Yes, Tegmark’s graph shows NO conflict between faith and evolution if you look at the official position of the church, but 27% of Catholics are young-earth creationists, compared to 31% of the American public as a whole. Another 25% of Catholics think that God guided evolution (indeed, that is the official position of the church, since God supposedly inserted a soul in the human lineage), and only 33% of them accept evolution as a naturalistic process—the truly scientific position. Theistic evolution is not a view that is in harmony with science.
What about “Mainline Protestants”? According to Tegmark’s graph there is nearly 100% comity, but only 32% of them take a truly scientific position on evolution, 26% are young-earth creationists, and 26% theistic evolutionists.
What we have here is not a failure of education, but (à la “Cool Hand Luke”) a failure to communicate: that is, Tegmark’s failure to deal with the statistics of individuals and not just organizations.
And here is how the American public perceives the conflict between religion and science as a whole, again taken from the Pew survey:
55% of the public, 53% of Catholics, and 54% of mainline Protestants see religion and science as “often in conflict”, and the figures are 38%, 44%, and 32% respectively when people are asked whether science conflicts with people’s own faith. Of course, the figures for perceiving conflict are higher (68%) for the religiously unaffiliated, and lower (16%) for conflict with one’s own faith—i.e., lack of faith.
The picture painted here, and in my Evolution paper, is that creationism in America is almost wholly a problem of America’s religiosity, not America’s lack of science education. How else can we explain that we are at the bottom of first world countries in accepting evolution, but around the middle in our level of education?
It baffles me sometimes that people cannot see this simple point, and my only explanation is that Americans are so eager to coddle religion, and so unwilling to criticize it in the merest way, that they won’t even admit that creationism is a problem of religion. And I am infuriated at Tegmark’s distortion of the data (using official church positions rather than the beliefs of the faithful) to pretend that the problem is one not of religion, but of education. He is thus able to arrive at the classic accomodationist conclusion:
I feel that people bent on science-religion conflict are picking the wrong battle. The real battle is against the daunting challenges facing the future of humanity, and regardless of our religious views, we’re all better off fighting this battle united.
But with whom, Dr. Tegmark, am I to be united? Those 58% of Catholics and Mainline Protestants who are either theistic evolutionists or young-earth creationists? Sorry, but I don’t make common cause with those who think that God guided evolution, or gave humans our special souls.
Tegmark can massage the figures any way he wants, but the problem remains religion, religion, and religion. We would not have creationism if there were no religion, even if the present educational system were to remain the same. Yes, we do need better schools, and better education in biology, and that will make a difference in accepting evolution, but only a marginal one. After having gone around the country promoting and discussing my book—a book that does educate people, that does give them the unassailable evidence for evolution—I see the universal resistance to my message produced by the brainwashing of Americans by faith.
Science education is not nearly enough. We have indeed picked the right battle, and it’s against religion.