In a post last week called “A specious argument for the comity of evolution and faith,” I discussed a misleading HuffPo piece by Max Tegmark, an MIT physicist who claimed that although many American reject evolution, the official positions of their churches often don’t. On that basis he made this claim:
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.
On the same day that Tegmark’s piece was published (Darwin Day!), the stalwart Victor Stenger responded at HuffPo, noting that most evolution-friendly churches, especially Catholicism, accept theistic evolution, which is usually not scientific evolution. (The conflation of theistic evolution with naturalistic evolution as the latter is accepted by scientists, and taught in science classes, annoys me no end. Scientists don’t posit that evolution is guided by God, and there’s no evidence for that guidance.)
Tegmark never learned the first lesson of posting on a blog (yes, his site is a blog): never respond to your critics, for it just makes things worse. And so he’s just put up at HuffPo a whiny response to all those strident, misguided atheists who criticized his argument: “Religion, science, and the attack of the angry atheists“. It’s a self-pitying diatribe against the opprobrium that he got from atheists and fellow scientists—opprobrium he claims was expected from religious people, but not from us. Here’s part of Tegmark’s response to the “angry atheists,” whom he sees as harmful in three ways (indented parts are Tegmarks’s). I was struck at how poorly written Tegmark’s piece was: it was obviously a thrown-together and reflexive response, one that does him no credit. Here are our sins:
1) They [“angry atheists’] help religious fundamentalists.
Tegmark thinks that because more Americans reject evolution than do their churches, pro-evolution scientists should play up the harmony between official church positions and evolution, and not harp on the widespread rejection of evolution by the faithful (indeed, that’s the goal of the ineffectual Clergy Letter Project). That’s worked really well, hasn’t it? Catholicism is a prime example of how easy it is for members of a church to completely ignore its dogma.
I quote the next part in its entirety, as its incoherence is almost funny. (By the way, every time you hear the words “humility” and “modesty” coming from an accommodationist, prepare to grate your teeth.)
2) They could use more modesty:
If I’ve learned anything as a physicist, it’s how little we know with certainty. In terms of the ultimate nature of reality, we scientists are ontologically ignorant. For example, many respected physicists believe in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which a fundamentally random process called “wavefunction collapse” occurs whenever you observe something. This interpretation has been criticized both for being anthropocentric (quantum godfather Niels Bohr famously argued that there’s no reality without observation) and for being vague (there’s no equation specifying when the purported collapse is supposed to happen, and there’s arguably no experimental evidence for it).
Let’s compare the ontological views of Niels Bohr to those of a moderate and tolerant religious person. At least one of them is incorrect, since Bohr was an atheist. Perhaps neither is correct. But who’s to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted? Personally, I’d bet good money against the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it would be absurd if I couldn’t be friends with those believing its ontology and unite with them in the quest to make our planet a better place.
What the bloody hell does that mean? Because Bohr (who did not win the Nobel Prize for the Copenhagen Interpretation, but for studying the structure of atoms and its relationship to quantum phenomena) had a view of what quantum mechanics meant, that makes his view equivalent to the superstition of “a moderate and tolerant religious person”? I don’t see the Copenhagen Interpretation as in any way equivalent to religious superstition; for one thing, it is subject to some experimental verification (e.g., Bell’s inequality), it is not accepted on faith (that’s why it’s controversial) and, most important, it doesn’t make its adherents do things like instill guilt in children or denigrate gays. One is not enabling bad stuff by befriending someone who accepts the Copenhagen Interpretation.
3) They should practice what they preach:
Most atheists advocate for replacing fundamentalism, superstition and intolerance by careful and thoughtful scientific discourse. Yet after we posted our survey report, ad hominem attacks abounded, and most of the caustic comments I got (including one from a fellow physics professor) revealed that their authors hadn’t even bothered reading the report they were criticizing.
Just as it would be unfair to blame all religious people for what some fundamentalists do, I’m obviously not implying that all anti-religious people are mean-spirited or intolerant. However, I can’t help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.
Yes, here again we see the false equation between atheists and fundamentalists. Someone should invent a name for this fallacy (can readers suggest one?).
Since when has a tenet of atheism been that one can’t be passionate in one’s views? Given that our job is to fight entrenched superstition, passion is one of our most powerful weapons. I, for one, claim that I not only read Tegmark’s piece carefully, but responded without making ad hominem remarks. Does that make my “debating style” identical to that of, say, William Lane Craig?
Perhaps some atheists or scientists did make such remarks, but isn’t it curious that Tegmark doesn’t give any examples? In the end, his “response” is just silly, and the fallacy of his original argument—saying that America is more evolution-friendly than we think because many churches support evolution (theistic or not)—still stands.
As a palliative, read Victor Stenger’s newest piece, which went up yesterday at HuffPo: “Science and religion cannot be reconciled”, based on his 2012 book God and the Folly of Faith. Perhaps it (and my blurb for his book and piece) are preaching to the choir here, but it’s heartening to know that there’s a stentorian voice out there tellling HuffPo readers the unwelcome truth. Stenger doesn’t mention Tegmark’s articles, so it’s not a “rebuttal” in that sense, but a rebuttal of Tegmark’s message of science/faith harmony. The truths Stenger imparts include these:
Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies — the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. Science is the systematic study of the observations made of the natural world with our senses and scientific instruments.
By contrast, all major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the visible world — a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural. If it does not involve the transcendent, it is not religion.
No doubt science has its limits. However, that fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits.
Most of the scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science as they are currently practiced exclude supernatural causes. However, if we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means.
If someone’s inner sense were to warn of an impending earthquake unpredicted by science, which then occurred on schedule, we would have evidence for this extrasensory source of knowledge. Claims of “divine prophecies” have been made throughout history, but not one has been conclusively confirmed.
So far we see no evidence that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads, and have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. However, if such evidence or reason should show up, then scientists will have to consider it whether they like it or not.
From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today as religious groups are manipulated to work against believers’ own best interests in health and economic well-being in order to cast doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed world-views of science and religion. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.
My name is Jerry Coyne and I approve of that message.