David Barash on the incompatibility of science and faith

As I mentioned two posts ago, David Barash, a biologist at the University of Washington who works on animal behavior and evolution, has a post in today’s New York Times, “God, Darwin, and my college biology class.”  It’s basically an argument for the incompatibility of science and religion, and I like it a lot, not the least because I agree with him 100%.

But there’s one thing about his piece that bothers me: Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university. But first let’s back up and see what he says.

Barash discovered that a lot of his students aren’t comfortable with evolution because it contravenes their religious beliefs. He thought that, as his course progressed, the facts would win out and the discomfort would dissolve. It didn’t. Therefore, Barash decided to have what he calls “The Talk” with his students, telling them directly how evolution clashes with religion.  In The Talk, he considers and then discards Steve Gould’s NOMA gambit (see two posts back), an argument claiming that science and religion each have important and non-overlapping roles to play, the former in ascertaining facts about the universe, the latter in arbitrating meanings, morals, and values. Barash:

There are a few ways to talk about evolution and religion, I begin. The least controversial is to suggest that they are in fact compatible. Stephen Jay Gould called them “nonoverlapping magisteria,” noma for short, with the former concerned with values and the latter with facts. He and I disagreed on this (in public and, at least once, rather loudly); he claimed I was aggressively forcing a painful and unnecessary choice, while I maintained that in his eagerness to be accommodating, he was misrepresenting both science and religion.

In some ways, Steve has been winning. Noma is the received wisdom in the scientific establishment, including institutions like the National Center for Science Education [NCSE], which has done much heavy lifting when it comes to promoting public understanding and acceptance of evolution. According to this expansive view, God might well have used evolution by natural selection to produce his creation.

. . . So far, so comforting for my students. But here’s the turn: These magisteria are not nearly as nonoverlapping as some of them might wish.

. . . As evolutionary science has progressed, the available space for religious faith has narrowed:

Indeed. As I’ve harped on incessantly, religion makes many existence claims about the real world or the real Universe. That’s one reason why NOMA has been heavily criticized by theologians, who resent being told that they can’t say anything about what exists. (This will all be hashed out in The Albatross.)  And NOMA is indeed the received wisdom by science organizations like the NCSE, the National Academies, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which even has a Templeton-funded “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program“—something wildly inappropriate for such an organization.

But Barash, to his credit, is no accommodationist, and in The Talk he points out three areas in which science and religion make incompatible claims. (The indented discussion below is my writing, not Barash’s.)

  • The argument from complexity. As we all know, evolution dispelled this most powerful argument for God when Darwin showed that “design-like” features could arise from a purely naturalistic process. This conflicts with creationist religion, though Barash doesn’t mention that many more liberal faiths simply say that evolution happened but God either set it in motion, knew it would happen, directed it toward specific ends (i.e., H. sapiens) or intervened in subtle and undetectable ways.  In this sense the conflict between science and faith can be somewhat resolved, though such theistic accommodationism still requires that we abandon naturalism. If you’re a true naturalist, theistic evolution is still incompatible with science. If you argue that God set up the universe knowing in advance that evolution would occur but didn’t intervene (and that’s claimed by a fair number of believers), then there’s not really any practical incompatibility, for the difference between that and naturalistic evolution is nil.
  • Human exceptionalism.  Barash notes that there is no evidence that humans are special in any supernaturalistic sense: “. . we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.” Again, if you think humans were a teleological goal of evolution, requiring God’s planning or intervention, or have souls or a kind of behavior (say, morality) that can’t be explained by naturalistic processes, then yes, human exceptionalism is incompatible with science. If you think, though, that humans were simply an inevitable or likely result of a naturalistic process, the incompatibility is barely discernible.
  • The existence of evil. This, to me, is the most powerful of Barash’s arguments for incompatibility between science and religion. Theists must perforce explain evil—both “moral” evil (humans doing bad things to other humans) and “natural” evil (diseases like childhood cancer, earthquakes, and other stuff that kills innocent people)—as part of God’s plan. There’s no easy way to reconcile these with a loving and all-powerful god, though the entire discipline of theodicy is devoted to the effort. I haven’t yet seen a successful reconciliation, and theists know, deep in their hearts, that the problem remains. But such “evils” are, as Barash explains, easily understandable in a naturalistic universe: they’re an inevitable result of either evolution, physics, or geology.

Barash ends The Talk this way:

I CONCLUDE The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

He’s absolutely correct here, both in highlighting the tortuous arguments of accommodationists and in saying that the brief of scientists is not to reconcile religion with science. We shouldn’t be doing theology.

But in fact, and this is my beef (a small one, like a filet mignon): Barash may not be accomodating science with religion, but he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university. One could even make the argument that he’s skirting the First Amendment here, mixing government (a state university) and religion. After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?

While I do touch lightly on the religion/science issue in class when discussing the historical evidence for evolution—by saying that Darwin’s arguments won the day because the facts he adduced did not comport with the creationist views of the day—that’s about as far as I’ll go. It is my job to teach science, not to discuss the religious beliefs of my students, to show how science opposes them, or to try to tell them they can have Darwin and Jesus, too.  I am not there to dispel any discomfort that arises when some students realize that religion doesn’t sit so nicely with evolution. I am there to teach them the latest ideas and facts about evolution, period. If students ask me, “Well, Professor Coyne, how do you think that relates to religion?”, I’ll tell them that if they want to discuss it, I’ll be glad to make an appointment to talk in my office.

In other words, while I think Barash is 100% right, and that religion and science are indeed incompatible in critical ways (see The Albatross), I think he needs to knock off giving The Talk. It is not science, but a form of theology or philosophy.  By all means let him trumpet his views in The New York Times, as he did so well, or any other similar venue. I admire him for standing up to public opinion and accommodationist organizations like the NCSE. But I’m not so sure that this stuff belongs in a science class. Nevertheless, if Barash insists on giving The Talk, he might as well make the other big refutation of NOMA: religion isn’t the only repository for thinking about meanings, morals and values. For surely the students have heard about something called “philosophy.”

h/t: Tom C. and many other readers who called Barash’s piece to my attention.

 

175 Comments

  1. Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    To play devil’s advocate — isn’t Barash merely ending on a note (paraphrasing): “expect some cognitive dissonance… with the science camp not bending to relieve any of it”.

    It doesn’t seem that he’s plumbing the depths and removing all conceivable gods (including sadistic ones). Just… expect a bumpy ride (?)

    I’m a bit tossed up as to whether even this is too much, now.

  2. Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure there is anything wrong with Barash giving his talk. The First Amendment does not prohibit discussing or talking about religion, nor making true descriptive statements about religion (it does not prevent descriptive, comparative-religion classes).

    What it does do is prohibit either the promotion of religion (“establishment”), or inhibiting the free exercise of religion. I don’t see that Barash’s “talk” does either of those.

    • tomh
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      The state can’t establish religion, but it can’t establish non-religion either. At best, it can be neutral on religion. This doesn’t sound like Barash is neutral at all – it sounds like, when you boil it down, that he’s saying, once you understand evolution, you can only accept religion by lying to yourself. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get some pushback from this piece. I would have left out the part about the Talk.

      • Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        The “talk” says that *if* the student wants to both respect science, and have a religion compatible with the science, then there will be certain consequences (“mental gymnastics”) for the religion.

        That is a true and descriptive statement, rather than one pushing non-religion, so it seems ok to me.

        For example, the student could agree entirely, and thus decide to not respect science.

        • Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          I agree with your interpretation.

          I don’t think the talk tries to “establish non-religion”. It just says “look, these two methods do not jibe”. And that’s just a truth that even theists can accept. Whether they want to or not is another matter, but The Talk is not necessarily an argument against god.

        • tomh
          Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

          Call it mental gymnastics if you want, (I call it lying to oneself), the fact is, as Jerry points out, he’s arguing theology. The supernatural, theodicy, what does the so-called problem of evil have to do with science? I think he’s wrong to bring religion into his science class, and I think a court would agree. He used to teach biology without contrasting it with religious ideas, but he doesn’t really say what changed his mind, just that there was “tension” between the course material and students’ religious beliefs. So what? As a representative of the state, it’s not his place to resolve such questions.

          • Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

            As a representative of the state, it’s not his place to resolve such questions.

            But he doesn’t attempt to resolve any question about theology, he only describes them.

            • Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

              …and that’s the problem. Theology has no place in a science classroom.

              Jerry’s spot-on. Students who struggle with these things should be taught the science in the classroom, and be directed to “spiritual advisers” for assistance with any theological problems they might have with the science.

              Directly tackling the theological problems with a student is potentially problematic even outside of the classroom…if it’s a meeting to discuss official class materials, you may well still be a state actor even if you’re in a student bar after midnight eating darts and drinking peanuts and throwing beers.

              Probably the most that passes muster would be something like, “I’m here to teach you about the consensus positions in peer-reviewed publications, and your grade will be determined by an evaluation of your knowledge of those positions. Feel free to disagree with the science all you want; however, if you wish to pass the course, you must demonstrate thorough and competent knowledge of the scientific consensus. What you do with the knowledge I’m presenting to you once you leave the classroom is up to you.”

              Cheers,

              b&

            • Sean
              Posted October 14, 2014 at 5:08 am | Permalink

              The fact that the word “evil” is even introduced during “the Talk” is a clear indication that the line has been crossed out of science. Biology doesn’t deal in terms like “good” and “evil” (when used in the ethical sense).

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

          I can see where ‘the talk’ either does or could create an entanglement with the establishment clause. The key factor is that the instructor is an agent of the state, and they will be perceived as having a coercive power over the students’ beliefs by merely discussing their respective beliefs. Even if an instructor manages to stay on the legal side of things by making a carefully phrased statement about cognitive dissonance, that instructor can very easily cross the line by answering a student who simply asks a follow-up question about it. It is far safer to play it safe.

          • Gregory Kusnick
            Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            “It is far safer to play it safe.”

            I think we can all agree on that!

            • rickflick
              Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

              I think we can all safely agree on that.

          • Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

            There is some danger, yes, but in considering “coercive effect” any court would take into account that this is college level and the students are adults, and thus the threshold for coercion is very different from if the students were 12-yr-olds.

            • Mark Sturtevant
              Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

              Even if you were right and I would win my university hearing or even court hearing regarding an accusation, I would not want to have to go through that. I have enough grey hair as it is.

          • Filippo
            Posted September 28, 2014 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

            “The key factor is that the instructor is an agent of the state, and they will be perceived as having a coercive power over the students’ beliefs by merely discussing their respective beliefs.”

            In the case of a private university, the instructor is an agent of what – a private (corporate) tyranny? Is his/her coercive power therefore somehow more legitimate? What if the powers-that-be at a private (putatively) secular university mandated some sort of “The Talk” (whatever The Talk consists of), even requiring students to sign a written copy acknowledging having read it?

            I view this in the context of universities over the last twenty or more years more and more being run on the (private) corporate (tyranny) model, and of certain ideologues and politicos (and religiosos?) pushing for privatization and less government, so that they can indulge their Romneyesque private corporate tyrant predispositions.

            • Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:47 am | Permalink

              Whether private coercive power is more or less legitimate is an interesting and complicated question. But as for whether private coercion is less likely to violate the First Amendment, the answer is rather boring and straightforward–yes, because the First Amendment imposes enforceable limits on government conduct, not private actions.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

        That’s not how I read it. Of course I haven’t heard The Talk in its entirety, but my sense is that he’s saying, “We’re going to be covering some concepts here that religious people might find challenging. I’m spelling out those challenges now so you can figure out how to deal with them on your own, because we’re not going to spend any class time helping you deal with them.”

        My sister used to give a similar talk at the start of her freshman geology class. She found it was the best way to preempt stubborn Christians from disrupting class later in the term.

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

          Good way to interpret it!

          • Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            Similarly when one teaches elementary logic one might think it is useful to mention (though I don’t have any ideas when or if there’s work on this either) that the class will be reading ordinary language closely, and that proves difficult to some in the second language context.

            • Diane G.
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

              Arggh, I can’t imagine taking philosophy in a second language!

              (Hirsi Ali could do it, though…)

              I really like the idea of pre-empting expected challenges, and I really like the idea of spelling out to students right away what they can expect to have to deal with in a course.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s unconstitutional, but I think it’s a bad idea. Its not germane to learning biology, and he’s not a subject matter expert on theology who’s advice on combatibility is something the students have asked for or paid to hear.

      If your biology prof suddenly went off one day on how the Calvinists represent the most accurate/true reading of Christian scripture, that would be a bad thing, yes? Well, that’s pretty much what he’s doing here, only he’s doing it for all of religion – Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, animism, deism, you name it – which is in fact worse than my example, because he’s implying a much broader religious expertise.

  3. Sastra
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    Given that it involves a mistaken view of the world and reality, religion seems to mingle itself with pseudoscience. Mind/ body dualism, ESP, psychokenesis, Vitalism, ” intent” as a force, and so on. Those aren’t niggling little additions to Theism or Spirituality: they pretty much define it. So where is the clear-cut line between an objective method which tests claims and claims which only want to be tested if the result is going to be positive?

    I think we’re finally getting into the dirty little distinction between teaching religion in a science class and teaching atheism in a science class. Religion isn’t true — it’s just so powerful that it needs an artificial limitation, a secular agreement to treat what purports to be a very public truth as if it were a private matter of personal “faith” — a choice, a preference, an identity. Faith is an immunizing strategy, one which would be dropped like a hot potato if there was actual evidence (the Argument From Babblefish be damned.) Atheism has no need of the epistemic protection of secularism.

    Sooner or later that distinction will tell. Maybe now is too soon. I don’t know.

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

      As you and Jerry and many other readers have pointed out, the main source if the incompatibilism between religion and science is not the different conclusions they come to on specific issues like the problem of evil or human exceptionalism. It’s that they use to arrive at those conclusions are incompatible. If your method for trying to discern something about reality involves “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”, then your method ain’t science.

      • Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        *it’s that the methods they use to arrive…*

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that is a good point – to simply point out the lack of truth (and rigour) in those claims does not actually promote atheism.

      More and more, I think one of the most dangerous things about faith is this notion of dualism. It means people are fully accountable for all actions and with a view like this, hope for treatment and fairness for those with mental illness is pretty miniscule.

  4. Ken Pidcock
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    With all respect due Barash, I’m with Professor Coyne on this. Barash’s main point – that scientists shouldn’t be asked to reconcile their science with their students’ faith – is valid, as is his annoyance with his colleagues’ deference to NOMA. However, I don’t see any reason to raise the issue in a class. Perhaps I’m naïve, as I teach in a devoutly secular college and rarely encounter student discomfort with the conflict. Perhaps if I did, I would be tempted to preempt the objections.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, the theologians should be asked to reconcile their faith with science. Science is a fundamental aspect of the modern world so Science is not on the hook to fit in with outmoded ways of thinking.

      • darrelle
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        I know what you’re saying, but just wanted to add that theologians have steadily, since science began its relentless march, been reconciling their faith with science. Especially since the rate at which science bears fruit increased to be easily noticable, and then ubiquitous. It is a defense mechanism to avoid losing adherents by having too large a gap between their religious doctrines / beliefs and obvious reality. And religion is steadily losing adherents in most societies, despite their best efforts.

  5. Gordon Hill
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Of all the challenges in this discussion, one is that scientists freely change their characterizations of natural phenomena, but hold the religions to a static model.

    The underlying question is, “What constitutes a religion?” It seems that the prevailing characterization here is that you can’t have a religion without god, a view dismissed by many, possibly most, religious scholars.

    Those who call theirs a non-theist religion — Buddhists, Taoists, religious humanists and many UUs — would probably agree to an alternate term if it conveyed the desired meaning. For us, a religion is “a way of living”, not a philosophy, which suggests a way of seeing, but a way of living; i.e., how to treat self, others and the whole.

    Insisting that god is a requirement in religion eliminates the increasing number of non-theistic religious from the discussion, just as insisting there is only one view of what constitutes a species eliminates scientists who hold another view.

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      I’ve always found utility in William James’s late 19th-century definition of religion as an unseen order behind or permeating empirically observed reality.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

        For me, his Gifford Lectures (1900-02) published as The Varieties of Religious Experience is still one of the best surveys of religiosity. I also enjoy Joseph Campbell’s four volume The Masks of God.

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

      Read Sastra’s comment above, and my reply to her.

      A “god” is not the source of the incompatibility between science and religion. Without a deity the incompatibility between their epistemic methods and therefore their ontology would remain.

      • Gordon Hill
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        That would depend on how one characterizes religion which I see as the main sticking point. That scientists disagree on what constitutes science and scientifically identified phenomena seems readily accepted as being at the edge and uncertainty of evidence. That there is no empirical evidence to characterize religion leaves its definition wide open and subject to Voltaire’s admonition to define terms.

        Within the community of religious scholarship there are many who accept scientific findings as unconditionally as any non-religious scientist, as there are scientists who claim to be religious as well.

        Unless, and until, there is an agreed characterization of what constitutes religion this debate will will continue with both sides, if one wants to call them that, asserting their truth in the matter.

        • reasonshark
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:28 am | Permalink

          That would depend on how one characterizes religion which I see as the main sticking point.

          Most definitions of religion usually cluster around certain points:

          – belief in the existence of the divine, the supernatural, dualistic or dualism-esque elements to the world, forces of the universe which operate according to ethical law (such as karma and reincarnation), or the like,

          – use of narratives, symbols, and other cultural elements deemed sacred, holy, or “higher” to some degree,

          – incorporating these beliefs and cultural elements in daily, yearly, or otherwise regular practices such as worship and rituals for different life events,

          – some attempt at explaining philosophical questions (e.g. about the meaning of life, the origin and nature of the cosmos, and the origin and nature of humanity), usually by invoking the beliefs above, with if not an intellectual conviction then at least an emotional commitment,

          – or some combination of the above.

          I concede that any particular “religion” won’t necessarily tick all these boxes, but pretending religion is so vague as to make the science-religion debates ineffectual is borderline denialism.

          with both sides, if one wants to call them that,

          One does not “want” to call them that; they simply are. The very notions of faith, revelation, spirituality, the supernatural, and the accompanying human exceptionalism (refer to OP) contradict either the basic principles of science or its findings. Secular ethics, secular culture and cultural elements, and secular philosophy, at best, make religion redundant. Even UUs believe in a sort of spiritual journey, which is either simply self-improvement dressed up in religious language or a step in the supernatural.

          Quibbling about terms is all well and good, but don’t let it be a smokescreen for distracting from the issues at hand.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

            Your point, “most definitions of religions”, is the point. While science is a search for something universal, I see religion as a search for something personal, the meaning of ones life and a way of living it.

            As for the idea of a spiritual journey, I suspect that is true. of many, theist, non-theist, or other, if there is an other.

            • reasonshark
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

              Your point, “most definitions of religions”, is the point.

              The fact that the definitions cluster around certain features rather than have precise, strong lines is no excuse to pretend they’re more all-encompassing than they really are. That’s a diversionary tactic to distract from the fact that religions still rely on modes of thought inimical to scientific thinking.

              While science is a search for something universal, I see religion as a search for something personal, the meaning of ones life and a way of living it.

              As for the idea of a spiritual journey, I suspect that is true. of many, theist, non-theist, or other, if there is an other.

              Reread my post. We have secular terms for these things, so there’s no need to pretend the religious and the non-religious are on the same boat for this topic. Anyone describing self-improvement and “spiritual journey” as the same thing is trying to muddy the waters.

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:00 am | Permalink

          Belief in gods, souls, demons, faith healing and suchlike per se could certainly not be the problem, for it could easily have been the case that such things existed, and in that case they would have become part of the scientific worldview.

          When somebody says that religion and science are incompatible, they mean that as a shorthand for the methodology used to arrive at conclusions: scripture, revelation, priestly authority, personal feelings and faith in the first case, reason and empirical evidence in the second.

          I imagine that there could (hypothetically) be a self-described religious movement that rejects all scripture, revelation etc. and bases all its beliefs on reason and empirical evidence. What I don’t understand is why one would want to call something that would be indistinguishable from science a religion except perhaps to muddy the waters.

          • Gordon Hill
            Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:52 am | Permalink

            For me it is a matter of how one characterizes religion’s purpose. The purpose of science is broadly agreed in my view, but the purpose of religion is not.

            I am of the opinion that the early purpose of religion was to guide one in how to live a meaningful life as an individual, as part of a social group and as a part of the whole.

            The movement away from this toward the living according to specific rules of behavior for all seems to have become more prevalent as scientific knowledge has advanced, compelling religious leaders to compete in a rational way.

            The fundamental point for me is that the purpose of religion is guidance toward a way of living. In that vein I see both theistic and non-theistic forms as religious. It is interesting to see some Christians, like John Shelby Spong, Lloyd Geering and Don Cupitt discarding the god concept, but not the religious idea of a life with meaning.

            Some suggest the non-theistic forms — Buddhsm, Taoism, non-theistic Christianity, religious humanism, for example — be labeled philosophies, but that seems to fall short of the mark made by declaring religion as prescribing a way of living.

            Maybe there is a better term for the non-theistic “religions”, but philosophy doesn’t seem to be the one.

            • Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:41 am | Permalink

              “the purpose of religion is guidance toward a way of living”

              Well, perhaps but religion being a way of living (Iceland uses “life stance”, presumably in Icelandic) does not mean that every way of living is a religion.

              {religions} ⊂ {ways of living}

              To use the terms interchangeably, devalues “religion”, I think.

              As I’ve commented before, non-theistic religions are often labelled “philosophies”, not just by atheist/humanist outsiders like Anthony Grayling, but also by practitioners like Alan Watts (Buddhism).

              /@

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

                I certainly understand that view. The problem I have with calling ‘non-theistic religions’ philosophies is that religion have rituals and ceremonies as an integral part and philosophies do not.

                Grayling and Watts are worthy intellectuals, but theirs are two of hundreds, probably thousands, of scholarly opinions which are not in accord.

                The best term I have to date is religious humanism, which is unsatisfying.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

                But who’s to say philosophies can’t have rituals and ceremonies? 😉

                /@

                >

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                These font fails force me to envision you talking with your mouth full & spraying crumbs. 🙂

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

                “„”’°

                /@

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

                The Google ‘define: philosophy’ search yields “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.”

                I see nothing about rituals and ceremonies so it does not seem fit the general characterization of philosophy. Still, I would have no problem with a label that was descriptive, yet not ponderous.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Few philosophies are as ancient and enduring as Epicureanism, even if it’s never been widely recognized as popular…and I think it safe to suggest that any Epicurean is going to have all sorts of rituals. Indeed, today’s entire coffee thread is basically a paean to Epicurean ritual.

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

                Maybe Modern Epicureanism is the answer… speaking of coffee, it’s time for another. Thanks 😉

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

                Well, obviously, not *that* definition of philosophy! I mean, Jeez…

                /@

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

                Which begs the question, where do we seek an appropriate definitions? Do we go to the scholars or look for definitions that satisfy our personal preferences? 😉

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

                Descriptive definitions are generally the most useful. There are recognizable and distinguishable phenomena that people generally agree upon that go by the words, “science,” and, “religion.” And there are certain properties that all will agree belong to the one and not to the other. Not all may agree on what is sufficient to properly define either in its entirety, but all will generally agree on a certain subset of distinguishing characteristics. That subset should be the core of any definition; from there, one can expand things with caveats if it’ll move the conversation forward.

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

                True enough which is why I look to scientists and religious scholars for definitions.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

                Frankly, you’d be crazy to trust religious “scholars” for basically anything relating to religion, unless they’re atheist anthropologists or variations on that theme. Otherwise, you’ll just get regurgitated dogma. You’ll even get Protestants claiming that Catholics aren’t actually Christians, for example, or others claiming that Muslims are atheists. Very common is for Born-Again Christians to claim that they themselves aren’t religious and have no religion, but rather an “intimate personal relationship with the living Jesus Christ” or the like.

                Much better to take the atheistic anthropological perspective yourself, and look directly at the patterns. Do that, and you’ll discover that, for example, no matter what the Muslims themselves protest, Muhammad really is a god who is unquestionably the object of worship and devotion — and, for that matter, that even many non-Trinitarian Protestant denominations are unabashedly polytheistic, what with all the angels and demons and what-not running amok right here and now in the present day according to their faith.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

                You have nailed the problem… trust my scholars and dismiss the others.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

                Eh…”trust” in the sense you’re using is but an hair’s breadth away from, “faith,” which is the whole problem.

                Don’t trust your scholars unless you’ve done your own due diligence to verify their trustworthiness. For example, don’t trust that Jerry is correct that Evolution is True until after you’ve at least spot-checked some of the evidence he adduces (ever been to a natural history museum? measured the rate of decay of a radioisotope? matched up rock layers across significant distances?), and even then you still should check his reasoning for logical errors. Do that, and you’ll find that Jerry comes out of the crucible with flying colors.

                But put religion and PoMo “scholars” to the same test, and they fail miserably…most of the time, you can’t even nail them down to what they’re actually claiming, with with all the rampant self-contradiction….

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

                Trust applies to science as well. How many of us who accept scientific findings truly understand the underlying empirical research? The difference between science and religion is that there is empirical evidence for the former and none for the latter which means that scholars disagree and those who read their views trust them, too.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

                There’s a much bigger difference: peer review. Though far from perfected, it’s demonstrated to be a very effective means of culling out obvious bullshit.

                And there’s an even more important layer on top of pre-publication review: independent verification and retraction. We can be confident in the Higgs because two different instruments (granted, at the same facility) detected the same signature. BICEP2’s recent findings of primordial gravity waves are being called into question because new WMAP data are more consistent with interstellar dust.

                And a great many papers are perfectly suited to independent validation by non-experts. A financial auditor could apply similar skills to validate many claims without any special knowledge of the science; just check that the records and procedures in the lab match what were reported and use standard techniques to detect fraud. Re-crunch the numbers in the paper to check for errors of math. If it all adds up, you’re good to go.

                The hard part in science is the research and the initial analysis. Retracing those steps once taken is, literally and quite emphatically, the work of students.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 30, 2014 at 5:06 am | Permalink

                That I understand. The difference is the objective versus the subjective, the latter beyond the peer review process. When I read in Coyne and Orr’s Speciation that there are two characterizations of what constitutes a species (At least That’s what I remember reading) and that one will be used as the base definition in the book, I trust them to have been forthright and there is no peer review considered.

                On the religious side, however, where no empirical evidence exists, any peer review of opinions or beliefs is borne of personal opinion.

                The difference being that a thoughtful person accepts the scientific writing with some limitation, the idea that there is always uncertainty in science and considers, but does not accept, the latter unconditionally.

              • rickflick
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

                Diana is right. You cân’t has your cake and say it 2. 😎

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

                Actually that was exactly how it was meant to be.

                /@

              • Diane G.
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

                “The Google ‘define: philosophy’ search yields “the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.””

                That’s just one definition of philosophy. There’s a very common usage along the lines of these two definitions, from Dictionary.com:

                5. a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs.

                6. an attitude of rationality, patience, composure, and calm in the presence of troubles or annoyances.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

                @ Diane G. Exactly!

                /@

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:50 am | Permalink

              Gordon, it seems to me you’re in danger of defining religion so broadly that it includes everything from ballet to family farming to investment banking, since practitioners of all of those ways of living presumably find meaning in them. I don’t see how that makes NOMA any more coherent or defensible (if that’s your goal).

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                I would say that is a stretch.

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

                Having thought further, my take would be that it is possible in the same way that some might call astrology and phrenology science.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

                Those are, perhaps, better examples than you might realize.

                Both can reasonably be considered science; however, they’re scientific theories that have been invalidated by subsequent observation and analysis.

                A less-emotionally-charged example would be the Luminiferous Aether. It was once the generally-accepted theory for the propagation of light…and then Michelson and Morely devised that brilliant experiment of theirs to measure its magnitude…and came up with a magnitude of zero. After much angst and gnashing of teeth and wailing, everybody came to realize that, as elegant as the idea of the Aether was, it just didn’t have any bearing on reality, and so was abandoned.

                Phrenology suffered a similar fate.

                Astrology, too…but it still lingers on. And this isn’t quite so surprising since it was, for millennia, very much at the heart of the prevailing religions of the day. It would be almost as difficult to separate astrology from ancient Paganism as it would be today to separate the Eucharist from Catholicism.

                So, yes. In that sense, religion is science. It’s just profoundly bad science that holds to its propositions long after they’ve been demolished as rationally sustainable.

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, I was being serious.

              • Gregory Kusnick
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

                Gordon, it may be obvious to you that those ways of life I mentioned aren’t religions, and I agree that it’s a poor definition of religion that includes them. (That was my point.) So perhaps you can articulate your definition in a way that excludes them but still captures whatever it is you think distinguishes a religious-but-godless way of life from meaningful-but-secular ways of life.

            • Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:02 am | Permalink

              While it might be difficult to pin down exact and universally agreed-upon definitions for both science and religion, we can make certain generalizations that are both sufficient for our porpoises and so generally accepted that we need not worry about dissenters.

              Specifically, science is nothing without empiricism, and religion is nothing without faith. Empiricism and faith are diametrically opposed methods of establishing confidence in an hypothesis. As such, science and religion are incompatible.

              Religious scientists and people of similar mindsets pretty much as a rule compartmentalize their applications of empiricism and faith. Empiricism is used to gain confidence about certain classes of phenomena, and faith about other classes. In one sense, this is exactly Gould’s NOMA. The problem lies in determining which phenomena are best suited to empirical analysis and which to faithful acceptance…and, empirically, we can observe that any and all attempts to draw that line fail as miserably as faith itself does in any application.

              In short, only empiricism has ever demonstrated reliability as a means of aligning beliefs with reality. The only way we know to determine whether or not what you believe is true is to test those beliefs against reality. Any other means — and religion is all about those other means — just simply doesn’t produce useful results.

              We can also see that, where religions do produce useful results, they do so by testing their methods against reality — by doing science, broadly construed. Further, even if those results are justified on faithful religious grounds, the methods are equally available to and effective for those who reject the religion. A perfect example of this is Sam’s latest book, in which he proposes how specific meditative practices common in Eastern religions (with parallels in certain Western religious traditions) can somewhat reliably produce certain specific mental states that can provide certain utility. You can perform the experiments for yourself and confirm the results and decide if those results are for you; that’s science, even if the source material is religious.

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

                Interesting. My variation would be that a ‘true’ religion, whatever that is, accepts science whole and deals with ‘faith’ based on a premise, an ‘I believe’, rather than a hypothesis which can be falsified, meaning the I believe changes as science progresses.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

                Your “true” religion, statistically, does not exist. I can’t think of any significant religious body which accepts what you propose. Rather, they all insist, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that their faith-based positions are fully supported by the sciences.

                A perfect example would be the Roman Catholic Church, which officially states that it’s just hunky-dory with Darwinian Evolution…but they also insist at least on the specialness of humans if not an historical Adam and Eve, both of which are as thoroughly debunked as any other form of pseudoscience.

                Distinct echoes of this persist with, for example, the Dalai Lama, who has admitted that he’d be willing to drop certain religious beliefs, such as reincarnation, if the science demonstrated them to be nonexistent…and yet has failed to do so despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that such superstitions are purest fantasy.

                Even Unitarians often get in on the act, with appeals to the grandeur of grand beneficent harmonious overarching designs in the cosmos. Yes, we’re all awed by the beauty of the vast expanse of the night sky, but that same sky doesn’t give a shit about us, not even vaguely hypothetically or metaphorically.

                Any time you have an “I believe” premise in which your confidence in your proposition isn’t in proportions indicated by a rational analysis of objective observation, you’re setting yourself up for an extra helping of fail. Couch your “I believe” with a well-proportioned does of, “there’s such-and-such a probability that this is the case,” and you’re good to go. But the moment you leave off the error bars, and especially when you act upon the premise that your “I believe” is actually true…well you’re now paddleless and up-creek.

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                The difference being that, if one’s religion is a way of living, that means considering the views of the ‘leaders’ and accepting or rejecting them as they seem appropriate. We see this in Christianity where so many accept the virgin birth as biology while others see it as a spiritual incarnation and still others see it as a reaction to the declaration that Caesar was a god and born of a virgin.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                Sure, you can always find doctrinal differences in any religion, with the less conservative members generally aligning their positions better with the science.

                But, to take your example of Christianity…what Christian doesn’t believe in Jesus’s divinity and the reality of an eternal afterlife in his presence (assuming, of course, the Christian’s soul weighs less than a feather)?

                I don’t even know what it would mean to claim to be a Christian and not accept Jesus’s divinity and the Heavenly afterlife, and yet those two propositions are every bit as scientifically absurd as the divinity of Dionysus and the Elysian Fields.

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

                “…what Christian doesn’t believe in Jesus’s divinity and the reality of an eternal afterlife in his presence…” I suspect John Dominic Crossan, Lloyd Geering, John Shelby Spong and most of the scholars and members of the Westar Institute to name a group.

                One problem in the discussion/debate is that science relies on empirical evidence and in Christianity, there is none… it’s all about the teachings.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

                First, you’re talking about an unmeasurably minuscule fraction of a percentage of the number of Christians on the planet. Next, the positions you claim this handful holds would cause the overwhelming majority to disown the handful as Christians and brand them as heretics.

                But — and much more importantly — I don’t think even they would go so far as to reject the divinity of Jesus and the Heavenly afterlife. Indeed, I rather suspect they would go out of their way to reaffirm such positions, but explain them as something less substantial and perhaps more mundane than is commonly understood, but still very real (to them) nonetheless. They might even doubt the historical existence of Joseph’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, but I think you’d be hard pressed to get them to tell you that they reject the divinity of Christ.

                …and, of course, there’re also those so confused as to supposedly not believe a word of any of it but still consider themselves true believers in some form or another, or others who play fast and loose with the language one way or another for various rhetorical and often extremely cynical reasons. But I hardly think we need consider them representative of honest religious believers, do we?

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

                Wait! You asked who and I replied. The cognitive arteriosclerosis of Christianity seems to have been thanks to bureaucratic edict rather than the focus on the teachings… Thank you Constantine. Before Nicea, Christianity may have been mainly a rag tag scattering of adherents to the teachings of Jesus.

                One point I believe is significant is the use of empiricism in science and its absolute absence in religion.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

                One point I believe is significant is the use of empiricism in science and its absolute absence in religion.

                Exactly — and, right there, we have our un-bridgeable divide between science and religion. All else, as they say, is commentary.

                And, by, “commentary,” of course, I mean various wailings and body-thumpings on the part of the religious and their enablers agonizing over the oh-so-distasteful and / or unfair nature of this state of affairs….

                b&

              • Gordon Hill
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

                I think we are in agreement and have come to that place where different definitions are the remaining obstacle to full accord.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

        Theism should not be the issue, nor I suppose religion if defined broadly enough. The culprit leading to incompatibility is dogmatism (especially based in beliefs not supported by reason and observable reality). One element of support for Barash giving his “Talk”, would be to make it clear that science is not dogmatic while some systems of thought and belief are. To teach that scientific understanding must change to fit the shape of new discovery is certainly within his purview.

        • Gordon Hill
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

          Agreed… and any religion, to be viable, must change with scientific findings.

  6. Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    🐾

  7. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    A talk like this in a public school sorta plays into the hands of the folks who make bad films like “God is Not Dead”.

    Nothing wrong with elegant gymnastics. I think a better metaphor for tortured apologetics is contortionist.

  8. tomh
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    @ Coel
    Barash says, “although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” That’s doing a lot more than describing the issues. That’s telling the students how they will have to think about the issues, for instance, with challenging mental gymnastic routines. He might think that’s true, but there are plenty of religious people who don’t, who think it’s just a simple matter of faith.

    I wouldn’t like it if I took a biology class and got lectured on how religion and evolution are perfectly compatible and can get along just fine. I don’t see that this is any different. It’s out of place.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      I agree. I was still a little religious as a freshman/sophomore. Had any chem/bio/phys/geo professor spent class time telling me my faith was incompatible with their science, I would’ve felt that they were (1) wasting my class time and (2) insulting me with an overbroad generalization. They know what I believe and that it’s inocompatible, do they? Funny, I don’t remember telling them that.

      It’s as insulting as a professor saying “now you southerners may have a problem with this math part, I’m just warning you ahead of time about that.”

      • Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

        But if one could say that “some of you” might have trouble with X because of Y, and that’s *true*, that some students do have trouble with X because of Y, what is one to do? Not acknowledge it? Reserve it for office hours or conferences/tutorials/recitations?

        • eric
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:00 am | Permalink

          My example stereotype is going to be *true* for some southerners (it would probably be true if the subject was women, lefties, or people over 6 feet tall, too). Does that make it okay? Obviously not. The fact that a generalization is sometimes true does not make it less insulting; you are still judging the students in your class based not what you know about them as individuals, but rather what group they belong to.

          Why make a stereotype at all? Why announce it in class? If some student has trouble with the material, address it when they come to you or when you see poor grades on the homework. There is no need to point out some subgroup of students ahead of time and announce to the class “these guys are going to have trouble with some of the material.” Its unwarranted and insulting.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

        “I was still a little religious as a freshman/sophomore…”
        It is curious to me, whenever I hear someone say this, I flinch a bit, because I never was even a little religious.

  9. Diane G.
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Once more, religion has a special status that other subjects don’t. If a science teacher thought that astrology or homeopathy or the Doctrine of Signatures or whatever was interfering with students’ ability to accept well-established biological facts, it would be incumbent on her/him to address the issue.

    • tomh
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

      I respectfully disagree. I see the teacher’s obligation is to present these well-established facts with all the evidence supporting them. Lecturing the students about their personal beliefs, whether homeopathy or astrology, is not part of the teacher’s duty. In fact, I would say it is none of the teacher’s business.

      • Posted September 28, 2014 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        ” is not part of the teacher’s duty. In fact, I would say it is none of the teacher’s business.”

        Not caring about the way his students’ think is a certain route to mediocrity as a teacher. An exceptional teacher must, at the very least, care deeply about changing the beliefs of his students.

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:53 am | Permalink

          And moreover, should know what the students are like “coming in”.

      • Jonathan Wallace
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

        What about on a medicine course? I would worry if I thought that the young people who are being trained to care for the sick are allowed to hold on to belief in the effectiveness of hoemopathy without having it challenged.

        • Jonathan Wallace
          Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

          homeopathy 😉

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 11:51 pm | Permalink

      I think after all this discussion and cogitation, I am coming around to this view, too. In the form of a dialogue, from a parallel universe, where a majority of students come to biology class steeped in Lysenkoism:

      Prof. Verity: “great to see you all here, please grab a syllabus and take a seat… you can see how the topics we will cover have their basis in the consensus science of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection. I know a great many of you may adhere to alternate theories of inheritance, but this class will be dealing with the overwhelming scientific consensus, which, as I hope will become evident, has delegated many alternate theories to the dustbin of history.

      Student Ignoramus: Yeah, right. It’s pretty obvious the discussion is over out of the starting gate. But that’s OK. I plan on learning the consensus; but it doesn’t change the fact that Lysenkoism is the way things really work – and the truth has been suppressed by Western scientists. But have it your way — too bad you haven’t realized the simple fact that Stalin was absolutely never EVER wrong about such matters.

      Prof. Verity: I’m glad you plan on learning the course material, despite your misgivings. I should caution you, though; the evidence presented in class (and uncovered with your own hands during the lab portion) will uncover a reality that is wholly incompatible with Lysenkoism. Besides, the scientific method is mandated to go where the evidence leads, rather than rely on some infallible authority. You may find yourself in for a bumpy ride through cognitive dissonance-land, and western consensus science won’t be able to help you there.

      Are we still OK at this point? Or has Prof Verity screwed up? The conversation continues:

      Student Ignoramus: Just one other point, and I’ll shut up. Stalin is infallible, because Pope Snoop had the concepts revealed to him on Divine Authority, went back in his magic timeless canna-bus back to the 1870’s and inoculated key figures with key concepts, eventually leading to the Soviet Union’s highly-successful agricultural program. (which anyone can read about, in the “true” pre-1965 Soviet literature, before the creep of the western hegemony that would distort the historical record). Unfortunately, there’s no evidence of Snoop’s epic travels, the culmination of which involved imbibing fantastic amounts of Lysenkoweed that even destroyed the memory of this event in Pope Snoop’s brain. It is simply a matter of faith with us neo-Lysenkoists (Cicero chapter) that this is what had transpired.

      What was that you said about me heading for cognitive dissonance-land again?

      Prof. Verity: please schedule an appointment, if you feel the need to discuss this further.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 5:57 am | Permalink

        Hopefully not all the students will be so resistant. Student Ignoramus is certainly a lost cause, and probably not worth wasting time with.

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:07 am | Permalink

          A close friend of mine, former faculty at UW (evo psych-type stuff), told me he would actually try to persuade such students to leave the program entirely, as the whole biology dept. at UW is so horribly oversubscribed, and there should be room made for better-qualified people in the first place. Screw the ignoramuses.

      • eric
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:38 am | Permalink

        Are we still OK at this point? Or has Prof Verity screwed up?

        In my opinion, Verity should’ve ended his preamble at “…of Mendelian genetics and Darwinian natural selection” and gone from there right into, y’know, teaching science.

        There is no need to point out that it goes against some alternate theory or that a student holding that alternate theory may have trouble. Doing that calls out some specific students and tells the class that you, the professor, think those students are going to have trouble with some future material. It’s insulting and an overgeneralization – how do you know they will have trouble with it? Why assume that? And even if you believe it, why point it out to the class?

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:50 am | Permalink

          Fair enough. I was assuming though, that “the talk” was a kind of prerequisite for this exercise. That there is was supposedly a need to defuse the inevitable objections in advance, to save time, given the Prof’s teaching style, temperament, class time. You indicate “the talk” should take a walk, like many here. Fine.

          • eric
            Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:45 am | Permalink

            I’d say the professor is probably better of going with the ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke’ strategy. Talk to an individual student about science and religion when they indicate they have a problem with the science material.

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 10:29 am | Permalink

              Barash says in the article that he used to do it that way. But he found it didn’t work as well as what he does now. Something was broken, and The Talk is how he fixed it.

            • Diane G.
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:53 am | Permalink

              When I was grappling over the advisability of fully declaring myself atheist, I was confounded by not being able to actually determine what my professors thought about it. I was 90% sure they also identified that way, but it was never mentioned, which seemed odd in light of the fact that they were talking about the origins of life, the universe, etc. OK, so I was a little slow reading between the lines, but social conventions were strong, and it seemed odd that people who were so otherwise confident of the answers (or at least, the shape of the answers) to all the big questions clearly avoided this third rail.

              This was way-pre-internet. I finally found & subscribed to PSICOP, but even that never mentioned the subject (which I later realized was a nod to Kurtz’s own sort of NoMa, that busting pseudoscience should not be linked to freethinking, lest too much of the potential audience be alienated).

              It was only when I eventually subscribed to Skeptical Inquirer that I finally found luminaries like E.O. Wilson, Sagan, a very young Dawkins, etc., flat-out decrying theism.

              I realize that in today’s world it’s an order of magnitude easier to find this sort of information; but it would still strike me as odd that those best equipped to debunk supernaturalism are also those most concerned with avoiding the issue. I seem to remember no such constraints in most of my Liberal Arts courses, and those were taught by people much less equipped or even tempted to lay out a case for critical thinking about religion.

              It is also the case that the main talking points of all the creationists, etc., are overwhelmingly based on (their version of) science, so it would seem that scientists themselves would be most important in addressing those arguments. Certainly they do so in other venues–online, say–but we’re talking about reaching young brainwashed college students who may never again have a brush with real scientists after they complete the only bio course they may ever take.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:31 am | Permalink

      I think the special status comes when you specifically address it in a way you wouldn’t address any other belief.

      Your own examples argue against ‘the Talk.’ Because no biology professor I know of would take class time out ahead of some unit to discuss why the astrology-believing students might have a problem with the upcoming unit, or to discuss why the homeopathy-believing students would. For those beliefs, the method used is just teach the science, no pre-emptive warning needed. So do the same with religion. ‘The Talk’ is making religion exceptional; the way to not treat it as an exception is to ignore it.

      • Gregory Kusnick
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        Unfortunately, many creationist students don’t want to be ignored. They consider it their mission to confront teachers with their beliefs. So the teachers need some strategy to deal with this, and The Talk is one such strategy. According to Barash, it’s the one that works best for him.

        If evangelical astrologers made a habit of disrupting psychology classes the way creationists disrupt biology and geology classes, then I expect psychology instructors would soon develop their own version of The Talk, and I would not blame them for doing so.

        • Diane G.
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:18 am | Permalink

          Oops, should have read your reply before I repeated it below!

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:17 am | Permalink

        “For those beliefs, the method used is just teach the science, no pre-emptive warning needed.”

        That’s because no one is coming to class with an agenda to give the teacher grief about the Doctrine of Signatures. If they were, pre-emptive action might be warranted.

  10. Posted September 28, 2014 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Jerry for your posting and I agree that one should be careful about negative discussions of religion in a science class. For one thing it can turn religious folks off from wanting to understand science. That’s why AAAS and NCSE take the stands they do.

    I do have a complaint with your basic confidence as seen in the title of your book “Why Evolution is True” (with the word True in bold color on the book cover). Nowhere in that book or in your other books as far as I can tell do you discuss the probability for a Chomsky type brain to evolve. That is, a brain that can do human type thinking. Part of the challenge in doing that sort of calculation is that we first need to understand the neural mechanisms that are responsible for the human ability to do our fancy thinking. That will probably take at least another 50 years of research. So isn’t it premature to say that ID estimates of low probabilities are definitely wrong? Note that I’m not at all defending the ID reasons for claiming low probabilities. I’m just saying that us Darwinians don’t yet know how to do those calculations.

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

      I’m sorry but that book is only a fraction of the evidence I could adduce for the five tenets of what I call “evolutionary theory.” I am under no obligation to do a calculation for which we don’t have the relevant data to convince you that evolution is scientifically true. So until we have the data to do those calculations, you’re going to call ID credible? Excuse me if I don’t agree with you.

      If you don’t have substantial confidence that evolution is true based on existing evidence, I can’t help you. There are many things we don’t know the answer to, but we do know that evolution happened. I’m not convinced by your use of the term “us Darwinians” either. How can you call yourself that if you think evolution is in doubt because we can’t calculate the “probability” of everything having happened?

  11. Larry Esser
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    When Barash tells his students that he “respects their beliefs,” that is just the wrong thing to say. No one cares about their beliefs…let them have them and keep them to themselves. He may say he respects their right to hold their beliefs legally, but not intellectually. Faith, as in believing things for which there is no evidence or even evidence against, is entitled to no respect at all.

  12. Thanny
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Guys, read up on the Lemon test. Anything which has an overriding secular purpose (such as teaching facts and their derived logical consequences) is not a violation.

    As an example, consider a hypothetical religion consisting entirely of the belief that jumping off of cliffs is never fatal. A public school teacher would not be in violation of the First Amendment when informing this person that the religion in question is entirely false.

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

      Navigating the legal terrain is a little more complicated than that, though, isn’t it? Assuming the Lemon test applies to anti-religious course content in public universities,* three criteria must be met:

      (1) The content must have a bona fide secular purpose, as you say;
      (2) It must not foster excessive government entanglement with religion; and
      (3) It must not have the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion.

      Failure to satisfy any one of these can render a state university responsible for a First Amendment violation (not to mention possible state constitutional issues). Much would depend on the details, of course, but I can imagine that a public university professor repudiating religious beliefs in class might run into trouble with some combination of (2) and (3).

      *That assumption strikes me as correct, although I have a few small doubts too tentative and complicated to get into here.

      • Posted September 28, 2014 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

        One quick afterthought/clarification. I’m not saying that The Talk given by Professor Barash is anti-religious, or that it constitutes a First Amendment violation. Rather, I’m just pointing out more generally that secular purpose alone doesn’t insulate a government action from a First Amendment challenge.

      • Thanny
        Posted October 2, 2014 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

        First, anti-religious speech, by its very nature, cannot cause entanglement between government and religion. Non-religion is not religion.

        Second, you’ve badly misstated the other clause. The law/action/whatever’s primary effect must not be to advance or inhibit religion. The primary effect of telling the truth is to impart accurate information. If it contradicts religious beliefs, so much the worse for those beliefs.

        • Posted October 7, 2014 at 11:28 am | Permalink

          Hi, Thanny. Your first point is very close to one of the reasons I’m not 100% positive Lemon is the correct standard in this sort of situation. I doubt any court has gone as far as you do in categorically declaring that anti-religious actions can’t constitute entanglement with religion (if one has, by all means please let me know), but I would agree that it feels a little weird to talk about an Establishment Clause violation under the Lemon test when religion is being repudiated, and not established. Perhaps this is more of a student Free Exercise question, which is a topic for another day.

          As for your second point, fair enough, that was a slightly sloppy summary on my part. I’m not sure it’s a material error in the analysis, though. The primary effect of teaching cosmology, natural selection, etc. is educational, so no problem there under Lemon (assuming Lemon applies). As you say, if the course content “contradicts religious beliefs, so much the worse for those beliefs.”

          It seems to me that a public educator going beyond that to explicitly repudiate religious beliefs in the classroom, however, could be engaged in the sort of pedagogy whose primary effect is to inhibit religion. Details matter, of course, so I’m not saying there’s a slam dunk First Amendment violation. That teacher simply “might run into trouble with some combination of (2) and (3).”

          You and I might feel that it’s not a huge leap from “Here’s what science says,” to “Your Bible stories are false.” I suspect it could be a big enough leap to trouble the courts, though.

  13. Posted September 28, 2014 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Jerry’s take, including what our laws and practices encourage professors to do and not do.

    I would argue that it is a fairly absurd practice. The point of higher level education seems like it should be to instill our best understanding of the world, which necessarily runs you into similar problems of why NOMA is wrong to begin with. We want students to arrive at our best understanding of how the world hangs together, and this conception will grate with many religious beliefs. Furthermore, what you do when you provide knowledge to someone is take baseline beliefs, whether their brain/minds were empty to the question or believing something erroneous, then you are attacking those beliefs or those voids-of-belief. Where someone believes the volcano is filled with spaghetti sauce or that creationism is an acceptable theory, you are changing that belief, whether it has anything to do religion or not. Lastly, it seems bad pedagogical practice to ignore the previous instantiated beliefs of the individual you are in an educational relationship with.

    Maybe that is the price we pay for our secular society, but I am not sure it is beneficial to the other goal of high quality education.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      “Maybe that is the price we pay for our secular society, but I am not sure it is beneficial to the other goal of high quality education.”

      And what I would like to see as a goal of quality education–the development of the habit of critical thinking.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

      The point of higher level education seems like it should be to instill our best understanding of the world, which necessarily runs you into similar problems of why NOMA is wrong to begin with. We want students to arrive at our best understanding of how the world hangs together, and this conception will grate with many religious beliefs.

      Sure, but I think covering subjects like ‘why NOMA is wrong’ and ‘is Religion X incompatible with modern science’ are best dealt with in philosophy and theology classes, not biology 101. Not every class has to cover every vaguely-related-to-the-material issue. Teach them the fundamental science they need to know and trust that in the academic system we have, if the student really wants to explore theology-science interactions, there are plenty of other classes where they can do that.

  14. Bob J.
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    I can not count the number of times my wife came home after teaching her Anatomy and Physiology class with the student comment, “This has to be a male skeleton because it has the same number of ribs on both sides.” (It most probably was a female skeleton.)

    Her response always started with, “Ah, …”

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted September 28, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      Secondary or post-secondary? One of my daughters managed to pick up that fallacy from her Sunday school indoctrination. She was not happy to be disillusioned.

      (We have a ‘mixed marriage’ and my wife was adamant that they go to church.)

      • Bob J.
        Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

        University

        • Chris
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:04 am | Permalink

          Owch. That is not great.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 5:52 am | Permalink

        “We have a ‘mixed marriage’ and my wife was adamant that they go to church”
        My parents were not religious but worried, I think, their children would grow up wild. They decided to attend a church to see how it would fly, with us kids in the Sunday school in the basement. After about 3 Sundays, making a crèche with Elmer’s glue and pipe cleaners was getting tiresome. I wanted out. Fortunately, my father was totally bored with hearing about sin and redemption and pulled us out. whew!

    • Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

      I saw a good essay on that years ago. Basically it led to a lesson pointing out the difference between Darwinian and Lemarkian evolution. Just because Adam lost a rib, why would that be passed down to his descendants? People who have an appendix taken out do not have kids born without one. eg. A species only loses a tail if there is a selection for shorter and shorter tails over generations.

  15. GM
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of religion, the US constitution seems to have in many ways become a secular religion, such is the unquestioned devotion and reverence to it displayed everywhere. That should not be the case – it does many things well, but it is also deeply flawed when it comes to a number of other issues, and the rational thing to do when there is a problem is to fix it.

    The First amendment is one such case. It is constantly used to keep creationism out of schools, but it seems like nobody on the correct side of this issues understands that despite this the First amendment is not really their friend, because while you are not allowed to promote religion in school, you are not really allowed to attack it either. And that means religion wins by default because school can never have as much influence over a child’s development as the family and the community the child is raised in do. The family and the community have those crucial first few years all at their disposal to brainwash kids, and on top of that almost nobody really goes to schools (or even college) with the burning desire to learn things, it’s something they would rather not be doing but have to, and as as a result the prestige and authority of school (and by extension what is taught in school) in the eyes of those who attend it are not very high. There is no way to break that cycle other than aggressively attacking religion, with proper arguments and facts, but you can’t really do that right now (you may be able to get away with it in a university, but not in schools). So the goal should be to change the constitution so that it allows that (while still prohibiting the promotion of religion). Obviously, it’s not going to happen any time soon, but at least start talking about it rather than unquestionably accept the text in its current form. It’s not like it is something immutable handed to us by a deity, the text in question is itself in an amendment after all.

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:46 am | Permalink

      Hi, GM. Skipping over substance, where I have a number of concerns, let’s just go to process. As you suggest, an amendment allowing (requiring?) the government to declare and teach that supernatural beliefs are false will face enormous–at the moment, insuperable–obstacles. Just to get the ball rolling would take either a 2/3 supermajority vote in both houses of Congress on a joint resolution, or a 2/3 supermajority vote of state legislatures to hold a national convention. Ratification of the resulting proposal would then need approval from a 3/4 supermajority of the states.

      It seems to me that the existence of a political and social climate in which all of that is possible means the amendment’s intended purpose–the development of a vastly more secular populace–has already come to pass.

      • GM
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:00 am | Permalink

        I am well aware of the impossibility of such a thing happening in the current political climate.

        But by accepting the status quo as a given and as “the right way” eliminates all possibility of such a change happening. So why don’t we stop doing it?

        As I said, the US constitution has becomes a sort of a secular holy book, which is worshiped even by people who have an objective view of things on most other subjects. But secular religion is not much better (and sometimes even worse) than traditional religion.

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:02 am | Permalink

          Hi, GM.

          Okay, here’s my last comment. Insomnia plus know-it-allitis are a dangerous combination.

          (1) “So why don’t we stop doing it?” Well, I can think of several downsides to pushing for an amendment that empowers the government to “aggressively attack religion.” But that’s a different discusion. My point is that I suspect a precondition for the passage of such an amendment is a U.S. population in which there isn’t much religion left to attack. Just a chicken-and-the-egg observation.

          (2) The Constitution a holy book? It’s got war, piracy, crimes, corruption, liquor, and slavery. Sounds about right to me. 😉

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

      Speaking of religion, the US constitution seems to have in many ways become a secular religion, such is the unquestioned devotion and reverence to it displayed everywhere.

      There are certainly those who treat it as such, but they also tend to have a damned poor understanding of it.

      The ignoramuses aside, the question is whether we are to be a nation of laws or of men. If we are to be a nation of laws, then the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. There is a mechanism for changing parts of it we don’t like, a mechanism that is deliberately difficult to carry out. But, if we ignore that mechanism, we change from a nation of laws to a nation of men…and that way tyranny lies.

      b&

  16. Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    I often hear it trumpeted that universities are a place where your cherished beliefs are to be challenged. Isn’t this a case of that? If a professor is asked his opinion in class about a controversial, but related, topic, isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say that you don’t want to discuss it publicly. As a previous comment stated, a talk like that at the beginning saved numerous interruptions later.

    I would suggest the difference between Hedin and Barash is that Hedin was promoting his own personal beliefs of one religion in class. Barash is not promoting any one religion, but pointing out how science contradicts many different religions, and that students will have to deal with that.

  17. Scott Woody
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    In Jerry’s initial post, as well as many of the comments posted up-thread, those who disagree or even disparage Barish’s “talk” speak of the necessity to steer clear of any entanglement of science and religion while acting as an agent of the state; as an educators one should only speak to the “facts” of science in their curriculum and conversations with students.

    I acknowledge that doing so is the safest and perhaps easiest course of action, but it seems to me (a) somewhat cowardly; and (b) to imply that science education should consist merely of recitation of facts and the findings of those scholars practiced in the art of scientific research.

    My personal perspective is that education delivered in service of the umbrella category of “science”– whether it is geology, biology, physics, cosmology or any of innumerable other fields– should have as its core mission to inculcate among our students that science is more than recitation of a collection of facts and even of well-supported theories.

    Effective science education should strive to mold the philosophy of our students (yeah, I went there) such that they naturally/reflexively review and remodel their sense of How the World Works with principal regard to how well alternative models are supported by evidence. In that light, it seems like folly to me that we should ignore the elephant in the room– the illogic and unevidenced philosophy imparted by religious faith– in our efforts to “do” science education.

    To borrow from Sagan, “Science is a way of knowing” and if we premptively or passively ignore the elephant (religious indoctrination) that is the source of so very many foundational faults in our students’ philosophy, we will have failed them as educators.

    (/end rant)

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:55 am | Permalink

      * [Effective science education] should have as its core mission to inculcate among our students that science is more than recitation of a collection of facts and even of well-supported theories. … should strive to mold [sic] the philosophy of our students (yeah, I went there) such that they naturally/reflexively review and remodel their sense of How the World Works with principal regard to how well alternative models are supported by evidence. *

      I wholeheartedly agree. But that doesn’t mean that you need to explicitly dismantle beliefs specific to any one religion or another.

      /@

    • rickflick
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      Absolutely correct. I think this should be the mind set of teachers of science. Note that is really a very positive and optimistic attitude – that science as a method and philosophy is effective and progressive. If students grasp this at the end of their course, they will have been given the “keys to the kingdom of material reality”. What more can we ask of science education?

      (/end rant appreciation)

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:06 am | Permalink

      Very well said.

  18. Folie Deuce
    Posted September 28, 2014 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I agree with everything Jerry said except that this is not a First Amendment issue. Plenty of public universities have religious studies departments where particular faiths are examined and critiqued from a variety of angles.

    The problem here is introducing theology into a science lecture.

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      I don’t know whether Professor Barash is crossing the First Amendment line, but there is a line (albeit ill-defined by the courts). It’s one thing for a public university to offer classes in mythology, comparative religion, history of religions, the Bible as literature, etc. It’s another thing to teach students that supernatural beliefs are true (or false).

      Are there any state universities in the U.S. that offer theology degrees or have divinity schools these days? I could certainly be wrong, but none come to mind.

      • GM
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:43 am | Permalink

        It’s another thing to teach students that supernatural beliefs are true (or false).

        =========================

        Sorry, but this is an absurd position. So how exactly is one supposed to learn the answers to such questions, many of which are well known. The “supernatural” does not just include the vague idea of a God, but a long list of very specific (and long falsified claims). Many of them are not even religious, and this is without even going into all the extinct religions (which are studied and taught from a cultural perspective and with the clear understanding that they are false).

        Laws are written by humans, which means that they are often not just imperfect, and occasionally just plain stupid. And due to the fact that the human beings that we appoint to write the laws come from almost exclusively non-scientific backgrounds, this is especially often the case when it comes to deep scientific questions.

        • Posted September 29, 2014 at 2:59 am | Permalink

          Hi, GM. Absurd? Maybe. It’s also a loose but accurate reflection of the snarl that is First Amendment jurisprudence.

          As I’m sure you’d agree, there’s a difference between whether a public institution should be repudiating religious beliefs, and whether it is constitutionally permitted to do so. Your focus seems to be on the former; mine is simply on the latter.

          Signing off.

          • GM
            Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:06 am | Permalink

            I know it’s not constitutionally permitted to. I talk about the intellectual part of the issue.

            And note that I do not propose that schools start drilling “there is not God” into students heads as they did in the Soviet Union (because this has actually proven not to be very successful)), what they should be doing is:

            1) Explaining the discrepancies between the factual claims of religions and scientific facts and the evidence for and against the historical accuracy of holy books

            2) Explaining the philosophical and scientific arguments for and against the existence of God

            • eric
              Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:31 am | Permalink

              Those seem like valid subjects to discuss in theology or philosophy, but I can’t for the life of me see how they would improve a Bio 101 (or Chem 101, or Physics 101…) class.

              Given that class time is limited, what real science are you willing to spend less time on/cover less well to fit that stuff in? Taking Chem as an example, do you ignore/spend less time covering Atomic Theory? Stoichiometry? Acid-base? Electrochemistry and Redox reactions? Thermodynamics?

              The science-theology issues might be of significant interest/concern form some students, yes. But I wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice any time spent on foundational science in order to address it. You want to give your students the tools they need to succeed in the lab, to become successful chemists (biologists, etc…). Those tools are the subjects listed above. Knowing how to calculate the thermodynamics of a reaction you want to perform is going to of far more use to your would-be chemists than understanding why NOMA is wrong.

              • Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:57 am | Permalink

                I might add there’s a recent review in _Teaching Philosophy_ (IIRC) where the book in question is a “critical thinking” book more “friendly than most” to Christians, etc. Or such was the claim. If we start “not talking” about how students might have problems with materials because of their background, where does it stop? I was greatly annoyed by the idea that there could be a CT book which “pulled punches” …

              • eric
                Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:05 am | Permalink

                Keith, I am not sure how that refutes my comment. You’re saying the subject belongs in Bio 101 rather than Philosophy, and to support that notion, you cite a book review from Teaching Philosophy?

              • Posted September 30, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

                The point was that if one makes the argument that one should not address religious concerns in class, that presumably applies to *all* of them, whence the review in _TP_ as example of that already being worried about.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:02 am | Permalink

        “It’s another thing to teach students that supernatural beliefs are true (or false).”

        Only if you exempt today’s religion from criticism. We do this with astrology (part of yesterday’s religions), street magic incredulity, homeopathy, et cetera.

        The problem isn’t with teaching such facts. The problem is that a science class shouldn’t devote time to historical irrelevancies. And in this case there should be perfect classes in history (of religion, preferably) to do it.

        • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
          Posted September 29, 2014 at 4:04 am | Permalink

          I see I muddled “today” and “history”. I meant that these irrelevancies are old vagaries of history, nothing new here, despite being still active (unfortunately).

      • Folie Deuce
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

        I’m sure they are not teaching that supernatural beliefs are true or false. But I can’t imagine that the topics covered would not cause a believer (particularly a young earth creationist) more discomfort than the “Talk”. See the link below to a syllabus for one of Bart Ehrman’s classes. He states that the class is taught from a “non-confessional” perspective. http://ehrmanblog.org/new-testament-syllabus/

  19. Alex
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:48 am | Permalink

    What is a “naturalistic” process?
    Based on coincidences? Random events?
    All science can do and does well is describe things as they are, but it fails to explain their origin. The scientific explanation of the origin of things is as awkward as religious, since science “religiously” assumes that there is no Creator, but we all know that “assumption is the mother of all cockups”.

    • darrelle
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      I disagree that science assumes there is no Creator. Rather, science has, so far, not needed the hypothesis that there was a creator in any of the numerous very succesful models that have been generated by it. A creator has been part of many models, all of which have fallen to more successful models.

      Paraphrasing Laplace in reply to Napoleon, science has, to date, no need for that hypothesis.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 3:53 am | Permalink

    I’m not a biology teacher, but I think this is right. Religion should be placed outside the class room. When we first studied biology in school, it started out with a brief history. That put religious beliefs and influence in a social and science perspective.

    This seems wrong to me however:

    Barash’s article is about how he tells his animal behavior class that science and religion are incompatible. In other words, he’s making theological arguments at a public university. … After all, if Eric Hedin can’t tell his students in a Ball State University science class that biology and cosmology are compatible with belief in God, why is it okay to say that they’re incompatible with God?

    First, Barasch doesn’t say that. He notes that, the same way nature could in principle have been chaotic it could have been infused with magic. “This is undeniable. If God exists, then he could have employed anything under the sun — or beyond it — to work his will. Hence, there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion,”.

    Second, exactly as nature is lawful instead of having chaotic sectors, it is lawful instead of having magic sectors. That science and magic action ideas are incompatible is an in principle observable fact, and I contend that we see that quantifiably beyond reasonable doubt. (E.g. sufficient much thermodynamic closure of systems. It is both a fact and a theory.)

    This fact adds to the incompatibility between the methods of science, that strives to replace unwarranted belief with fact, and religion, that strives to muddle fact with unwarranted belief. The latter method makes religion without fail not working, and that (together with that science works) is why we see it make erroneous claims across the board.

    This is hence not theology, it makes observations on religion. Theology is like religion, an erroneous method, and has made claims that fails. As Jerry says, theology is not about religion at all! It is about theologians making observations on other theologians, elevating opinion as an attempt to get at facts.

    The problem with Barash’s Talk is that it is unwarranted. It better be made in a comparative religion class which include history of religion and its attacks on science.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:32 am | Permalink

      I’m not sure I disagree with you, but I would point out that teaching at the high school level, I would be tempted to at least address briefly the social context of Darwin’s discoveries. They are so significant to the history of science that it would seem perverse to ignore it. This might lead to a discussion of philosophy and religion which would be parenthetic to the core curriculum.
      A reason to do this is that all subjects in high school attempt to relate concepts to other fields. Teachers are encouraged, for example, to include math in social studies, etc. Including an objective reference to sociology, history, government and religion in a science class where appropriate, I think, can be done without the instructor imposing personal opinions. They would have to keep the discussion objective and not personal. Students objections should be opposed gently with contrary facts, but the objecting student should not be made to feel persecuted. This takes tact and skill on the part of the teacher, yes. Without that skill, the safe thing to do is steer clear.

      • Diane G.
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        Sounds most appropriate to me.

    • Diane G.
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      “The problem with Barash’s Talk is that it is unwarranted. It better be made in a comparative religion class which include history of religion and its attacks on science.”

      It seems to me the trouble with that, though, is that a lot more students are going to find themselves in a bio course (if only to fill that science elective requirement) than are going to end up in a comparative religion course (unless it’s mandatory).

  21. eric
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    religion makes many existence claims about the real world or the real Universe. That’s one reason why NOMA has been heavily criticized by theologians, who resent being told that they can’t say anything about what exists.

    Agreed, but I think there’s a much stronger argument against it: NOMA assumes that no deity would ever reveal any physical/natural world claim to it’s followers. That is an absurd assumption. There’s just no good theological or philosophical reason to make it…and in making it, NOMA-proponents must claim to know something specific about how God(s) operate, which is also somewhat absurd.

    he’s still discussing their relationship, and his view of their incompatibility—in a science class. I wouldn’t do that, especially in a public university.

    I agree with you here too. The fact that he has a set speech and set arguments somewhat implies that he presents this subject as a regular class thing, which IMO he shouldn’t really be doing. It’s one thing to answer a student’s questions honestly in, say, office hours. But its quite another to spend class time on it. I don’t think it’s illegal or anything like that, just a bad idea.

  22. Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    If the classroom is state sponsored then so is the professor’s office, where the conference is still on the Publics’ dime and the university employee’s time. If a student asks for my opinion in class, I give it. I am a profess-er.

    • Posted September 29, 2014 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      I don’t think it’s the same. In class I force my views on students, a captive audience, but if they want to discuss my personal opinion and do so voluntarily in my office, I don’t think the law would treat that at all the same way, especially if I emphasize, as I do when I have these rare talks, that this is my own opinion, and tell the students that they need to consult their own pastor/rabbi/whatever if they are distressed.

      • eric
        Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:21 am | Permalink

        But the students are not captive (in class, in the legal sense), because the state did not force them to attend that or any other University, and if they walk out of that Uni and never come back, the state will not penalize them for it.

        I frankly don’t think either is unconstitutional conduct, but I fully agree with you that professors ought not do it because even if it’s legal, it’s a bad idea and doesn’t serve either the students’ or school’s best interests.

  23. Posted September 29, 2014 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Great discussion; just a few points:

    Addressing the incompatibility between science and religion in the science class at a public university, or at any university, can be correct. The topic can be addressed in numerous ways. Here I just refer to the one we use:

    The controversy science-religion is an observable phenomenon in society (equivalent to watching any measurable occurrence in nature) that needs an academic explanation, besides the rhetoric discussions that are, of course, necessary and valid in society. And we need both to foster progress.

    The incompatibility hypothesis “IH” (science versus supernatural causation), at least the way we have formulated it, explains what is the cause of the controversy, its fundamental reason (the emphasis of science versus the scopes of belief). Like any rational explanation of a natural phenomena, IH has predictions, methodologies suggested to test each prediction, and alternative explanations or hypotheses (like compatibility “CH,” and various sorts of harmonies), that is, the “falsifiers” of IH.

    Because testing IH can be academic endeavor, it does generate peer-review articles that can be discussed openly at a science-, philosophy-, history-of-science, comparative-religions, or religion-and-society class (public universities offer such courses, as discussed in previous posts).

    Thus, we offer an Evolution class in New England (for J-S undergrads and graduate students), which is divided in four themes, each covered during three weeks: first micro-evolution, second macro-evolution (note that we do not treat them as separate, actually we artificially divide them in two themes precisely to argue that we cannot refer to one without including the other; just an educational tool), third the applications of evolution to medicine and psychology; and fourth “the controversy.” In the latter we discuss primary literature on the clashes between science and religion, the incompatibility hypothesis and its falsifiers. The students read the literature, argue about it, present it, disagree and agree with the papers, while we, the instructors, facilitate the format and secure proper academic environment.

    In essence, because we treat the controversy as a testable phenomenon, one that can be studied scientifically, we do think that it belongs in the science class as a valid scientific topic of discussion. Now, even if we did not have the plenty academic literature on (in this case) the “evolution wars,” which roots are the science versus religion confrontation, we would still do everything possible to bring the discussion to our students. Proper liberal-arts education includes making such connections between science and society, or between any topic discussed at a university and in society. Remember Harry Lewis quotable “a good university challenges its students to ask questions that are both disturbing and deeply important,” and how his 2006 book “Excellence without a Soul: How a Great University [Harvard] Forgot Education” was heavily scrutinized in the media and academic circles? Lewis softened the title of the volume in subsequent editions. But his observations that “student discomfort” had turned into the politically-correct reason to avoid substance in the classroom was right on target.

    The process of science does occur in society, it is linked to human history and, although it is a challenge to discuss the plain truth, even at colleges and universities, because belief disrupts, distorts, delays or stops the acceptance of evidence, we must be creative and design the best possible strategies to communicate the truth to those (our youth) who will be responsible for leading the future.

    Jerry is right in bringing to our attention the thin line between communicating the truth to our students at the same time that we follow the law [the very law sometimes we wish to be different] in higher-education practices.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 9:51 am | Permalink

      After I found myself waffling a bit on what the boundaries are, you have put this issue in perspective for me. Thanks for pitching in.

    • eric
      Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      we offer an Evolution class in New England (for J-S undergrads and graduate students), which is divided in four themes, each covered during three weeks: first micro-evolution, second macro-evolution (note that we do not treat them as separate, actually we artificially divide them in two themes precisely to argue that we cannot refer to one without including the other; just an educational tool), third the applications of evolution to medicine and psychology; and fourth “the controversy.”

      I think that’s a fine way to cover it. But it’s significantly different from Barash’s method, which is the one I (in agreement with Jerry) somewhat disagree with.

  24. tomas
    Posted September 29, 2014 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

    Coyne:

    //”There’s no easy way to reconcile these with a loving and all-powerful God, though the entire discipline of theodicy is devoted to the effort. I haven’t yet seen a successful reconciliation, and theists know, deep in their hearts, that the problem remains.”//

    It easily reconcilable, for the same reason my friends view that The Notebook is the greatest movie ever is reconcilable.

    Good and Evil, along with Benevolence, even in the omni-strain are subjective, aesthetic terms, though to the chagrin of folks like Sam Harris. And the only way in which a persons use of the term can be wrong, is if they contained some internal contradictions with that particular person’s values, but they can’t be wrong because they disagree with ours.

    To say that a particular theodicy’s reconciliation is not successful, at best means that we don’t particularly like The Notebook all that much.

    But I do agree, Mr. Barash extended himself beyond his field of expertise, and the subject in which he is instructing his students on, and risks turning a class about biology, into a class about something else completely.

    • Posted September 30, 2014 at 7:00 am | Permalink

      Good and Evil, along with Benevolence, even in the omni-strain are subjective, aesthetic terms, though to the chagrin of folks like Sam Harris. And the only way in which a persons use of the term can be wrong, is if they contained some internal contradictions with that particular person’s values, but they can’t be wrong because they disagree with ours.

      Eh…no. Not at all.

      It doesn’t even matter how one defines, “evil”; all that matters is whether or not it exists at all.

      Epicurus made this painfully clear centuries before the invention of Christianity, even.

      Are the gods eager to stop evil, but unable? Then they are weak and powerless. Are they able but unwilling? Then they are themselves evil. Are they both capable and desirous? Then whence evil? Are they neither? Then why call them gods?

      The closest you can get to an out is to deny the existence of evil in the first place…which makes you either insane or evil. Wot, genocide and torture not evil? Not to mention that the battle against evil is one of the central themes of most religions.

      Oh — and the common dodge of, “free will,” is bullshit. All it does is put a name to the incompetence and / or malevolence of the gods.

      A young child with a cellphone could and would call 9-1-1 while watching a colleague get raped by one of the official representatives of the gods…so what’s the excuse of the gods themselves? Can’t be bothered to get a no-plan phone from the domestic violence shelter? Got one, but lost the charger? Cares more about the public image of the church than the kids the church is raping? Doesn’t have a problem with raping children in the first place?

      Epicurus provided hard, incontrovertible evidence that there just simply aren’t any powerful agents with the best interests of humanity at heart…and yet, all these millennia later, so much of humanity devotes themselves to the worship of these very same palpably nonexistent entities.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Posted September 30, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

        Or, as Michael Scriven pointed out ~50 years ago, there aren’t any relatively feeble but knowledgable agents (beyond humans and perhaps other animals) running around (here) either.

      • tomas
        Posted September 30, 2014 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

        @Ben Goren
        //Eh…no. Not at all.

        It doesn’t even matter how one defines, “evil”; all that matters is whether or not it exists at all.//

        Of course it matters.

        Is genocide and torture, evil in an objective sense, even if we both agree they are evil? We both may agree that Kate Upton is beautiful, and yet acknowledge that beauty is subjective.

        But of course the question of theodicy is a bit more complex than agreeing on certain things we find evil. It’s a question of does the concept of perfect benevolence and power, exclude allowing evil to exist.

        And there is no right or wrong answer to it, just like there is no right or wrong answer to do freckles exclude a person from being the most beautiful woman in the world.

        The questions is perhaps better understand if thought of in aesthetic terms. Can a perfectly moral artist paint portraits that contain violence, and destruction, or even depict immoral actions? If your answer is yes, than same rule is possible for a benevolent God, to create a world, as an artistic act, that contains these aspects as well.

        • Posted October 1, 2014 at 7:59 am | Permalink

          Ah, yes. Jesus is such an amazing artist, isn’t he? Just look at the detail in his work. Why, he even included the little children being raped by his own agents as the perfect ironic twist! Hard to imagine a more realistic work of art, no?

          Fuck that shit, sideways, with the proverbial rusty pineapple. These aren’t splashes of light and dark on a wall; it’s real flesh-and-blood people.

          You would, I daresay, consider it evil for some sadist to kidnap you and put you on stage and do all sorts of horrific things for his personal entertainment as part of a “work of art.” And you have the fucking nerve to suggest that your “perfectly moral” and “benevolent” gods should be worshipped for doing the same to so many uncountable organisms on just this planet alone?

          Damn. I think you’ve just made me more disgusted than William Lane Craig did with his defense of the rape of Midian. That really takes talent. How the hell can you even live with yourself? Doesn’t this sycophantic celestial ass-licking ever make you gag? Can you not taste the putrescence?

          Have you no sense of decency, of shame?

          Are you not human?

          b&

          • tomas
            Posted October 1, 2014 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

            //rt.” And you have the fucking nerve to suggest that your “perfectly moral” and “benevolent” gods should be worshipped for doing the same to so many uncountable organisms on just this planet alone?//

            err, my perfect and moral god? When I didn’t become a believer or a christian?

            My entire argument is primarily one that rejects common theodicy arguments, because in essence they appeal to notions such as objective morality, even among self respecting atheists, who seem to treat question regarding morality, good and bad, in the same way they treat answers to the mathematical problem, and failing to comprehend the subjectiveness of it all.

            // I daresay, consider it evil for some sadist to kidnap you and put you on stage and do all sorts of horrific things for his personal entertainment as part of a “work of art.” And you have the fucking nerve to suggest that your “perfectly moral” and “benevolent” gods should be worshipped for doing the same to so many uncountable organisms on just this planet alone?//

            Well, clearly it wouldn’t be the same would it. A being who creates a world in which all sorts of acts can occur moral and immoral, murder, rape, charity,love, etc… Is not on par with a rapist.

            Imagine if a gifted programmer were able to create computer generated world very much like our own, with self aware computer generated beings, that could feel pain, and joy, and every thing else we consider to be human. And this world also allows these creatures to act freely in the same way we can, in good and bad ways. And this programmer allows the world to exists autonomously, and doesn’t intervene in such a way in the lives of his creatures.

            Would this make the programmer on par with the rapist?

            My argument would be that the programmed world, doesn’t say much of anything about the moral nature of it’s creator, in the same way a painting doesn’t. And I think my analogies and far more accurate comparisons to the idea of a creator God, than your appeal to a rapist.

            • Posted October 1, 2014 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

              Your “programmer” would, at the very least, be creating an attractive nuisance. And since this same “programmer” is alleged to have full knowledge of all that goes on in the “program,” he’s also guilty of conspiracy and collusion and neglect and negligence and all sorts of similar insanely serious crimes that would get him at least as much time as the rapists themselves. And that’s all before we get to the RICO charges….

              Again, the only way to get out of the problem of evil is by declaring the most horrific criminal theoretically imaginable to somehow not be evil.

              Once more, with feeling: fuck that shit!

              b&

              • tomas
                Posted October 1, 2014 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

                //Again, the only way to get out of the problem of evil is by declaring the most horrific criminal theoretically imaginable to somehow not be evil.//

                The way out of problem of evil, is to simply to not view it as evil. You may in fact hold that the programmer in my scenario is evil, but this is just your opinion, not a fact of the world, and it’s an opinion that I or someone else can disagree with, just like your taste in films or woman, and be no more right or wrong than you.

                If someone doesn’t view the programmer as evil, or immoral as you do, he wouldn’t be wrong, he would just hold an opinion, a preference different than yours.

                Unless of course you hold to concepts like objective morality, and in that case you might as well come out of the closet as a believer.

                I understand you might feel much stronger in regards to morality, than you do about your taste in music, but just weary as a non-believer to not elevate these sentiments to religious gooblygook.

              • Posted October 1, 2014 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

                The way out of problem of evil, is to simply to not view it as evil. You may in fact hold that the programmer in my scenario is evil, but this is just your opinion, not a fact of the world, and it’s an opinion that I or someone else can disagree with, just like your taste in films or woman, and be no more right or wrong than you.

                “Tell that to the judge.”

                No, really — find a judge who would condone your example using, say, a Dungeons and Dragons game and the dungeon master organizing a game in which the players really did do all the things the rolls of the dice told them to. Say the resulting murder and mayhem isn’t really evil, just a matter of aesthetic opinion, that the dungeon master just created the environment and let the die roll as they may.

                See how far it gets you.

                b&

              • tomas
                Posted October 1, 2014 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

                //“Tell that to the judge.”//

                The only judge here in regards to morality is you and I, and even if something is illegal doesn’t necessarily make it immoral, like gay marriage, or abortion. In fact I don’t think there is any body of laws that would deem the programmers actions as illegal, but this is besides the point.

                My point still stands, your labeling of the programmer as immoral, or evil, is nothing more than your opinion, and nothing more than you expressing your distaste for a particular film, or book.

              • Posted October 2, 2014 at 6:46 am | Permalink

                If you truly believe that genocide and priestly child rape and similar horrors is not evil but rather an expression of an alternative aesthetic ideal, then you have completely lost your moral compass and are every bit as evil as the perpetrators of those crimes. And I would suggest that you have no place amongst civilized people and instead belong in an institution somewhere where you will have no ability to express your aesthetic tastes.

                For yours is the excuse of the criminally insane, the rallying cry of the depraved sadist, the fervent call to arms of the tyrant. There can be no respect nor admiration for a position such as yours; only hatred and contempt.

                b&

              • tomas
                Posted October 2, 2014 at 9:20 am | Permalink

                //If you truly believe that genocide and priestly child rape and similar horrors is not evil but rather an expression of an alternative aesthetic ideal, then you have completely lost your moral compass and are every bit as evil as the perpetrators of those crimes.//

                If you truly believe that people would have the choice to murder babies in their womb, than you’re no better than a rapist, pedophile or murderer, a dickhead, a douchebag. Your excuse for this is that of a depraved sadist, a sick and disgusting human being.

                See how it works?

                Of course I never said I personally don’t view rape or genocide as evil, in fact I do view them as evil, but yet this is subjective, my opinion, just like a believer’s opinion on what constitutes as life. There is no moral compass, as there is no God. If you want to appeal to evil, join a church, or start a religion, at least that way we can acknowledge that you at least believe it means more than just huffing and puffing.

                And also I showed you why the act of creating a world like ours, in the example of the programmer and his world, is not equivalent of the act of rape or murder. I may find rape and murder as evil, but I personally don’t find the programmer evil, based solely on creating such a world as ours.

                So you can accuse me of being no better than a sadist, because I don’t find the programmer evil, but don’t accuse me of not being no better than a sadist because I think child rape is not evil. To accuse me of the latter is slander.

                And if you accuse me of being no better than a rapist, because of not passing moral judgement on the programmer, solely based on the act of creating such a world, it really doesn’t amount to much. Because as far as I know you’re an atheists, and unlike a believer, you’re not accusing me of transgressing some sort magical law of the universe, but rather merely whining that I don’t care for the taste of peas.

                //There can be no respect nor admiration for a position such as yours; only hatred and contempt.//

                So you have no respect, and only hatred and contempt for those who wouldn’t pass moral judgement on the programmer in my example?

                You’ve become too emotional, get your shit together, and don’t accuse me of supporting things which I already made clear that I don’t support, such as rape and murder.

              • Posted October 2, 2014 at 9:23 am | Permalink

                Okay, gentlemen, this discussion is going to end right now, okay? It has gotten nasty on both people’s parts.

                Also, tomas, if you’re a believer, the custom here is for me to ask you, before you post again, to give us the evidence for why you believe in God. I ask that of theists before they can continue posting.

              • tomas
                Posted October 14, 2014 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

                @Jerry Coyne

                //Okay, gentlemen, this discussion is going to end right now, okay? It has gotten nasty on both people’s parts.//

                I apologize, to both you and Ben. I didn’t take too well to being accused of being no better than a child rapist, and lost my composure as a result.

                //lso, tomas, if you’re a believer, the custom here is for me to ask you, before you post again, to give us the evidence for why you believe in God. I ask that of theists before they can continue posting.//

                I consider myself an agnostic theist. Only partly in the door for theism, but not necessarily for any particular expression of it. I tend to believe that there is some sort of higher power, primarily because I think life has some sort of underlying moral reality, I think MLK would refer to this as the moral arc of the universe. And the underlying basis, or evidence that leads me to assume this, is because things like how we view our own morality. If I accuse morality of in essence being no different than any other subjective preference, I tend to get very passionate protest, not just from believers, but unbelievers as well. It’s evident that we feel very strongly about morality, that there are things that are evil, that everyone must agree is evil, or else we accuse them of being deranged. We believe something is wrong with them, but we don’t think the same of folks who don’t really care for the Beatles.

                Our sense of morality seems to betray our views of the natural world, as an unguided creation. We view morality, behaving immorally as a failure of person, in a way quite different that if he didn’t appreciate Tupac. We believe that in order to be a complete, or true human being, we have to be ones who have empathy for our neighbors, and have moral obligations. We view those who don’t as being defective, in the way we might view created things like watches, or bicycles as being defective. The picture being painted is one of human-beings being endowed with some sort of direction and moral purpose, that there seems to be some sort of underlying, spiritual reality.

                It doesn’t make much sense from a purely atheistic perspective, other than to view these underlying beliefs as pernicious delusions we have trouble ridding ourselves of.

                And the fact that non-believers often defend these same beliefs, and in fact speak of them so passionately, make it even harder to dismiss for someone such as myself. It would be easier if non-believers advocated a sort of moral nihilism as the truth.

                The underlying beliefs needed for the problem of evil to work, are the one’s I described, and we can see how passionately even non-believers become when we try to dismiss those underlying beliefs as decorative frills of our palettes. I think Bertrand Russell expressed this incongruity quite well in this quote: “I cannot see how to refute the arguments for the subjectivity of ethical values but I find myself incapable of believing that all that is wrong with wanton cruelty is that I don’t like it.”

                I understand none of this may convince you to believe as I do, but you asked for the evidence for why I believe, and I believe I provided some of the underlying reasons as to why I do, and the basis for those reasons.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted October 15, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

                Do you accept that we are our brains, ad science tells us or are you a dualists who, despite evidence to the contrary, believes we are all ghosts in the machine?

                This is important because if you accept the science, morality is a result of how our brains work. We have mirror neurons that allow us to feel empathy and we have brain architecture that accommodates processes to allow for the interpretation of these processes. Psychopaths are examples of people whose brains function differently and lack empathy and the amount of fear the rest of us feel. People who are autistic have empathy but lack theory of mind. They are oral but relate to the world differently as well.

                So, in other words, morality is a product of our brains which can be altered if the brain works differently. There is no evidence of an outside morality gifted to us by a diety.

  25. Josh
    Posted September 30, 2014 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    Just an observation: David Barash’s latest book is
    Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science

  26. colimit
    Posted September 30, 2014 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I’m with you on this issue — let’s keep the philosophical debate out of the science classroom.

    -Hans Halvorson

  27. Posted September 30, 2014 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  28. Jim Gutel
    Posted October 30, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Jerry A. Coyne is the first honest atheistic biologist I have ever read.

    • Posted October 31, 2014 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      So which are the dishonest atheist and honest theist biologists you’ve read? Hmm… it might be better not to answer that.

      /@


3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Barash’s talk. My problem is not with the substance of the talk, as I shall describe below. Unlike Jerry Coyne, I do not think there is any first amendment issue here. I’m not motivated by political […]

  2. […] para promover o ateísmo/agnosticismo em sala de aula também não é igualmente errado? Até mesmo o ateu militante Jerry Coyne acha que sim. Coyne diz concordar com tudo o que Barash escreveu (não surpreende), mas acha que ele deveria […]

  3. […] University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne is an atheist who takes every legitimate opportunity to trash theism. However, even he recognizes that what Barash is doing is not legitimate. While Coyne agrees with the content of Barash’s talk, he writes: […]

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