Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Barbara King Replies

 
Barbara King sent me the following email message in response to my posting on her talk at Chautauqua [Barbara King at Chautauqua]. When people take the time to send me an email message my policy is to post such rebuttals without comment.
Hi, Larry Moran.

I think it's not too helpful to your readers to take a definition out of context from my book, and link it to my Chautauqua talk. At Chautauqua, I did not cite or employ Geertz's definition of religion.

Rather, I mentioned that I would focus on two aspects of religion (necessary but not sufficient aspects, as I put it), 1) the expression of empathy and compassion (which exist in balance with violence and cruelty, of course) and 2) symbolic rituals that in some way seem to go beyond the here-and-now, for example, burial rituals that go beyond hygenic disposal of the dead to include grave good and ritual processes that may embrace the sacred. I think the Chautauqua audience was more than capable of following that sort of framework, laced with a lot of examples from primate studies and archaeology that speak to those two particular aspects (of course, explaining too the inevitable risks in using great apes of today to model early human evolution.... that's an enjoyable point to debate, and I do enjoy conversations where people disagree on such things).

I'm not too sure how you could know what "most" of the audience of hundreds thought of my talk, unless you polled them? Your characterization of confused people doesn't fit with my experience of interacting with people there, at all....

I spoke at AAAS in Boston last winter and made a stand: I won't answer questions about my personal beliefs. The reason is really simpler than any you indicated (I surely don't remember saying what you said I said!): I'm a scientist, and want to keep focus on the science. Seems like a reasonable enough point. I don't understand this peculiar drive to know what scientists' personal beliefs might be! I was pleased that the Chautauqua audience applauded (literally) my answer.

I often enjoy your blog (some days more than others, clearly). I'd appreciate your posting this, if you're open to doing so.

Best wishes,

Barbara King


3 comments :

  1. I spoke at AAAS in Boston last winter and made a stand: I won't answer questions about my personal beliefs. The reason is really simpler than any you indicated (I surely don't remember saying what you said I said!): I'm a scientist, and want to keep focus on the science. Seems like a reasonable enough point. I don't understand this peculiar drive to know what scientists' personal beliefs might be! I was pleased that the Chautauqua audience applauded (literally) my answer.

    While I can understand the point you are trying to make, that your work is separate from your religious beliefs; it is an area of inquiry in which personal bias is very likely to creep in to the work, and the counter-point would be that audiences have a right to know what those biases might be.

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  2. Here's what the Chautauquan Daily concluded about Barbara King's talk [Aug. 22, 2008].

    Why does this matter that we think about the pre-history of religion? one thing it tells us is that people of faith do not need to fear evolution. “What I do want to do is bring together things that are so often kept apart,” King said, things such as god and gorillas or science and faith in a way that is not reductive science that reduces god to some part of the brain or to a gene.

    In our pre-history, there is a clear history of grappling with the sacred in some way, she said. If we look at our closest living relatives and where we came from, we know empathy and compassion are built into us just as violence and cruelty are.

    There are books that encourage choosing between religion or science, but there’s also a choice to make in a world in which religion and science talk to each other that conversation can be facilitated by thinking about evolution. We may choose to think
    about religion scientifically and focus on our long history of the natural world. “And we can look into a future where science and religion illuminate each other and illuminate us,” she concluded.


    To me, this sounds like the sort of thing that a religious person would say and not the sort of thing that an atheist would say. Like the man who asked the question, I'm curious about Barbara King's perspective and how it might influence her scientific observations.

    Would an atheist and a theist both look look at the behavior of other apes in the same way and conclude that this behavior is a precursor of religion?

    Would an atheist say that we can look to a future where "science and religion illuminate each other and illuminate us"?

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  3. I'm surprised that Prof. King described "the expression of empathy and compassion" as a necessary aspect of religion.

    Obviously it's a common aspect of many religions, but surely it's not universal. Religions that revolve around human sacrifice don't seem to have much empathy or compassion. (Unless the existence of such religions is a myth?)

    With all due respect to Prof. King, I wonder if this is indeed a case where her private beliefs may be biasing her viewpoint.

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