Sunday, September 27, 2009

Extreme Atheists Are Like Extreme Religious Fundamentalists

Joshua Rosenau blogs at Thoughts from Kansas but don't be confused by the geography. He actually lives in California and works at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

His most recent posting concerns an issue that is often raised when we discuss the compatibility of science and religion [see On cracks]. The issue is outlined in a quotation from Kevin Padian, who is a strong supporter of NCSE and a vocal opponent of creationism.
The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn't really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.
Many atheists interpret this kind of statement as an insult and Jerry Coyne called it "an anti-atheist crack." This prompted Joshua Rosenau to respond like this.
First, note that Kevin Padian is a fairly open atheist, so if this line were "anti-atheist" it would have to be a sort of self-hating atheism. Second, how is it factually wrong? Some atheists (but not all) think science and religion are incompatible. Some religious fundamentalists also think this. There are also a bunch of people in the middle of the spectrum of belief who do not think that. Whether these represent a majority of Americans depends how you ask the question and what you do with undecided responses, but it is absolutely the case that most Americans belong to religious groups whose governing bodies have asserted the compatibility of science (including evolution) and their brand of religion.

What, then, makes Padian's factually correct statement about the beliefs of some atheists a "crack"? Is there any method at all to Coyne's outrage
Yes, Josh, there's a reason why some atheists are annoyed at remarks like that. Here's a list ....
  1. Padian disagrees with those of us who argue that religion and science are almost always incompatible. By labeling his opponents as "extreme atheists" he is trying to marginalize us. That's insulting.
  2. He insults us by associating us with our worst enemies (religious fundamentalists) and suggesting that we think alike.
  3. He uses the argument of popularity to support his position. Imagine that he lived in a country where a majority of citizens were atheists and believed that religion was incompatible with science. Would that change his opinion? Why should non-Americans, like Richard Dawkins for example, form an opinion based on whether or not it agrees with a majority of Americans? It's a silly argument. Either religion and science are compatible or they aren't. Since when did the opinion of the average American become relevant in debates like that?
If you are truly interested in the actual debate about compatibility then those kind of statements are completely useless in advancing your position.

On the other hand, if your primary objective is accommodationism—creating a comfortable place for theistic evolutionists—then Padian's statements make a lot of sense. It's a political argument, not a philosophical one. It's called "framing" and it's the official position of NCSE.

Kevin Padian is the President of the National Center for Science Education so it's not surprising that Josh defends him and the official NCSE position. Unfortunately, that defense involves alienating many former allies who happen to disagree with NCSE on the accommodationist issue. Those of us who disagree think that NCSE should be adopting a neutral position with respect to the overall compatibility of science and religion.

NCSE should continue to opposes the more obvious examples of incompatibility as manifest by the creationist attacks on evolution but it should not be in the business of defining those other areas where science is supposed to be perfectly compatible with religious beliefs.1

UPDATE: Jason Rosenhouse weighs in: Who Rejects Evolution?

1. What are those areas? I wonder if Josh or Kevin has a list?


  1. Rosenau is an extreme accommodationist.

  2. I believe it's called "militant new accommodationist".

  3. they do resemble each other. They are just different ways of being an asshole that can't be wrong. Extreme atheists are not rational, they are pseudorational. For isntance, they often peddle simplified, scientificaly inaccuratte versions of evolution in a narrow and dogmnatic way, to sell the idea that "we already have everything figured out". Anti-creationism has contaminated their proper scientific reasoning; for instance, they think that if they cannot say natural selection has all sorts of enormous powers, they'd have to give in to creationism. Coyne is an excellent example of just that kind of socio-cultural contamination, from looming creationism to ultra-darwinism.
    This is why as a scientist I'd take Padian over Coyne, anytime.

    Extreme atheists aggregate into human social clique much like any other: full of mutually re-affirmed, falshoods designed for their own brand of recomfortation.

  4. Darnit, Vargas. You got straw bits in my tea.

  5. Rosenau is an extreme, militant, fundamentalist accommodationist.

  6. A. Vargas, what some examples of Coyne or Dawkins misrepresenting evolution? Also, I've never read anything by either where they say they have all the answers. They freely admit that the current evolutionary biology has many unanswered questions.

  7. I think exteme atheists have the tendency to conflate evolution with atheism, which is unfair. i don't want anybody sticking an atheist label on evolution. I refuse to engage evolution in any metaphysical debates on the existence of god. This is why I hate Francis Collins (for instance).

    In one of his talks Jerry Coyne calls to "bow at the altar of reason" . Can you spell PSEUDO-RATIONALISM?

    This same guy will tell you its a proven fact that natural selection dominates evolution, and that development has been proven not to be impotant.

    You have to wonder, on what planet does Jerry Coyne live on?

  8. Surely the requirement that science and religion are compatible requires the holding of mutually exclusive positions.

    Religion purports to explain the natural through the supernatural, and seeks to explain certain phenomena as supernatural in nature.

    Science rejects the supernatural, and insists that everything can be explained through naturalist explainations, reduced to data comprehensible by the human senses.

    Science continually reassesses its position based on the evidence; as the evidence changes, the scientific consensus changes. The core theories of science rarely change as a result of their being so well supported by the evidence, but if new evidence of sufficient quality were to arise, the scientists would replace core theories to accomodate the new data.

    Religious rarely (if ever) reassesses its position, and often explicitly rejects evidence from its world view. As human knowledge advances and challenges existing dogma, religion digs in its heels and either states that the dogma is true (and therefore that scientists are lying) or says that the dogma is true in a metaphorical, ineffable sense.

    Since the two positions are mutually exclusive, the accomodationist position is that either people need to be able to be psychologically compartmentalised OR they need modify one of the two positions such that it doesn't exclude the other. This would mean accepting that science explains most things, but that the supernatural is a better explanation (for fewer and fewer things as time goes on - eg. a god of the gaps).

    I would argue that science and religion are therefore intellectually incompatible.

    However, this is not the same as the argument that all religion must be eradicated in the interests of society, nor is it the same as legitimising the attempt to work religious viewpoints in to scientific debate.

    Whilst Stephen Jay Gould suggested that science and religion are two non-overlapping magisteria, this is patently falsifiable and has been falsified. In principle, I support a situation where religious dogma doesn't impinge on scientific knowledge and research of any type. I am sure some can identify a reflexive principle with relation to science impinging on religion, but since I don't accept the concept of the supernatural, its difficult to see how science can extend beyond its own realm of expertise.

    However, even given such a hypothetical intellectual truce, it's clear before starting that religions of various types routinely seek to influence scientific research or interpretation of findings from their religious worldview.

    For example, it's astonishing the frequency with which religious leaders are called upon to pontificate (pun not intended) upon moral and ethical matters when the evidence repeatedly shows that religious leaders are no more or less moral or ethical than the common man in the street - and in some cases the religious leaders show a dangerous tendency to greater degrees of hypocrisy. However, where is the voice of the philosopher or expert in bioethics when we seek to explore some of the impacts on society of advances in biology?

    In short, like many scientists, I would be happy to ignore religion and leave it to its own devices, provided it left me alone, didn't try to dictate my life style, didn't claim moral or ethical highground and didn't engage in dishonest practices with regards to intellectual representation of research

  9. A Vargas: don't you think that use of the word "hate" is a little, well, emotional for an intellectual debate?

    Focus on the arguments, not ad hominems.

    And learn the difference between metaphor and literal belief.

  10. The basic controversy (particularly when between subsets of atheists) has become really muddled for, really, no good reason. There is no dispute about the facts; the problem is in the different meanings applied to the terms “religion” and “compatible” when employed in the conversation.

    For the “extreme atheists” (as labeled by faitheists), the term “religion” (when not further sub-defined) almost always refers to the nature of the particular beliefs employed by the vast majority of people who call themselves religious, along with the intellectual framework / mental processes used to organize, evaluate, and act on those beliefs. And “compatible” means logically consistent with the intellectual framework / mental processes employed in science and with the facts about the natural world that science has established (I’ll refer to this as the “hard” definition of “compatible”). It cannot be disputed that, if defined this way, science and religion are incompatible. And as far as I can tell, this is what the “extreme atheists” have always been claiming. (And I’ll refer to this as the “hard” argument for incompatibility)

    On the other side, the faitheists seem to use a more inclusive definition of “religion”, sometimes including pantheism and deism (and their intellectual cousins that the theologians concoct), and sometimes also including those with vague and indistinct feelings of “spirituality”. More importantly, “compatible” is typical defined as the ability of someone to fully accept the validity of the scientific process *and* to nonetheless be religious without losing ones capacity to be a functioning member of society. (This is the soft definition and the soft argument.) Sometimes the argument is considered to be won if just one example of a non-crank religious person can be identified as fitting the bill.

    The arguments erupt when:
    1- someone makes the hard argument, and the rejoinder is evidence that supports the soft argument.
    2- someone makes only a general claim of compatibility, and to various degrees implies they are using the hard definition of “compatible”, but use evidence that only fits the soft definition when challenged.
    3- someone makes only a general claim of incompatibility, and to various degrees implies they are using the soft definition of “compatible”, but use evidence that only fits the hard definition when challenged.

    Examples of the first situation are the reactions to the “four horsemen”. The pronouncements by AAAS, the National Academy, and NCSE are examples of the second. IMO, for the most part (I’ve seen exceptions, but not from an credible source) the third situation is what many faitheists claim is going on when in fact it is really the first.

    NCSE wants to use the soft definition for political purposes, knowing that many people will mistakenly think they are using the hard definition. No, they don’t explicitly state the hard definition. But they don’t give the soft definition either, because they know it will undercut the purpose of making a pronouncement about it. Larry, Coyne, and all the other non-faitheists that respond negatively to the NCSE (and its representatives) making these statements are simply saying that they should not address the issue at all, because they are being *deliberately* misleading. And (IMO), they are correct.

  11. There are two ways in which religion and science can be compatible.
    One is by defining 'science' as a collection of knowledge about the world. In this way many aspects of mainstream religion are indeed compatible with that particular definition.
    The other way they can be compatible in the case of defining 'science', not as a collection of facts, but as a method - 'the method we use to determine whether an idea about the natural world is wrong' - is to accept that some deistic, prime mover beliefs are not falsified by science and are therefore compatible (albeit somewhat pointless).
    For the accomodationist position it appears to be essential that the second, methodological definition of 'science' is never conceded.

  12. Re: The compatibility of science and religion.

    Have you seen this?

    Coincidently, Margaret Atwood's new novel_The Year of the Flood_ is nestled next to Dawkin's _The Greatest Show on Earth_, and ironically, the synopsis for Atwood's novel begins

    "Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners – a religion devoted to the melding of science, religion, and nature – has long predicted a disaster."


  13. David Waldock said: Religion purports to explain the natural through the supernatural, and seeks to explain certain phenomena as supernatural in nature.

    That is not the point of religion. Religion is about the personal justification of personal behaviour, in any number of religions. Therefore, religion has no bearing whatsoever on science.

    Similarly, science has no bearing on religion; this implies saying creationism is not religion, but dead science.

    One might as well argue about the compatibility or incompatibility of the appreciation of music or the appreciation of any other art and scientific facts. The argument is misleading to start with.

    I like agreeing with Vargas, for once.

  14. Heleen:

    If that were true, religious leaders wouldn't make scientific pronouncements, and wouldn't rely on supernatural explanations to explain their origins, to establish their authority or to justify beliefs.

    Therefore, on my understanding, the magisteria overlap. Perhaps you could explain why you think they are non-overlapping?

  15. Compatibility between religion and science?
    I recommend you all the page In that blog (left menu) you will find a link to an article that proves the existence of a Creator and His purpose with humankind.

    Could it be that the followers of all religions originates from the Creator; which would imply that the contradictions and conflicts among all religions reflect an intrinsic and internal cognitive dissonance and dysfunction within a self-contradicting Creator?

    The fact that the Creator is perfect (proven in the above website) implies that He isn’t self-contradictory. Therefore any religion, and all religions contradicts each other (otherwise they would be identical), that contradicts Torah (proven to be the instructions of the Creator in the post above) is the antithesis to the Creator.

    Torah is written by humans and thus contains error because of the fact that humans makes errors. By filtrating that which contradicts science one arrives to the instruction manual of the Creator.

    Anders Branderud

  16. Not too long ago I read Gould's Wonderful Life, and it gave me a different slant on NOMA. I think it is related to Gould's views on contingency. Since contingency is the rule, don't even bother looking for a value system based on directionality or whatever. This to me seems to be the source of NOMA for Gould. Except that as far as I can see he should have designated philosophy (ethics, etc.)rather than religion. Religious philosophers may do as they please.