Thursday, March 22, 2012

New Scientist: The Accommodationist Issue

 
I subscribe to New Scientist. Many years ago, I decided that it was the best of the popular science magazines—better than Scientific American, National Geographic, SEED (now defunct), and Discover. Recently, however, I been having second thoughts as the quality of the articles deteriorates and more and more pseudoscience and wrong science is making its way into the magazine. The issue of March 17-23, 2011—The God Issue—is the last straw. This is no longer a science magazine.

It's not because the topic is out-of-bounds. Quite the contrary, I think it's perfectly appropriate to address the conflict between science and religion. There's even a good article in there; it's the one by Victor Stenger. Stenger argues convincingly that science conflicts with the existence of all personal gods. It's possibly compatible with a strictly deist god but nobody believes in such a god.

The problem is with all the other articles which are accommodationist to various degrees. Several of them flatly contradict science (and common sense). One of them (by Alain de Botton) advocates that atheists adopt some of the practices of religion as if religion has a monopoly on being nice.

You only have to read the editorial to see how bad things have become ....
"GIVE me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man." This Jesuit maxim epitomises how many of us perceive religion: as something that must be imprinted on young minds.

The new science of religion begs to differ. Children are born primed to see god at work all around them and don't need to be indoctrinated to believe in him (see "The God issue: We are all born believers").

This is just one of many recent findings that are challenging standard critiques of religious belief. As we learn more about religion's biological roots, it is becoming clear that secularists are often tilting at windmills and need to rethink.

Another such finding is that belief in a god or gods does appear to encourage people to be nice to one another. Humans clearly don't need religion to be moral, but it helps (see "The God issue: Religion is the key to civilisation").

An interesting corollary of this is a deeply held mistrust of atheists (see "In atheists we distrust"). In fact, atheists might consider themselves as unrecognised victims of discrimination. In a recent opinion poll, Americans identified atheists as the group they would most disapprove of their children marrying and the one least likely to share their own vision of American society. Self-declared atheists are now the only sizeable minority group considered unelectable as president.

Such antipathy poses a dilemma for opponents of religion, and may explain why "militant atheism" has failed to make headway.

Secularists would also do well to recognise the distinction between the "popular religion" that comes easily to people's minds and the convoluted intellectual gymnastics that is theology. Attacking the latter is easy but will do little to undermine religion's grip (see "The God issue: Science won't loosen religion's grip").

This is not an apologia for god. Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally - which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with. Religion is deeply etched in human nature and cannot be dismissed as a product of ignorance, indoctrination or stupidity. Until secularists recognise that, they are fighting a losing battle.
The editors seem to have been completely bamboozled by the article entitled Born Believers. The author is Justin L. Barrett of Fullier Theologial Seminary in Pasadena, California (USA). Barrett argues ....
Drawing upon research in developmental psychology, cognitive anthropology and particularly the cognitive science of religion, I argue that religion comes nearly as naturally to us as language. The vast majority of humans are "born believers", naturally inclined to find religious claims and explanations attractive and easily acquired, and to attain fluency in using them. This attraction to religion is an evolutionary by-product of our ordinary cognitive equipment, and while it tells us nothing about the truth or otherwise of religious claims it does help us see religion in an interesting new light.
Barrett quotes a few studies in support of his claim but those studies don't really say what he thinks they say. It makes no sense to say that young children find religious claims and expectations attractive unless they have heard these explanations from adults.

I don't remember a time in my childhood when I spontaneously created a supernatural being who expected me to behave in certain ways. I never saw any evidence that my children needed to create gods and I don't see any evidence that my two-year-old granddaughter needs to imagine sky daddies in order to understand the world around her.

There are millions of children in Europe who are growing up as second and third generation atheists and I can't imagine that their parents are upset because the children are turning out to be "born believers." The idea is ridiculous. It could only come from a culture where young children are being constantly brainwashed by stories about gods. There's no such thing as an innate attraction to religion in a culture with no religion in the first place.

Oh, and one other thing, it's not true that belief in one of the gods makes you a nicer person. If that were true then America would be one of the kindest, nicest, societies among all Western industrialized nations. And Saudi Arabia would take the prize for the nicest society in the world. And you sure as hell wouldn't want to live in evil, crime-ridden Sweden or Holland.


29 comments :

  1. It's understandable that they don't want to alienate their readership by taking a hard atheist position. But what a pity they (and the rest of the accommodationist movement) don't follow Einstein's strategy of being pro-religion after defining it to exclude any ontological claims:

    "As regards religion, on the other hand, one is generally agreed that it deals with goals and evaluations and, in general, with the emotional foundation of human thinking and acting, as far as these are not predetermined by the inalterable hereditary disposition of the human species. Religion is concerned with man's attitude toward nature at large, with the establishing of ideals for the individual and communal life, and with mutual human relationship. These ideals religion attempts to attain by exerting an educational influence on tradition and through the development and promulgation of certain easily accessible thoughts and narratives (epics and myths) which are apt to influence evaluation and action along the lines of the accepted ideals.

    It is this mythical, or rather this symbolic, content of the religious traditions which is likely to come into conflict with science. This occurs whenever this religious stock of ideas contains dogmatically fixed statements on subjects which belong in the domain of science. Thus, it is of vital importance for the preservation of true religion that such conflicts be avoided when they arise from subjects which, in fact, are not really essential for the pursuance of the religious aims."

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  2. Its an appalling editorial. The problem is humans are susceptible to believing in hidden agencies, drawing incorrect inferences from coincidences, and being afraid of the unknown...religion latches onto these tendencies by both lapels and calls them profound and noble.

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  3. Larry,
    Thank you for the excellent review of the New Scientist: The God Issue. I check your site regularly.

    However, your comment "I don't remember a time in my childhood when I spontaneously created a supernatural being who expected me to behave in certain ways" gave me pause to think.

    I can't say the same. According to my parents, when I was ~2 years old I did something that suggested I thought there was a god of some type. I have no recollection of the event; I was too young. Supposedly, at that time I was very fearful of the household vacuum cleaner because it made a tremendous amount of noise. I would run away and hide when anyone started using it. One day my parents found an offering, a small chocolate bar, delicately placed on the vacuum cleaner in the closet. I was the only one who could have done this. This offering was interpreted by my atheist parents as me trying to appease the "vacuum-cleaner-god" with a valuable, and delicious treat. Remember, I was only ~2 years old.

    Food for thought...

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    1. Unlike the xtian or muslim god, the vacuum cleaner actually exists.

      What was it's position on gay marriage ?

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    2. "What was it's position on gay marriage ?"

      It sucks.

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    3. Could the chocolate bar have been an offering to mum or dad? If they were busy eating chocolate, they wouldn't vacuum.

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  4. Having read Dawkin's "God Delusion" and followed the arguments on various blogs concerning "militant atheism" it is clear that contrary to what the editorial says, the opponents of religion do have a good understanding, and likely better than most proponents. It seems quite likely that humans are predisposed to religion in some form, as a social cohesive, a unifier, which might help communities survive difficult times, and which would provide those at the top of the hierarchy (who might be called bullies) the best opportunities for mates and food - look at primate behaviour int he wild. The invention of gods, which might have come out of the tendency of the young to have imaginary friends, may simply be a justification for our natural hierarchical tendencies.

    Regarding, New Scientist, what troubles me most in reading its articles on evolution is that they are all teleological - there is always some reference to a feature having evolved to do something, for some purpose, which misstates the theory.

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  5. Thanks for your comments Larry - I must point out that all the articles (aside from the interview with the misunderstood Alain de Botton) are written by working scientists. I think it's a bit insulting to to say that they "flaty contradict science".

    It is not accomodationist. The title of the editorial is "Know your enemy". It says all over the place that god doesn't exist, religion isn't true and even though it may have been useful in the past we don't need it any more. But we do need to understand what it is we are trying to get rid of.

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  6. I think I know where Barretts claims come from. Years ago I saw toddlers getting tested for their intuitions on basic physical principles. For example, using simple tricks they created a box that would instantly shrink objects down. So they'd put a large ball in the box and immediatly take out a much smaller identical one. They also had 'teleporters' etc. The children were completely unsurprised by all of this, and were prepared to start using the objects in their play. This tells us that children have little intuition about the natural world. Of course if you tell toddlers that theres an uber-mind watching over all of us they'll immediately take that for granted. I think we all have a tendency to see 'mind' where it isn't but this doesnt have to overide our rationality. Every time we get angry at a computer or ATM etc we're acting as if those objects had a mind...but of course we know they dont.

    RodW

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  7. I don't think that switching to National Geographic would be your preferred solution. Their recent march 2012 issue contained a lengthy article on the Christian apostles with abysmal standards.

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  8. One should be extra skeptical with psychology but there is good evidence that we are “born believers”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1iMmvu9eMrg

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  9. @anonymous: thinking that the vacuum cleaner is sentient is not the same thing as inventing a supernatural being.

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    1. True. If you worship the vacuum cleaner, at least you're worshipping something REAL that actually demonstrably DOES something.

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  10. Try Science News. A weekly, not a monthly, magazine that is just, well, science news.

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  11. There is no conflict between science and religion. There is a conflict between religion and an ideology called naturalistic materialism which Larry Moran subscribes to.

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    1. Science IS natural and materialist. It doesn't deal with anything else. Don't look for it to delve into how many angels can swim on the head of a beer.

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    2. So you say. But looking for exclusively naturalistic and materialistic causes has not solved any of the major problems of modern biology. Nature is not self-contained and self-explanatory.

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    3. Of course purely material and natural explanations have solved major problems in biology - we understand one of the 2 central problems in biology, how life evolves, in materialistic terms with great detail. The other major problem, the origin of life, while not understood in any great detail, at least has outlines of potential explanations given in terms of well understood natural processes. We understand other problems, the variation of genetics in sexual and non-sexual life, mutations and the like in material terms. Even apparently complex systems, like the blood cascade or the eye, and flagella are explained in material terms. No prayer, no transcendent experiences, no trances or astral travel needed ... only reality and reason.

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    4. "Nature is not self-contained and self-explanatory."

      So YOU say. But aside from asserting it, not a single one of you has yet DEMONSTRATED that.


      "But looking for exclusively naturalistic and materialistic causes has not solved any of the major problems of modern biology."

      Well, gee, I'm no scientist, but just off the top of my head... it's cured polio and smallpox and cholera and typhoid, etc.; found a treatment for diabetes and rabies that kept their diagnosis from being a death sentence; it discovered the mechanism of heredity and is beginning to use that knowledge to cure diseases with a genetic basis; it has discovered anesthesia, antibiotics, and anti-rejection drugs that have made organ transplants a viable technique for saving lives... The use of the scientific method--a focus on natural and materialistic causes for the effects in the world around us--relatively quickly identified the causes of AIDS and Legionnaires Disease (among others) and thus the means to avoid contracting either.

      And that's just from a layman out of the blue on a Monday morning before his first cup o' Joe. All of that is demonstrable. What's also demonstrable is that during all the miserable centuries and millennia before, all the prayer to all the different gods people were sold and their various intercedenets didn't save the hundreds of millions that naturalism and materialism--science--has saved in the past 300 years or so. It just gave people suffering from those issues something to mumble on the slide to the grave.

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  12. Prof. Moran is perfectly correct, the standards of the New Scientist have been falling for a long time. It seems to think that a target for circulation through sensationalism is perfectly proper for a magazine with 'Scientist' in its title. Accurately titling articles would be a start. Too many times I have seen a headline that bears too little resemblance to the actual content.

    That several of the authors flatly contradict science may be insulting but happens to be correct. The first article by Justin Barrett, starts by claiming that Mozart was a born musician. That he was a wonderful composer is not in doubt but to say that this is some sort of genetic inheritance on the same level as speech or bipedal walking requires proof that Barrett does not supply. So having failed in his first premise he then uses that to build a castle made mostly of hot air.

    Perhaps he is a scientist in other areas, but the 'cognitive science of religion'? This is on the same level as 'evidenced based homeopathy'.

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    1. Perhaps he is a scientist in other areas, but the 'cognitive science of religion'? This is on the same level as 'evidenced based homeopathy'.

      Uh....no, it isn't. The cognitive science of religion seeks to explain the cognitive mechanisms of religion, which is a legitimate use of science.

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    2. "The cognitive science of religion"

      Religion isn't a science. It forms its conclusions (not merely its hypotheses, but its CONCLUSIONS) a priori and conceives of them such that they are unfalsifiable and thus untestable. Those are necessary to the scientific method and anything that by dint of its formulation denies their use is by definition not science. Dungeons & Dragons has a better claim to being science than religion does... at least you have to roll the dice and abide by the results.

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    3. Religion isn't a science.

      I didn't say it was. All I said is that religion (more specifically the cognitions that comprise religious belief) can be studied with cognitive science. I'm not sure why you seem to be objecting to the idea that the cognitive structures of religion can be studied with science in a way that isn't aimed at "debunking" it.

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    4. I'm not sure what your conclusions would be. The only applicable sciences I can think of are anthropology and perhaps sociology. I suppose you could delve into why people feel a need to be religious and why and under what circumstances they set aside reality to accommodate concepts of the supernatural, but again, even here, the ultimate goal would seem to me to be learning ways to help people break out of the mindset. Frankly I don't see the difference between convincing people in Africa witches aren't real so they don't have to kill their kids, and convincing people in the First World that gods aren't real, so they shouldn't hold up stem cell research on the basis there are little souls swimming around in the petri dish.

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    5. Perhaps you should try to avail yourself of the topics of the cognitive science of religion before you dismiss it. Your professed ignorance of the field is quite telling.

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    6. "Perhaps you should try to avail yourself of the topics of the cognitive science of religion before you dismiss it. Your professed ignorance of the field is quite telling."

      Uh huh.

      So your Google link sends me, fairly directly, to Wikipedia, which tosses out "cognitive psychology, evolutionary psychology, cognitive anthropology, artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience, neurobiology, zoology, and ethology". I said sociology and anthropology (in aid of "delv[ing] into why people feel a need to be religious and why and under what circumstances they set aside reality to accommodate concepts of the supernatural"). I don't see my guess as being so far off the mark in terms of scope that I'm professing anything like real ignorance; in fact, I'd call it a pretty shrewd estimation, off the cuff.

      Maybe there's more you like to add to that list, though, that DOESN'T reasonably closely conform to what I said?

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  13. Recently, however, I been having second thoughts as the quality of the articles deteriorates and more and more pseudoscience and wrong science is making its way into the magazine.

    Ha! I could have said that years ago. Wait a minute. I DID say that years ago!

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  14. "But looking for exclusively naturalistic and materialistic causes has not solved any of the major problems of modern biology."

    To date, looking for materialistic causes has solved major problems like the diversity of life (evolution), the nature of inheritance (genetics), the causes of infectious diseases (germ theory), the mechanisms of transplant rejection (immune theory), just to name a tiny, tiny fraction. How many major problems have been solved by looking for non-materialistic causes - in biology or anywhere? ZERO.

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  15. Newton opined that the intercession of god would be necessary to maintain the stability of the Solar System over long periods of time. A hundred years later, LaPlace showed, using perturbation theory, that the Solar System was stable and that no such intercession was required. When asked by Napoleon what part god might play in the stability question, he replied that he had no need of that hypothesis. Similarly, biologists have shown that there is no need of the hypothesis that god is responsible for the existence of the various species that are known to exist now and in the past. The theory of evolution explains it well.

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