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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jerry Coyne's article in USA Today

For those who haven't yet seen it, Jerry Coyne has a New Atheistish article in USA Today. I especially like the way he uses Ecklund's work on the religiosity or otherwise of American scientists. The data provided by Ecklund are often used in a rather desperate manner to try to show that religion and science are compatible - on their face, though, they cause a big problem for that thesis: for whatever reason, American scientists are far less religious, on average, than the American population as a whole. Now, you could try to rationalise away that inconvenient fact if you want. For example, you could try to prove that non-religious people are disproportionately attracted into science, as opposed to a knowledge of science tending erode people's faith. There could be an interesting argument about that, no doubt, and we probably need more information to settle it. But what you can't honestly do is use the data to argue that there's not a problem.

Near the end, Jerry concludes:

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith's certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

Now that may not be the whole of the story. In my series of pieces on Kitcher, I'm looking at what genuine concerns there may be about "militant atheism", and I think I know what Kitcher would say about this. For example, he'd suggest that a lot of religious people don't have faith in the sense that Jerry means and are not opposed to progressive stances on the issues he lists.

I'll soon be getting to part 3 in my series on Kitcher's views, but for now it's worth pointing out yet again that much of the opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, almost all the denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, a great deal of the sexual repression, and plenty of the religious wars and persecutions of the past can be attributed to the supposedly "moderate" Roman Catholic Church. I'm not going to let any of the religious off the hook too quickly.

The genuine moderates are, unfortunately, not as common as we should like to see, and they're not winning the world-wide war for the hearts and minds of the faithful. By and large, there's still a good argument that we'd be better off without religion entirely.

But we'll come to that issue in another post.

17 comments:

Robert N Stephenson said...

Always interesting, naturally, but sometimes I think you try to claim far too much based on very little - the same kind of position the Catholic Church often takes...

For your brand of atheism to work Russell, and it is a certain brand I see now and again (not very common, nor widely accepted) all religions (note you usually only cite Christianity) need to function with one homogenous voice, or one homgenous manner of thinking.

It doesn't and hasn't for centuries so adjustments to positions do need to be made - again I would say not a likely proposition given what is to be gained from one side or another.

Despite claims of the decline of Christianity by atheists almost daily now the religion continues to grow, and there are more Christians today then there were 12 months ago. Just saying something is a particular way does not make it so, regardless of what argument you are trying to make...

What we have is a problem with truth - or each sides variation of that truth -- until you understand the nature of this unmeasurable and untestable quantity there will just be voices and walls.

For me I have grown tired of the walls and aboslutes

Robert N Stephenson said...

hah, some of that even made sense... must be having a bad day...

Jerry Coyne said...

Yes, Kitcher may say that lots of "religious" people don't accept nonscientific dogma at all, but by anyone's lights many more of them do! It would be foolish to claim that there are millions and millions of religious people whose faith directly contradicts the claims of science.

Russell Blackford said...

Jerry, I think you meant to write "deny" where you wrote "claim" - yes?

We'll get to this tomorrow, but I think it's pretty obvious that there are many millions of religious people whose view of the world plainly and directly conflicts with robust scientific findings.

Jerry Coyn said...

Yes, my mistake. It's "deny". Thanks.

Russell Blackford said...

The argument about Kurtz isn't actually about whether his substantive position is correct. I don't think Kitcher's position is entirely correct, but even if it were, and even if their positions were identical, their ways of presenting their criticisms it have been very, very different. One is making thoughtful, civil comments in a philosophy journal, going out of his way to praise those whom he's critiqueing; one is conducting a very personalised PR campaign, undermining a board that he was serving on, refusing to stay on the board if his views did not prevail at board meetings, etc.

Kurtz's behaviour has been nasty, egotistical, and unprofessional. Kitcher is going about things in the right way if he wants to express reservations about what his colleagues (Dawkins, etc.) are doing. There's a huge difference.

If Kurtz were acting in the same way as Kitcher, he'd still cop some flack for his actual views, no doubt. But he would not be doing the same damage to the CFI or attracting the same ill-feeling.

Robert N Stephenson said...

generally these discussion are at the base little more than guesses dressed up as some kind of hard fact.

Millions of Christians believe without doubt in the teachings of the bible. I do not deny this

Many millions of Christians are in fact more enlightened and believe the bible is a book of teachings to be applied to modern life, not instead of - thus these are perhaps the hard science based or eveolutionary Christians.

Many Millions of Christians now only believe in the teachings of Jesus outseide of the direct biblical applications:

The number of old school Christians is dwindling in some parts of the word and growing in others. While atheism is beating the old death to them all drum. Exageration I know, but some days it sounds like it.

I took time to understand the history of my faith, the science of my world and the philosophy of existence...

It is justv a pity most atheists only sproud what is little more than propoganda thought up by an angry person who had a bad day.

Russell Blackford said...

Rob, I have no idea who these most atheists are. If you mean me, it's unfair and inaccurate. I bet I know a lot more about theology, philosophy of religion, religious history, and comparative religion than you do. In my experience, moreover, most atheists know much more about these things than the average person or even the average religious person.

See, two can play at this game.

Robert N Stephenson said...

Russell, you can take whatever position you like, but you have learned about religions from a atheist POV, you have simply found out the information that supports that POV.

I have looked at religion from my once atheist POV and like you had my misgivings. Then as a Christian I looked at it again and was surprised to find most of those atheist POVs didn't actually change - some naturally, because I now followed the teachinsg of Jesus and adopted the concept of God (not the biblical one, but one more than just a minority consider)

Now, as you are someone who says you know more about religions than me, then that is fine - but I then raise the question. This old atheist discovered things I use to rave on about as an atheist were actually quite wrong. You commentary doesn't suggest this.

You may know a lot about theology - good for you - Christainity isn't about theology, but I would say only Christians might understand that. Also Christianity isn't about laws, regulations or even doctrines (these are adoptions made by other influences)

So, just what is Christianity Russell? Seriously, you speak out against religion, faith and any one who professes it, so naturally you must know what it is.

Russell Blackford said...

Rob - you don't know what you're talking about when you turn up here and make accusations about what I do or do not know, the inadequacies of my life experience, etc.

I've been very patient with you, but I implore you to stop doing this sort of thing. It damages your credibility with me and with other readers and wastes my time. If anyone else insisted on doing this even after being asked repeatedly to stop it and focus on the arguments, I'd probably have banned them from the blog by now.

Once again, can you please stop making this personal and just discuss the issues and arguments in a reasonably detached manner? I'm being patient with you because I know you in real life in another context, and also because you seem to be the sort of Christian that I've said over and over again my posts are not actually directed at.

I'm not sure what's really bugging you, but try to get some perspective on this. There are better things for you to do than spend so much time commenting here in a way that wastes my time (and yours) and is completely unpersuasive, and even makes you look foolish. Please think about this, ask a friend about it, or something. Really, for your own sake ...

Robert N Stephenson said...

Russell, this is not the first time you have been asked a question, but instead of an answer there is a warning...

Me, I have no issues actually, just an idea that all things need to be kept in balance and as subjective as possible.

You cannot deny your POV is atheist and I might guess it perhaps always has been, now that isn't a problem for any reasonable person. The view you have say of Christianity is from that atheist view point - again, not a problem but it does have that view.

I simply asked, in all you have learned, you must then know what Christianity is all about - I have noted you often post as if you do, so it is a fair and reasonable question.

You don't have to actually answer it, as it is your right not to, and naturally I defend that right. Maybe it isn't any kind of discussion needed on the otherside of the divide but more a supportive discussion that is required. I am sorry Russell, as much as I consider your view very sound most of the time I do have difficulty when you threaten...

Ban me Russell, if that is what you desire. My repuation and credibility amongst many peoples is strong and all know my position; true they do not all agree with me and my desire for fairness and objectivity, but posting here is no different to me than a coffee clatch.

I often wonder why the avoidance of the personal though, as it is our personal views that drive most of our discoveries and developments as people - it is, in essence what makes us tick. If my credibility is damaged with you, then perhaps it wasn't very strong in the first place, and I am sorry for that fact.

I will consider myself banned

Russell Blackford said...

Fine.

Ophelia Benson said...

At last!

Kirth Gersen said...

"For your brand of atheism to work Russell, and it is a certain brand I see now and again (not very common, nor widely accepted) all religions (note you usually only cite Christianity) need to function with one homogenous voice, or one homgenous manner of thinking."

I'm not seeing this. They need not all be alike -- they need only make truth claims that contradict physical reality (which 99% of them do, regardless of the heterogeneity in other areas).

Kirth Gersen said...

"Despite claims of the decline of Christianity by atheists almost daily now the religion continues to grow, and there are more Christians today then there were 12 months ago."

Naturally -- there are millions more people on Earth now than there were 12 months ago. Compare the rate of change of growth per capita, though...

Kirth Gersen said...

@Russell -- I hope I wasn't out of line there, in replying to specific points from upthread, but RNS' personal arguments aside, his initial logic had some tunnel-sized holes in it that I couldn't help but drive into.

Anonymous said...

[...]for whatever reason, American scientists are far less religious, on average, than the American population as a whole. Now, you could try to rationalise away that inconvenient fact if you want. For example, you could try to prove that non-religious people are disproportionately attracted into science, as opposed to a knowledge of science tending erode people's faith. There could be an interesting argument about that, no doubt, and we probably need more information to settle it.

Actually, we have some relevant data---Ecklund's own data, which she quite intentionally misrepresents.

Ecklund tries to explain away the correlation between scientific achievement and irreligiosity by pointing out that scientists come disproportionatey from less religious backgrounds.

What she doesn't tell you is that her own data make it quite clear that is nowhere near a big enough effect to acount for the irreligiosity of scientists.

Of the people who do become scientists---i.e., after the self-selection process going into science, the effect is still very strong. The large majority of people who do become scientists were raised religious, mostly Christian, and yet most scientists don't believe in God---clearly including about half the ones from religious households.

It may be that many of the religiously-raised scientists lose their religion early, before becoming scientists, so there still could be a big self-selection effect.

Still, the way Ecklund uses her statistics is just dishonest. She makes it sound like self-selection solves the problem, and her household-of-origin statistics are sufficient to show that statistically. She clearly implies that there isn't a big effect of scientists becoming less religious than they were raised to be. That's patently false.

But what you can't honestly do is use the data to argue that there's not a problem.

Right. That's why Ecklund doesn't do any of the obvious statistical analyses of her own data, or chooses not to publish the results. It'd be utterly obvious that her preferred thesis---and the Templeton party line---is just wrong.

If you're going to use statistics to make claims about the correlation between science and irreligion, you should least admit it when your own statistics clearly show that there is a very large and quite robust one.

Ecklund should get roundly criticized for doing truly bad science. She's shamelessly lying with statistics.

--- Paul W.