Sunday, August 02, 2009


Of Geese and Ganders

Jason Rosenhouse is continuing his review of Chris Mooney's and Sheril Kirshenbaum's book, Unscientific America. I'm not much interested in the book but Jason's arguments against Mooney's and Kirshenbaum's positions are another matter. Jason says this:

They put a lot of weight on the distinction between methodological and philosophical naturalism, apparently thinking that the New Atheists are confused about the distinction. As we have discussed in several recent blog posts, this distinction is of very little help in reconciling science and religion. They repeat Robert Pennock's asinine statement that, "Science is godless in the same sense that plumbing is godless," which I discussed in this recent post. If M and K think this is clever than I do not believe they fully understand the problem.

This is from the post Jason refers to:

In his book Tower of Babel Robert Pennock remarked that evolution is godless in the same sense that plumbing is godless. Other pro-evolution commentators have expressed similar sentiments. This statement is only true in a very trivial sense. Godlessness in plumbing is acceptable because absolutely no one is inclined to see anything of cosmic significance in the vagaries of pipes and water flow, or to find a supernatural explanation for a clogged drain. Evolution, by contrast, addresses subjects of far more fundamental significance, and posits things that are not at all what the world's major religious traditions have told us to expect. Many people expect to find God and the supernatural implicated in our arrival on Earth, and therefore believe that any explanation leaving God out must be fundamentally flawed.

This is, I think, the same mistake that is made when Stephen Jay Gould's notion of Non-Overlapping Magisteria is criticized because, historically, religion has claimed competence in the magisteria of science. There may well be other valid criticisms of NOMA but this one mistakes it for being descriptive rather than prescriptive. Just so, Pennock's trope expresses a view of science and of the material world in general that theists should adopt ... namely, that the intricacies of biology have no more "cosmic significance" than those of plumbing. Moreover, that is a view of science that many religions, such as the Catholic Church -- a fairly major religious tradition -- have adopted, in principle if not always in the execution.

Now, Jason may claim that it is hopeless to try to get most theists to accept such a view. But let's not forget that it is the position of the "New Atheists" that atheists should not start out assuming that religion will always be with us ... that to do so is to "start out with a defeatist attitude." Quite apart from the question of why we should only take one approach to the problem of conflict between religion and science, why should we have a defeatist attitude toward the possibility of convincing theists to stop looking to the natural world for confirmation of their beliefs?

Oh, wait! That result wouldn't be the one that atheists desire, would it?


For a long time, I have not been able to see why evolution is any more relevant to religion than reproduction is. To push the point, I would see reproduction as being, if anything, more relevant, as it could be entangled with one religious view about "a personal relationship with one's Creator", while evolution is about populations. Who really cares about populations?

It is unfortunate that "Scientific Storkism"/"Intelligent Delivery" is a joke, for there is a serious issue that it raises.

Tom S.
I've actually used that point with theist friends who are sort of anti-evolution without being creationists and it made them stop and think if not change their minds. Building Rome one brick at a time ...
Nobody cares about flowing water? Think about ground water. And finding it. That leads to dowsing, or water witching, and now you've entered a realm of religious zealots akin to Creationists!

A big reason why evolution is resisted (but not wholesale) is that it challenges the idea that we are special to God, which is a very big theme in most religions (In Christianity, God made humans first--essentially because he was lonely--and then the rest of the animals for the amusement of his new friends.) Of course, according to the theory of evolution, there is no privileged species. We all arose by the same mechanisms, humans and nematodes alike.

Many atheists have found new ways to be special, observing, plaintively and with mock Stoicism that the universe is "senseless," which is just as anthropomorphic a sentiment as that it has Purpose. In each case--loved, or abandoned--we are the protagonists of the story of life, which may be an inescapable part of being human.
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