Is Evolution Religion?

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I received the following interesting and thoughtful letter from a retired physician, whom I shall call Dr. S. I have not received permission to publish Dr. S’s letter verbatim, so I will paraphrase it:

Dr. S says he was “raised a Christian but didn’t have it shoved down [his] throat.” He majored in biology and chemistry in college and had a year of biochemistry in medical school. He takes evolution “as a given.”

Dr. S recently read a magazine article defending evolution against intelligent design and also mentions the new book Why Intelligent Design Fails. He asks if we are making a mistake and doing poor science. True scientists, he suggests, would “question the theory of evolution to make sure it’s not just another crackpot idea that has gained wide acceptance.”

Indeed, by defending evolution are we not lowering it from science to religious dogma? Has the theory of evolution become “an anti-religion religion”?

Dr. S thinks we should encourage intelligent design and calls it “a graceful way for Christians and Jews to evolve away from the Old Testament story of creation which is probably a total crock.”

Dr. S raises good points and probably shares his qualms with a great many observers. I will therefore answer him here.

First, Dr. S’s implicit assumption is that intelligent-design creationism is a religion. It is not. It may be religiously motivated, but it is not in itself a religion. It is a pseudoscience and needs to be fought like all pseudosciences. I doubt that Dr. S would demur if some medical practitioners spent their time exposing homeopathy or therapeutic touch as quackery, nor would he fear that the practitioners who did so were somehow making a mistake and turning medicine into an anti-quackery quackery. In the same way, we are by no means turning science into religion by defending evolution against intelligent-design creationism. Indeed, the book, Why Intelligent Design Fails, which I coedited with Taner Edis, attacks intelligent-design creationism on its scientific merits (or lack thereof) and barely mentions religion, except in a historical introduction.

Wouldn’t true scientists question the theory of evolution to make sure it’s not some crackpot idea? Of course: evolutionary biologists probably do so implicitly every time they perform an experiment or interpret a data set.

Theory is technical term in science - a term of art, or a word that has a very specific meaning in a given field - and emphatically does not mean a hunch or a speculation. My American Heritage Dictionary gives the following definitions of “theory”:

1.a. Systematically organized knowledge applicable in a relatively wide variety of circumstances, especially a system of assumptions, accepted principles, and rules of procedure devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena. … 2. … speculation. … 4. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

The theory of evolution is a theory in sense 1.a, not 2 or 4, which are more colloquial uses of the term; Dr. S may be using “theory” in senses 2 or 4. No theory in science is ever a crackpot idea that has gained wide acceptance, inasmuch as a theory has to be tested over and over before it is accepted as a full-fledged theory. Indeed, it is unfortunate, in a way, that scientists speak of the theory of evolution, rather than the law of evolution. Perhaps it is our humility that gets in the way of public understanding. But in fact the use of theory here is very close to law, as in the law of gravity.

Evolutionary biology is based on the observed fact of common descent. “Everyone” knew the fact of common descent in Darwin’s day. Lamarck’s theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics was an attempt to account for common descent; it foundered on its lack of a mechanism and on the noninheritance of many acquired characteristics. Darwin and Wallace accounted for common descent by developing a theory that included natural selection, but additional mechanisms have since been identified. The fossil record, the genetic code, and a body of mathematical inference all contribute to the modern theory of evolutionary biology.

Let me give an analogy from Dr. S’s own field: the germ theory of disease (my colleague Tara Smith will have more to say about this theory shortly). The germ theory of disease was an attempt to explain the fact that many diseases are infectious. It has been well established by observation and laboratory experiment. If we count viruses as germs, then the vast majority of diseases are caused by germs. You would frankly have to be nuts to deny the germ theory. Even ulcers have been shown to be caused by germs, though there is still controversy whether stress is an additional factor.

Not all diseases are infectious. Depending what you count as a disease, schizophrenia, hayfever, scurvy, cancer, and diabetes are presumably not infectious (though it is possible that certain diseases that are not considered infectious nevertheless have infection as a component). Mad-cow disease, by contrast, is caused by an infectious agent that is not alive and hence not a germ. The germ theory of disease is by no means undermined by such observations; we simply conclude that we have more work to do, and the germ theory is subsumed by a more-general theory that includes deficiencies, genetics, and environmental agents.

In the same way, Darwin and Wallace’s theory was subsumed by a more-general theory that is sometimes called the modern synthesis.

Is evolutionary biology (the modern synthesis) a dogma? No, no more than the law of gravity. Is it an anti-religion religion? No. Evolutionary biology says nothing whatsoever about God. It says that we can adequately explain the observed fact of descent with modification without invoking God or a creator, but it by no means denies the existence of a creator. Some biologists think that evolutionary biology provides evidence against the existence of God, just as some think it allows for a god. I think you may with intellectual honesty believe anything you like regarding God, provided that your belief does not contradict known scientific fact.

I don’t know whether I would call the Hebrew Bible’s creation story a crock, though it is certainly not historically accurate. But then I do not expect poetry to be accurate and never really believed the ancient mariner or the traveler from the antique land either. Can intelligent-design creationism substitute for Biblical literalism, as Dr. S suggests?

Here I think Dr. S is partly on the right track. Theistic evolutionists believe in intelligent design in a broad sense, and they believe that God created the universe. They do not deny evolutionary biology, however, but rather argue that evolution was God’s way of creating intelligent life. I would be very pleased to see theistic evolution make inroads against Biblical literalism.

But theistic evolutionists are not intelligent-design creationists in the common meaning of the phrase. What is conventionally called intelligent-design creationism is profoundly anti-scientific in that it introduces God (or perhaps some other creator) into the mixture precisely where we should be looking for natural mechanisms. Additionally, people who hold one anti-scientific view are apt to hold two; some evolution deniers, for example, also hold the dangerous view that HIV does not cause AIDS. Finally, intelligent-design creationists advocate teaching their pseudoscience alongside real science in the public schools; this tactic is a thinly veiled attempt to inject religion into the classroom and can only be divisive. Intelligent-design creationism is not a benign substitute for Biblical literalism.

Note added 28 July 2005: Tara Smith’s article, “Why isn’t the germ theory a “religion”?” may be found at http://www.pandasthumb.org/archives[…]he_ge_1.html.

217 Comments

Excellent commentary, however, I must raise issue with your historical comments:

Evolutionary biology is based on the observed fact of common descent. “Everyone” knew the fact of common descent in Darwin’s day. Lamarck’s theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics was an attempt to account for common descent; it foundered on its lack of a mechanism and on the noninheritance of many acquired characteristics. Darwin and Wallace accounted for common descent by developing a theory that included natural selection, but additional mechanisms have since been identified. The fossil record, the genetic code, and a body of mathematical inference all contribute to the modern theory of evolutionary biology.

In fact, Lamarck never accepted common descent. He believed that all lineages remained extinct, but from their origin (which he believed to occur continuosly) evolved through a series of stages, of which the highest was that represented by humans.

Further, common descent was not accepted by “everyone” in Darwin’s day until after the publication of “The Origin of Species”. It was his overwhelming array of facts in support of common descent that made it virtually incontravertible in the scientific community shortly after its publication (though not completely so until the death of Aggassiz), but prior to the publication of “The Origin”, most scientists continued to accept special creation along with a very old Earth.

Theistic evolutionists believe in intelligent design in a broad sense, and they believe that God created the universe.

Yes, the only real difference between theistic evolutionists and proponents of ID is that the former claim, not that there is no intelligent design, but merely that there is no evidence of intelligent design. Theistic evolutionists apparently believe in a God who is enormously deceptive. As they would have it, God exists, wants us to know that he exists, created us and everything around us, but carefully hid from us any evidence of these facts. I don’t know why anyone thinks this irrational belief is any more plausible or worthy of respect than the irrational beliefs of ID proponents.

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There’s a theory of gravity, and the inverse square law of gravitational attraction. There’s a theory of evolution, and there’s natural selection, which is close enough to being law-like that it may deserve being called one. But neither the theory of gravity nor the theory of evolution are law-like.

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Two points -

First,

Dr. S wrote:

True scientists, he suggests, would “question the theory of evolution to make sure it’s not just another crackpot idea that has gained wide acceptance.”

I think that Dr. S does not appreciate that the theory of evolution is constantly being tested (as are all theories in science), and that any major scientist would just love to come up with a theory that would modify or replace the current theory of evolution. But the testing and challenges must be conducted according to the rules of modern science. Scientists are constantly questioning within their own community, but don’t take seriously the ideas of outsiders who don’t play by the rules of scientific evidence and argument.

Second,

Not being a theistic evolutionist, I can’t truly know what they believe, but I’ve been around religion enough to understand the religious mind. I suspect that theistic evolutionists have two things going on in their minds. First, they accept the validity of the theory of evolution. Second, they believe in God as the all-powerful Creator who is the Lord of the universe and who permeates everything. They probably feel His presence in their lives and communicate with Him regularly through prayer. Therefore, they must feel that God is somehow present in evolution just as He is present in everything else. Trying to posit an omnipresent but invisible divine evolutionary mechanism makes it too rationalistic, and it appears silly. But there’s the feeling (belief) just the same. It’s not something to argue over or prove or disprove. Either you believe it or you don’t. Significantly, it appears that theistic evolutionists don’t try to bring religious mechanisms into their work; they know to keep their work separate.

From Matt Young avobe.

Is evolutionary biology (the modern synthesis) a dogma?

I don’t know who wrote this but it was written in response to Prof. Rubinstein’s fool tripe at the Social Affairs Unit website. If evolution is dogma it is the most changeable and malleable dogma in history.

All I can say is it’s a good thing the author is teaching history and not biology - don’t give up your day job. Although come to think of it it’s so poorly researched and based in conjecture and assumptions it doesn’t speak well of his attention to detail or methodology.

The details regarding evolution have been well covered already. But I wanted to take issue with this creationist straw man of the supposed “dogma” of Evolutionary Theory. There ain’t no such beast.

Evolutionary theory has evolved and changed considerably since Darwin’s day. To appreciate this it’s important to understand that Darwin himself developed the theory of natural selection to explain and make sense of evolution (to be accurate two theories - he also developed the theory of sexual selection). Even in his day there were already other theories of evolution - the Lamarckian theory of “the inheritence of acquired characteristics” being one of the more well known. Not that long after Darwin there was a huge challenge from followers of the recently rediscoved work of Gregor Mendel on genetics and mutation - initially this was believed to offer an alternative explanation for evolution. Indeed even after scientists like Mayr, Fisher, Haldane and Huxley were able to demonstrate that the two theoroes were actually compatible and develop what we now refer to as “the new synthesis” of genetics and natural (and sexual) selection - incorporating ecology and population genetics as well - there were still challenges from more Mutationist theorists such as the Saltationism of Goldshmidt. Evolutionary theory did not stop there either - since the new synthesis there have been many new challenges, debates and developments - the controversy around rate and the “punctuated” nature of evolutionary processes, the “neutral” mutation theory, the ongoing debate around Sociobiology, recent mathematical work around the role of patterns and chaos in evolution (eg Kaufmann), the continual re-emergance of Saltationist theory, the ongoing debate around adaptionism, the similarly ongoing debate around cladism and the new trends in taxonomy (including Phyllocode) and at the moment there is a major challenge to New Synthesis in the form of Margulis’s ideas around the role of Symbiosis and cooperation in evolution and the possible implications of recent discoveries of the role played by processes of genetic exchange and horizontal gene transfer. And I look forward to what the likely discovery of life processes on other planets will show and how this may challenge and help develop evolutionary theory. What none of these theories does is propose supernatural origins for life or order - that is the problem with so called theories such as “Intelligent design” and “Creation science” - they propose nothing apart from that we stop thinking and stop questioning our origins (which they assume is a question taken care of a priori). But what they do show is that evolutionary theory (or really we should say theories) is now richer, more alive and diverse than it ever was, and that rather than being a “dogma” it embraces a world of debate and ongoing development as befits any science. Posted by: amused at May 23, 2005 09:32 AM

I think that refutes quite nicely that evolution is a dogma. Paul

Theistic evolutionists apparently believe in a God who is enormously deceptive. As they would have it, God exists, wants us to know that he exists, created us and everything around us, but carefully hid from us any evidence of these facts. I don’t know why anyone thinks this irrational belief is any more plausible or worthy of respect than the irrational beliefs of ID proponents.

Individuals are free to hold such beliefs irrational and not worthy of respect, and many do, just as many people think it’s irrational and not worthy of respect if someone refuses to walk under a ladder for fear of bad luck. But the issue is not what individual beliefs are irrational or not worthy of respect, but rather what effect they have on science and its acceptance. The personal belief in a deceptive God that you refer to has, it seems to me, a much lesser such effect than the explicit attempt to undermine science that goes by the name of “intelligent design”, something that is practiced in the public and political arena, rather than being compartmentalized in people’s personal mental spheres.

What I do think is unfortunate, though, is how people underplay the connection between religious thinking and ID. Of course not all religious people are IDists, but virtually all IDists are religious – that’s where ID comes from. Where does susceptibility to belief in ID come from? It comes from religious communities, teachings, practices, and worldview. Some escape, many, perhaps most (Americans – I am one and that’s where creationism is centered; pardon my parochialism) if the polls mean anything, do not. Clearly, the goals of PT would be much easier to meet if there were no religion in the world. However, that’s not a realistic goal, and it’s not even clear that it would be a good thing – religion has always played an important role in culture, and trying to eliminate it could have unintended consequences – Ursula LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven comes to mind. Nonetheless, in order to effectively combat ID, creationism, and other threats to science, I believe one must take into account the effects of mythical, magical thinking.

Here’s a link (the author, Victor Stenger, asks that it not be copied) to an article that shows that the thinking and the people behind ID extend beyond evolutionary biology into other areas of science. People doing calculations of the probability of other life in the universe, among other things, are affected by their preconceptions and prejudices. Try as one might, mythical and magical thinking will influence one’s judgment in subtle, or not so subtle, ways.

The Privileged Planet: A New Stealthy Wedge in the Discovery Arsenal http://www.colorado.edu/philosophy/[…]efs/Priv.htm

I’d like to draw a distinction between a theory and a law and suggest that a theory is in fact more valuable than a law.

A law is an empirical observation of a mathematical relationship between quantities. We have Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. These are empirically derived mathematical relationships, but they have no explanatory power. You need a theory of gravity that provides the context for understanding the law and why it has the form it has.

We have Mendel’s Laws of Genetics, but they provide no explanatory power without the context of a more complete genetic theory to explain why they take the form they take.

Laws are poor second bests to theories.

As I like to say when talking to creationists: evolution is not just a theory, it’s a *scientific* theory.

ts Wrote:

There’s a theory of gravity, and the inverse square law of gravitational attraction. There’s a theory of evolution, and there’s natural selection, which is close enough to being law-like that it may deserve being called one. But neither the theory of gravity nor the theory of evolution are law-like.

To put it more generally, a law describes a phenomenon (usually in the form of a mathematical equation or statement along the general lines of “Under these conditions, this will happen”), while a theory explains it. A law answers the question “What?,” and a theory answers the question “Why?” or “How?”

Don P wrote:

As they would have it, God exists, wants us to know that he exists, created us and everything around us, but carefully hid from us any evidence of these facts. I don’t know why anyone thinks this irrational belief is any more plausible or worthy of respect than the irrational beliefs of ID proponents.

I can really only speak for myself, but I think that many theistic evolutionists would take issue with this characterization. The notion that God “carefully hid from us any evidence” is quite different from the belief that God is actively involved in creating and sustaining all “natural” processes. What appear to be random and undirected processes to our limited point of view is not neccessarily so to a God who is “omni-everything.”

Also, a God who has left divine fingerprints all over creation would leave us with very little opportunity for authentic free will. Some theistic evolutionists believe that the universe is set up in this way precisely for that reason, to allow God’s creations the opportunity to freely choose to acknowledge their Creator.

Finally, I’d like to point out that there is no requirement that religious beliefs be rational. Many theistic evolutionists have no problem acknowledging that their beliefs in God are irrational. Unlike some other theists, we do not depend on scientific evidence to confirm our faith.

evolution is not just a theory, it’s a *scientific* theory.

Actually, evolution is both a scientific theory, and it’s a fact. That is, there is the fact, at least as well established as the fact that an apple will fall to the ground, that evolution occurs. And there is the scientific theory which forms the explanatory framework for how and why it occurs. See, e.g.,

http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/evo[…]on-fact.html

Air Bear, One thing that you wrote caused me some indigestion, though I don’t disagree with any of your comment in the least. From Air Bear in Comment #39893:

“They probably feel His presence in their lives and communicate with Him regularly through prayer.”

Since most people would generally agree that communication is a two way street, that suggests some (to use your words) theistic evolutionists actually believe that an invisible man in the sky is talking to them. I shudder to think that these people are free to walk the streets. Sincerely, Paul

Don P wrote:

Huh? If God exists, and wants us to know he exists, why doesn’t he make his existence as plain as the midday sun, through empirical evidence or in some other way?

Many people strongly feel God’s presence, as plain as the midday sun. (I don’t, BTW.) For those people, Keith Miller’s two passages quoted by PhilVaz are spot-on. Even non-believers would appreciate the first passage, including the notion that the strength of modern science derives in part from its self-imposed limitations. (Prior to the Scientific Revolution, natural philosophers attempted to answer the big questions about nature and existence, and never made any progress.)

Of course, non-believers may well ask what the fuss is about. Why must scientists justify methodolical naturalism? Various engineering disciplines limit themselves to methodological naturalism and nobody gets upset about it. And I’m pretty confident that Dr. S. doesn’t rely on the power of prayer to heal his patients.

Also, a God who has left divine fingerprints all over creation would leave us with very little opportunity for authentic free will.

A belief that we have authentic free will is inconsistent with the sciences of neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and perhaps others. In fact, it may well be inconsistent with evolution, if Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” is on the right track.

Finally, I’d like to point out that there is no requirement that religious beliefs be rational. Many theistic evolutionists have no problem acknowledging that their beliefs in God are irrational.

This reminds me of a cousin of mine, a religious Jew active in his religious community and its politics who, when I commented that his position on Isreali-Palestinian affairs wasn’t intellectually honest, boldly declared that there are some areas where he chooses not to be intellectually honest. I don’t know what a “requirement” to be intellectually honest would be like, but it seems to me that we would all be better off if we considered it to be a moral imperative.

Also, a God who has left divine fingerprints all over creation would leave us with very little opportunity for authentic free will. Some theistic evolutionists believe that the universe is set up in this way precisely for that reason, to allow God’s creations the opportunity to freely choose to acknowledge their Creator.

Yes. I intend to do the same. Because I want my children to love me (really love me, not just love me because “I’m Dad”), I plan to conceal my existence from all my offspring. However, the proof of my love for them will be apparent in their very existence, and so in this manner I hope to engender their sincere affections in return.

Finally, I’d like to point out that there is no requirement that religious beliefs be rational. Many theistic evolutionists have no problem acknowledging that their beliefs in God are irrational.

Ah, much better. I rather wish you would have skipped straight to this part.

ts:

I think your second paragraph above explains why the threat comes not just from creationism or ID per se, but from religion more broadly, from faith, from, as you put it, “magical, mythical” thinking.

In practise, the difference between Dembski-style ID and the “theistic evolutionism” of people like Kenneth Miller is much murkier than defenders of the latter would have us believe, precisely because it’s so hard to compartmentalize the theistic premises of Christianity in the way you describe. The temptation to try and sneak God in somewhere will always be there. I’m not sure about Miller, but one of the deans of theistic evolution, John Polkinghorne, winner of the Templeton Prize for his efforts to reconcile religion and science, is not above invoking typical ID arguments, such as the supposed fine-tuning of the universe for life, to bolster his religious convictions.

Speaking of Polkinghorne, and as a partial antidote to PhilVaz’s links above, here is Simon Blackburn’s scathing New Republic review of Polkinghorne’s writings on science and religion. It’s concise and funny and well-written, and in the course of reviewing Polkinghorne, Blackburn provides what I think is one of the best short critiques of Christianity, and theism more broadly, that I have read.

Don P:

Yes, the only real difference between theistic evolutionists and proponents of ID is that the former claim, not that there is no intelligent design, but merely that there is no evidence of intelligent design. Theistic evolutionists apparently believe in a God who is enormously deceptive. As they would have it, God exists, wants us to know that he exists, created us and everything around us, but carefully hid from us any evidence of these facts. I don’t know why anyone thinks this irrational belief is any more plausible or worthy of respect than the irrational beliefs of ID proponents.

What theistic evolutionists believe is that there is no scientific evidence for “Intelligent Design”. This does not preclude historical evidence (many theistic evolutionists believe there is adequate historical evidence to believe that Jesus not only lived and died, but also was ressurected); sociological evidence (some theistic evolutionists would claim that the survival, spread and ethical influence of their religion is itself evidence of their God’s existance); personal evidence (the way their lives have gone); mystical evidence (the inner experience of the “divine”); and (as Phil P points out above) philosophical evidence.

Kenneth Miller, for example, believes the fine tuning of universal constants is compelling evidence for the existance of God. Wheras ID advocates who share this belief would conclude that science demonstrates the existence of an Intelligent Designer; Miller recognises that the hypothesis of God as an explanation for the unusual properties of the universe entails no testable observations. Because it is not testable, he recognises it is not science, despite the fact that he finds it personally compelling.

Personally I am an atheist. I disagree with all theists who think there is sufficient reason to believe that a God exists. It does not follow I think they are irrational to draw their conclusions. It certainly does not follow that they are irrational to carefully distinguish what can be known as a matter of science; and what must be known (if it is) by other means.

Paul Flocken wrote

Since most people would generally agree that communication is a two way street, that suggests some (to use your words) theistic evolutionists actually believe that an invisible man in the sky is talking to them. I shudder to think that these people are free to walk the streets.

Most of them keep it under control, and keep it separate from their working lives. But there are lots of people who talk to God directly and expect real answers. My mother feels God’s presence very, very strongly and talks (prays) to Him frequently.

I agree that some of the most dangerous people are those who claim that God is telling them to do something.

(And some of the most ridiculous people are those to those who pray for something and then try to discern an answer in whatever happens; I’ve seen it many times. The results are reminiscent of AiG.)

From Jeremy Mohn in Comment #39902:

“Also, a God who has left divine fingerprints all over creation would leave us with very little opportunity for authentic free will. Some theistic evolutionists believe that the universe is set up in this way precisely for that reason, to allow God’s creations the opportunity to freely choose to acknowledge their Creator.”

And to then subsequently punish those who choose wrong, even though he forces the choice upon them. That’s beneficence for you. Is it any wonder some atheists consider that god to be psychotic?

Air Bear:

Many people strongly feel God’s presence, as plain as the midday sun.

Or, rather, they claim to.

That observation does not address the question of mine you quoted. If you think you have a decent answer to that question, I would be most interested to see it.

A belief that we have authentic free will is inconsistent with the sciences of neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, and perhaps others. In fact, it may well be inconsistent with evolution, if Dennett’s “Freedom Evolves” is on the right track.

I understand what you are saying. Scientific evidence certainly does suggest that our choices are influenced by much more than our will. You correctly labeled the idea of authentic free will as a “belief.” As such, I do not expect it to be confirmed by scientific evidence.

I personally think that intellectual honesty and rationality are quite different. It is quite possible, in my opinion, for me to be intellectually honest about what I know to be true scientifically, and, at the same time, be irrational about what I believe to be true spiritually. Some people see me as a bit of a walking contradiction, but I really don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be irrational. It just all depends on what one is irrational about.

Paul Flocken:

Since most people would generally agree that communication is a two way street, that suggests some (to use your words) theistic evolutionists actually believe that an invisible man in the sky is talking to them. I shudder to think that these people are free to walk the streets.

Why? There are far more dangerous illusions around. Some people, for example, actually believe Ayn Rand said something sensible about ethics [shudder].

The real issue is whether people will allow ethics to be overriden for a cause. As Stalin showed, atheists are as capable of that as any theist. People who believe they hear God in their head have gone onto found orphanages in Calcutta (Mother Theresa) and inspire America with their dream (Martin Luther King Jr). They have also gone on to liberate an enslaved nation (Nelson Mandella and Desmond Tutu). Quite frankly, I have no concerns about whether people believe in God; but only about whether they will sacrifice morality for him.

Air Bear, exactly. And I should have used the word fundamentalist instead of theistic evolutionist, but even that would probably ahve been too inclusive. Not all fundies hear voices telling them to blow up abortion clinics (to cite one example) but the ones who do are definitely scary. Paul

I disagree with all theists who think there is sufficient reason to believe that a God exists. It does not follow I think they are irrational to draw their conclusions.

No, it doesn’t follow, but such formulations are off the mark. Evolution and gravity don’t follow logically from anything, but are well supported from the evidence. And the evidence is strong that religious belief generally precedes the sorts of empirical beliefs you mentioned, rather than vice versa. One of the strongest pieces of evidence is the strong correlation between the specific empirical beliefs, such as the resurrection of Jesus, that people hold and those that their parents hold. If one really truly honors all the empirical evidence, it’s very hard to deny that all religion – not just the religions of the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans, the Zoroastrians, the Mithraens, but all religions, have the same social and psychological roots.

Tom Curtis:

What theistic evolutionists believe is that there is no scientific evidence for “Intelligent Design”.

Well, they sort of claim that. Only not really. See my comments about John Polkinghorne above.

This does not preclude historical evidence (many theistic evolutionists believe there is adequate historical evidence to believe that Jesus not only lived and died, but also was ressurected);

As far as I’m aware, this claim enjoys no more support amoung professional historians than the claims of IDers do amoung professional scientists, so I’m not sure why you think it any more worthy of respect. But I’m not really sure what you mean by historical evidence for the resurrection, anyway. If you’re talking about the claim of physical, bodily resurrection of Christ, that claim necessarily implicates science, since it is so extraordinary.

sociological evidence (some theistic evolutionists would claim that the survival, spread and ethical influence of their religion is itself evidence of their God’s existance); personal evidence (the way their lives have gone); mystical evidence (the inner experience of the “divine”); and (as Phil P points out above) philosophical evidence.

Same comment as for “historical evidence.” And sociology is a science anyway. If this supposed “sociological evidence” is no more persuasive to social scientists than the supposed natural evidence for ID is to natural scientists, why doesn’t this claim deserve to be equally scorned?

I’m not sure what the meaningful difference between “personal evidence” and “mystical evidence” is supposed to be, but they also implicate science. Science provides more plausible alternative explanations for these experiences than the explanation of an encounter with the divine.

Kenneth Miller, for example, believes the fine tuning of universal constants is compelling evidence for the existance of God. Wheras ID advocates who share this belief would conclude that science demonstrates the existence of an Intelligent Designer; Miller recognises that the hypothesis of God as an explanation for the unusual properties of the universe entails no testable observations. Because it is not testable, he recognises it is not science, despite the fact that he finds it personally compelling.

Of course it’s testable. The supposed fine-tuning may in fact simply be a contingent or random property of the universe, fully accountable by natural processes. If that turns out to be the case, Miller’s premise evaporates, and therefore so does his conclusion.

People who believe they hear God in their head have gone onto found orphanages in Calcutta (Mother Theresa)

You should read Christopher Hitchens’ “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice”. The woman’s behavior was monstrous, subjecting the weak and helpless to horrific suffering so she could “save” their “souls”. Do you find that statement shocking? As Hitchens say in an interview at http://www.secularhumanism.org/libr[…]ns_16_4.html

the sheer fact that this is considered unquestionable is a sign of what we are up against, namely the problem of credulity. One of the most salient examples of people’s willingness to believe anything if it is garbed in the appearance of holiness is the uncritical acceptance of the idea of Mother Teresa as a saint by people who would normally be thinking - however lazily - in a secular or rational manner. In other words, in every sense it is an unexamined claim.

This is a striking example of my thesis that religious thought cannot be kept in these nice little benign compartments.

If one really truly honors all the empirical evidence, it’s very hard to deny that all religion – not just the religions of the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans, the Zoroastrians, the Mithraens, but all religions, have the same social and psychological roots.

I see no reason to deny that. (shrug)

Indeed, I’ll go one step further —– I think that all modern religions boil down to just one simple sentence ————->

“Treat others the way you’d want to be treated”.

Follow that simple sentiment, and I don’t think it MATTERS which religion you follow (or indeed if you follow any at all).

ts:

No, it doesn’t follow, but such formulations are off the mark. Evolution and gravity don’t follow logically from anything, but are well supported from the evidence. And the evidence is strong that religious belief generally precedes the sorts of empirical beliefs you mentioned, rather than vice versa. One of the strongest pieces of evidence is the strong correlation between the specific empirical beliefs, such as the resurrection of Jesus, that people hold and those that their parents hold. If one really truly honors all the empirical evidence, it’s very hard to deny that all religion – not just the religions of the Norse, the Greeks, the Romans, the Zoroastrians, the Mithraens, but all religions, have the same social and psychological roots.

I agree that most people accept the beliefs of their parents. And, as I am an atheist, I agree that there is a better naturalistic sociological/psychological explanation of religious belief than the existance of a supernatural entitie. But while the information about parental beliefs is suggestive, it is hardly conclusive. Both Islam and Christianity, for example, boast a very high conversion rate, so the correlation is far from exact. Further, acceptance of scientific methodology also shows a high correlation to parental beliefs; as does acceptance of atheism or agnosticism. These corelations show much about the transmission of beliefs amongst humans, but probably very little about the veracity of those beliefs.

Jeremy Mohn:

The notion that God “carefully hid from us any evidence” is quite different from the belief that God is actively involved in creating and sustaining all “natural” processes. What appear to be random and undirected processes to our limited point of view is not neccessarily so to a God who is “omni-everything.”

I don’t think you understood the point. If the processes are not really random and undirected, why does God make them appear that way? If the evolution of human beings was not an accident, why does God make it appear that it was? If all the violence and suffering is somehow necessary or good, why doesn’t God make that clear to us also? I think you really have to be in deep denial not to see the tension between the premises of Christianity (an omnipotent, benevolent creator God) and the world we actually observe and experience.

Also, a God who has left divine fingerprints all over creation would leave us with very little opportunity for authentic free will.

Huh? How so? There are lots of “fingerprints” that the world is very old. That obviously doesn’t prevent millions of people from believing the world is very young. I don’t understand why you think the presence of evidence is inconsistent with free will.

Some theistic evolutionists believe that the universe is set up in this way precisely for that reason, to allow God’s creations the opportunity to freely choose to acknowledge their Creator.

Why should anyone “freely choose to acknowledge the Creator” unless they have evidence that he actually exists? Why would God expect them to?

ts:

The truth is that this is irrelevant. You persist in failing to grasp the point the Jim (and I and Don) made.

Well, obviously I disagree - but let’s give it a test.

The scientific method has an astounding record of successful prediction.

100% agreed.

Therefore, it has proven to be an epistemic source, regardless of whether scientific predictions are necessarily true.

100% agreed.

The success of scientific thinking is something we rely on because, well, it’s reliable.

100% agreed.

OTOH, religion doesn’t provide successful predictions.

More accurately, the few successful predictions made from religion are either coincidental, or the success has a better naturalistic explanation than supernaturalistic explanation. Stated this way I agree 100%, and I think you do also.

BUT (our first disagreement), given all that is known in the world today, people can rationally disagree with about the above statement; and in particular, people with different knowledge sets can rationally disagree with the statement above.

This can be the case because in many areas, the evidence is very suggestive that there is a naturalistic explanation, but current theories cannot trace a causal history with any detail greater than handwaving. (The contrast is between a theory like Darwinism, were given sufficient emperical detail, we can trace almost exactly the causal path leading to particular features; some features of psychology, were we have an abundance of emperical detail, but still cannot trace the causal path connecting, for example, the knowledge that an individual is being prayed for and a higher rate of healing in that individual; and the case in studies in the origin of life, where we lack sufficient detail, and would currently be unable to trace the relevant path if we had it.)

This can also be the case because what are the facts in the world can also be rationaly disputed. Observations are theory dependant, and were for a theist, a given set of observations give sufficient reason to believe a miracle has occured, for a non-theist, the same set of observations do not give sufficient reason to doubt that a miracle has not occured. Thus when a reliable and trustworthy man informs me he has seen people in Africa carrying 80Kg loads on their heads; I tend to believe that because it is not a priori improbable to me. When the same man says he saw a man rise from the dead, I disbelieve that, instead believing that he was mistaken; because that is a priori improbable to me. But a theist could rationaly accept the report as veridical, and count it as a confirming instance for theism.

Your responce to these two possibilities has been to deny them as possibilities. To me that looks like simplistic dogmatism, for whether I use a Kuhnian, a Lakatosian, a Popperian, or a Bayesian account of science; these possibilities are real possibilities. While I am an atheist because religious world views must make far greater use of ad hoc supositions even given their different reading of the facts; I am aware (must be aware if I wish to be both rational an informed) that my grounds for rejecting literally thousands of daily reports of counter instances to my beliefs are based on promisory notes that have yet to be cashed out by science.

FURTHER, it is irrelevant for many religious beliefs whether religion provides successful emperical predictions. Having started with a high a priori belief in the existance of God, they can retain a significant probability assignment to that belief even if they agree totally with the atheist about the lack of scientific predictability from that belief. That makes the belief a-rational rather than irrational because the low probability of theism according to the atheist is largely a function of the low initial probability assigned to that belief (an a-rational decision), while the theists high assigned probability is a fucntion of their equally a-rational high initial assignment.

It is thus irrational to depend upon religion rather than science as a source of knowledge.

100% agreed that it is irrational to rely on religion INSTEAD of, or in contradiction to, science as a source of belief.

BUT what you require for your argument to go through is that it is irrational to rely on religion as a source of knowledge in addition to science. And that does not follow from your previous premises.

From prior discussion, you think it follows because any acceptance of religion introduces the possibility of unpredictable interuptions into the workings of scientific laws. But this does not follow because, such interuptions are a possibility in a fully naturalistic universe, so the introduction of theism does not change the scientists epistemic position. It also does not follow because even very high frequencies of interruption (relative to those predicted by most theistic beliefs) do not have sufficient frequency to interfere noticably with the acquisition of scientific knowledge.

It is also unlikely that relious belief must significantly incapacitate the ability to rely on science for belief formation because many noted scientists have been religious believers, and still giants in their field. Robert Bakker, for instance, is a pentecostalist, ie, on the outer fringe of belief of frequency of supernatural intervention. That belief has not stopped him from being a ground breaking paleontologist, and a darwinist. Further, the best developed and most widely accepted philosophies of science do not even presuppose methodological naturalism, let alone the presumption of metaphysical naturalism that you require.

This is a fact about the world we do live in, and what is true of all possible worlds isn’t relevant.

The facts you used in your premises are indeed facts about the real world. But I agree with them (as stated) completely. To get from them to your conclusion, however, you require three supressed premises which are contentious at best, and I would say transparently false. That my discussion in previous posts has focussed on those three supressed premises shows that I do get where you are coming from. That you supress the premises, and even state your conclusion in a form which I have no trouble agreeing with (and nor would most theists) suggests the supressed premises underlie your thinking is so dogmatic and incoherent a form that you are unable to rationally assess them.

You are buried ankle deep in a logicist fallacy, mistaking deduction for rationality.

Actually, what I take as rationality is Bayesian coherence of belief; though I will often default to a Lakatosian account as being less contentious, and simpler to work with. I find it highly amusing that you could mistake me for a logicist; but it is in fact just a reflection of my charge against you. What is true is that you will allow very few possibilities (if any) other than the actual (in your opinion) as being rational. In contrast, I expect an actual demonstration of inchorence of belief (inconsistent Bayesian probability assignments), or of overwhelming dogmatism (assigning of probabilities of potential possibilities that are so high or so low as to preclude effective revision of the belief in the light of evidence).

But a theist could rationaly accept the report as veridical, and count it as a confirming instance for theism.

I thought you said it was a-rational.

suggests the supressed premises underlie your thinking is so dogmatic and incoherent a form that you are unable to rationally assess them

blah blah blah

P.S. The word is “suppress”.

“History of the canal problem shows that every skilled observer who goes to the best available site for his observations has had no great difficulty of seeing and convincing himself of the reality of the canals. I am not aware of a single exception to this.” But we know that he was aware of exceptions, from the article that gave that quote:

Yes, there’s no doubt Slipher was fully aware of Barnard who was renowned as having acute vision, but I don’t think this is quite dissembling, rather it’s carefully phrased, such that the skilled observer needed to go to the best available site. I read this in the context of the rivalry between observatories and which had the better observing site. Flagstaff, Arizona (where Lowell Observatory was) had excellent seeing and very dark and clear skies. It could be argued (and was) that this is why Barnard didn’t see the canals from the bigger telescopes he used at Lick and Yerkes. But as you say, it’s a fine line between dissembling and delusion, as well as self-deception and desperate rationalisations!

self-deception and desperate rationalisations!

You can say that again. :-) Again from the “more info” article you cited way above:

This might have been difficult for Lowell to explain, a good observer (Barnard) who couldn’t see canals. However Lowell was never short of explanations. According to Lowell, only people with “acute” vision were able to see the canals. He explained that Barnard had “sensitive” vision which allowed him to see dim objects, but not fine details on bright planets. It is unfortunate that Lowell never considered a better explanation, that the canals were optical illusions.

In Lowell’s case, though, optical illusion seems inadequate as an explanation.

“blurry saucer-shaped object” is an interpretation phrased to make your case. Since neither of us has seen those photographic plates of Mars, we don’t know what sort of description either of us would offer upon seeing them, but I doubt very much that it would be “blurry canal-like objects”.

Sure, it’s my interpretation - but we all interpret evidence, all the time. Photographs do not speak for themselves, so what the photographs are evidence for depends upon that interpretation. Which of course can be contested, and my interpretation is not particularly important to anyone … but in the case of the canals photos, they were taken and interpreted by professional astronomers, ie not flakes. Their interpretations carried some weight. They were wrong, that’s all.

And I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if there were features on those photos which I could convince myself were canal-like lines. The photos would have been blurred anyway by a number of factors, and blurred dots and other features could easily be joined up into lines in similar fashion to the visual observations.

Your position seems to be here that any evidence gathered for the object of determining whether we have been visited by flying saucers – or perhaps any photo we take of the sky – is evidence for the proposition that we have been visited by flying saucers. People have interpreted photos taken with dirt on the camera lens as evidence of flying saucers. The issue of evidence is a very tricky one in epistemology, but I believe, given what we know that, were we to see these plates, we would be disinclined to call it evidence of canals.

Well, yes, a photo of a bit of dirt on the lens is evidence for flying saucers until such time as it is shown that dirt was the cause. About epistemology - I distinguish between proof and mere evidence. There is a lot of evidence for flying saucers in the form of blurry snapshots, but that doesn’t nearly add up to proof for me. With the canals, Lowell’s observations were evidence, Slipher’s were evidence, the photos were more evidence, etc, but there’s MUCH more evidence now against the canals, which for me (and everyone else, I hope!) adds up to proof that they don’t exist.

I guess I’m saying that the photographs were evidence for the canals then, and maybe you are saying the photographs aren’t evidence for the canals now. Past vs present tenses. Does that seem fair? Coz I can live with that …

It is not a sin to use current knowledge to evaluate the truth value of statements made in or about the past.

It is a sin to say that these photos weren’t evidence for the canals or that canal believers must have been dissembling, because the canals didn’t exist. Nobody knew that the canals didn’t exist back then, not even the canal skeptics, you have to bear that in mind.

Your fearless moderator has let us wander off task for several days now, perhaps because we aren’t as far off task as it looks - in a way, we have merely expanded the title from “Is Evolution Religion?” to “Is Empiricism Religion?”

My good friend Eric, a theoretical physicist, claims that the less evidence there is for a given proposition, the harder people will fight over it. I think that may be so because they talk past each other, as is sometimes happening here.

So let me reiterate what I claimed in an earlier essay: Antonio Damasio has taught us (well, taught me) that you can’t make a supposedly logical decision without an emotional component. Thus, those whose political inclination is toward the supremacy of the individual simply cannot understand what, say, a democratic socialist is going on about, and vice versa.

Here it seems that those whose inclination is toward strict empiricism (or perhaps materialism) cannot understand those who incline toward an underlying theological explanation. All sides draw “logical” conclusions that are informed by their underlying philosophies and think the other sides are being stubborn or obtuse. (I know that’s how I react when I read a defense of the so-called free market. Can’t they see that there is no such thing as a free market? Haven’t they ever heard of the robber barons? Rhetorical questions, but perhaps you see what I mean.)

If I allow further comments, we will go on forever, so let’s stop here. Thanks to all who contributed and to almost all for the polite tone of the comments.

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This page contains a single entry by Matt Young published on July 27, 2005 8:05 PM.

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