Coyne on religion and evolution in Evolution

Jerry Coyne has just gotten many of his oft-repeated New Atheist talking points published in the premier journal Evolution. You can read it here (blog here). On a first skim through the article – all I can manage in the near future, I’m afraid – here are a few points which are problematic for Coyne’s position, which I would have liked to see him address:

1. Coyne claims that the Society for the Study of Evolution’s official statement on teaching evolution is completely neutral about religion and “accommodationism”, and recommends that organizations like the AAAS, NAS, and NCSE follow this example. But, in the very quote from the statement that Coyne includes, we find a prominent citation of Dobzhansky’s famous essay in the American Biology Teacher, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” This would be neither here nor there, except that Dobzhansky’s essay is a neon-decorated, flaming example of “accommodationism” if ever there was one. For example:

I am a creationist and an evolutionist. Evolution is God’s, or Nature’s method of creation. Creation is not an event that happened in 4004 BC; it is a process that began some 10 billion years ago and is still under way.

  • Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (1973)

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. …the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.

  • Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” (1973)

(Here’s an e-text of Dobzhansky’s 1973 essay on PBS’s website, but you can find the PDF with original formatting via Google Scholar.)

2. Coyne makes much of the relative un-religiousness of the members of august bodies such as the National Academy of Sciences. Ironically, though, he later gives no weight to the “accommodationist” statement put out by that same august body, and he thinks they should change the statement; unfortunately, no survey data seems to exist on whether or not NAS members think scientists should be actively hostile to religion or tolerant of it. But, if we’re going to start weighing the authority of various Great Minds on questions such as atheism and “accommodationism”, why don’t we start with the greatest of all? What did good ol’ Charles Darwin think about these topics? Well, (a) he was an agnostic, not an atheist, and (b) on evolution and religion, he said things like:

I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one. It is satisfactory, as showing how transient such impressions are, to remember that the greatest discovery ever made by man, namely, the law of the attraction of gravity, was also attacked by Leibnitz, as subversive of natural, and inferentially of revealed, religion.’

(Origin, 2nd edition, 1860, link)

I shd. prefer the Part or Volume not to be dedicated to me (though I thank you for the intended honour) as this implies to a certain extent my approval of the general publication, about which I know nothing.– Moreover though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biassed by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion.

Letter to Aveling, Oct. 13th 1880

It looks like Dobzhansky and Darwin were just the sort of “accommodationists” that Coyne et al. have been campaigning against. Please let me know when they start getting pasted with the “fatheist” label. I’m not saying that there is no imaginable reply to this point, just that (a) it is difficult to portray the “accommodationist” position as an unserious position by unserious people, which is often done by the gnus, and (b) there are many actual arguments for the position that the connection between science and atheism is less than tight, both as a matter of logic and emotion.

3. Darwin’s point about Leibnitz guts a great many of Coyne’s arguments that science is necessarily opposed to religion, since Coyne’s logical arguments mostly rely on the premise that religious people aren’t allowed to endorse natural explanations as a method of God’s action. But pretty much no religious person ever has ever taken this position.

4. For the record, I hate the word “accommodationist”, which as far as I can tell was recently invented in its present sense by the New Atheists as a term of abuse. It contains the implicit claim that those insufficiently hostile to religion to satisfy the New Atheists are actively accommodating science to religion. The only time I’ve seen the word in a pre-2006 publication, it was being used to refer to religious believers who accommodate their religious beliefs to science, which is an entirely different, presumably good, thing.

There is a lot more that could be said, but I am most interested in peoples’ comments on the following: Is it good for the professional field of evolutionary biology for arguments about this kind of thing to be aired in the field’s top science journals? I recall a historian once writing that the journal Evolution was set up specifically to help make evolutionary biology into a serious professional science, and disabuse the world of the notion that evolution was more a topic of metaphysical and political discussions than pure rigorous science. Although in general, I actually think it is interesting to “mix it up” like this, it is also true that it would be worrisome if the kinds of metaphysical and political positions Coyne is pushing became common in scientific journals. So I could be convinced either way.