I swear, Michael Ruse is like your befuddled old uncle who behaves nicely most of the time, but then, in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner, says something like, ‘Oops, I wet myself!’ -- Jerry Coyne
I confess that as I approach my 70th birthday, I take an almost perverse pleasure in this comment. I remember once, as a young scholar, a more senior friend saying to me: “Mike, there is something far worse than being criticized. That is being ignored.” I took this message to heart and it stays with me. Have I mentioned that on my 50th birthday I put together a collage of unfriendly reviews of my books, reproduced it on the back of an invitation to my party, and sent it to all of the critics? Most had the grace to take it in the spirit intended and sent (I think genuine) best wishes for my future.
What is strange is that it should be the well known evolutionist Jerry Coyne making it. He is the author of Why Evolution Is True, probably the best book of the Darwin Year (last year, when we celebrated the 200th birthday of Darwin). I am an absolutely fanatical Darwinian, writing book after book on the theory and the man, and extend my enthusiasm (unlike many) right over to humankind. I am on record as praising Coyne’s work itself, especially his thinking about speciation. Moreover, in other respects I am right with Coyne. He is at one with the New Atheists, thinking that the whole God business is false. I think the same too. I describe myself as an agnostic, but when it comes to details like virgin births and rising from the dead, I am as atheistic as they come.
Coyne and I ought to be standing side by side, and to be fair on some things we are. A day or two before he made the above comment – on a blog that he runs – he was praising me for the piece I had in last week’s Chronicle where I was taking off after well-known philosophers and the silly things they say about evolution. Yet now things are back to normal, for this is not the first time that he has had such comments to make. Nor incidentally is he alone. For instance, another well known biology blogger P. Z. Myers has felt the need to refer to me as a “clueless gobshite” and the leader of them all Richard Dawkins, whom I praised a short while ago for his contributions to biology, goes after me in The God Delusion with a sarcasm usually reserved for members of the clergy.
The reason for the scorn is simple. Whereas these and other enthusiastic evolutionists, like the philosophers Dan Dennett and Philip Kitcher, think that if you are an evolutionist – particularly if you are a Darwinian – you must discard all and any vestiges of religious belief, and basically that includes sympathy and respect for religious believers, I belong to the hated group known as “Accommodationists.” I don’t think religion is true, but – with reservations to be noted – I don’t think science shows religion not to be true. In other words, I don’t think it is inconsistent for someone to be a scientist and a religious believer at the same time.
The reason for Jerry Coyne’s new outburst is that I have a new book just out, Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, which makes a case for accommodationism. Coyne says that he isn’t going to read it unless someone pays him to do so – already his groupies are passing the hat – but I think there is value in saying what is in it. I say this not so much to promote my own thinking but because this is not a simple academic exercise. As the appalling news this last week on the educational front from Texas well shows, there is a battle today in America for the souls of our children. Evolution and its relationship to religion is right in the middle of it.
I, and those who think like me, believe that folk like Jerry Coyne are doing immeasurable damage to the cause of proper science education. Intellectually, they do not justify their linking of evolution with non-belief. How with integrity can you simultaneously sneer at the contents of a book and proudly boast that you have not read it? Politically, books like The God Delusion, blogs like Why Evolution is True (Coyne’s) and Pharyngula (Myers’s) are pieces of candy to Creationists, who take their contents along to boards of education and – with some reason – argue that teaching kids evolution is the first step to teaching them atheism. I want to stress that I would never argue what I do simply to make a political point, but I am happy to put up with the scorn from my natural allies because of the political point.
Over the next month or so (in a series of not-necessarily consecutive pieces), I will lay out the position that I hold. If anyone fears that I am simply doing this to make a profit from the royalties from the book, let me say that the next time we meet, I will happily buy the first round of drinks. Although if anyone thinks that these days there is money to be made from publishing academic books they are sadly mistaken. The last contract I signed with Cambridge University Press they offered me 2 percent royalties. Somewhat scornfully I said that I would rather write for no royalties at all than for 2 percent, and they took me at my word.
As a preliminary here, let me lay out the possible relationships between science and religion, as a prolegomenon to locating both me and my critics and others. I rely on the standard discussion offered some years ago by the then-Carlton College physics professor, Ian Barbour, although I offer them in the spirit intended, without worrying about whether Barbour would exactly agree with all aspects of my presentation. There are four options.
First we have warfare. This sees religion and science necessarily and always in conflict. Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley (the grandfather of Aldous Huxley) was a prime representative in the 19th century. He was followed by a couple of well-known American authors: J. W. Draper who wrote The Conflict Between Science and Religion, and A. D. White who wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Today the New Atheists like Dawkins and Dennett, Coyne and Myers, are part of this group. “Evolution has implications about how the world works. If you deny them, if you pretend evolution is cheerily compatible with the god-is-a-loving-creator nonsense religions peddle, you aren’t teaching evolution. You are pouring more mush into the brains of young people” (Myers, December 8, 2009).
Next we have independence. Here science and religion are seen as talking about different things and thus cannot get into conflict. In the last century, this was the position often associated with the theological movement known as “neo-orthodoxy.” Karl Barth was the inspiration. In America, the leading spokesperson was Langdon Gilkey, for many years at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He wrote: Maker of Heaven and Earth. The late Stephen Jay Gould endorsed this position in his Rocks of Ages, arguing that science and religion are two “Magisteria,” that simply talk about different things.
Third there is dialog. This where you think that science and religion are basically different but that they make claims of the same logical type and can interact and perhaps overlap. This is often a position favored by Catholic thinkers. Barbour would reserve natural theology – getting at God through reason -- for the fourth position, but in a way I think it fits more naturally here. Certainly if you think that science and religion have to work to fix their limits and boundaries, you are into dialog.
Finally there is integration. Here you see science and religion as a seamless whole. The most famous exemplar of this kind of thinking in the twentieth century was the French, Jesuit paleoanthropologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his The Phenomenon of Man. He saw evolution as progressive, up through humans to the Omega Point, that he identified with Jesus. I suspect that a lot of process theologians, that is, followers of Alfred North Whitehead, are into dialog, including Barbour himself and the Catholic theologian John Haught.
Those are the positions. In the next piece in this series, I will try to locate myself and others more exactly and then we can move on to explore and justify.
PS: In a piece a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I had to return home quickly and early from Vienna, because Lizzie my wife was sick. A number of people have asked after her, for which concern we are both very grateful. She had atrial fibrillation and spent a week in hospital. She has been home now for 10 days and her cardiologist is reasonably optimistic – she is only 48. We are not out of the woods – tiredness and related symptoms, and drugs – but things look a lot better than they did at first.