February 12, 2009

Darwin's religious legacy: Neutral or anti-god?

Today is the 200th birth anniversary of Charles Darwin, arguably the scientist whose work has had the greatest impact on human thought. This major anniversary comes at a time when religious groups, sensing the very real danger that his theory of evolution by natural selection poses to all religious beliefs, are trying to either discredit him or co-opt him.

We are all aware of the attacks from the groups seeking to discredit Darwin's theory, which range from the speaking-in-tongues snake-handlers to intelligent designers, all of whom seek to eliminate or at least undermine its teaching in schools. They argue that this theory is wrong in its essential elements and that god has repeatedly intervened in the workings of the world, especially when it comes to the creation of humans.

In order to combat those attempts, there have been attempts by those groups seeking to co-opt Darwin, the so-called 'moderate' religionists, to resurrect the 'peaceful coexistence' model in the science-religion wars, where religious supporters of evolution join up with scientists to combat the attempts of the anti-Darwinian religious groups to discredit evolution. Advocates of this approach argue for the existence of 'two worlds', the material world that is the domain of science, and a non-material spiritual world that is the domain of god and is outside the reach of science. In the peaceful coexistence model, these two worlds are non-overlapping and thus no conflict need arise between science and religion.

I have argued elsewhere (see here and here) that this model makes no sense whatsoever and leads to all manner of logical contradictions unless one defines the spiritual world in such a way that it has no influence whatsoever on the material world, making it totally redundant. In other words, the only way to salvage religion to make it compatible with a scientific worldview is to strip it of every single feature that we normally associate with religion, something that religious moderates are loathe to do.

But supporters of this untenable 'two worlds' view keep trying, and they are concerned that atheists like me have been using Darwin's theory to attack the very foundations of all religious beliefs, especially the idea that human beings have some special quality that can relate to god. We argue that each and every aspect of humanity, including morality, consciousness, and mind, is not immune to being explained by the natural selection process, and thus god is irrelevant in a Darwinian (and scientific) worldview.

But this is not a popular position to take politically, and has caused some concern to the 'moderate' religion group, since it rejects their claim to some special preserve for religion. A report by Martin Beckford in the February 9, 2009 issue of the The Telegraph (London) describes the latest appeal for the resurrection of peaceful coexistence, as expressed in a letter to the paper. The letter asserts that Darwin's theory is neutral with respect to its implications for belief in god and makes the standard appeal to this so-called middle ground, on the one hand asking evolution's skeptics to accept the validity of the theory, and on the other to atheists to not use the theory to argue against the existence of god.

The influential signatories of the letter include two Church of England bishops, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain and a member of the Evangelical Alliance, as well as Professor Lord Winston, the fertility pioneer, and Professor Sir Martin Evans, winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

"We respectfully encourage those who reject evolution to weigh the now overwhelming evidence, hugely strengthened by recent advances in genetics, which testifies to the theory's validity."

"At the same time, we respectfully ask those contemporary Darwinians who seem intent on using Darwin's theory as a vehicle for promoting an anti-theistic agenda to desist from doing so as they are, albeit unintentionally, turning people away from the theory."

The letter writers go on to warn that "militant atheists are turning people away from evolution by using it as a weapon with which to attack religion."

Ross (one of the readers of this blog who sent me this link) thought that I would find it amusing because they are clearly targeting people like me who see Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection as devastating for religious beliefs and have had no hesitation in saying so.

So should I listen to this appeal and cease and desist in my efforts to use science as a weapon to undermine religion in order to not alienate the moderate religious supporters of evolution? Of course not.

The problem is that the people who take this peaceful coexistence position are mixing means and ends. The people who are signatories to the letter have as their goal to promote greater acceptance of the theory of evolution, and to do that they seek political alliances between 'moderate' religious people and scientists to combat the blatantly anti-science religious fundamentalists. So for them, popular acceptance of evolution is the goal, and peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religious beliefs and science is the means to achieving that end. This requires them to downplay the negative implications of evolution for religion.

But for atheists like me, getting rid of religion is the goal and scientific theories (including evolution) are a means of achieving that goal. I think religion is fundamentally a bad thing. Evolution and other scientific arguments have definitely anti-religion, anti-god implications and we should not hesitate to emphasize those strong inferences. If this causes discomfort for religious believers, they will have to deal with it by finding arguments and evidence to refute it, not by asking us to not point it out. What the argument of the 'two worlds' advocates reveal is that religious moderates are like religious fundamentalists, willing to accept science only as long as it does not disturb their cherished dogma. They only differ in the dogmas they hold dear.

Does that mean I do not care about the public acceptance theory of evolution? Of course I care and will oppose all efforts to undermine its rightful place in science and science education. But I have confidence in the theory to withstand any and all religious onslaughts because it is a scientific theory, not a propaganda system like religion. Evolution will flourish or die on its scientific merits, because of the evidence and the coherence of its arguments, not because of any political strategy. Whatever the level of antipathy to it, the public and scientific communities cannot ignore it or suppress it, as if it were some system of thought that can be believed or rejected at will. It forms one of the foundations of modern science, an invaluable tool in humanity's progress.

The public may turn against it in the short run but they will have to concede defeat and accept it in the long run, just as they lost with their initial opposition to the theories of the round earth, the heliocentric system, the theory of relativity, and all the other times when religious people foolishly decided that what their ancient religious texts or priests or theologians said or what they 'felt in their hearts' was a more reliable guide to knowledge than data and evidence-based arguments.

Religion, on the other hand, is purely a propaganda system and will only die if its weaknesses and its lack of any empirical basis are relentlessly pointed out. Pretending to act as if 'moderate' religion makes sense, as the 'two worlds' model does, only strengthens all religion, both moderate and fundamentalist.

The age of peaceful coexistence between 'moderate' religion and science is over. No modern scientist can credibly argue for its continuation unless he or she is willfully suppressing the obvious contradictions that exist between science and religion.

POST SCRIPT: Meet Charles Darwin

As part of the Darwin year celebrations, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is hosting Floyd Sandford, a Darwin impersonator. The performance is on Saturday, February 14, 2009 from 3:30 – 4:45 p.m. followed by 30 minute discussion.

Admission to this performance (but not to the rest of the Museum) is free and open to the public but requires a ticket. Tickets may be reserved by calling (216) 231-1177 or by registering online.

Professor Sandford is an emeritus member of the Biology Department at Coe College. He performs a one-man show entitled "Darwin Remembers" and lectures on Darwin.


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Bravo, Mano!

Posted by Norman Nason on February 12, 2009 01:01 PM

"The age of peaceful coexistence between 'moderate'
religion and science is over. No modern scientist
can credibly argue for its continuation unless he
or she is willfully suppressing the obvious
contradictions that exist between science and

To my view this statement only follows if as you say "getting rid of religion" is your primary goal. But adapting such a goal goes way beyond simply stating that you do not believe in any kind of god.

You've tried to make the case for this in the past, but to my view this is a much harder row to hoe, and contrary to all kinds of other knowledge and experience I have on the matter.

In my opinion, saying that ones goal is to "get rid of religion" is a political statement, not a scientific one. Of course you are very free to make such a political argument, even passionately. But here you imply that being a scientist implies that you must share this same political point of view. Is this really what you are saying?

Posted by Corbin on February 12, 2009 06:25 PM

Have seen the latest anti-Evolution tactic that's sprung up now that Intelligent Design lost in court?

Posted by Nathan & the Cynic on February 12, 2009 09:23 PM

"So should I listen to this appeal and cease and desist in my efforts to use science as a weapon...."

Using science as a weapon. Dangerous stuff.

Posted by bob on February 12, 2009 11:48 PM


The decision whether one's goal should be to get rid of religion or to build support for evolution is a political one, and should be based on a judgment as to the long-term benefits of either eventuality.

But the point that the two worlds model suffers from fatal internal contradictions is a logical conclusion that should be clear to anyone, especially to scientists who place a premium of law-like behavior and causality.

Posted by Mano on February 13, 2009 08:08 AM


Fair enough.

It so happens to be the case that I personally agree that the "two worlds" argument is not particularly compelling, but as I think I've mentioned before, I do not think that drawing such a conclusion should be "clear to anyone". It seems to me to be a rather subtle philosophical

Also, I think that the case for "peaceful co-existence" between some kinds of religion and science does not depend critically on proving the two-worlds argument. There are a number of other ways to make the case.

For example, one could argue that science as a discipline is particular effective at addressing well-structured questions, and not as effective at addressing ill-structured questions. I can use science to determine the charge on the electron, but in my experience science does a pretty lousy job at helping me to solve problems such as "what should I wear?", who should I marry? how shall I develop a code of conduct? what career will I find most fulfilling? etc. This is not to say that in principle, science cannot find the answers -- after all if we are essentially animals/brains/machines then all aspects of our lives are governed in principle by the laws of science. But this fact does not actually help me much to address these kinds problems on a day-to-day basis. So if science is not up to the job of helping me to address these things, then it seems reasonable to consider other frameworks that might be helpful and/or adaptive. Such frameworks might include literature, art, and/or religion.

Posted by Corbin on February 13, 2009 12:01 PM


I am not saying that science is directly useful in answering all questions. My point is that there is nothing that religion provides that cannot be provided by other sources. Religion is, at its best, superfluous. At its worst, it is downright evil.

This is not the case with science. It can be used for evil purposes but it is never superfluous. It provides benefits that cannot be obtained in any other way.

I do think that peaceful coexistence depends crucially on the validity of the two worlds argument. Otherwise how is one to arrive at compatibility between them? What do you do when science and religion are invoked to explain the same phenomenon?

Posted by Mano on February 13, 2009 04:05 PM