America’s ‘Evolution’ Problem May 25, 2012

America’s ‘Evolution’ Problem

Jerry Coyne has published a new paper in the journal Evolution about… well… take a guess.

More specifically, it’s about “Science, Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America.”

These graphs tell a much larger story (click to enlarge):

Coyne also has a message for science organizations:

… when scientific organizations argue for the compatibility of religion and evolution, or of religion and science in general, they are engaged not in science or philosophy but in theology. That is because accommodationism endorses a particular form of religion — a liberal faith that sees scripture as almost entirely metaphorical. Such a viewpoint marginalizes the many forms of religion whose opposition to evolution is based on stricter adherence to scripture and dogma, as well as those religions, like Catholicism, that endorse a form of Godguided evolution. Scientific organizations should follow the lead of the Society for the Study of Evolution in maintaining strict neutrality toward faith, avoiding any statement about whether religion is compatible or incompatible with science. When we make official statements about the need to teach evolution, let us stick to our expertise — the science — and leave theology to the theologians.

There really is no way to reconcile science and faith without stretching one of them far beyond its intended definition.

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  • Jeremy Chappell

    “intended definition”? What is the “intended definition” of faith? Where is this found? The Bible – Hebrews 11:1? Where is the incompatibility with science in having “confidence in what we hope for, assurance about what we do not see”? Even the definition of “science” is incredibly debatable. Do we include such criteria as “falsifiability” or not? It is far more reasonable to say that the two may or may not be reconciled, depending on how you define your terms. Even if you define “faith” to be belief *without* evidence (which is wrong in my mind, but nevertheless, I do know many Christians who would define it as such), they are only incompatible if the scopes of “science” and “faith” overlap. If one’s faith only has beliefs/makes claims that cannot be investigated by science (NOMA), then there is no incompatibility. If “faith” is defined so as to include *reasonable* belief, then there is no incompatibility.   

  • Jeremy,

    I’m afraid you and all of the other NOMA are quite deluded in thinking that religion and science can each have it’s own universe as we all live in the same place.  To try to reconcile anything other than a vague spirituality is beyond belief. 

    1.  No evidence for any god or gods.
    2.  Holy works that have been held up as inerrant that have been proven to be nothing but fables.  Science has disprove an earth-centric solar system, faith healing, the power of prayer, levitation etc.

    Either provide some evidence or any “reason” for your belief and then it might be reasonable.  Until then, find a way to console yourself that you are living a myth, just like followers of Thor, Mithra and Joseph Smith


  • Jeremy Chappell

    Thom, I notice you didn’t really address anything that I wrote other than to say you disagree and that religious belief should be justified. Fair enough, I agree that points of view should be supported. But justification does not entail “scientific”, unless that is your “intended meaning”. But that is not what others intend, and that was my point: terms need to be defined. 

    Re: 1 – this depends on what YOU consider “evidence”. Obviously a large portion of the world disagrees. More to the point of the OP, if the “god” concept is  such that it wouldn’t make any empirical, testable predictions, then there is still no incompatibility. If there are claims that are testable, and theistic predictions are confirmed, then there obviously is no incompatibility. If they aren’t, then there is an incompatibility with that specific claim – but it does not follow that religion in general is incompatible.  

    Re: 2 – I would be curious how something is “proved” to be a fable.

    The point of my reply was not to offer an apologetic for any belief that I have; the point was to say that if you claim there is an incompatibility, you need to define your terms. Much of the time people use them quite differently.  

  • Charon


    If one’s faith only has beliefs/makes claims that cannot be investigated by science (NOMA), then there is no incompatibility

    This used to be easy – 400 years ago, the structure of the universe, the origin of humans, all this was well beyond science. However, I’m not aware of any religion actually practiced that fulfills this today, when even the origins of the universe, life, and morality are in the scientific domain. If anyone has such a religion (“the god of the philosophers”), it’s a miniscule fraction of the population. And… it’s functionally equivalent to no religion, since anything accessible to our senses and minds is subject to scientific investigation. NOMA doesn’t work.*

    *Something much like NOMA is at play in Cartesian duality, which did work in the 1600s to keep the Christian churches from stopping scientific investigation.

  • Charon

     Religion as an idea is not necessarily in conflict with science as an idea. By which I mean scientific investigation could have revealed proof of religious claims (like gods).

    In practice all major religions are incompatible with science, since they all contain disproved claims that are central to their identities. “God of the gaps” arguments try to dance around this, but, for example, a life after death is pretty central to most religions.

  • Jeremy Chappell

    Charon, how is life after death incompatible with science? Does science test for this? There’s been very limited investigation into this. It’s also interesting to me that you are actually tackling the larger task of saying that all “major” religions have “disproved claims at their core. Which *disproved* claim is at the core of Judaism? Of Islam? Of Christianity? Keep in mind saying that claims have been *disproved* is much different than saying there is no evidence for them.  

  • Jeremy Chappell

    If what you’re saying is that *generally* religions make certain claims that science can test, then I agree. I’d even agree that many of them have been falsified. The question is to what degree are religions making claims that overlap with scientific magisteria, and to what degree they are being falsified.

    If based on your generalization you want to claim that NOMA is strictly false, then fair enough. But I guess I would also say that *generally* religions make claims that are not testable by science. “God(s) did it” is not a testable hypothesis, and – let’s face it – that’s a non-negotiable at some point for religions in general. So if what you have is a mix of overlapping and non-overlapping claims, it seems to me sensible to evaluate the claims themselves, and not pass judgment on religion as a whole based on experience in only the small segment of “overlapping magisteria”. 

    Not everything that is accessible to our minds is accessible by science – at least, not according to it’s “intended definition”. Ha! See what I did there? 😉

  • Ken

    Just chiming in to wonder:

    Is “life after death” some metaphysical extension of consciousness, and therefore untestable?  Or…

    Are we talking zombie-like resuscitation of the physical body, as  proposed in the Nicene Creed, and therefore demanding extraordinary proofs that have never been offered?

    Either way, there is no overlapping of science and religion, because there is nothing to examine until you die or the bodies start rising from the graves.  I’m not going to spend any time groveling to someone that doesn’t talk back if that’s the best argument being oferred.

  • Jeremy Chappell

    Seems to me the pattern is that “Religions make false claims” = incompatibility with science and faith. Non sequitur. Science has made false claims too. 

    If religious claims can be/have been falsified scientifically, then they (the claims, at least) are not incompatible with science; in fact, it is precisely the fact that they have been falsified that proves compatibility. You can claim that the *continued* belief in claims that have been falsified is incompatible with “science”, and that would be more solid ground. This would require however, demonstrating which claims have actually been falsified, demonstrating they aren’t just periphery claims (otherwise the incompability is fairly inconsequential), and that there is still widespread belief in said claim despite knowledge that it has been falsified. With regard to the last factor, deliberate belief despite certainty to the contrary needs to be demonstrated because otherwise all you’ve done is demonstrate an incompatibility with consensus, not science itself. 

    To demonstrate this would be what Charon was referring to, I think,  when he said ALL major religions were incompatible with science “in practice”. But demonstrating this is a tall order. 

    Furthermore, and more to my point, we have already blurred definitions by equating religion with “faith”. Coyne was claiming an incompatibility between science and religions with non-metaphorical interpretations of scripture and dogmas. Ironically, he accuses accommodationists of practicing theology while neglecting his own. But the important point to note is that while one can say that the majority of the religious practice a religion that is, at least in one form or another, in *conflict* with science, it is quite another to say that “there really is no way to reconcile science and faith”. Again, that depends on how you define your terms. Religion does not necessitate a specific exegetical methodology or dogma. “Faith” is not “dogma”.  

    I think it is easy to identify the anti-intellectual strains of religion – and no doubt they do exist in abundance – and cyncially claim an intrinsic incompatibility with the religious and the scientific. This ignores history, confuses science with scientism, and in general is just a pretty bad argument rooted in frustration. In reality, what I think we find is that there if definite conflict with certain claims of religions. But that is a much less rhetorically effective claim, I understand.   

    Or perhaps my definition of “conflict” is someone else’s definition of “irreconcilable differences.” 

  • I_Claudia

    I come from the biological sciences and not the social sciences, so I admit my view may be biased, but those graphs, particularly the last two, don’t look very good to me. Correlations of around 0.7 aren’t very good, and when you exclude the outlier that is the US, they go down to around 0.5, which is terrible. I see that they are calculated to be significant, but the data are “dirty” (in the sense that there are clearly a huge number of other factors).

    That’s not to say that I don’t think the American hostility to science isn’t a big problem, because I do. I just think it’s important to try to treat data the same, no matter my inclination for or against it. I think that if similar graphs were shown with a similarly positive correlation between religiosity and charitable giving, people might be a lot more willing to question the methods. It’s not as fun, but we have to be in the habit of treating all data with the same critical eye, or at least that should be something we aspire to.

  • Bender

    ” Coyne was claiming an incompatibility between science and religions with
    non-metaphorical interpretations of scripture and dogmas.”

    That’s wrong. Coyne claims incompatibility between science and all religions. And he’s right. The scientific method consists in not assuming anything as true until it’s backed by some evidence. Religion consists in believing without evidence. The two are opposite concepts.

  • Pseudonym

    The word “faith” means “trust” or “loyalty”. This is what the word has always meant.  When you refer to a marriage as “faithful” or someone acting “in bad faith”, nobody seriously thinks that it refers to belief, let alone belief without evidence.

    It’s people like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne (and their fundamentalist Christian de facto allies; odd how they seem to agree on a lot of premises) who use an incorrect definition.

  • Pseudonym

    Nonsense. Confucianism doesn’t contain beliefs which are incompatible with science. Neither does the atheistic version of Buddhism.

    To anticipate the usual objection: Yes, they are 100% bona fide religions, as any academic who studies comparative religion will tell you. Anyone who says otherwise is playing semantic games by effectively redefining religion to exclude anything which doesn’t have beliefs which are incompatible with science.

  • Pseudonym

    There is a difference between “science” and “the scientific method”. Art is compatible with science, but it doesn’t follow the scientific method.

    Also, there are plenty of religions which don’t include belief without evidence. As I noted below, Confucianism and atheistic forms of Buddhism are two of the more obvious examples. So is the John Shelby Spong version of Christianity.

  • Bender

     Unless you call Conficius a god, confucianism is not a religion.

  • Pseudonym

    If you believe that, you’re using a nonstandard definition of “religion”.

  •  Faith means a lot of things to a lot of people, including people who “seriously thinks that it refers to belief” (in a deity), including “belief without evidence.”; Who died and put you in charge of the OED?  Anyway….

    Even if I grant you your dubious premise about the “correct” definition of faith….faith in someone, faithfulness in a relationship is trust and loyalty based on reasonable expectation based on past performance.  This can be measured/gauged in human relationships.  Do you adhere generally to the golden rule?  If I scratch your back, do you scratch mine?  Do you have a reputation as a freeloading n’er-do-well?

    Some theists would claim their holy books, miracle stories, personal testimonials, etc. provide all the “evidence” they need to affirm this trust/loyalty in their chosen Deity or other god-head.  I (and other atheists) assert that in fact they do not.  I, and those like me with a secular/scientific non-theistic world-view assert that they do not count as legitimate evidence.  We can have reasonable trust in other human beings we give the name “friend”, not least because we can have reasonable certainty they actually exist.  We have a personal history with such people.  Religious people believe their “relationship” and “personal history” with their chosen Deity is of the same or superior caliber compared to such human relationships.  I do not.  I think they are inferior and that they are on their knees at night mumbling to themselves in an inner monologue, chatting with an imaginary friend.

    Even children with imaginary friends know not to ask their imaginary friends not to do their chores for them.  They know they will still get the blame if the chores aren’t done…they know (either intuitively or actual trial and error) they can’t push the blame off on their imaginary friend.   Mom & Dad will call bullsh*t on that.  On some level they know such imaginary friends are “just pretend”.  It is adults who have confusion over this when they call their imaginary friend “God” and ask “him” (or her/it) to do things in their lives.

  • As a physicist, I cringe a little when I see data like this, as well. In the hard sciences, our experimental methodology is so good that we are accustomed to very high precisions on our raw data, and correlations well over 0.95 in much of our analysis.

    But the situation is different with the social sciences, where very often the data is intrinsically noisy to a degree seldom seen in physics or biology. And there’s currently little that can be done about that- experimental methods are simply not well enough developed. Most of the data on the axes of the above graphs probably have errors on the order of tens of percent. Nevertheless, a correlation coefficient of 0.7 does represent a statistically significant result… even though a result like that in most hard sciences would have us asking what went wrong with our experiment!

  • Not at all. It is increasingly common to consider any non-theistic philosophical system historically called a “religion” to be simply a philosophy. That usage is seen particularly as the study of religion and religious philosophy continues to move away from traditional theologians (nearly always religious themselves) to more academic researchers.

  • Science does not make false claims, at least not in anything the sense that religion does.

    Religion makes claims without objective basis, and fights to hang onto them even in the face of objective evidence of their falsity.

    Science makes assertions based on objective evidence, and then seeks to test or falsify those assertions. There is no claim of the absolute truth of any assertion; all are open to reinterpretation or outright falsification.

    These two ways of approaching knowledge are radically different, and are why I consider science and religion to be fundamentally at odds on all levels.

  • “Faith”, like most words, has more than one meaning. The meaning of “faith” when applied to a marriage means something slightly different than the sense in “bad faith”, and radically different from the meaning as applied to “religious faith”.

    When discussing religious faith, “faith” means the willingness to accept a set of beliefs without objective evidence of their truth- quite different from “trust” or “loyalty” (words themselves that have multiple meanings).

  • Pseudonym

    It may be “increasingly common” amongst the atheist movement (some of whom have a vested interest in redefining “religion” to essentially mean “anything I don’t like”) but it is most certainly not the standard definition used by secular academics who study comparative religion or philosophy.

  • Pseudonym

    The meaning of “faith” when applied to a marriage means something
    slightly different than the sense in “bad faith”, […]

    Not really, no. In each case it means trust. “Faithlessness” in a relationship is a breach of trust. So is “bad faith”.

    […] and radically
    different from the meaning as applied to “religious faith”.

    Not really, no.

    The word does have more than one shade of meaning, that’s true, but they are all derived from the Latin word for “trust” or “loyalty”, and in turn is used to translate a Greek word which means essentially the same thing.

    It is this Greek word which appears in the New Testament and the writings of the early Christian church. So at least if you’re talking about historic Christianity it’s exactly the same word as the phrase “bad faith”.

    I’m not sure how other religions use the word, or even if they use it at all.

  • No, it is common in academics- in the study of theology, philosophy, and comparative religion.

    Without a significant supernatural component, how can you have a religion at all? The term becomes meaningless.

  • I don’t care how the term was used in ancient times. I care how it’s used now, and “religious faith” has nothing to do with trust (as that word is usually used).

  • Pseudonym

    Clearly I’m not in charge of the OED. However, I defer to secular experts on comparative religion on what constitutes “religion”.

    Experts who study the sociology and public health issues of drug use don’t only include clearly harmful drugs, or illicit drugs, under the umbrella of “drug use”. It would be ridiculous if they did. Similarly, experts who study religion include all religion, not just those which make for a convenient strawman.

    The rest of your comment, while I agree with it, is irrelevant to this point.

  • Jeremy Chappell

    No, you only care how it is used by those who prefer to use the term perjoratively. I have heard *some* Christians use the term “faith” to mean believing “without evidence”, but when I inquire about it, it’s clear that they mean “without proof”, which is obviously not the same thing. So, part of the problem is no doubt some obfuscation on the part of Christians.

    Nevertheless, if you’re honest enough to admit, as John J. Ronald does below, that Christians at least *think* they have evidence, then obviously the definition of  “faith” does not necessitate the lack of evidence. As such, there is no reason to insist on using it in this way, unless you are trying to score rhetorical points… with those who already agree with you.

  • Jeremy Chappell

    I don’t see why religion needs a “supernatural” component. Honestly, I think trying to make a distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is one of the more pointless enterprises. 

  • Jeremy Chappell

    The two are different concepts, not opposites. Science is a way of “knowing”. Religion is not. Religion uses a set of knowledge, some of which may or may not be from science. 

    Where it gets tricky is when a theist would claim to “know” something “by faith”. That is where definition of terms comes into play. 

    Here’s an honest question: when someone says science and faith are incompatible, what does that actually mean? I know what I mean when I say they are compatible, but I’m not entirely sure I understand what others do when they say there’s complete incompatibility.

  • Pseudonym

    No, it is common in academics- in the study of theology, philosophy, and comparative religion.

    Name one. One senior academic who specialises in anthropology, sociology or comparative religion academically and who believes that if it doesn’t have a supernatural component, it’s not a religion.

    Without a significant supernatural component, how can you have a religion at all? The term becomes meaningless.

    Welcome to the real world, where phenomena don’t always fit in neatly defined hierarchies and ontologies.

  • Pseudonym

    That’s certainly true philosophically; the very notion of “supernatural” is problematic, since people who believe in “it” (whatever “it” is) generally believe it’s part of the natural order.

    For sociologists and anthropologists, it’s sometimes a useful distinction because it serves as a useful proxy for what you actually want to measure (e.g. high religiosity). But nobody kids themselves that religion requires supernatural beliefs.

  • ctcss

     “Science has disprove[d] … the power of prayer…”

    OK, here is another area where there seems to be confusion based on very imprecise definitions. The studies I have read have shown mixed or negative results regarding prayer “as defined by the person designing the experiment”. In other words, what has been tested is the designer’s conception of what might constitute “prayer”. Therefore, if the designer doesn’t actually have any useful experience in such an area of life (or tries to amalgamate other people’s differing approaches to prayer into some generic “vanilla” version), then the designer may very well be shooting in the dark. In other words, the negative results of the experiment don’t prove that “prayer” doesn’t work, it simply proves that the designated methodology of “praying” allowed for by the designer didn’t work as the designer expected. (There are many, many ways of praying, some of which aren’t in the least compatible with the experimental setups I have read about.)

    There is a further testing problem (perhaps the main one) that, unless “prayer” is actually some mysterious power exercised by one human being that can affect another human being (in other words, without God being involved in the process), then the designer has left out a very important part of the experiment’s setup. Unless the designer has God’s explicit co-operation in the specific experiment being conducted, then any “praying” being performed by the participants will be lacking in the ability to have any useful effect. (God’s participation would be missing.) It would be akin to testing the functionality of a light switch without any electrical power being present in the system.

    Although I personally believe in the power of prayer (and rely on it in my everyday life), I don’t really think this is something that can effectively be tested experimentally. And if it cannot be tested, then it really cannot be said to be disproved.

  • Pseudonym

     Actually, scratch that. Asking for one academic working in the field who defines religion this way is like asking for one biologist who disagrees with evolution: it’s probably possible to find one or two if you try hard enough, but that wouldn’t actually prove anything.

  • Kodie

     If the results of prayer coincide with statistical probability, you can’t really say that it worked. If you get a result in your favor, or you end up making a decision that works out well for you and attribute this to “the power of prayer,” do you mean you think god answered your prayer, or do you mean (and I don’t disagree this is a good “power” of prayer) that avoiding distractions to sort out your thoughts for a while led you to the kind of clarity you need to bear for decisions or difficult events in your life, for example?

    Because prayer can help with the latter as a form of meditation, but if you think you’re asking someone to tell you something you don’t already know, and that your thoughts came from somewhere outside your own skull, well, that never happens.

  • I don’t really think this is something that can effectively be tested experimentally.

    If something cannot be tested, then by what measure have you been able to determine whether or not it’s effective enough for you to believe in it? And how, if you believe you’ve done effective testing for yourself, can you say that same testing cannot be done objectively by others and expect an affirmative result?

  • Pseudonym

    I think that most Americans can’t help but believe in American exceptionalism.

    American theocrats believe that the US was founded by God to be a light unto the other nations or something. American new atheists, on the other hand, believe that America’s religion problem is an exemplar, instead of being the clear outlier that it is.

    (Actually, this may be one of those places where the “new” qualifier makes no sense. There may, in fact, be nothing new about American exceptionalism in the common beliefs of American atheists. But this would be insulting to many atheists living in the US who recognise that most religious-majority countries in the developed world seem to be able to maintain secular government and society perfectly well.)

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