Sunday, July 02, 2006

Another Devil's Chaplain

The few regular readers of this blog will have noticed that I am a great admirer of the blog Pharyngula written by the biologist PZ Myers, with its inimitable mix of evolutionary developmental biology, atheism, liberalism and cephalopods. Not only is PZ refreshing and insightful in most of what he writes, he also sustains an astonishing posting rate. I would have to blog full-time to even approach a similarly substantive output (to say nothing about quality), but perhaps I'm just an unusually slow writer. Although that is unlikely to change in the future, I thought I would improve things by posting on one of the intellectual passions I share with PZ Myers, besides evo-devo: atheism.

Recently, PZ has been tackling the thorny issue of the relationship between atheism and science in two incisive posts (here and here). He addressed the question of whether there is any difference between the scientist's and the atheist's attitudes towards religion. PZ concluded that "the scientist and atheist positions are the same". Here's a summary of his argument:
What should a scientist expect from an idea? That it be a reasonable advance in knowledge; that it be built on a foundation of evidence; that it be testable; that it should lead to new and useful questions and ideas. If we look at religion from that perspective, it doesn't help. At best, the hypothesis of the supernatural and/or a supreme being is vague, unfounded, and inapplicable in any practical fashion—deistic views, for instance, are so abstract and so carefully divorced from risk of challenge that they represent an empty hypothesis, and the most flattering thing you can say about them is that they're harmless. At worst, religion is confused, internally contradictory, and in conflict with evidence from the physical (and near as we can tell, only) world.
Now, this argument appears to upset many people. They would rather scientists keep these thoughts to themselves, and focus on teaching and practicing science at all times. Surely, people should be allowed to believe in God if they chose to. Of course they do! A better question is whether scientist-
atheists should hurt people's feelings by articulating their views in public. In fact, all atheistic and agnostic scientists I know focus exclusively on the science most of the time. I certainly don't bring up religion in my Evolutionary Biology course or at my lab meetings (and I suspect, neither does PZ). I'm much more interested in a student's understanding of linkage disequilibrium, or in how the worms (or models) behaved in the latest experiment.

The problem is that scientists are being asked to watch in silence as critics of science attack science by linking it to atheism (e.g., Ann Coulter, and the "Coultergeists" at the Discovery Institute do it all the time), while many defenders of science believe they are doing it a service by distancing science from atheism (e.g., Michael Ruse's disappointing ramblings on "evolutionism", or the talking heads at the end of the otherwise excellent Darwin exhibition). Others, such as Richard Dawkins, EO Wilson, PZ Myers and myself, believe that this is not good enough. Just because some scientists, such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins, manage to do good science while also believing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God, does not mean that there is no conflict between science and religion.
By not speaking out, scientist-atheists are helping fuel most people's bigotry towards atheism.

I should note that this debate is peculiar to the US. Just the other day, I was talking to a prominent French biologist who was mystified with my account of the "debate" over evolution in this country. In Portugal, a Catholic country, Mário Soares was twice elected president with absolute majorities, despite being openly agnostic, something pollsters repeatedly show would be impossible in the US. Never before I came to the US did I think twice before including the word "evolution" in the answer to the question of what it is I actually work on. Perhaps people are just more outspoken in the US ("I have a problem with evolution..." is a common reply), but somehow I doubt it.

This debate reminds me of Jerry Coyne's review of a book by another of PZ Myers' fans, Richard Dawkins' (I would recommend
"A Devil's Chaplain" to any budding atheist, at least until his new book comes out):
[...] Atheism in early nineteenth-century Britain was blasphemy and thus illegal [...] Thankfully, such strictures are now much rarer, but a subtler form of repression prevails in places such as the United States. Scientist−atheists, bowing to prevalent notions of politically correct social inclusiveness, are unwilling to express their opinions for fear of offending religious sensibilities. But Dawkins makes a strong case that most religions are insidious and dangerous illusions. It's time for those who agree to stand up beside him.
Which I am now doing.