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Evolving with Gods

akhenatenHere’s John Gray in The New Statesman,  reviewing God Is Watching You: How the Fear of God Makes Us Human by Dominic Johnson:

An evolutionary biologist trained at Oxford who also holds a doctorate in political science, Johnson believes that the need to find a more-than-natural meaning in natural events is universal – “a ubiquitous phenomenon of human nature” – and performs a vital role in maintaining order in society. Extending far beyond cultures shaped by monotheism, it “spans cultures across the globe and every historical period, from indigenous tribal societies . . . to modern world religions – and includes atheists, too”.

Reward and punishment may not emanate from a single omnipotent deity, as imagined in Western societies. Justice may be dispensed by a vast unseen army of gods, angels, demons and ghosts, or else by an impersonal cosmic process that rewards good deeds and punishes wrongdoing, as in the Hindu and Buddhist conception of karma. But some kind of moral order beyond any human agency seems to be demanded by the human mind, and this sense that our actions are overseen and judged from beyond the natural world serves a definite evolutionary role. Belief in supernatural reward and punishment promotes social co-operation in a way nothing else can match. The belief that we live under some kind of supernatural guidance is not a relic of superstition that might some day be left behind but an evolutionary adaptation that goes with being human.

That’s not true for everyone, of course (as it happens, the idea of a meaningless, indifferent universe suits me just fine) but as a general principle it is convincing. And that means that religion is not going away any time soon, or ever.

In the course of an article for Politix on godless conservatives written a couple of years back, I noted this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

New Atheists (and plenty of old ones too) not so much…


[The] “new atheists” are simple souls. In their view, which derives from rationalist philosophy and not from evolutionary theory, the human mind is a faculty that seeks an accurate representation of the world. This leaves them with something of a problem. Why are most human beings, everywhere and at all times, so wedded to some version of religion? It can only be that their minds have been deformed by malignant priests and devilish power elites. Atheists have always been drawn to demonology of this kind; otherwise, they cannot account for the ­persistence of the beliefs they denounce as poisonously irrational. The inveterate human inclination to religion is, in effect, the atheist problem of evil.

But what if belief in the supernatural is natural for human beings? For anyone who takes the idea of evolution seriously, religions are not intellectual errors, but ­adaptations to the experience of living in an uncertain and hazardous world. What is needed – and still largely lacking – is a perspective in which religion is understood as an inexhaustibly complex variety of beliefs and practices that have evolved to meet enduring human needs.

If the religious instinct is always likely to be with us, then, rather than railing against religion as a whole, it is much more useful to weigh different forms of religious expression against each other. All religions are not the same. Some faiths will be more benign than others. Equally there are different ways of following a faith. What a holy book says is one thing, how its followers behave can be quite another. Religions develop over time: what was, so to speak, writ in stone thousands of years ago, may now be read by many of the faithful as nothing more than folklore.

And man, of course, can shape the course of that development. If I had to design a religion, it would  be kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma. In fact, it would look a lot like an idealized version of the Church of England of seventy or eighty years ago, a happy accident of history that is far from likely to be repeated.

But back to Gray:

Practically without exception, the atheist movements of the past few centuries testify to a demand for meaning that has led them to replicate many of the patterns of thinking distinctive of monotheism, and more particularly of Christianity.

For Christians, human history isn’t an endless succession of cycles – as it was for the ancient Greek and Romans, for example – but a story, and one of a distinctive kind. Unlike practitioners of polytheism, who seek and find meaning in other ways, Christians have found sense in life through a mythical narrative in which humankind is struggling towards redemption. It is a myth that infuses the imagination of countless people who imagine they have left religion behind. The secular style of modern thinking is deceptive. Marxist and liberal ideas of “alienation” and “revolution”, “the march of humanity” and “the progress of civilisation” are redemptive myths in disguise.

For some, atheism may be no more than a fundamental lack of interest in the concepts and practices of religion. But as an organised movement, atheism has always been a surrogate faith. Evangelical atheism is the faith that mass conversion to godlessness can transform the world. This is a fantasy. If the history of the past few centuries is any guide, a godless world would be as prone to savage conflicts as the world has always been. Still, the belief that without religion human life would be vastly improved sustains and consoles many a needy unbeliever – which confirms the essentially religious character of atheism as a movement.

Atheism need not be an evangelical cult. Here and there one finds thinkers who have truly left redemptive myths behind. The American journalist and iconoclast H L Mencken was a rambunctious atheist who delighted in lambasting religious believers; but he did so in a spirit of mockery, not out of any interest in converting them into unbelievers. Wisely, he did not care what others believed. Rather than lamenting the fact of incurable human irrationality, he preferred to laugh at the spectacle it presents. If monotheism was, for Mencken, an amusing exhibition of human folly, one suspects he would have found the new atheism just as entertaining.

Rightly so.

Read the whole thing.

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Darwin the Candidate

The election results didn’t give me much to smile about, but here’s one exception.

The Athens Banner-Herald reports:

Charles Darwin, the 19th-century naturalist who laid the foundations for evolutionary theory, received nearly 4,000 write-in votes in Athens-Clarke County in balloting for the 10th Congressional District seat retained Tuesday by five-year incumbent Republican Rep. Paul Broun [who was running unopposed].

A spot check Thursday of some of the other counties in the east Georgia congressional district revealed a smattering of votes for Darwin, although it wasn’t always clear, based on information provided by elections offices in those counties, whether those votes were cast in the 10th District race. And because the long-dead Darwin was not a properly certified write-in candidate, some counties won’t be tallying votes for him, whether in the congressional race or other contests.

A campaign asking voters to write-in Darwin’s name in the 10th Congressional District, which includes half of Athens-Clarke County, began after Broun, speaking at a sportsmen’s banquet at a Hartwell church, called evolution and other areas of science “lies straight from the pit of hell.”

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Via the Daily Mail:

Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain’s leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.

Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion. Similar to the beliefs expressed by fundamentalist Christians, Muslim opponents to Darwinism maintain that Allah created the world, mankind and all known species in a single act.

Steve Jones emeritus professor of human genetics at university college London has questioned why such students would want to study biology at all when it obviously conflicts with their beliefs. He told the Sunday Times: ‘I had one or two slightly frisky discussions years ago with kids who belonged to fundamentalist Christian churches, now it is Islamic overwhelmingly….They don’t come [to lectures] or they complain about it or they send notes or emails saying they shouldn’t have to learn this stuff.”

Perhaps the most telling thing about this sorry story is the students’ unwillingness merely to study something with which they disagree. What exactly are they afraid of?

In due course, we can, I expect, see an effort made to allow them to be spared the requirement to attend class on the grounds of “conscience”, the miserable, self-righteous and Balkanizing excuse increasingly being used in the United States to secure exemption for religious folk from this rule or that.

And this is interesting (emphasis added):

Sources within the group Muslims4UK partly blame the growing popularity of creationist beliefs within Islam on Turkish author Harun Yahya who, influenced by the success of Christian creationists in America, has written several books denouncing Darwinist theory

The weird ecumenicism of fanaticism never fails to impress.

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Against Evolution

Via the Independent:

A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled “Islam and the theory of evolution”.

But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. Instead his father, Suhaib, head of the mosque’s committee of trustees, posted a notice on his behalf expressing regret over his comments. “I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused,” the statement read.

The campaign is part of a growing movement by a small but vocal group of largely Saudi-influenced orthodox Muslims who use evolution as a way of discrediting imams whom they deem to be overly progressive or “western orientated”.

Masjid Tawhid is a prominent mosque which also runs one of the country’s largest sharia courts, the Islamic Sharia Council. In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture there detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds. But the lecture was interrupted by men he described as “fanatics” who distributed leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”…

…Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia – where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth – have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran’s statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.

Note also the line about police advice. Over at the Corner, Mark Steyn explains its significance:

As I’ve written before, “security concerns” are the new black(out) – the means by which those who are meant to enforce the law equally instead pre-emptively reward bullying mobsters who have total contempt for it. In this case, it may even be that this helpful advice was provided by Muslim police officers, who in Britain, Canada and Europe are often happy to serve as state enforcers for Islamic intimidation.

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Darwin and intellectual conservatism

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has a webjournal called First Principles. Here’s a bit about ISI:

In 1953, Frank Chodorov founded ISI as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, with a young Yale University graduate William F. Buckley, Jr. as president. E. Victor Milione, ISI’s next and longest-serving president, was the enterprising individual whose efforts realized Chodorov’s plan through publications, a membership network, a lecture and conference program, and a graduate fellowship program.

And now here’s an article, Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism. It’s not just the the people at Answers in Genesis.



It must come back into balance…eventually

Conservatives in Texas won a curriculum change battle. But another event also occurred which was of note:

The Religious Right suffered a surprise setback in Texas when incumbent Don McLeroy—a creationist and critic of church-state separation—narrowly lost his re-election bid for the powerful State Board of Education to challenger Thomas Ratliff in the March 2 Republican primary.

McLeroy, a dentist from Bryan, lost by fewer than 900 votes. Since no Democrat filed for the race, Ratliff will assume the seat next year. Ratliff, a legislative consultant and lobbyist from Mt. Pleasant, is the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff.

I have pointed out before that Republican elites are split on evolution. One dynamic which has played out repeatedly since the 1980s is that the Religious Right has taken over school boards and attempted to push Creationism, which usually results in a successful reaction by those in the Republican establishment who mobilize to “take back their schools” and the like. Eventually with the victory the motivation for turnout and organization for these generally low publicity positions declines, at which point the Religious Right can move back in again. And so the cycle begins anew.

It might seem strange that Republicans who aren’t core members of the Religious Right would repeatedly rise up and work to oust fellow partisans based around such academic topics. But I recall in 1999 when Kansas was dominated by Religious Right school board members who were attempting to push Creationism there were loud complaints from businesses. When engineering firms were trying to recruit talent apparently one issue which came up from prospective employees was school quality, in particular the science curriculum. This is a classic case where business and social conservatism will always be at cross-purposes periodically. Resolution can only come if the Religious Right manages to capture the cultural commanding heights and make their beliefs normative, at which point they would be good for business. I am skeptical that this will happen.

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As a follow up to the post below on Sarah Palin and Creationism, it strikes me that those on the Right & Republicans seem more divided and emotive on this issue than abortion. More specifically, libertarian and secular Rightists seem more likely to express their displeasure about Creationism than abortion. Why? A lot of it probably has to do with identity markers. Even if you are a pro-choice Republican, you know that the party’s position is pro-life, just as if you are a pro-life Democrat you know that the party’s position is pro-choice. Some of this was evident with the Stupak Amendment, where liberals blew a gasket. I personally support abortion rights and do not believe that a first trimester abortion should be made illegal. But I can understand why those who are pro-life would fight to prevent public funds, or the appearance of public funds, from going toward the provision of abortion. In contrast, many Left-liberals seem to be complaining about the amendment as if is a horrible deprivation of basic female health services, like a pap test. This is an instance of Left-liberals living in their own ideological bubbles, even if most Americans do not think abortion is murder, they do not conceive of it is as just another health service. (well, that’s obvious, as there are whole lobbies who are focused on abortion, pro and anti)

Moving to Creationism, there never seems to be a debate about this issue among Democrats. And yet black Americans are by and large Creationist. The difference between the political parties and ideologies isn’t that great. My own hunch is that the difference here between the two parties has to do with the degree of unanimity among the elites.

To explore these issue I looked to the GSS. In particular, the variables:


For PARTYID I looked only at Democrats and Republicans. For POLVIEWS I only looked at liberals and conservatives. For DEGREE, I created two categories, those with 4 year college degrees or higher, and those without. ABANY & EVOLVED are both dichotomous yes/true vs. no/false. I also limited to the sample to 1998 and later. Here are the exact questions for ABANY & EVOLVED:

Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion if: The woman wants it for any reason?

Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (Is that true or false?)

The table below shows the difference between college and non-college educated among the two political parties and ideologies when it comes to evolution & abortion:

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A few years ago Ann Althouse told Bob Wright that there was an easy way to do sex-differences research without being pilloried: make sure that the generalizations work out so that they are flatter women. Over at Feministing, Are Women More Risk-Averse in Investing?:

A 2005 study from the Center for Financial Research at the University of Cologne documented differences between male and female fund managers: Women managers tended to take less extreme risk and to adopt more measured investment styles (which perform well over time). And according to research published in 2002 in the International Journal of Bank Marketing, women tend to make investment-related decisions with a detailed, comprehensive approach, while men are more likely to simplify data and make decisions based on an overall schema.

I always get nervous when scientists or sociologists start making wide-sweeping gender claims, but I’m also not scientifically sophisticated enough to evaluate whether these studies are valid.

Anyone have any thoughts?

Matt Yglesias says don’t worry. Well Matt, you should worry. Reality is often best understood on a case-by-case basis, but no matter how its joints are carved up there are numerous interlocking connections. To be a risk taking egomaniac is in bad odor today for obvious reasons. But do we want everyone in all domains to minimize risk? I doubt it. And I’m sure people can think of domains which are value-added to society where male risking taking is a benefit, and Right Thinking People know that when it comes to Good Things women are always at least as well endowed, if not more, than men, on average.

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Theology and belatedness

Anyone who has not read evolutionary theorist Jerry Coyne’s essay on science and religion in the New Republic is missing a tour de force.  Under review are two books attacking creationism and intelligent design.  Their authors–a physicist at Eastern Nazarene College and a cell biologist at Brown University—then try to reconcile their Christian faith with evolution and physics.  This, Coyne concludes, authors Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller fail to do, however masterful their demolition of creationism:

It would appear, then, that one cannot be coherently religious and scientific at the same time. That alleged synthesis requires that with one part of your brain you accept only those things that are tested and supported by agreed-upon evidence, logic, and reason, while with the other part of your brain you accept things that are unsupportable or even falsified. In other words, the price of philosophical harmony is cognitive dissonance. Accepting both science and conventional faith leaves you with a double standard: rational on the origin of blood clotting, irrational on the Resurrection; rational on dinosaurs, irrational on virgin births.

Coyne touches on several topics already discussed on this site, such as the unwillingness of certain high-minded apologists to discuss what Coyne calls “religion as it is lived and practiced by real people.” But what struck me most while reading the review is how post hoc theological reasoning has become.  It has been reduced to forever playing catch-up to science.  Whatever new insights about the universe science establishes, religious divines will immediately conclude that that is exactly the way God would have done things and what they had meant to say about him all along.  Did it take 14 billion years before God’s intent to create a species that would worship him reached fruition, 14 billion years of laborious preliminaries before anything even remotely resembling human beings could have been glimpsed on the scene?  Well, of course!  It makes perfect sense; that’s exactly what any omnipotent God would have done.  If scientists tomorrow found powerful evidence that in fact species came into existence whenever a giant sling-shot fired a wad of  chewing gum at the earth, we would learn that the sling-shot is the divine instrument par excellence.  (more…)

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