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Darwinism, atheism, liberal religion, and the academy

As the Darwin bicentennial looms (2009) and the flapdoodle flaps, we are treated to ridiculous hagiography and soothing, reassuring spin on how Darwinism can live harmoniously with the non-materialist beliefs of the peoples of Earth.

Meanwhile, a friend draws my attention to Taner Edis.

He advises me that Edis is

a physicist at Truman State University and a researcher at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He’s also associate editor for physics and astronomy for the NCSE’s monthly journal. In 2004, he co-edited Why Intelligent Design Fails, a volume with many scientific contributors opposing ID and supporting evolution; including various contributors associated with the NCSE.

And my friend offers some brief passages from Edis’s 2005 book, Science and Nonbelief , as a commentary on the harmony we can expect:

“[E]volution does, in fact, undermine a common traditional conception of the nature of morality. In a Darwinian world, nature is no longer infused with morality. Living things do not have created functions that are right and proper, and variation is not a deviation from an essence with overtones of corruption.”
(Taner Edis, Science and Nonbelief 90 (Greenwood Press, 2006).)

“[I]n the United States, there is a recent movement to celebrate February 12, Darwin’s birthday, as “Darwin Day.” This event is supported largely by humanist, freethought, and atheist-oriented groups, using slogans of science and humanity.” Naturally, the scientific community responds positively, treading it as a public outreach .. Occasionally, university science departments cosponsor larger public events put on for Darwin Day, alongside atheist and humanist organizations.” (Taner Edis, Science and Nonbelief 91 (Greenwood Press, 2006).)

“An alliance with religious liberals need not bother the nonreligious. After all, nonbelievers most often react against politically intrusive, conservative religions. Their political goals and ethical inclinations are usually close to those affirmed by modernist spiritualities. And even those nonbelievers who equate all religion with superstition very often think religious liberals are already halfway to rejecting the gods. If so, promoting public acceptance of Darwin would also nudge people toward dropping their supernatural beliefs, even if they hang on for a while to vague liberal conceptions of divinity.” (Taner Edis, Science and Nonbelief 91-92 (Greenwood Press, 2006).)

Oh, well that’s all perfectly all right then. If you attend a church, synagogue, mosque or whatever, Darwin Day sounds like a great way to find out which clergy should take early retirement. Just catch them promoting it.

Also at the Post-Darwinist and the Mindful Hack:

Earth to Jason Rosenhouse: People who doze gravel at a steep angle to pay your salary do not despise ID.

O’Leary visits a Toronto bookstore and finds that Edge of Evolution is a rare example of actual science in the science section.

The contented ignorance of the modern atheist – not like his predecessors

A reader defends the pygmy chimpanee way (all sex, no brains, no war) as exemplary for humans

Instant sanity moment

More from Alister McGrath on the twilight of atheism.

Swatting silly revisionism: O’Leary deals with a claim that the term post-atheism is almost never used.

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23 Responses to Darwinism, atheism, liberal religion, and the academy

  1. test

  2. My apologies for that above. I haven’t been able to post comments for weeks because of an update to my antivirus software and I’ve been slowly working through all the settings to see what might fix the problem. Seems I might have found at least a partial solution.

  3. I think Darwin Day tends to get misused and abused. There are many sincere theists who believe that – ID or not – faith, even orthodox faith, can be entirely compatible with evolution. But not Darwinism – at least, not evolution interpreted to mean that there’s no objective morality, no purpose in creation, and that everything comes down to survival. I still maintain that “evolution” and “darwinism” have slippery definitions that shift drastically depending on who is using the word. Ken Miller, Richard Dawkins, Michael Behe, and Frank Tipler all believe in “evolution”. And I’m willing to bet each and every one of them would have different explanations of what they mean by it.

    Which is why I think the idea that ‘evolution undermines a traditional conception of morality’ is a pipe-dream, and the real reason the very concept of ID stirs so many atheists into a frenzy: Because, specifics aside, it’s a way of looking at all of the actual data and concepts of evolution and realizing that, hey, this actually looks quite compatible with a traditional conception of morality, or even God’s work. The truth is that evolution really doesn’t undermine those things; there’s just one philosophical way to approach evolution, and it happens to be one that’s popular with atheists. They’ll just have to get used to people with other philosophies finding (*gasp*) support for their views in nature and science.

  4. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, right? So the bicentennial will be in 2059, at the 200-year anniversary. And the upcoming 150-year anniversary will be the sesquicentennial.

  5. Okay, okay, I should have checked Wikipedia before hand. Darwin was born in 1809. Oops. Nevermind.

  6. Darwin was a fairly bright dude.
    But he had a commitment to materialism, was not honest and open about it. He took ideas from Blyth and barely gave him the credit due.

    All his theory has done on the positive side is to help us look deeper into natures built-in (front loaded) capabilities. But others were already doing that better before him.

    On the negative side we have eugenics, the holocaust, the mass murders of atheist anti-christ regimes, ‘scientifically’ backed racism and a whole slew of moral problems and disasters (gratuitous abortion, euthanasia, etc.) that are a direct result of the logical implications of Darwinism.

    There should be no Darwin day at all unless it is a remembrance like Bloody Darwin day.

  7. “There should be no Darwin day at all unless it is a remembrance like Bloody Darwin day.”

    I’m in agreement. IMHO, I don’t believe Darwin’s “dangerous idea” has contributed anything significant to science. In fact, having a Darwin Day at all is a testament to the pompousness of materialists who celebrate their own failure to account for the origin or complexity of life.

  8. Frankly, I fail to see the rapid demise of atheism Denise seems to be predicting.

    Eastern Europe may have had an upswing in religious fervor, but that isn’t surprising since they have only recently thrown off the shackles of communist-imposed atheism which most of the population never really embraced anyway.

    The rise in Western European religious observance is almost all within the immigrant communities from Muslim countries or the aforementioned Eastern European countries. Otherwise there is very little sign of any demise in atheism, especially in places like Scandianvia and the UK.

    Finally, and most assuredly, in the US, recent surveys have shown that younger generations are becoming less religious, and are likely to remain so as they grow older. The non-religious make up about 4% of the 50-60 crowd whereas they make up as much as 14% of the 20-30 age group. And studies show that as people get older, they do not, overall, change their views on religion that much.

    So there is a definite trend towards atheism in the USA, and given the popularity of the recent titles from atheists, I don’t see how that can be taken as atheism being on its last legs. If ID was to suddenly have a spate of titles hitting the best seller list, would that be a sign that ID was dying? Of course not, it would be rightly heralded as a new dawn for Intelligent Design.

  9. Just to back up my previous comment, here is a quote from the Barna Group who ran the surveys of the religious landscape in the USA that I talked about:

    One of the most fascinating insights from the research is the increasing size of the no-faith segment with each successive generation. The proportion of atheists and agnostics increases from 6% of Elders (ages 61+) and 9% of Boomers (ages 42-60), to 14% of Busters (23-41) and 19% of adult Mosaics (18-22). When adjusted for age and compared to 15 years ago, each generation has changed surprisingly little over the past decade and a half. Each new generation entered adulthood with a certain degree of secular fervor, which appears to stay relatively constant within that generation over time. This contradicts the popular notion that such generational differences are simply a product of people becoming more faith-oriented as they age.

    Seems to me that any talk of the demise of atheism in the US is simply way off the mark.

  10. I think if there’s any ‘demise of atheism’ in play, it tends to be in terms of birth rates among atheists themselves. That’s particularly apparent in western europe – why do think there’s such a demand for all those adherents from muslim and eastern european countries? Because the very secular west is committing suicide.

    That said, I don’t place much stock in that interpretation of the Barna Group’s stats – particularly when they’re lumping atheists in with agnostics. As desperately as some wish this not to be the case, they aren’t the same thing.

    “Interestingly, only about five million adults unequivocally use the label “atheist” and, when asked to describe the nature of God, staunchly reject the existence of such a being. In other words, most of those who align with the no-faith viewpoint harbor doubts as to the existence or nature of a supreme deity but do not express outright rejection of God.”

  11. There is little practical difference between agnostics and most atheists. Most self-identified atheists will say they are have not completely ruled out the existence of a creator/deity.

    Whether or not the non-religious self identify as atheists, there is no denying that the current trend in the America is away from religious belief. The starkness of that trend makes claims of the early demise of atheism seem to be wishful thinking.

    As for the demographics of Europe, if you extrapolate demographic trends out beyond 50 years, then Muslims (the most likely group to remain religious) will still be just a small minority of the population on that continent. There have been many scare stories about the impending Muslim takeover of Europe, but in reality, birth rates alone is not going to allow that to happen for a very, very long time. Again, there is no sign of the rapid demise in materialist, atheist thought.

  12. tyke

    Actually there’s little change in religious belief in the U.S. since 1978. It waxes and wanes a bit over time but there’s no real long term trend either way. It appears to go up sharply when the stock market tanks then slowly declines until the next market crash.

    http://www.pollingreport.com/religion.htm

    I don’t consider myself an atheist but I am agnostic. The local atheist society refused to let me join when I explained that I didn’t positively disbelieve in God. Whatever your personal definition of atheism the reality is that the official atheist organizations positively deny the existence of God. Any protestations to the contrary comes from a desire to inflate the number of “atheists” rather than from sincerely accepting agnostics into the fold.

  13. “There is little practical difference between agnostics and most atheists.”

    There is little practical difference between agnostics and liberal religious too. Should we lump them together as well? One more time: There is an important difference between atheists and agnostics, and this doesn’t change just because atheists really, really want their numbers to improve. The fact that atheists try to claim agnostics or even pantheists and deists as “effectively atheist” says a lot about the current atheist problems.

    As for the demographics in Europe: Well of course birth rates alone aren’t going to drive the demographic shift. It’s a combination of birth rates plus immigration, a mix which already has the muslim population at upwards of 10% in some western european countries. Like it or not, unless there are some drastic changes, the muslim presence in Europe is only going to grow larger – and odds speak against muslims going atheist in comparably large numbers as well.

    Either way, I don’t personally believe that atheism is dying out rapidly. Dying out gradually is closer to the mark.

  14. I think that straight-up, 100-proof, 24-carat materialistic atheists are as rare as ticks on a prize-winning poodle, and for good reason. In “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science,” Dembski quotes Sagan from Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

    Because of the reflection of sunlight . . . the Earth seems to besitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. . . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

    And he quotes Dawkins from River out of Eden

    “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

    The materialistists themselves bely their own psychic inability to believe such drivel. A doctoral thesis in linguistics awaits someone willing to take on the task of digging out the anthropomorphisms which riddle both popular and academic treatments of the theory of evolution.

    At the risk of going off topic, I read Dr. Dembski’s paper for the first time last night, and still find myself somersaulting in mid-air from the explosion, unsure exactly where I’m going to land.

  15. The primary factor that limits the true atheist population in North America is the high level of religious freedom, which essentially privatizes grievances against religions (and between religions).

    As a result, no moral, social, political, or economic problem in this region will likely be solved by a big anti-God crusade.

    Also, atheism is by definition a problematic position because any contrary evidence destroys it. Hence most people who are not interested in religion prefer to consider themselves agnostics.

    A great many of them will become adherents of a religion when their social circumstances require it. For example, surprising numbers of men have begun receiving instructions in the Catholic Christian faith for no other reason
    than that their prospective bride-to-be is a Catholic and insists on it.

    I don’t expect to see any change in this landscape any time soon.

  16. nullasalus: “There is little practical difference between agnostics and liberal religious too”

    Can you define what you mean by liberal here? I put myself in that camp to a rather high degree, but I don’t believe I have much concord with the agnostics that I know.

  17. “Can you define what you mean by liberal here? I put myself in that camp to a rather high degree, but I don’t believe I have much concord with the agnostics that I know.”

    Liberal with regards to faith, not politics (though perhaps there’s some overlapping there.) Believing that all faiths are essentially the same, and that while there may be differences in what is/is not actually true in any given belief, that said differences don’t really matter all that much.

    It’s anecdotal, but most of the self-described agnostics I’ve come across have been more alike with self-described liberal christians than distinct – thinking that God is conceptually beyond most people, that specific beliefs are hard to pin down or validate, and that ‘just trying your best to live right’ is the best course of action, regardless of faith.

    I’ve run into some exceptions, sure, but those are to be expected.

  18. In response to (14):

    I agree that there’s something deeply amiss in using anthropomorphic terms in order to dispel the use of anthropomorphic terms.

    But would it be intellectually inconsistent for a naturalist to say that she has to resort to anthropomorphisms (“callous,” “uncaring,” “cold”) as a rhetorical maneuver? And that this maneuver has merely the tactical function of inverting the aesthetic and moral anthropomorphisms that we’ve traditionally used?

    That said, I can still agree that the rhetoric of materialism/naturalism is parasitic on the rhetoric of the spiritualism/supernaturalism it aims to displace — and because it remains parasitic, it cannot be a genuinely viable alternative or substitute.

    Though whether there could be a non-parasitic rhetoric of materialism/naturalism is, so far as I’m concerned, an open question.

    As is the question of whether there could be a non-anthropomorphic description of reality at all — or whether we lack the capacity to see things from any other perspective besides our own. In that case, some degree of anthropomorphism is built into any language we use, whether spiritualistic, materialistic, emergentist, etc.

    Regards,
    Carl

  19. Carl

    Yeah, my use in the post of “anthropomorphisms” isn’t specific enough to communicate what I’m talking about.

    I’ve got no problem with Sagan calling Earth “a lonely planet,” for instance. And obviously, doctoral candidates aren’t going to literally be using shovels.

    As you rightly point out, it’s difficult if not impossible to manuever rhetorically without resorting to metaphors and other assorted tropes in order to communicate.

    It’s not rhetorical devices that I’m thinking about, but language that is designed to bestow upon the theory human- or God-like characteristics. E.g. “evolution created wings and eyes,” “the evolutionary will to survive,” and whatnot.

    Jeff

  20. Jeff,

    Now I’m frankly confused. If you don’t object to metaphors, personification, etc. in the case of (e.g.) “the lonely planet,” what’s the problem with anthropomorphisms used in metaphorical characterizations of evolutionary processes?

  21. I’m personally of the view of gnosticism, paganism and the philosophy of buddhism, amongst others, as viable – moreso than I would consider any given book to be decidingly right and to be taken literally.

    As such I am not atheist, but I also don’t believe a power-that-be be necessarily God, or Allah, or such.

    One could bring someone from the 1800s and show them a modern supercomputer used in Hollywood productions (the kind that costs 500,000$) and they would say something akin to “God must have designed computers.” or “Computers are from the devil.” if they are religious (and admittedly, in my example, Christians).

    Computers are pretty complicated. We might understand how to use one, but would we all understand how to build one from scratch?

    As such I don’t rule out the possibility of intelligent design, but I also don’t consider it in the realm of science, but in the realm of philosophy (philosophy explains the why, science explains the how, when etc, but not the why). I also don’t consider ID to be valid only if the Christian God is shown to be the designer, for all I know it could just be a supernatural entity of immense power, that has no relation whatsoever to God as shown in the Bible.

    This supernatural entity could be an evolved human-like consciousness from ages past, or an extra-universal being, or we might be in an immense game/simulation designed by someone outside of it, like the Sims, but on a grander scale…who knows for sure…but positing it in science which relies on facts, not hypothetical possibilities, is not the right thing to do, in my opinion – in no way does it help science since those claims are unverifiable. It can help philosophy though.

  22. I believe some people are confusing “liberal Christians” (i.e. non-fundamentalists) with “nominal Christians”. I know many liberal Christians who take their faith very seriously. They may not believe in such things as the inerrancy of the Bible, but they are no less devout in their faith than fundamentalists. And they have very little in common with agnostics.

    Nominal Christians are people who identify themselves as Christian but never practice their religion–never pray, never go to church, etc. I would grant that nominal Christians have some things in common with agnotists, but they will still affirm a positive belief when pressed.

    As for atheists, I believe you will find that most of them will tell you that there is some level of evidence that would persuade them to change their mind. Now many of them will required a major intervention (i.e. a major miracle) as proof, but I don’t know too many atheists who would rule out the existence of God altogether.

    I think also that atheists often take a harder line against a specific deity like Allah or the Christian God than they do over the existence of a “Creator” shorn of all religious tenets and dogma. After all, I bet most Christians on this board are rock-solid atheists when it comes to belief in Allah. What level of proof would you need before you believe that Allah is real and you convert to Islam?

    I am an atheist. I fall in the camp that would require a major supernatural event tied directly to Christianity for me to become a believer (just as most Christians who before becoming a Muslim). However, I do not pretend to know for certain that there was not some supernatural intervention involved in the creation of the Universe. There could very well be, and perhaps ID will someday illuminate that link. I don’t think its there yet because our designer could as easily be another naturalistic entity — e.g. an advanced alien species that seeded our planet. We just don’t know.

  23. Hey Carl,
    There is no problem, so long as the figures of speech remain figurative. Take a look at what a poster at Panda’s Thumb wrote:

    The biggest argument I can think of against detractors of sociobiology is that they seem to be proposing that evolution created the brain and then essentially left it alone. That seems to contradict everything else we know about evolution – whenever it can make a beneficial change, it does so. Why would the brain be exempt from this process?

    So an abstract concept that is used to describe an allegedly natural process, namely evolution, can literally create brains, make beneficial changes and either leave or not leave the brain it created alone, as if by its own volition. And take a look at a blurb on homologies from Understanding Evolution:

    The beaver uses its teeth for chewing through tree trunks, and the elephant uses its tusks for a number of tasks including digging, peeling bark from trees, and fighting. But if you examine these two structures closely, you will see that each is a modification of the basic incisor tooth structure. Over time, evolution adapted each of these animals’ incisors to perform different functions.

    No it didn’t. Even if (or should I say “most especially if”) the theory is true. People can rationalize this kind of (for lack of a better word) anthropomorphic shorthand all they want, but to me it’s dishonest. And the whole field is rife with the stuff.

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