Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More Atheism : Darwinism and Religion

Some time ago, theoretical particle physicist Stephen Barr recounted a talk by atheist Daniel Dennett, wherein Dennett was a bit stunned at one of the consequences of his atheism:

The philosopher Daniel Dennett visited us at the University of Delaware a few weeks ago and gave a public lecture entitled “Darwin, Meaning, Truth, and Morality.” I missed the talk—I was visiting my sons at Notre Dame and taking in the Notre Dame-Navy football game. Friends told me what I missed, however. Dennett claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very “destroyer” of God. In the question session, philosophy professor Jeff Jordan made the following observation to Dennett, “If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools.” “And why is that?” inquired Dennett, incredulous. “Because,” said Jordan, “the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion.” Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall, and said, after a few moments of silence, “clever.” After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion.

Jeff Jordan’s question underlines how the self-appointed defenders of the scientific method are trying to have it both ways. Don’t allow religious philosophy to intrude into biology classrooms and texts, they say, for that is to soil the sacred precincts of science, which must be reserved for hypotheses that can be rigorously tested and confronted with data. The next minute they are going around claiming that anti-religious philosophy is part and parcel of the scientific viewpoint.

One of the glories of science is that people come together to do it who have all sorts of religious beliefs, philosophical views, cultural backgrounds, and political opinions. But as scientists they speak the same language. It is a wonderful fellowship. I have written research papers with colleagues (and friends) who are fierce atheists and think my Catholic beliefs are for the birds, and they know that I think their atheism is for the birds. Yet we respect each other as scientists. People like Dennett who wish to equate science with their own philosophical views (presumably out of vanity) risk doing immeasurable harm both to science itself and to its prestige. He is entitled to his philosophical opinions, but he is not entitled to claim them as the utterances of Science.
I believe it was Dennett who coined the term “brights” for those who reject religion on scientific grounds. Dennett would of course make his own list of “brights”, but poor Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Lavoisier, Ampère, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin and almost every other founder of modern science wouldn’t make his list. I am sure they don’t mind, however. They will make the list of people who have actually contributed to human knowledge.



christine said...

Rock on, Jeff Jordan, whoever he is. What a mahvelous line of homework. Beaut. Or as they say in Brasil, "Belleza!"

Anonymous said...

I was a TA for Dan Dennett, and unfortunately, this account sounds dead on. Dennett not only has these views about science and religion, but he has made it quite clear that he thinks anyone of a religious persuasion is fundamentally incapable of doing philosophy because they are lacking the most basic skills in reasoning.

As for the scientists he wouldn't include as "brights"--I have asked him a similar question, reminding him that we would have science if it were not for those of the mono-theistic religions of Abraham taking God out of nature (where the pagans put them). He replied that we might have needed religion to get a step up, but now that we have science, we can kick the ladder of religion out from under us. So he chooses to believe that those scientists, if they had lived in our times, would have been atheists. (By the way, he didn't coin the term "bright", but he did much to propagate the term in a NY Times OpEd he wrote a few years back.)