I’m pleased to say that the release of Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be has been enjoying quite a bit of attention from skeptics — which has helped this full-color kids’ book get off to a great start. Perhaps the most rewarding moment for me so far was receiving a warmly positive quote from Dr. Eugenie Scott (Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education and 2010 National Academy of Sciences “Public Welfare Medal” recipient). Genie is one of the softest, yet most forthright and resolute voices in skepticism, and a great inspiration to me personally. You can imagine my elation when she said,
I am just so delighted with this book! Loxton hits the key concepts perfectly, and without being stuffy about it. A wonderful book to donate to your local library.
I was similarly honored to receive positive reviews from Phil Plait and from P.Z. Myers — both among the most popular science bloggers on Earth. I just about did cartwheels when P.Z. unexpectedly urged readers to “order a copy fast for the kids in your life!”
P.Z., did, however, dislike one subsection of Evolution:
I recommend it highly, but with one tiny reservation. The author couldn’t resist the common temptation to toss in something about religion at the end, and he gives the wrong answer: it’s the standard pablum, and he claims that “Science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.”
I definitely would not wish to bellyache about a small part of a very kind (and much-appreciated) review, with which I’m genuinely very pleased. It strikes me, though, that P.Z.’s concern offers a convenient access point for a topic I’ve been meaning to touch upon: the relationship between skepticism and atheism.
Pandering to Religion?
It might be useful at this point if I quote the entirety of this brief sub-section from my book:
What about religion?
This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.
Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.
Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.
In blogs, tweets, and direct messages, quite a few of my friends in the atheist community have raised concerns about this section, calling it “the pandering paragraph” or “one of the only parts I disagree with in your book.”
My editor was caught off guard by this sharp focus on a minute sub-section, but I knew in advance that this was likely. It follows from an old, old split within the skeptical community. On the one hand, there are skeptics who see god as simply the granddaddy of all paranormal claims; on the other hand, there are those who think the core claims of theistic belief are different in kind from testable paranormal claims, and therefore out of scope for scientific skepticism.
I am part of this latter group. I think skepticism is a different project than atheism. This is the de facto position for most skeptical and scientific organizations, but advocating this in the wake of the new atheism has become a bit of a lonely thing to do.
I don’t mean to imply that atheist reviewers are unkind in their critiques of this section of my book. Quite the opposite: a common theme seems to be sympathy that I was (they feel) forced to make this concession. P.Z., for example, writes,
It’s only two paragraphs, and I sympathize with the sad fact that speaking the truth on this matter — that science says your religion is false — is likely to get the book excluded from school libraries everywhere….
Likewise, according to a kind reviewer from New Zealand,
Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.
This idea — that anything short of a denunciation of religion must entail dishonesty — is quite common among atheist activists. In a fascinating Darwin Day episode of the JREF’s For Good Reason podcast, heavyweight Richard Dawkins remarks,
there are times when I can be persuaded by some of my colleagues that it would be better, for example, for the cause of getting proper science education in American schools if people like me and PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne were a little bit nicer to religious people. But I think it’s OK if some people are like that, but I really do passionately care about what’s true — what’s true about the world, what’s true about the universe. And I’m not one who’s going to compromise on that for the sake of some kind of political expediency. Others can do that, and maybe they’re politically wise to do that — but I can’t go along with that. I care too much about the truth.
Let’s look at that. Are the only two choices confrontation or dishonesty? Does being “a little bit nicer to religious people” necessarily entail a “compromise…for the sake of some kind of political expediency”?
I respectfully submit that the answer is “no.” It has long struck me as strange that atheists and religious fundamentalists share an assumption that atheism and acceptance of evolution are the same thing. This assumption is, at least in demographic terms, incorrect. Discussions about public attitudes toward evolution typically neglect a remarkable fact:
In North America, most of the people who accept evolution are religious.
And, I don’t mean by a small margin, either. We’re talking about an overwhelming majority. For decades, Americans who think “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process” have consistently outnumbered those who think God had no part in evolution by margin of three to one (or more). Some of these theistic evolutionists subscribe to an Intelligent Design-type belief that is clearly not supported by the evidence, but many mean something altogether more metaphysical (such as the common Catholic idea that god infused immaterial souls into hominids at some point in human evolution, or the notion that all natural processes are divinely ordained).
Given that, I think we can confidently conclude that most people who say evolution is compatible with god say so, not for political expediency, but because this is what they believe.
But I Am Not Religious
Among those who accept evolution, I am not part of that theistic majority. It happens that I am a thoroughly secular atheist. Does Evolution, then, intentionally avoid confronting theism because, as one reviewer suggests, a “clear comment on religion probably would have prevented the book getting into many schools”?
Nope. The statement in the book is simplified more than I’d prefer (the sociology and biology of belief are valid areas of inquiry, and religiously-flavored empirical claims like weeping statues may of course be investigated by science) but it is what I actually think: that evolution happened; that science is our best means of discovering the natural world; and that metaphysics is not my job.
It is my opinion that the core claims of most religions are out of scope for science, and thus for scientific skepticism. No experiment or observation can shed any direct light on the types of religious claims that people care most about — claims such as the existence of souls, god, or an afterlife.
I’m reminded of the exchange in which the Fourteenth Dalai Lama told Carl Sagan it would be “hard to disprove” reincarnation. “Plainly,” Sagan concluded,
the Dalai Lama is right. Religious doctrine that is insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the advance of science. The grand idea, common to many faiths, of a Creator of the Universe is one such doctrine — difficult alike to demonstrate or to dismiss.
Such ideas cannot even be formulated as scientific questions. Critiquing them is clearly outside the scope of a natural history book for kids.
Then Why Include that Section At All?
P.Z. Myers suggests that “it would have been better to leave it out than to perpetuate this silly myth [that science cannot disprove theism].”
Should I have omitted this sub-section? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. In fact, I fought to include it, arguing that it might be the most important part of the book. After all, the concept of the book was to raise and discuss common concerns. This question, “What about religion?” is, without any doubt the single most common concern people have when they consider the evidence for evolution. I could hardly ignore that.
So, how did I answer this sensitive and nearly universal question?
As simply and honestly as I knew how.