We rarely post about news where someone is quoted as saying favorable things about evolution, because all we can add is that we agree. The rare exceptions to that rule are the now-discontinued columns by the splendidly-evolved Olivia Judson.
But today we came across an interview with Jerry Coyne that appears in Haaretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper. It’s titled Pray tell: Why religious people struggle with the theory of evolution.
It’s a long interview, and it’s a good one. You’ll want to read it all, so we won’t bother excerpting very much of it. This is typical:
[Question:] Of the whole battery of proofs you cite in the book for the existence of evolution, which is your personal favorite?
[Coyne’s response:] I like the flaws and vestiges we find in the bodies of living creatures. … The only way to understand these vestigial organs is as remnants of features which were in use by earlier ancestors of the modern animals. No creator or designer would have fashioned an unnecessary organ from the outset.
We find the same agglomeration of unnecessary elements in the genome. Each of us carries whole ‘graveyards’ of genes − ‘dead’ genes that are not expressed but which are still with us, because they are descendants of genes we received from our ancestors, for whom they did have a function. All these remnants are predicted by the theory of evolution and are totally unexplained by creationism. Yet, people still refuse to accept evolution. Creationism is like an inflatable roly-poly clown: when you punch it, it goes down but then immediately pops back up.
After a lot of good stuff like that, the interview turns to religion:
[Question:] Can science and religion not go hand in hand?
[Coyne’s response:] No, they are polar opposites, both methodologically and philosophically. Take the term ‘truth,’ for example. Truths in science − even though they are fundamentally provisional − are universal; whereas we all know that different religions make different claims, many of them contradictory, about reality. Many Christians believe that in order to enter paradise you have to believe that Jesus is the son of God, but the Koran asserts that anyone who believes that will be cast into hell. Such contradictions, of course, render the term ‘religious truth’ ridiculous.
So far this is routine stuff. It’s good, but we see such things all the time and we rarely bother to blog about them. But then the interview transitions from religion to politics, and this is where it gets interesting. Let’s read on:
[Question:] In Darwin’s time, persuading people to become atheists was considered a felony: The Church claimed it weakened people’s resilience to the difficulties of life. Faith exercises a profound impact on people’s ability to cope with the rigors of life.
[Coyne’s response:] Indeed, we all know that in times of economic crisis and in periods of personal hardship, people are more likely to turn to religion. What’s interesting is that this is also true at the level of countries. There [are] some huge sociological studies that show that the more a country is mired in economic difficulty, and the less well it functions socially, the more religious it is.
Skipping a big chink, we come to this:
[Question:] Maybe [the Scandinavian countries aren’t religious] because people have a feeling that they are not alone, that the society is looking after them.
[Coyne’s response:] I would definitely say so. Income disparities between people generate insecurity, and therefore heighten faith. When people have confidence and faith in the society in which they live, they feel generally more supported, and that allows them not to fall into religion.
And yes, these data also prove that there is no connection between religion and morality: the majority of Europe, Scandinavia in particular, is populated by atheists and agnostics, and those societies are, if anything, more moral than a religious country like the United States, in the sense that there is concern in them for the elderly and the weak. They are certainly not a hotbed of sinners.
Now we get to it directly:
[Question:] So social welfare can be a substitute for religion?
[Coyne’s response:] Maybe to some extent. The fact is that welfare states are less religious. I am neither a Marxist nor a diehard opponent of capitalism. But there has to be a certain degree of higher-level intervention to create a healthy society.
Some say it will never be possible to be rid of religion altogether, because, they claim, it does supply human needs. But I believe those needs can be fulfilled, as they have in many European countries, by oversight and by social guarantees. Look at Scandinavia. Three hundred years ago it was religious − the whole of Europe was religious − and now it is largely secular. Why? Because there is a well-functioning society there, in the sense that they have medical insurance and help for the needy. In such cases people do not need to turn to God.
In the United States we have some social nets in the form of Social Security, and now also ‘Obamacare,’ but we do not have something as important as national health insurance. I think that the government should intervene to a certain degree in order to give people a sense of security. By the way, that is the reason, I think, for America’s being in such a unique position among the First World countries: it has the highest religiosity and the lowest acceptance of evolution. Religion can be problematic, but weakening its hold requires some deep social change. A more just, caring, egalitarian society must be created. It seems to me that, irrespective of what people feel about religion, that could certainly be a goal which most people would be happy to endorse.
So there you are — starting with the controversy between evolution and creationism, Coyne ends up advocating a welfare state. Well, is Coyne correct? Does the welfare state weaken the hold of religion on the population? And if it does, is that a good reason to support it?
We humbly suggest that Coyne incorrectly presents us with a binary choice — it’s either science and atheism within a redistributive welfare state, or else it’s creationism and religious fanaticism, driven by income inequality. But we think there are more alternatives. For example, consider the Founding Fathers who made the American Revolution.
The Founders lived two or three generations before Darwin published his theory, but they were, for the most part, utterly rational and scientific — Ben Franklin being our favorite example. They compromised about slavery (an error that was later remedied), but otherwise they made all the right choices for the creation of a free and prosperous nation — including property rights and a free enterprise economic system. They had no concept of a welfare state, and if anyone had suggested such a thing we’re confident they would have rejected it. They were (to coin a phrase) Enlightenment driven. With all due respect to Coyne, we suggest that the Founders’ model for society is a credible alternative to that of the European welfare state. Within that context, science is strong enough to prevail.
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