Awe ≠ Religion

Jerry Coyne has just heard that Chris Mooney has an article in Playboy — I knew about this a while back, and have a copy of the text. I didn’t mention it before because it isn’t online, and it’s dreadfully dreary stuff. The entire article is a case of false equivalence: he cites scientists like Einstein and Darwin writing about a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, and then tries to slide a fast one by…the idea that this means science and religion really are compatible. Well, science and spirituality. Well, spirituality is all about the believers. It’s a slimy game relying on the fact that apologists love to dodge criticisms of religion, the body of concrete, specific, institutionalized beliefs about the supernatural, by retreating to the tactical vagueness of “faith” or “spirituality”, whatever the hell they are. Apparently, in Mooney’s head, spirituality is just like religion is just like a scientist appreciating nature. It reduces these words to diffuse meaninglessness.

Would you believe he cites Darwin as a spiritual leader of the sort he likes?

You may argue that Charles Darwin was another spiritual leader of modern science. While he ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God, Darwin expressed great wonder at the diversity and interconnectedness of nature.

That’s it. All you have to do is love biology and science, and Chris Mooney has you drafted into the clergy. I guess that makes me a leading ally of the faitheist/accommodationist church of sacred worship, then.

But this is what Darwin actually thought of religion, as he described in his autobiography.

But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

Darwin is not the man to recruit in a crusade to reconcile American Christians to evolution.

Along the way, Mooney praises E.O. Wilson and his book, The Creation, as examples of making a spiritual appeal to find common cause with believers. I’ve read that book; it’s nicely done from the perspective of a liberal environmentalist, but I found it a doomed effort. Wilson is not a believer, he doesn’t hide the fact, but he tries to frame — no wonder Mooney likes it — the issues in a way a religious person could appreciate, and it clunked dreadfully, false notes every step of the way.

In his book The Creation, celebrated Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson makes a spiritual appeal to religious believers for help in preserving the diversity of species on Earth. Similarly, other scientists have reached out to religious audiences to find allies in the fight against climate change and for environmental protections.

It’s true. It was a resepected scientist reaching out to religious audiences. Did it work? It doesn’t seem to have had the slightest effect. If you want to see how religious audiences respond to pleas to preserve the environment, try reading Resisting the Green Dragon. The Green Dragon, obviously, is anyone who tries to argue that the environment is anything but a resource to be plundered. This is how religion — not faith, not spirituality, not awe — responds to science.

Mooney wrote almost two pages of fuzzy drivel, ignoring the actual threat of religious zealotry, and concludes this way:

There is, after all, a common interest between scientists and believers: Secular or otherwise, we cannot have spiritual experiences without an Earth to have them on. “Whether you believe all life reflects the operation of evolution or God’s good grace, our responsibility to future generations is to ensure that the creation is preserved in all its magnificence,” says Doherty. “That will happen only if those who live by science and/or by faith can work together in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.”

Sorry. You can’t expect us to simply respect foolish ideas. We tolerate them, but people like Mooney go further and demand that we respect nonsense, and that’s not going to happen, and shouldn’t happen.

And trying to coopt an honest scientific appreciation of the wonders of the universe as support for religion is a dishonest attempt to prop up bogus superstitions with an appeal to emotions — any emotions. If a scientist isn’t a passionless robot, Mooney wants to be able to pretend they’re on the side of religious dogma. That rankles. Love of science is not equatable to clinging to ignorance, although Chris Mooney is straining to make it so.