Science v. Faith: Coyne on the Wrongness of Wright

Call me a sadist if you want, but I love watching a really dumb argument getting smashed to smithereens, maybe because I like blowing up dumb arguments myself.  Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution Is True) performs the devastation on Robert Wright’s spectacularly lame speculation about the effect of angry atheism  on the receptivity of non-scientists in America to evolution.

Wright’s speculation is based on this little snapshot of American attitudes about the origins of humans:

Wright is apparently stuck on the marked divergence in one year of  the top two lines, each reflecting differing degrees of belief in theistic involvement in the appearance of our species. Wright’s “hypothesis”:

Over the past two years, the portion of respondents who don’t believe in evolution has grown by six percentage points. Where did those people come from? The graph suggests they’re people who had previously believed in an evolution guided by God–a group whose size dropped by a corresponding six percentage points. It’s as if people who had previously seen evolution and religion as compatible were told by the new militant Darwinians, “No, you must choose: Which is it, evolution or religion?”–and pretty much all of them chose religion.

Before reading any further, take a moment to take Wright’s argument seriously.  Do you think he has a point?

I’m willing to bet that it will take just that little moment for anyone giving this argument even a tiny bit of candle power of thought to find all sorts of holes in Wright’s speculation. Begin with the most obvious: if militant atheism turned all those people off in 2011, why didn’t it have that effect in 2006, when Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion became a best seller and he was all over the media promoting it? Would it be accurate to say the uptick in the more moderate theistic view in 2007, and the corresponding decline in the more extreme version, were due to Dawkins’ blitzkrieg attack on theism that year? I doubt Wright would see it that way. What was it about 2011 that suddenly brought this clash of ideas to a head? The Debt Ceiling debate? Arab Spring? The Occupy movement? The Cardinals winning the World Series?

I’ll leave the rest of the demolition to Coyne, whose post I urge you to read if you love the spectacle of a good intellectual thrashing as much as I do. The bottom line:

The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It’s because their faith tells them they have to make that choice.


2 thoughts on “Science v. Faith: Coyne on the Wrongness of Wright

  1. It could be that it has taken this long for the religious right to mount an effective counter-attack and thus capitalize on the choice. But of course that isn’t Wright’s thesis, and it begs the question of why this particular turn out of all the other waves of attack and counter-attack would result in such a change.

    …and let’s say that this is true. It’s not exactly an argument in favor of religion. Not it you give a damn about honesty.

    • And as Coyne points out, the overall trend of viewing human origins as owing to natural selection unaided by a supernatural agent looks like it’s steadily gaining ground since 2000, after a long time of hanging around 9-11%. It seems more plausible that Dawkins, Dennet and Myers steady attack in the last decade, if it’s had any impact, is reflected on that line of the graph. Even if new atheism has had the effect on people inclined toward theistic interpretations of human origins that Wright advocates, it seems to me that if the bottom line continues heading up, it will certainly have been worth the trade off.

      But I agree with Coyne that it’s highly unlikely robust atheism is to blame for the shift of belief among theists in the last year. And as you say, if that’s how religionists react to unabashed atheism, it’s not a strong argument in favor of religion.

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