In Chapter 1 of Genesis and Genes, I touched on the phenomenon of proponents of evolution who are themselves atheists, but are prepared to temporarily accommodate religion for purely pragmatic purposes.
The discussion happened in the context of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), a concept proposed by Stephen Jay Gould. Gould argued that science and religion should be kept strictly apart, with science given absolute authority over objective, natural phenomena and religion left to deal with subjective areas like ethics.
NOMA is wrong (I explain why in detail in Genesis and Genes). And many people on both sides of the evolution debate agree on this point. I quote, for example, the arch-atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett:
Although Gould’s desire for peace between these often warring perspectives was laudable, his proposal found little favor on either side, since in the minds of the religious it proposed abandoning all religious claims to factual truth and understanding of the natural world… whereas in the minds of the secularists it granted too much authority to religion in matters of ethics and meaning. [Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Penguin, 2006, page 30.]
But some evolutionists – knowing full-well that NOMA is wrong – are nonetheless comfortable using it for tactical reasons. They would use NOMA to gain the trust of their students, before disabusing them of their religious convictions. Far-fetched? Here is Bora Zivkovic, a biology professor at Wesleyan College, who admits that
You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. [Emphasis added].
Here is another example of this curious phenomenon of defending positions merely as tactics, without really believing them.
Francisco J. Ayala is a former Roman Catholic priest and a leading biologist who disavows any challenge to religion from Darwinism. Ayala is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and was the founding chair of the AAAS Dialogues on Science, Ethics, and Religion. He is an outspoken defender of the compatibility between religion and biological evolution. He is also a recipient of the Templeton Prize. Since 1999, Ayala has argued that evolution is fully consistent with belief in a personal God. Ayala’s 2007 book Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion likewise declares that “Christians need not see evolution as a threat to their beliefs.”
But is Ayala even a believer anymore? In 2006, Ayala spoke at the “Beyond Belief” atheism conference (note the title of the conference). Ayala, speaking to a largely atheist audience, said that “I know how Richard [Dawkins] feels on matters of religion. I could agree with you on many things which I will not make explicit here.”
In 2007, Ayala was called as an expert witness in a lawsuit over the use of certain textbooks in private schools. He affirmed that it is “fairly accurate” to say he “spent five years in the priesthood until he said his intellectual side could no longer rationalize evil and human tragedy under the auspices of a supposedly loving God. As a result he not only left the priesthood, he left the Roman Catholic Church never to return.” When questioned further, Ayala refused to answer specific questions about his personal religious views. In a 2008 New York Times interview we learn that Ayala “will not say whether he remains a religious believer.”
Is it not curious that an atheist should argue for the compatibility of evolution with religious belief? Is this being done out of conviction, or is it just part of a stealth strategy?
In Britain, Free Schools are alternative state-funded schools set up in response to local demands. The first Free Schools opened in 2011. In January 2012, Britain’s Department for Education revised its funding agreement for Free Schools. After pressure by the Royal Society as well as secular and humanist groups, the Department for Education took the step of requiring Free Schools to “make provision for the teaching of evolution as a comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidenced theory.”
Which secular and humanist groups lobbied for this requirement? Well, one is the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE). Officially, the BCSE is neutral on religion. But the spokesmen for the group on the BCSE blog are atheists. In a 30th November 2012 post at the BCSE’s blog, Paul Braterman and Mark Edon write,
We write here as individual non-believers in support of the “accommodationist” position taken by the British Centre for Science Education (BCSE), on whose committee both of us serve. We consider that there are over-riding tactical and strategic reasons for this position…
Braterman and Edon are “non-believers”. Is it not curious that they lobby on behalf of the compatibility of religion with evolution?
Finally, let’s discuss Chris Mooney. In his 2009 book Unscientific America, Mooney plays the accommodationist fiddle. He argues that “atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome” of Darwinism. But Mooney had changed his tune. In a 2001 article in Slate entitled Darwin’s Sanitized Idea, Mooney laments that the PBS Evolution miniseries “attempt to divorce Darwinian science from atheism, though well intentioned, is finally naive.” Mooney ver. 1 believes that “Darwinism presents an explanation for life’s origins that lacks any supernatural element and… is tough to square with the notion of a benevolent God.”
Has Mooney ver. 2 changed his spots, or does he simply think that being accommodating is a more pragmatic route to the ultimate defeat of religion?
 God and Evolution, edited by J. Richards, Discovery Institute Press, 2010, pages 73-74.
Retrieved 15th January 2013.
Retrieved 15th January 2013.
 God and Evolution, edited by J. Richards, Discovery Institute Press, 2010, pages 74-75.