Loxton and the Standard Pablum

untitled Daniel Loxton recently had a book published entitled Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.  It is a children’s book on evolution, and it has received great reviews in several places.  One such review is by the (in)famous PZ Myers.  Myers says of the book, “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.” [EDIT: Loxton wrote to correct me on this. This quote is from Eugenie Scott, not PZ Myers. My bad.]  That said, he is critical of one sub-section of the 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.

Writing on this Myers says, “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.’”  And Myers is not the only one annoyed at this seemingly unnecessary addition to a science book for children.  The noise has been significant enough that Loxton has seen fit to respond to these criticisms.  He writes,

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.

Clearly, then, Loxton feels that the criticism he is receiving is somewhat unfair and unjustified.  I don’t think it is.

Let’s look at exactly what Loxton claimed in his book:  “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.”  Is that even superficially true?  Well, I suppose it depends on what one means by “religion.”  Science has quite a bit to tell us about the various explicitly testable empirical claims of various religions.  In Christianity, for example, there are claims made about the origin of the universe, the Earth, humans, etc, and each of those fall under the purview of some area science, so it looks like science can absolutely say something about that stuff.  Then there are the claims about various specific events, such as the exodus of the Jews out of Egypt.  Archeology certainly has something to say about that.  There are various instances that would require the world being a certain kind of way in order for things to be possible, e.g. talking snakes, people surviving in large fish, and virgin births, and science has something to say about all of those things.  Moreover, things that seem to be ruled out, like the last items listed, can even be bolstered and corroborated by science if the right situation presented itself.  For example, if we found Jesus Christ’s DNA, and it lacked all the signatures of the male contribution to his genetic makeup, that would, at least, be something in the way of evidence for a virgin birth, and it would be the result of scientific study.  The same would be true for finding a serpent with vocal cords necessary for speech.  That would certainly count as some for evidence of a talking snake, and, again, that would be a contribution from science.

I could go on, but the above should suffice for my point here.  There are countless religious claims of which science can and does say a great deal.  So, in that respect, Loxton is just wrong.

Then there is the scientific process itself.  While not exclusive to science, there are aspects of scientific reasoning that have something to say beyond mere empirical claims.  Myers himself points this out.  He writes, “We can confidently say that nearly all religions are definitely wrong, if for no other reason than that they contradict each other.”  Myers rightfully suggests that scientific reasoning tells us that if two things contradict each other, then at least one of them is wrong, and possibly both are.  Scientific reasoning also tells us the kinds of things that we should be able to test in the first place, thus providing the fodder for the kinds of research into empirical claims discussed above.  With these things in mind, it is clear that both the reasoning and practice of science explicitly have something to say about religion in general.

Let’s now look at another aspect of Loxton’s claim, something else that has drawn some ire.  Loxton says, “Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.”  What can this even mean?  If Loxton has ruled out both empirical evidence and general reasoning as a means of looking into religion, why would anyone think that a child’s family or friends would have any insight into the question?  Indeed, if evidence and reason are not allowed, what could they even possibly have to say?  It does not look like they could say anything of substance at all, and, if Loxton has some response to this, he certainly hasn’t told anyone what it is.  As a result, I am left just puzzled and perplexed by what Loxton could have in mind beyond giving some sort of political lip service to religion, which is what he explicitly says he is not doing.

Loxton says some other weird stuff in his attempt to defend himself.  He writes, “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.”  What?  Who says that?  I want to see the quote from a reasonable pro-science advocate that evolution = atheism.  Indeed, that’s exactly the absurd position that creationists have been advocating for a century and a half, and it’s as incorrect now as it was when it was first levied against Darwin.  That said, acceptance of evolution absolutely does force theists to, at the very least, accept that their holy books are not literal.  However, as pointed out earlier, that very much does look like it says something about religion in general, even if not about the possibility of religion in all cases.

But Loxton says something even more strange.  Directly following the above quote, he writes, “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.”  So what?  This ridiculous reasoning has been picked over repeatedly, but it still keeps showing it’s ugly head.  I’ll say what has been said over and over and over:  the mere fact that a majority of people hold two positions does not mean those positions are coherent with one another.  In that light, it is entirely irrelevant that the majority of people who believe x also believe y.  That argument yields nothing.  So that part of Loxton’s response to his critics is wholly irrelevant.

So, where are we left?  The obvious question is one Loxton himself addresses at the end of his essay:  “Then Why Include that Section At All?”  He says, “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.”  But that’s exactly the problem, or, rather, problems.  It isn’t at all clear that a children’s text on the science of evolution has any legitimate reason for discussing religion at all.  Indeed, it looks very much like the converse is true, that it should avoid that discussion altogether.  Even worse, the answers Loxton provides, that “science as a whole has nothing to say about religion” and “Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions” both seem anything but honest.  As discussed above, science very much does have something to say about religious claims.  Further, there is no reason to privilege your family’s or your friend’s opinion on something if it is the case that reason and evidence can’t touch it.  How is that honest?

I would never suggest that Loxton should have told children that acceptance of evolution and religious beliefs were mutually exclusive.  That would have been just stupid as well as incorrect.  That said, what he wrote, and his response to the criticism of that writing, seems, well, a little dishonest.  I don’t mean to suggest that Loxton is a liar.  But I do think that he is not being honest with himself if he thinks that the sub-section in question and his response to the fallout it generated is legitimate.  It isn’t.

This stuff isn’t that hard.  You should keep religion out of science.  That isn’t just true for creationists; it’s true for everyone.

For the record, none of this diminishes the rest of the book, which, by all counts, is the best children’s book on the science of evolution written.  My aim here is in no way to dissuade anyone from purchasing it, and, were I asked, I would strongly recommend it.

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3 Responses to “Loxton and the Standard Pablum”

  1. Hey, Daniel Loxton, I Actually Like You a Lot « Apple Eaters Says:

    […] on evolution, Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be.  In his response he named my post on the subject explicitly.  He writes, I was surprised by the quantity of the responses to […]

  2. What’s Good for the Goose… « Apple Eaters Says:

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