I generally respect Robert Wright. Nonzero is one of the most interesting books I've ever read, and I think that, for the most part, he knows what he's talking about. But wow did he go wrong in his op-ed in the NY Times yesterday.
P Z Myers and Jerry Coyne have deconstructed it pretty well from the scientific angle, but I think it's easy to see where Wright went wrong without going that far into his piece. It happens right near the beginning.
These two warring groups have more in common than they realize. And, no, it isn’t just that they’re both wrong. It’s that they’re wrong for the same reason. Oddly, an underestimation of natural selection’s creative power clouds the vision not just of the intensely religious but also of the militantly atheistic.Wright--and I don't know if he's doing this intentionally or not, so I'm not going to make an assumption about that--conflates two groups in a completely incorrect way, and I'm not talking about the intensely religious and the militantly atheistic. I'm talking about the intensely religious with the ind of folk who would be willing to give on what is an intrinsic part of their doctrine.
If both groups were to truly accept that power, the landscape might look different. Believers could scale back their conception of God’s role in creation, and atheists could accept that some notions of “higher purpose” are compatible with scientific materialism. And the two might learn to get along.
The kind of religious people who are willing to go along with the idea that evolution is God's way of making stuff happen in nature aren't the problem in this debate, and frankly, while many prominent atheists might act peevishly and wonder why the religious don't just take the next logical step, they really don't have much of a problem with the detente that exists, because those religious people aren't generally trying to get creationism into classrooms or suggesting that global warming isn't a danger because God's going to take care of it. They're generally sensible people who just aren't willing to take the step of denial. Common ground already exists, but for some reason, Wright doesn't talk about that.
Instead, he acts as though the intensely religious--who in this debate seem to me to be the young earth creationists, the Intelligent Design people, the Tom Coburns of the world--might be willing to take a step toward evolution if the atheists take a step toward God, and I can tell you from personal experience, that ain't gonna happen.
The Witnesses are a hybrid of Old Earth/Young Earth creationism. They think Adam was created only about 6,000 years ago, and from him, the rest of humankind, but say that the word "day" is flexible enough in meaning that the earth could indeed be billions of years old. It's what I call convenient symbolism. But nothing--not scientific evidence, not a proffered hand of friendship from the United Atheists Alliance (if such a thing existed) would get them to move off of the idea that evolution is a ruse and that Jehovah is a personal God involved in the daily affairs of humans. There's no compromise to be made, because to compromise is to betray their faith, which is an unforgivable sin.
The same is true for most fundamentalist Christians. There's no room for movement here. You might as well ask them to deny that Christ died and rose again three days later. It's that important.
And here's the reason why the debate is so nasty, and will remain so--because we're talking about the most basic way in which people see the world, and in this case, there's no shading or potential for debate. One group has all the evidence on its side, and that evidence is the underpinning for a great deal of the scientific knowledge and medical advances of the last two hundred years. The other has arcane writings in an ancient collection of manuscripts--and faith. And we're fighting over what knowledge gets passed on to the next generation. That's too important a fight to cede an inch of ground to people who revel in their ignorance.
Look, if I'm talking to a reasonable believer who tells me that his or her definition of God is of a distant, undescribable consciousness that permeates the universe, I might be tempted to go along with that. I certainly wouldn't mock that person for it. And if that's what Wright wants from me, as an atheist, then that's fine. But that person I described isn't intensely religious, at least not as I see it.