Scientists and religion, part 1

American Scientist has an article by Gregory Graffin and William Provine on scientists' self-described religious beliefs. They conducted a poll of "prominent" evolutionary biologists and found that the vast majority (79 percent) describe themselves as "naturalists". That's in line with previous surveys.

They suggest that a second finding of their poll is more interesting: that a similar majority (72 percent) view religion as an adaptive product of human evolution. Only 3 percent voice the Stephen Jay Gould position, that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" (although, despite Gould's incessant repetition of the phrase, it is quite possible that the usual response to this idea is, "magic-what? You mean, like cafeteria?).

After some discussion of Darwin's changing public attitude toward religious explanations, they claim an analogy:

Eminent evolutionists are now caught in a bind that reminds us of Darwin in 1859. They worry that the public association of evolution with atheism or at least nonreligion will hurt evolutionary biology, perhaps impeding its funding or acceptance. Asa Gray's gloss and that of the evolutionists in this poll, however, differ fundamentally. Gray offered a theological synthesis with natural selection that Darwin carefully used for a few years before extracting himself from it. Seeing religion as a sociobiological feature of human evolution, while a plausible hypothesis, denies all worth to religious truths. A recent informal poll of our religious acquaintances suggests that they are not pleased by the thought that their religions originated in sociobiology.

Well, that does seem like a problem for the "non-overlapping magisteria" idea...

The rest of the article discussed the fact that some 90 percent of the evolutionary biologists believe that humans have free will, even though Provine doesn't. At least, that's the way it seems:

In other words, although eminent, our respondents had not thought about free will much beyond the students in introductory evolution classes. Evolutionary biology is increasingly applied to psychology. Belief in free will adds nothing to the science of human behavior.

I think if a pool is worded in such an abtruse way that 90 percent of scientists answer in the opposite way from the pollers' expectation, then "eminence" probably doesn't have anything to do with it. Probably there is something more to this "free will" idea than one might expect. I mean, these days, even fruit flies are supposed to have it.

(via Sandwalk)