Materialism vs creationism

Submitted by AWL on 7 January, 2010 - 2:14 Author: Bruce Robinson

Bruce Robinson reviews A Critique of Intelligent Design: Materialism versus Creationism from Antiquity to the Present by John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, Monthly Review Press.

150 years after Darwin’s Origin of Species, religious opponents of the theory of evolution are attempting to gather forces around the idea of “Intelligent Design”, the very old idea that nature and humanity are the products of some form of divine creation and purpose.

Claiming that Darwinism is just one (incorrect) theory among many, its proponents are fighting battles in the US and to a lesser extent in Britain to get Intelligent Design taught alongside evolution in schools as a theory of equal scientific worth.

Foster, Clark and York, as Marxist theorists of nature, aim to combat religious ideas by “creating through social means a [broad] materialism-humanism” that overcomes the alienation from nature and society that is at the root of their appeal. In this book they seek to expose the broader aims of the Intelligent Design theorists, place them in the context of a 2,000 year long war between materialism and creationism, and refute their ideas by means of a view of nature that casts materialism in the framework of dialectical thinking.

They begin by examining the nature of the ID project, which follows what its proponents call a “wedge strategy” in which their ideas on science and evolution are the thin edge of a wedge that goes ever broader in combating materialism and secularism in politics, morality and all fields of thought in order to bring about the hegemony of Christian ideas. No compromise which advocates two non-overlapping spheres of science and religion (as advocated by Steven Jay Gould and moderate religious evolutionists) is acceptable to them as they recognise that once science is allowed to define its own sway, god can only be reduced to an ever smaller role.

Thus Foster, Clark and York write that “the intelligent design movement can be described as more theological than scientific, more political than theological.”

The book then traces the conflict between materialism and creationism back to Ancient Greece and the philosopher Epicurus, whom Marx described as the “greatest representative of Greek enlightenment”, “the atheist philosopher par excellence”, who banished the gods from influence over the material world, instead emphasising the role of contingency and freedom from pre-ordained purpose.

Epicurus’ ideas resurface in debates about the presence of divine design in science during the Enlightenment and also influenced Marx, who wrote his doctoral thesis on him. Foster, Clark and York then examine the anti-religious and scientific ideas of the three thinkers, who, alongside Epicurus, are the demons of the “wedge” theorists: Marx, Darwin and Freud. The atheism of Marx and Darwin’s gradual disillusionment with religion both resulted in practical attempts to free humanity from the need for it — for Darwin through science and for Marx through revolutionary politics. While much of this historical material in the book will be familiar to readers of Foster’s “Marx’s Ecology”, it is here recontextualised to confront the arguments made for Intelligent Design.

The closing chapters take on the scientific views of ID advocates, particularly the idea that natural selection cannot explain the great complexity of physical attributes such as the human eye nor the relatively rapid emergence of certain species.

Drawing particularly on Gould’s work and dialectical concepts of contingency and emergence, they both demonstrate the mechanics of how these things are possible within an evolutionary framework and show that “evolution clearly has no direction or purpose” so that “humans were not somehow meant to exist [and] that “evolution does not ‘progress’”. They expose the slipperiness of the ID arguments where god is switched on or off as an explanation for particular natural phenomena, depending on whether they are considered to be good or evil!

The Critique is a valuable reminder that Marxism requires science to fight religious reaction and that we cannot allow our social critique of the role of science to obscure its value in understanding nature — one key to combating the theories of the creationists. At the same time Marxism also has a distinctive contribution to make to that centuries old fight in terms of an uncompromising atheism, a philosophical standpoint that enables a better conceptualisation of scientific data and an ability to draw together the threads that connect nature and society.

By showing this and providing ammunition against one current (if long-standing) expression of regressive religious ideas, Foster, Clark and York have performed a valuable service, both theoretically and in pointing to the immediate danger posed by Intelligent Design advocates.


Submitted by Clive on Sun, 10/01/2010 - 19:09

I've been meaning to write up a review of two new books brilliantly arguing for Darwinism - Richard Dawkins' 'The Greatest Show on Earth', and Jerry Coyne's 'Why Evolution is True' (which is shorter, and covers a lot of the same ground).

In the meantime, I strongly recommend this Youtube clip of Coyne.Youtube. As well as explaining 'why evolution is true' very succinctly, he ends by showing that there is a correspondence in societies between disbelief in evolution and religion, and between religious belief and social inequality and unhappiness. So if you want to fight creationism, fight for a better society.

It's not really socialist, but it's pretty good stuff.

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 24/01/2010 - 17:50

I've read this book, now, and I agree it's a valuable contribution. Its argument raises some issues for me. Basically, Foster Clark and York (FCY) argue that Intelligent Design is the 'thin end of the wedge' (the phrase of its own theorists) for a project which aims deliberately at destroying Western, secular, materialist, scientific culture, which they hold is responsible for everything bad in the world, and replacing it with (anti-abortion, anti-gay, etc) Christian fundamentalism.

Two basic questions, actually: 1. How big is the threat posed by this movement (to which, on some level, non-Christian fundamentalisms, Islamism etc, are linked; there is a prominent anti-evolution movement in Turkey, for instance, trying to spread its propaganda in Europe); and therefore how politically central is the struggle against it (meaning both the fight to defend the theory of evolution and (?) the attempt to propagate atheism?
2. In the fight against ID/creationism/fundamentalist religion (whether its central or only secondary), who are our allies?

The so-called 'New Atheists' define religion as a key enemy in the world of all forms of progress, and responsible for all manner of terrible things (not only reactionary regimes but also,9/11 (obviously), the conflict in the MIddle East, Ireland, and so on). They argue that you can't fight religious ideologies, that is fight for the scientific method, without drawing out the inevitable conclusion that there is no God. Against them, some scientists argue this is counter-productive, and in defending evolution, for instance, scientists should make common ground with more moderate religious people, and can't do that if you scare them off with the claim that you can only accept evolution if you reject God. There is much heat between these 'factions'.

You can approach it completely differently, as FCY suggest Marx did: arguments about God ('militant atheism') miss the point that religion is the product of an alienated human world, and the real task is not to argue about religion, but to transform that world. (Jerry Coyne, who I link to in the comment above, one of the 'New Atheists' but of a different ideological tinge than, say, Dawkins, comes close to arguing this - though he has just written a whole book called Why Evolution if True).

But then, the whole point of the FCY book is precisely to argue about religion/God, defending materialism against it, and saying this is a pretty important fight. And in any case, isn't part of transforming the world arguing about the nature of it, which includes (though of course is more than just) an argument about supernatural influences?

For sure Dawkins et al can be quite sniffy about why people are religious, reduce complex issues (like the Middle East, say) to merely a matter of religion. But on the actual issues - the arguments about God, science vs revelation - they're right, surely. In this controversy between so-called New Atheists and 'accommodationists' (the ones who don't want to confront religion, or want to side-step the arguments about God), are we (critically, provisionally, etc), on the 'militant' side?

Or - is the stress placed by the New Atheists on the evil of religion misplaced (Sam Harris' The End of Faith' makes the case very forcefully, but ends up with some extremely uncomfortable conclusions, including condemnation of 'Islam' as a whole and the apparent advocacy of torture)? Is our focus different; is this a more secondary question?

Submitted by Matthew on Sun, 24/01/2010 - 19:55

As Clive says "Dawkins et al can be quite sniffy about why people are religious, reduce complex issues (like the Middle East, say) to merely a matter of religion. But on the actual issues - the arguments about God, science vs revelation - they're right". The idea that somehow we're on the same side as Christians who believe in evolution is I think radically wrong. While they may appear more rational than their fundamentalist bretheren, they are actually far more confused and inconsistent in their ideas. If you're a Christian who doesn't believe in evolution you think that an all-powerful God made the universe as it is now in one moment of creation. On the other hand, the Christian evolutionist who believes in that same God has to explain why such an all-powerful deity would bother with evolution with its slow, painful processes, dead-ends etc.

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 24/01/2010 - 20:24

There is, though, some force to the argument that if you want to persuade people about evolution, insisting this means that they become atheists is probably, often, counter-productive. It's one of the weaknesses of Dawkins, especially, I think, that he hardly considers the social dimensions to why people believe in God, or that breaking with religion can mean a profoundly traumatic experience. (It's striking that actually, in his new book about evolution, Dawkins doesn't talk about atheism. That's partly because he's already done a lot of that. But it's also because the evidence is so compelling you can leave conclusions about God up to the reader).

But - I've just been watching Howard Jacobson in this new programme about The Bible, talking about Creation. He does that thing, typical of a certain type of criticism of Dawkins, of saying he's in general agreement with Dawkins about religion, but The God Delusion sends him into fury. Why? Because, for one thing, Dawkins seems so 'certain' about everything; he complains about 'blind doubt'. This seems to me (which is typical of these criticisms) to confuse a style of writing with an argument. It's extremely annoying. The world view Dawkins is arguing for is not 'fundamentalist', or 'blind', etc at all.

Submitted by Clive on Sun, 24/01/2010 - 22:56

"But we defend the right of individuals to believe whatever they want in private, not suggest to them that they suffer from some evil genetic disorder or whatever."

I don't understand the relevance of this. Nobody - including Dawkins - suggests people should not be able to believe what they want, and not only in private; and absolutely nobody I have ever heard of connects this to a 'genetic disorder'.

You say a 'false dichotomy' between 'ultra-materialists' and moderate Christians. What's an ultra-materialist? Are you advocating a kind of Deism (" he created an imperfect world for imperfect people to live in, with functioning physical laws, then left it at that")? *is* that compatible with Marxism?

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 08:52

First - this is precisely the discussion I was raising, so thanks. On Dawkins - I think you're partly right (and it was the point I made about Dawkins in my original comment - that he is 'sniffy'; he is, also, far too dismissive of the positive contribution religious people can make). It's true, in a sense, that Dawkins isn't attempting to 'argue with the religious'; his book, for instance, is a polemic. And there is often some sneering (Daniel Dennett, who's on the same wavelength, tried to get atheists to refer to themselves as 'brights', meaning the opposite of 'stupids').

But as I say, I think it's important not to confuse matters of style and attitude with the actual argument. I don't know if you saw Howard Jacobson's thing last night, but it's full of this stuff about how, say, Genesis is intended only as a story, not intended to 'work' in the same territory as science, etc; how atheists are just as fundamentalist as religious bigots; Mary Midgely said that science is as fundamentalist as religion only not as 'nutritious', you don't watch King Lear and ask if King Lear really existed, and so on. And this seems to me just preposterous. King Lear is obviously not making the same kind of truth claim as Genesis, and there is a straightforward answer to the question 'did King Lear exist?', which is 'no'.

Merely story, myth, metaphor, or whatever, the Bible and other religious texts make a certain kind of truth claim, at least about the existence of a supernatural creator. (You can make a version of the deist argument - as an Anglican vicar did in the programme: the universe and the laws of nature are such that carbon-based life can exist, which might suggest intelligence... But even if it does, how do you get from there to the God of the Bible, never mind the Anglican church?)

It is reasonable, it seems to me, to contest these truth claims. And part of 'arguing with the religious' has to be precisely contesting them. You can, and should, try to address religious arguments at their strongest, not sneer, etc - and be more aware than Dawkins is of the social roots of religious belief. But you still have to actually argue with them. (And on that level it seems to me Dawkins' stuff can be very useful). That's how it seems to me, I think.

Of course many people, not just socialists but scientists (like the Anglican vicar in last night's programme) can hold in their heads both a materialist worldview and a belief in God. That's a separate issue as to whether these worldviews are actually intellectually compatible.

(Btw, Dawkins doesn't say there's something wrong with people's brains if they believe in God, in a medical sense. He thinks they're wrong and 'deluded', but just in the sense of being wrong. He's talked about religion as a 'virus', but that's linked to his theory of 'memes' - which seems to me wrong and misleading. But again he's not actually saying there's something wrong with people's brains.)

Submitted by Caroline on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 09:33

I don't know how big the threat from ID is (Clive's earlier question) but I've been struck by how mixed the views of trainee science teachers on my course are about this. For example one young woman told me she was relieved to be teaching chemistry and not biology because she was worried about offending students when teaching evolution. She's an atheist but felt that it would be wrong to 'impose' evolution over and above their personal beliefs. I found this shocking but perhaps it shows that the ID 'movement' are successful in this insidious approach of 'respecting everyone's beliefs'.
So if some science teachers need persuading that evolution should be taught as 'true' rather than just another point of view then that suggests there is a real threat.

Submitted by AWL on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 10:36

Having written this, I just reread the rest of the thread and noticed that what I say has already touched on by Clive. But it's necessary to keep in mind the idea that religion flows out of an alienated, exploitative society - both as consolation for the exploited and oppressed and an 'explanation' of why humanity's enormous and increasing technical power has not resulted in a rational, harmonious world. If you do, you see clearly Dawkins' one-sidedness.

I can't remember the exact reference, but early in the God Delusion, Dawkins basically says 'The world is a bad place - live with it'. If you think this, it's easy to see why you'd sneer at religious people. (Dawkins' approach smacks to me a little of 'Why can't everyone be an educated sophisticate like me?')

Marx's approach was (of course) more subtle:
"Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again... Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people... The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions... Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower."
(A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right)

This is doubly and triply important to understand when a majority of religious people are not just deluded individuals to be argued with, but members of our class who we want to struggle alongside, in some cases putting the needs of the class struggle at least temporarily above the struggle against religion.

So as a scientific explanation of why religion is nonsense, and a rousing shout in defence of atheism, Dawkins is great. But for socialists he's fundamentally one-sided.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Clive on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 11:22

" some cases putting the needs of the class struggle at least temporarily above the struggle against religion."

But Sacha, this is just obvious, isn't it? Of course in any given struggle, the needs of that struggle are 'above' opposing religion (I guess with the exception of struggles where you have to differentiate and oppose political-religious forces, eg Hamas). If you're involved in a strike, wining the strike is more important than disabusing your co-strikers of their belief, if they have it, in God.

The question is, how important, right now, is the struggle against religion, as a struggle *in its own right?* And how is *that* struggle best waged - by forthright atheism, or not? If most religious people are 'members of our own class who we want to struggle alongside', how do we nevertheless tackle their religious views? Or shouldn't we?

Submitted by Matthew on Mon, 25/01/2010 - 14:47

Clive and Sacha are both right to criticise Dawkins' lack of understanding as to why people are religious and his non-materialist approach that ignores its social basis.

But to answer Joe's points:

1. "marxists are not pure materialists and Marx himself argued against such people."

Marx argued against some materialists on the grounds that they had not fully broken with idealism (the idea that abstract concepts such as 'justice', 'truth' etc are not socially formed but are eternal and predate human consciousness) which as he points out ultimately leads backs to believing in the existence of God and others for not applying dialectics to materialism but none on the grounds that they were "pure materialists".

2. "I think private belief in God is compatible with Marxism. As I understand it Jim Larkin was a catholic yet was on the executive of the Communist International, and I'm sure there are many other examples."

Clearly it follows that belief in God is not compatible with Marxism and the example you cite is one of personal contradiction. I am sure you are right that there are many more. I also think the CI was correct to allow someone who was a genuine workers' leader and a practicing Catholic onto its executive, whatever his lack of grasp of Marxist philosophy or inability to apply it in his personal life. The AWL - and other Trotskyist groups - have had Christian members in the past. As long as they accept the discipline of the organisation and are not a proselytiser for religion (i.e. a priest or similar) it isn't a problem. But their philosophical views are not Marxist.

Submitted by Matthew on Wed, 27/01/2010 - 09:35

An interesting view of Larkin's Catholicism is to be found in Keeping My Head, the memoirs of Harry Wicks, a member of the Balham Group, the first British Trotskyist organisation. He describes how Larkin gave a talk to him and fellow students at the International Lenin School in Moscow in the late 1920's (one of them his son, Jim Larkin Jr.):

"His main theme turned out to be the unlikelihood of a Communist Party taking off in Ireland. What stuck in my gullet most was that, for some reason or other, he was very critical of James Connolly. Emphasising the stranglehold of the Catholic Church, he went out of his way to note that even Connolly had died in its arms."

Larkin himself would of course "die in the arms" of the Catholic Church in 1947, his requiem mass being celebrated by the archbishop of Dublin.

Submitted by Jason on Sun, 31/01/2010 - 11:45

I think I’m mainly with Clive here.

Intelligent design is bad science. It attempts to show that evolution is incoherent and cannot explain the emergence of the eye or the brain or complex living organisms and that these must require an intelligent designer. Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker and elsewhere does an excellent job of demolishing this case on scientific grounds. Evolution is a beautiful theory that explains the origin of complexity from simple forces. If there are arguments for the existence of God or gods the incoherence of evolution is not one of them.

The wellsprings of religion, however, are not purely intellectual- an attempt to understand origins and complexity- but emotional and social. In this sense, Dawkins’ The God Delusion is inadequate.
. Marxists should be sympathetic to why many people, probably still a large majority of humanity, subscribe to religious belief. Such sympathy should not be extended to those institutions that use religion to control and oppress.
Politically we should be for complete freedom of religious belief or unbelief and no discrimination or special treatment for particular beliefs. This means a complete separation of religion and state so for example young people are free to learn about evolution and other science without interference or censorship.

Religious belief should not be an impediment to being a member of a socialist organisation or taking common action against a common enemy. By giving people hope through struggle they will be less likely to look for vicarious reward through fantasy and concentrate on attaining reward and satisfaction in reality, using our conscious brains sculpted by evolution to master science and technology to create a world or worlds that previous generations would think of as heaven or God rather than the daily living hell of capitalist oppression and destruction.

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