How to spot a hidden religious agenda

I, Tony Sidaway, didn’t write this piece.  I’ve put it up because it was removed from the New Scientist site.  It seems quite harmless to me, and useful.

Amanda Gefter

New Scientist

Sat, 28 Feb 2009 22:35 UTC

As a book reviews editor at New Scientist, I often come across so-called science books which after a few pages reveal themselves to be harbouring ulterior motives. I have learned to recognise clues that the author is pushing a religious agenda. As creationists in the US continue to lose court battles over attempts to have intelligent design taught as science in federally funded schools, their strategy has been forced to… well, evolve. That means ensuring that references to pseudoscientific concepts like ID are more heavily veiled. So I thought I’d share a few tips for spotting what may be religion in science’s clothing.

Red flag number one: the term “scientific materialism”. “Materialism” is most often used in contrast to something else – something non-material, or supernatural. Proponents of ID frequently lament the scientific claim that humans are the product of purely material forces. At the same time, they never define how non-material forces might work. I have yet to find a definition that characterises non-materialism by what it is, rather than by what it is not.

The invocation of Cartesian dualism – where the brain and mind are viewed as two distinct entities, one material and the other immaterial – is also a red flag. And if an author describes the mind, or any biological system for that matter, as “irreducibly complex”, let the alarm bells ring.

Misguided interpretations of quantum physics are a classic hallmark of pseudoscience, usually of the New Age variety, but some religious groups are now appealing to aspects of quantum weirdness to account for free will. Beware: this is nonsense.

When you come across the terms “Darwinism” or “Darwinists”, take heed. True scientists rarely use these terms, and instead opt for “evolution” and “biologists”, respectively. When evolution is described as a “blind, random, undirected process”, be warned. While genetic mutations may be random, natural selection is not. When cells are described as “astonishingly complex molecular machines”, it is generally by breathless supporters of ID who take the metaphor literally and assume that such a “machine” requires an “engineer”. If an author wishes for “academic freedom”, it is usually ID code for “the acceptance of creationism”.

Some general sentiments are also red flags. Authors with religious motives make shameless appeals to common sense, from the staid – “There is nothing we can be more certain of than the reality of our sense of self” (James Le Fanu in Why Us?) – to the silly – “Yer granny was an ape!” (creationist blogger Denyse O’Leary). If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn’t need science in the first place.

Religiously motivated authors also have a bad habit of linking the cultural implications of a theory to the truth-value of that theory. The ID crowd, for instance, loves to draw a line from Darwin to the Holocaust, as they did in the “documentary” film Expelled: No intelligence allowed. Even if such an absurd link were justified, it would have zero relevance to the question of whether or not the theory of evolution is correct. Similarly, when Le Fanu writes that Darwin’s On the Origin of Species “articulated the desire of many scientists for an exclusively materialist explanation of natural history that would liberate it from the sticky fingers of the theological inference that the beauty and wonder of the natural world was direct evidence for ‘A Designer'”, his statement has no bearing on the scientific merits of evolution.

It is crucial to the public’s intellectual health to know when science really is science. Those with a religious agenda will continue to disguise their true views in their effort to win supporters, so please read between the lines.


14 Responses

  1. Thanks for posting :)

  2. boremetotears:

  3. To clarify, Tony has posted this after it was apparently taken down by New Scientist after some sort of complaint. See

  4. […] (from Lamda Delta: Tony Sidaway’s blog) […]

  5. The terrible thing about what the Creationists and ID people are doing is that they are driving hordes of people away from the possibility of comprehending the mystery of the universe with awe.

    And I do mean Awe. I guess they, too, are doing “The Lord’s Work.”

  6. […] New Scientist’s religious sympathy after pulling article “How to spot a hidden religious agenda”? A few days ago, New Scientist pulled one of their online articles “How to spot a hidden religious agenda” due to an apparent lawsuit. Philosopher Steve Law picked up on the story straight away, linking to a nice comment by Biologist P Z Meyers. The link to the original article is broken from from both of their posts, but can be found elsewhere. […]

  7. […] could be. The piece, although hard-hitting, seems non-libelous.  Judge for yourself (thanks to Tony Sidaway at “Lambda Delta” for saving […]

  8. […] the online magazine.  (I put the piece below, which was thoughtfully archived byTony Sidaway at Lambda Delta. )  I wrote to New Scientist’s editor, Roger Highfield, asking why.  Here is his response: […]

  9. Nicely done. Funny how you don’t see a lot of hidden science agenda.

  10. Golly, those devious scientists and their deceptive campaigns to promote naturalism!

  11. Thanks for the post. I agree completely with it. I believe both in a God and in evolution, and I agree that what “creationists” are doing is deceptive pseudoscience. Reading a great book right now called “Saving Darwin” by Carl Giberson (he would call himself a Christian) which goes through the history of the evolution/creation debate and exposes how dishonest the creationists movement has been.

  12. Ah, I saw a documentary on the BBC the other day and I think you might enjoy it.

    It’s called “Did Darwin Kill God?” and it’s by the theologian, Conor Cunningham. There is a Times review which should give you the basic drift. If you ever get the chance, I recommend it. I think he’s a bit unfair to Dennett and Dawkins, whose views are far more nuanced than Cunningham allows, but overall it’s a very good look at the colossal amount of historical revisionism that has gone on over the past century or so.

    It seems to be on Youtube, at least for the time being.

  13. Thanks for that! I live in Texas in the U.S. We are actually currently having a public dialogue about our state board of education because the lead figure, a man named McLeroy is a dyed-in-the-wool creationist and brags about it. While his personal views aren’t relevant to this capacity to do his job–in this case he can’t seem to help himself but to insert his religious opinions into his role as over-seer of our education system. Our legislature is currently looking at ways to curb the power of our Education Board. What a shame it had to come to that–but shame on Texas for voting in a governor who would appoint such a wack-a-loon as McLeroy!

  14. Man, I could imagine writing a book using many of those phrases, and I’m no creationist. In particular, asserting that evolution is blind and random is a helpful counter to the widespread misapprehension that evolution is all about triumphant progress towards greater things (the phrase to watch out for here is “next stage in human evolution”)

    And “astonishingly complex molecular machines” seems a good description of cells to me, particularly as many people don’t seem to have a good grasp of how complex they actually are. Not that I think I do, either, but the little I do know certainly screams ‘astonishingly complex’ to me.

    (I can see the point about taking the ‘machines’ metaphor too seriously and thinking it implies a designer, but I think you’ll find historically machine metaphors has mostly been used to push the notion that the system so described is comprehensible in terms of simple interactions of fundamental parts, i.e. traditionally calling some natural system a machine is more a denial of some *élan vital* than the assertion of the existence of a Designer).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: