Across America

Posted on April 21, 2011


Trying to give three talks in four days in three different time zones is somewhat tiring. As I have found.

For a week in March I went on a mad dash across the US to give talks in Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. The trip was made possible thanks to an invitation from the Chance, Purpose and Progress in Evolution and Religion seminar at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I have decided to make the slides available in pdf format as otherwise the fonts I use do not come out right. Also, I am only including the slides for the Birmingham and Atlanta talks, as the Tucson talk was just an earlier version of the one I gave in Atlanta.

Appropriately enough, it was in Tucson that I gave the first of my talks. Most of the people there were either evolutionary biologists or psychologists, I gathered. This meant that many of the questions asked at the end came from those kinds of directions, although there were also some more philosophical issues raised. A number of particularly searching questions were asked by Lukas Mix, the Episcopalian priest who co-organises the seminar and has a wealth of knowledge concerning many of the issues I discussed. I gather that, apart from issues of religion, he and I would find very little to disagree upon, his outlook being particularly liberal for a representative of religion in the US. None-the-less, on the issues that I presented he and I often did not see eye-to-eye. In particular, and hardly surprisingly, he was not particularly willing to accept the idea that the function of religion is not connected to the truth of the claims that religion makes. In the end, I was sorry that I did not have more time to discuss the issues with him and felt that in the time we had I failed to defend my views robustly enough. I am not, of course, talking about being rude in any way but given his evident ability to hold his own in a serious conversation should have pushed him harder than I did. It is interesting, of course, that I would have had no problem doing just that if our disagreement was purely academic rather than one that also had religious overtones. Even in an academic context it is difficult to avoid treating religious beliefs with special consideration.

After Tucson it was the turn of Atlanta, where I was hosted by Bob McCauley. On the day of the talk I first went to lunch with four postgrad students from Emory. Obviously, I can not talk for them, but I definitely enjoyed talking with them about various issues connected to my work as well as their own research. They were particularly keen to know what the answer was to the riddle I set in my previous post on sexual selection. The actual talk was organised by the Center for Mind, Cognition and Culture of which Bob McCauley is Head and was recorded with the aim of making it available on the net in the future – once it is available I will be sure to link to the video. Both in Tucson and Atlanta, the audience numbers were somewhat repressed by the fact that this was the first week after the spring break so that many students were still in Cancun or some such place. Even so, I was quite happy with the number of people who came and enjoyed the question session at the end of the talk. Even though there were some questions that were clearly from interested nonexperts there was also a number that revealed close familiarity with the issues, requiring me to think carefully about how I replied. Again, the most pointed questions came from an expert who is a theist – one of the listeners was from the School of Theology and it was clear that he, somewhat mischievously, was trying to force me onto shaky ground. I declined the invitation to explore ‘garden paths’, making it very clear that my aim in the presentation was to argue for an academic position rather than to agitate for any policy stance relative to religion. Luckily enough, he and I had the opportunity to continue our sparring later on in the evening, over dinner.

The final talk on the US trip was at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. The contrast between the parts of Atlanta in which I stayed and Birmingham could hardly be greater. While Emory is a very well funded private institution set in forested, gently rolling hills, Birmingham is a post-industrial town that has lost something like fifty percent of its population in the last few decades, with the university taking up a large chunk of what is left of downtown. My host in Birmingham was Erik Angner and we spent a fair bit of time talking about what it is like to live in a southern town like Birmingham. The talk, organised by the Centre for Ethics and Values in the Sciences was perhaps the best attended of the three talks I gave in the US, with most of the audience apparently unfamiliar with cognitive science of religion but interested in the current conflict between religion and science. After the talk I was approached by one student who asked me whether I was religious. So I asked her what she thought. I was pleased that she did not know what to say. After all, my work should not depend upon my views in this regard but should stand on its own strength. Of course, I think that the results are actually profoundly problematic for any theist but I do not think that I would have gained anything by focussing upon those implications in my talk. It feels much more effective to simply let those theists who do think through the issues to come to their own conclusions. This does not make me an accommodationalist – I made it quite clear in the talk I gave in Tucson and Atlanta that reason and religion are in conflict with each other and that there is no way to actually resolve this conflict. I guess that I’d rather engage in the conflict at the level of friendly repartee. Not that this is always possible, of course.