Monday, August 15, 2005


Evolution Vs. Religion?

Last Thursday, Slate posted an article by Jacob Weisberg, "Evolution vs. Religion: Quit pretending they're compatible" that has ignited a firestorm of debate among supporters of science education at Pharyngula and Panda's Thumb. Weisberg's proposition -- that we should quit pretending that evolution and religion are compatible -- is certainly provocative.

Red State Rabble noted the appearance of Weisberg's article when it was posted without commenting on it -- other than to say it was important and to urge others to read it. We have been thinking about it, and reading the reaction to it on other sites over the last few days. Now, we'd like to offer some tentative observations.

First, although the discussion Weisberg's article provoked has been more heated, in some ways, than may have been absolutely necessary, we think it's been valuable and should continue in various forms. It's forced many of us to confront the issue in a way that we haven't until now.

For RSR's money, the most thought provoking element of Weisberg's piece was this result from a 1993 NORC study:
In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both - but not many people do.

To us, this says less about any possible incompatibility between evolution and religion than it does about the different strategies pursued by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins, who might be said to be on opposite sides of the question Weisberg raises.

Both Gould and Dawkins are (were) atheists. Both exemplary defenders and popularizers of evolutionary thought. Even so, they had sharp disagreements about how to interpret the evidence supporting evolution, how to explain evolution to the public, and what philosophical conclusions might be drawn from evolutionary theory.

Gould championed what he called Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA):
The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty). (Stephen Jay Gould, "Nonoverlapping Magisteria," 1997) [The online Stephen Jay Gould Library from which I originally printed this article is not online as I write this, so I am unable to provide a working link]

Dawkins, on the other hand -- calling religious faith a "brain virus" -- rejects any religious authority in the area of morality. The violent conflict between adherents of Catholicism and Protestantism in Northern Ireland and Jews and Muslims in the Middle East being but the latest examples of the utter failure of religion to lead its most passionate followers to respect the ideas, property, and lives of their fellows. Dawkins also allows science more of a role in areas that Gould would concede to religion:
Religion may aspire to provide its followers with various benefits -- among them explanation, consolation, and uplift. Science, too, has something to offer in these areas.

Could it be that as an American, living in a society in which a majority reject evolution, believe in God, attend church, and where science education is under constant attack from religious fundamentalists, Gould's formulation of NOMA should be seen primarily as a strategy of building a united front between secularists on the one hand and believers who accept evolution on the other?

Is it unreasonable to think that Dawkins, living in the U.K., where science education is not under serious attack and more than three people in four say they do not believe in God, is addressing a different audience with other concerns.

Writing from Kansas, where young earth creationists recently voted to inject antiscience nonsense into the state's science curriculum, it's hard for RSR to see how to successfully defend evolution teaching without building a movement that includes believers and nonbelievers alike. We support the position of Kansas Citizens for Science which states that people of faith do not have to choose between science and religion.

Is this strategy tenable, or are Weisberg and Dawkins right that evolution and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

First, it should be noted that the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 for the intelligent design inspired proposal. The four board members who voted to defend science education are not secular humanists, agnostics, or atheists. Apparently, they do not find one incompatible with the other.

There is much other evidence that many believers themselves find no conflict between their religious faith and their acceptance of the findings of science about the natural world. Many Catholics have reacted strongly against Cardinal Schönborn's New York Times Op-Ed supporting intelligent design. Most Jews are suspicious of the motives of the Christian fundamentalists who are driving the antiscience bus and have no trouble reconciling their faith with modern science. In Kansas, one of the most eloquent supporters of evolutionary theory is a Presbyterian theologian.

Those of us who are secular in outlook should be careful not to conflate the childish literalism of the fundamentalists with more sophisticated religious belief that can be tolerant, comfortable with metaphor, and widely varied in content.

Skeptics, secular humanists, agnostics, and atheists -- however they describe themselves -- should remember that while science is very good at what it does, it's not a Swiss Army Knife. There are other ways of knowing. Science can explain the workings of the natural world, but has little to say about the existential questions we humans have. Music, film, literature, the visual arts, dance -- all of which might be seen as filling the role that religion once did -- can get at these existential questions in a way that science can't.

Having been raised a Catholic -- that great transmission belt to doubt -- Red State Rabble rejected religion long before we knew much of anything about evolution. Our confirmation class was so out of control that the nice little old lady who was our teacher withdrew and was replaced by a martial arts expert and physical education professor from the university.

We don't think Weisberg has made a convincing case for cause and effect between evolution and doubt.

As a skeptic, RSR has a profound sympathy with the argument advanced by Richard Dawkins' that religion has been a spectacular failure as a guide to living the moral life. We disagree with those who say that atheists -- and here PZ Myers at Pharyngula has been particularly eloquent in debunking this notion -- should refrain from writing or speaking out about their views because it may endanger science education in this country.

There is no way -- and no need -- to silence thinkers like Dawkins who speak plainly about the philosophical conclusions they draw from the study of science.

Inevitably, creationists and intelligent design proponents will use what Dawkins and others say. That is unimportant as long as we clearly separate our own philosophical speculation from what we propose to include in the science curriculum -- in Kansas, the majority of the science curriculum writing committee -- mostly theistic evolutionists -- was meticulous in this regard.

Secularists should clearly and patiently explain their own philosophical views even as they join hands with men and women of faith to defend science education from the know-nothing attacks of the fundamentalists. There is nothing incompatible in this approach.


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