(I am taking a short vacation from new blog posts. Until I begin posting again, which should not be more than a couple of weeks, I will repost some very early ones, updated if necessary. Today’s one is from February 24, 2005, edited and updated.)
In a previous posting, I discussed why some religious people found evolutionary theory so distressing. It was because natural selection implies that human beings were not destined or chosen to be what they are.
While I can understand why this is upsetting to religious fundamentalists who believe they were created specially in God’s image and are thus part of a grand cosmic plan, there is still a remaining puzzle and that is why they are so militant about trying to have evolution not taught in schools or undermining its credibility by inserting fake cautions about it. After all, if a person dislikes evolutionary theory for whatever reason, all they have to do is not believe it.
I have had students who, after taking my physics courses, say that they cannot believe the theories of the origins of the universe that I taught them because those theories conflict with their religious beliefs, specifically their belief about a young Earth. I don’t try to get them to change their views. I tell them that they are perfectly free to believe what they want and that it is not my duty to try and force them to agree with me. I believe that the purpose of science courses is to teach students the scientific paradigms that scientists use so that they will be able to use them in their own work. All I ask of my students is that they demonstrate to me that they understand how the scientific paradigms work and know how to use them within the scientific contexts in which they apply. I do not require them to swear allegiance to the theories themselves.
So it was initially puzzling to me why some people were objecting to the teaching of evolution. Why not let students learn it as best as they can so that they can function effectively in the world of science? After all, evolutionary theory is one of the cornerstones of modern science and to reject it as a framework for research is, frankly, to declare oneself to be anti-science.
It is true that some students will like the theory and accept it. Other won’t. But that would be their individual choices. What would be the harm in learning a theory that one does not personally believe in? For example, I have learned enough about the theory of dark matter to appreciate what it is all about, even though I am skeptical as to whether it is the correct theory to explain the anomalous velocity distributions of the stars in the spiral galaxies. It is not at all uncommon for scientists to learn in great detail about theories they disagree with. In fact, it is essential to do so if they are to develop newer and better theories to replace the ones they dislike,
But my conversations with the intelligent design creationism (IDC) people revealed that they have a much darker view of what evolution implies, and it is this that leads them to oppose any attempts to teaching it. Let me try and summarize as best as I can their line of reasoning.
Their position is that America is currently in a state of deep moral decay. They look back on the past and see a time when the country was much more morally wholesome and they see the cause of the degeneration as due to people moving away from religious doctrines and towards a more secular outlook. They see this shift as coinciding with the introduction of widespread teaching of evolution in schools. They argue that teaching evolution means teaching that human beings are not God’s special creation and that this inevitably leads to atheism and hence to moral decay.
They believe that you cannot have a moral sense unless it is rooted in the Bible. Not having the Bible as a basis for absolute moral standards means that there are no absolutes and what is a right or wrong choice is determined by the context. They see this as a repugnant moral relativism.
So the fight against the teaching of evolution is seen as a fight for America’s very soul and this explains the passion that is expended by them against what, to the rest of us, might seem to be just another topic in the science curriculum. It also means that the ultimate goal of the movement is the complete elimination of any teaching of evolution, and that the current push to introduce IDC as merely an “alternative theory” to it is just the first step in a longer-term strategy.
While this line of reasoning can be criticized on very many different levels, I was impressed with the sincerity of many (though not all) of the people at the IDC meeting who made it. They are doing what they do because they care about the souls of all of us, and are trying to save us from ourselves. But some of the leaders and spokespersons of the IDC movement are not as straightforward as their followers. They hide this broader agenda and try to portray what they are doing as purely an issue of science and that they would be satisfied if IDC was accepted as an alternative to evolution. (This is the so-called ‘wedge strategy’ to be discussed later.)
The battle over IDC is not just a fight over the science curriculum. It is a proxy for a much broader battle for the soul of America.
POST SCRIPT: Chris Rock
Chris Rock back in 2004 had some insightful observations on politics and the war, again illustrating how comedians directly speak their minds, while the Very Serious Pundits obfuscate. Caution: Rock uses strong language. (Thanks to This Modern World.)