In that silly debate, Bill Nye made a wise tactical decision: to focus exclusively on the specific topic of the debate, whether creationism was a viable scientific model, and to avoid getting bogged down in the question of whether there is a god or not. I think that was a smart move, simply because a “good” debate (it’s debatable whether there is such a thing) addresses a single clear point with rhetoric and logic. Outside of the arena, though, the question of the relevance to evolution is fair game, and unfortunately, some people give the wrong answer.
Phil Plait, for example.
So evolution is not anti-religion in general. But is it atheistic? No. Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods. Whether you think life originated out of ever-more complex chemical reactions occurring on an ancient Earth, or was breathed into existence by God, evolution would take over after that moment. It’s a bit like the Big Bang; we don’t know how the Universe came into existence at that moment, but starting a tiny fraction of a second after that event our science does a pretty fair job of explanation.
I can’t stress this enough. The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion. This is why, I think, evolution is so vehemently opposed by so many in the United States. The attacks on the specifics of evolution—the claims about irreducibility of the eye, for example, or other such incorrect statements—are a symptom, not a cause. I can talk about how we know the Universe is old until the Universe is substantially older and not convince someone whose heels are dug in. But if we can show them that the idea of evolution is not contrary to their faith, then we will make far, far more progress.
Are orbital mechanics atheistic? Can we say, well, the orbit of a satellite is entirely compatible with the idea that a god is keeping it aloft — that we could imagine that this god is actually doing all the heavy lifting and flinging of the equipment about, but because he is so lawful, he’s doing it in a way that precisely mimics the movements that it would follow if it were obeying the laws of Newton and Einstein? In a trivial way, sure, you could pretend everything is being directly manipulated by a sentient and anthropomorphic (but invisible and intangible) god, but that’s mere philosophical wanking. We certainly aren’t launching satellites with prayer, and it’s anti-scientific to propose theological excuses for processes that are accurately and entirely explained by math and physics.
Conversely, if you believe that satellites are held aloft by god-power and Newton and Einstein are superfluous, then some astronomer or engineer asserting that the laws of physics describe and explain the motion of orbiting masses is making an anti-religious argument. We understand the forces; we have good descriptions of how they work; we have repeated, independently verified, empirical observations of the mechanisms at work; we make predictions and test them using our godless explanations, and adding a god factor to the equations does not help or explain anything.
Similarly, we understand the forces that drive evolution. We have our equations and measurements and collected observations, too, and nowhere in them do we have a god fudge-factor. Yet somehow, some engineers and physicists (and it’s almost always engineers and physicists; did you notice the background of the ‘experts’ Ken Ham flaunted in little video segments during the debate?) are perfectly happy to wave away the knowledge of biologists and declare, well say there, evolution takes no stand on the existence of gods, and is perfectly compatible with religious explanations … despite the fact that virtually every religion on the planet makes clear claims about the origin of biological organisms, and that virtually every religious person squawks in complaint when a biologist explains the actual processes and mechanisms that drive evolutionary change. Which never seem to involve a super-man nudging nucleotides or making organs out of mud. And also are so chance-driven that you can’t even argue that it was a process begun in a Big Bang that ineluctably led to us.
We have been living under a system in the US for decades, in which scientists have been bending over backwards to avoid bringing up the profound conflict between religious and scientific claims, in which public school classrooms have been stripped of solid scientific discussions of evolution by social and political pressures. And then every time this goddamn apologia for creationists comes up, someone has to lay the blame for why “evolution is so vehemently opposed” on people who point out the true and obvious statement that yes, evolution contradicts religious just-so story, despite the fact that with few exceptions, scientists, like Phil Plait, insist on making these invalid excuses for the compatibility of science and religion. Scientists have largely been intellectual cowards (with exceptions!) on the God issue for decades, and you can’t now blame the publication of The Genesis Flood on our aggressive forthrightness.
The excuses don’t help. The creationists are angry at us because they’re not stupid, and they recognize what is obvious that the accommodating scientists try to deny: that accepting the mechanical and unaware nature of the forces that have brought us into existence directly contradicts their paternalistic idea of a benevolent universe that loves them and created them with conscious intent. I can see through that bullshit, and so can they.
Stop treating everyone like five year olds who see the logical and physical contradictions in the Santa Claus story. We’re all grown ups here, I hope, so why do we have people who are aware of how science works trying to insist that maybe it doesn’t, all to appease people clinging to a cherished lie?
Evolution does take a stand on the origin of life and of human beings, and it is not god-driven, god-dependent, or even god-compatible. So if you’re one of those non-biologists who insists that biologists should just throw out their knowledge of how evolution works to make happy nice with people who are actively opposing science, I give you two choices: either learn some biology so you can actually make an informed contribution to the discussion about what the science says, or shut the fuck up.
If you can’t do either, I could start yelling at you that space travel is impossible because Jebus evolved us to live in a universe made of water, and I’ll sound just as ignorant as you do.