It’s not a credible compromise with creationism, so why do people keep telling us we ought to use it to teach evolution?
The bad science I want to talk about today isn’t the usual deranged ignorant fool you can laugh at. No, it’s a bad idea that is usually presented seriously, by serious people, and it drives me up a wall.
I am speaking of theistic evolution.
What triggered me today was an essay that expressed concern that half the students in the country think evolution is atheistic, that you need to discard your belief in god to accept evolution. That, of course, is not true — humans are adept at believing all kinds of contradictory beliefs, and I’m quite accustomed to, for instance, pre-med biology students who are enthusiastic fans of professional sports that cause frequent concussions. I’m not one to tell students that they can’t possibly be a biologist unless they discard their belief in gods.
You know that movie, God’s Not Dead? One of the ridiculous aspects of that movie was a professor who demanded that his students sign a statement of disbelief in gods. We don’t do that. It’s the antithesis of good teaching, actually, and also, chattering about metaphysics and theology is a waste of time in a science class. There is simply no debate here.
But in this essay, the author annoyed me from the very beginning. She points out that many of our students think they do have to be an atheist to accept evolution. She writes
Does someone have to be an atheist to accept evolution? According to the philosophy of science and many science educators the answer is no. However, my recent study has revealed that over half of college biology students in the United States think that in order to accept evolution fully, they would have to be an atheist. This is a challenge if we want to increase acceptance of evolution in a country were almost half of the residents do not think humans evolved.
Fine, although I think these students are equating “atheism” with the rejection of certain narrow tenets of a particular religious dogma. Unfortunately, her solution to this misperception by students is…to bring more religion into the science classroom. We are supposed to accommodate the believers, and reassure them that their superstition is just fine.
No. This is going too far. I already accommodate my religious students enough by not engaging in time-wasting discussions of the religious implications of the science we’re learning. I would simply tell them, if asked, that the Bible and the Koran are not science textbooks, that they have us nothing to teach us about biology, and I might concede that perhaps we could learn something about human history and relationships from the holy book, but every single one of them lacks any novel or useful information about biology.
I am also not happy that these kinds of essays are always exercises in assumptions that atheism is a scary horrible idea that frightens the children and scares them away from evolution. If it’s scary, that’s not the fault of atheism: that’s a perception promoted by the religious people and by way too many well-meaning people who see a general philosophical position as a problem for education. What if, in order to accept evolution, you DID have to be an atheist? Where is the tragedy in that? Do you think disbelief in gods is a tragic outcome that leads to dissolute, destroyed lives? Because it doesn’t. Maybe one solution to the aversion to evolution because of a mistaken belief that it turns you into an atheist should be to teach people to be more tolerant of differences in beliefs about gods.
But, as always, the conversation is always about softening the implications of scientific materialism to be nice to the fundamentalists. So the author has 3 recommendations.
The first is to teach the bounded nature of science.
The bounded nature of science is the assertion that science only has the means to answer questions about the natural world using natural explanations and cannot address questions regarding supernatural phenomenon. Whether someone understands and accepts the bounded nature of science might determine whether he or she considers evolution to be atheistic or agnostic.
Oh, boy, shall we teach agnosticism in the science classroom then? This will not solve any of the conflicts between religion and science. Fine, tell the students that they should be agnostics; I guarantee you that the devout members of the local conservative Baptist church will be quite certain that you are teaching satanism. Because, of course, if we’re going to take this sensible approach and discuss the limitations of science, we’ll also have to discuss the limitations of religion. And then the explosions will begin.
No thanks. I’ll steer clear of those landmines, but if you tell me I MUST discuss the value of reassuring the evangelical Christians on the wisdom of a compromise with agnosticism, I’ll be ready to defend myself. Because it won’t be the atheists rising up in outrage at this line of thinking.
OK, is her second suggestion any better?
Discuss religious scientists that accept evolution. Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said in a 1973 essay that “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution” but what people do not usually realize is that he also argued for compatibility between religion and evolution in that very same essay. Dobzhansky was a pioneer of the modern evolutionary synthesis of evolution and genetics and was also religious. Francis Collins is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States and headed the human genome project. A staunch defender of the importance of evolution, he is also an evangelical Christian and he founded the organization BioLogos to promote harmony between evolution and religion. Kenneth Miller is a Catholic biologist who famously argued against the teaching of intelligent design in science classes during the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial and wrote a book on the compatibility between his faith and evolution. Discussing these scientists can highlight where evolution and religion can be compatible and give students an opportunity to see their own religious identity reflected among authoritative scientists.
No, it is not. You see, I don’t hesitate to discuss the scientific work of Dobzhansky and Collins and Miller — I don’t discuss Biologos because it does not add any science to the conversation — and in fact, I don’t see the point to talking about the religious beliefs of any of the scientists I might discuss in the classroom. Do I also need to say that Darwin was an agnostic, or that TH Morgan and Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin are atheists?
I notice that we aren’t discussing the idea of presenting brilliant atheist scientists are renowned and successful in their fields as examples for why it is not such a terrible thing to be an atheist. Why not? Wouldn’t legitimising atheism also be a good way to reduce the conflict with evolution?
Her third idea is the worst. We’re supposed to discuss theistic evolution in the classroom.
Theistic evolution is the belief that a supernatural deity is somehow responsible for evolution. A person can fully accept every tenant of evolution, including the common ancestry of life on earth and still think this was somehow the work of a supernatural creator. Highlight theistic evolution as a concrete way that someone can believe in God/god(s) and accept evolution. If you do not believe in God/god(s) resist the urge to project your own beliefs onto evolution. Evolution is by definition agnostic rather than atheistic, and therefore both an atheistic and theistic view can be compatible with the scientific theory of evolution.
Yuck. No. No way. When I teach science, I teach observation and experiment and analysis. There is no substance to theistic evolution: the deity has not been observed, is not subject to experiment, and there ain’t no data about his being to study. When I teach how mitochondria work, I talk about Peter Mitchell’s chemiosmotic theory, we go through the elements of the redox reactions in the membrane, we learn all about ATP synthase, we look at those cool experiments in which the pH was modified or ionophores were used to remove the proton gradient. I do not then suggest that some people might comfort in the idea that a god is personally directing the proton traffic. Yet for some reason, people are comfortable telling evolutionary biologists that hey, despite the lack of evidence, just maybe there’s a supernatural deity shuttling mutations around to produce the illusion of a Designer.
I will be among the first to tell you that science is value-laden, and that there are all kinds of societal biases that affect our scientific interpretations and priorities. But this goes all ways. All too often we have to deal with a bias that favours religious interpretations, and belittles secular ideas. The secular ideas are presented as the obstacle, the problem that needs to be fixed, rather than the all-pervasive god-soaked religiosity of our country being the significant barrier. We atheists are expected to be the ones to bend, and it’s always pointless — bending towards professing agnosticism is damned stupid.
There is no conflict with agnostics. There is no conflict with liberal religion that is willing to accept scientific ideas (I guarantee you, Francis Collins and Ken Miller aren’t storming into PTA meetings to curse science textbooks.) The suggested ways to resolve the conflict aren’t going to even touch the problem. The conservative/evangelical/fundamentalists who embrace creationism will not be appeased by a) encouraging a more agnostic perspective, b) highlighting a few people who combine Christianity and evolution, who are all probably going to hell, and c) whispering a few mealy-mouthed platitudes about theistic evolution, which the problematic religions all reject anyway.
I also have to point out that all the waffly talk about agnosticism is not only going to be ineffectual, it’s operationally false. It is literally true that science has to be agnostic on the matter of gods, because we can’t say for sure that there isn’t some cosmic intelligent being rattling around in the woodwork, however we can say that all the religions that people actually practice, that make claims about the nature and history of the material universe, are false. They’re wrong. That I don’t use the science classroom to trumpet that news to my students isn’t because I’m unsure, but because it is entirely irrelevant to the subject at hand.
As usual, though, this particular problem in educating people about science is blamed on the atheists, rather than the ignorant conservative religious folk who are fed a steady diet of malicious propaganda. Just once I’d like to see one of those sociological studies try not to see atheism as the problem, but rather that the entirety of the conflict is resting on the dogma of certain religions.
OK, gang, I’ll stop there. I’m not planning to talk about the atheist perspective here very much, because I have been burned by a few too many clueless atheists who use their philosophy to justify way too many social biases. However, through it all I am still an adamant atheist who isn’t going to stand by while someone tries to tell me I have to use religious apologetics as a didactic technique. Today I’m going to let you watch the names of my patrons scroll by on a background consisting of all the scientific evidence for any gods at all. Look closely or you might miss it!
“science … cannot address questions regarding supernatural phenomenon.” I see this all the time from religious conservatives believers. It is simply wrong. It would require that there be some things that cannot be explained naturally, that there is some mechanism of biology, say, that resists any natural explanation. Where is such a mechanism? Or in any other science? This is really just god of the gaps by another name, and there are no such gaps. Intelligent design fails every test.
Ray Ceeya says
This reminds me of a conversation I had recently where this guy tried to convince me that Aristotle was a scientist. I laughed so hard it hurt. Aristotle has more in common with flat earthers than real scientists.
I really can’t understand this attitude, it’s not like scientists march into churches or temples and insist that evolution be added to the sermon cycle. Just fuck off and let scientists teach the science without any of this accomodation crap.
Ugh. I wonder if your interlocutor was a fan of Vox Day, or of conservative philolsopher Ed Feser?
However, I think this goes too far. Aristotle did much that was worthy of being called an early scientist (perhaps in scare quotes or with an asterisk), in trying to make systematic observations about reality, and write those observations down. The thing is, he was one of the first to do so, but being one of the first does not make him the best, or give him the last word. He came to many correct conclusions, including that the Earth was round, as well as many incorrect conclusions, because he did not know how to create the controlled experiments that would test those conclusions.
We should not fetishise him, but you don’t have to go overboard in rejecting him.
Comparing Aristotle to a Flat-Earther is exactly backwards:
(Those basic observations are of course some of many that Flat-Earther’s ignore or reject)
I agree with Owlmirror. A major problem with Aristotle is that many later people accepted his writings without question (or the wrong sort of questions for advancing science [or logic, or political science, or aesthetics, or any of the many subjects that he wrote on] such as asking did it contradict the teachings of the church).
We atheist make way waaay to many concessions to theists already. If we don’t, we’re seen as “confrontational”. Religion should be between one and one’s god and NO ONE ELSE. We should not accommodate religion anywhere in the public sphere, from classrooms, to stores, to the public square, to government.
It is kind of “worst of both worlds”. First the omnipotent and omniscient creator comes up with this brilliant and elegant schema for a cosmos in which all its marvels arise as the result of universal laws without any special creation. Then they go back and fill all the little gaps that didn’t quite follow from the original plan. So much for omniscience.
I guess it makes sense as a labor-saving approach, the way a manufacturer might mass-produce tchotchkes but add a final “hand-painting” process to give them the hand-crafted look. But it doesn’t seem like a very dignified approach.
(A) If half of biology students believe something ignorant and bigoted, surely it should be the mission of their colleges to educate rather than pander.
(B) If this belief is especially prevalent in the US, surely it should be the mission of American editorialists to educate the people of the US rather than pander.
(C) All science (and mathematics) is atheistic in the sense that it does not invoke divine leaps, as per the famous 1977 Sidney Harris cartoon. This obviously does not mean that scientists or mathematicians must be atheistic in their religious or philosophical views. The author makes a category error and compounds it by saying science is “agnostic”, an especially foolish position in the same vein as “not collecting stamps is a hobby”, plus it’s yet another attempt to pander to uninformed values about atheism and agnosticism rather than report the science.
(D) Dobzhansky was not a theistic evolutionist in the sense intended by the author. This is another category error, this time from combining the fact that he was a theist and an evolutionary biologist without understanding the point of Dobzhansky’s famous essay even while referring to it. Dobzhansky believed that God created the universe with evolution as the natural process that would develop complex life. He did not believe, as most theistic evolutionists do, that God directly interfered with or guided the process of evolution.
In this very important sense, his model of evolution is as atheistic as anyone’s…a point not lost on the Discovery Institute hacks who attacked Dobzhansky’s essay for not leaving room for godly interference. The “institute” that promotes theistic evolution as an antithesis to scientific evolution has disparaged Dobzhansky and this essay in particular…so much for ameloriating religious antagonism to evolution via the devout Dobzhansky.
(E) …”tenant of evolution”? I would usually wave this on as a simple typo, but in an article about religious belief it shows poor attention to detail. Especially when the most talked about movie of the year got the spelling right.
John Morales says
Pale echoes of the accommodationism acrimony.
John Morales says
Well, no — because there’s no need.
A sufficiently puissant god could set up the initial conditions (add omni-stuff here) so that whatever happens is what it wanted to happen. Only a lesser being would set it up so that intervention were required at any time from Creation until the End Time. And of course, this god is usually God.
Goddism can be reconciled with literally anything at all.
well that pretty much says it all don’t it.
why yes science does not concern itself with “supernatural events” what ever they may be science is only concerned with what is reality, how does it work, what are the parts and how do they interact.. What is an suppernatural event? If it is something outside of nature then how is science to examine it? If an event happens and can be measured to show that it did indeed happen then science can examine it. That is not the problem really is it?
the real problem is not that science concerns itself with supernatural events but that religion wants to determine natural events and control the outcome of science. Science does not at the heart concern itself with gods and magic in fact as the quote goes “I have no need for that hypothesis”:
open questioning of reality seems to be a threat to the priests, who want to expound on things they know next to nothing about, and only have their ancient formulas to defend their authority.
it is religion that has a problem with reality not science.
The problem of course is that when you are discussing evolution with believers in a religion who are uncomfortable with evolutions implications for their faith any discussion will have some element of theism and theology. It is not however a subject for discussion on science class. The other problem is that despite your statement that the Bible and the Qur’an are not science texts there are millions of Muslims who are not only fed the dogma that the Qur’an is a science text but are saturated with the most ridiculous claims of science in the Qur’an based on a bowdlerised version of science and interpretation of the text way beyond what is sustainable. Interestingly the Qur’an indirectly states it is not such a text when it directs it readers to travel through the world and see how God brought about creation. This lead many Muslim scholars to conclude that there were two separate revelations, the Qur’an and nature and the study of both of them was a religious obligation. Interestingly they developed evolutionary ideas very early on. Over 1000 years ago al-Jahiz proposed an evolutionary theory built on some Greek ideas. Some Muslims like to claim him as a proto-Darwin but he was hardly that. He did make some good observations on natural selection, ecology and food webs. Some of his ideas are similar to those proposed much later by Le Compte de Buffon which landed him in theological hot water. His other claim to fame was a treatise on the superiority of the black races over the Arabs. There is even a proto evolutionary theory based on the Chain of Being proposed by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqqadima if Rosenthal’s translation is to be believed. Of course even though there have been many attempts at reconciliation of Muslim theology with evolution, some better than others they are all fraught with similar problems to Christian attempts with at least two major branches of Islam and various subdivisions subscribing to different interpretations of the Qur’an, at least 5 or 6 thought traditions and at least three competing theological schools. Any attempt to discuss this in a science class would be a mess of, dare I say it, biblical proportions.
“Interestingly the Qur’an indirectly states it is not such a text when it directs it readers to travel through the world and see how God brought about creation. This lead many Muslim scholars to conclude that there were two separate revelations, the Qur’an and nature and the study of both of them was a religious obligation. Interestingly they developed evolutionary ideas very early on. Over 1000 years ago al-Jahiz proposed an evolutionary theory built on some Greek ideas. ”
Sadly the kind of muslims responsible for this early intellectual dawn (which made the renaissance possible) later became regarded as heretics. The backlash started ca 1000 AD when a sufi wrote the book “The destruction of filosofy” (yes, the arabs had taken the concept of filosophy from the greeks and were deliberately doing a great effort to translate it to arabic before the backlash).
Re. John Morales “Goddism can be reconciled with literally anything at all” …but a bit easier if you live on Discworld. Here, we sooner or later notice the huge errors in religious scripture, beginning with four-legged insects in Leviticus. And flat-earth Jesus seeing the whole world from the top of a mountain.
Mark Meadows has skeletons in the closet — dinosaur skeletons, to be precise https://www.rawstory.com/mark-meadows/
I find it amusing that so many people think there are only two points of view: Abrahamic God and Atheism. I can hear my Pagan and Hindu friends rolling their eyes from here. How about we don’t try to accommodate the religious beliefs of the students and just teach the subject matter.
Cheezewiz evolutionists, it’s all about making a show of seeming so lovingly practical, so very nice and wise in a benevolent, validating and sociable sort of way. Vapid, condescending pap. It makes me want to smack a body upside the head. If only they weren’t such tar-babies.
Suppose I am tiling my bathroom floor. I can see, by direct observation ie counting at the tile shop, that I need 100 tiles to cover 1m^2. I have measured my bathroom floor to be 4m^2. So, while I am at the tile store I model in the abstract (because I can’t see my bathroom from there) and predict how many tiles I will need. 400. I buy that amount of tiles and et voila! It turns out my modelling and prediction was correct, as confirmed by experiment when I get back to my bathroom. What need for a God there?
Sure, biology in general is more complicated than bathroom tiling by a long way. But the principle still applies all the way through. Observed known facts, modelling and prediction based on those facts, experiment to confirm (or not) those predictions and strengthen (or not) my confidence in the model.
So I think the way to tackle it is to make clear that if you want to plug God into the process, what we are going to teach is has no need for it at any stage. You want to assign a purpose to whatever in general? Go right ahead. You wanna say God got the whole thing going in the first place (whatever that is)? Help yourself. But none of that is what we are going to teach in this classroom.
To put it another way and to draw from a different discipline: I don’t care if you think gravity is caused by little angels pulling everything down. So long as on the test you use the maths and physics we are going to learn here today to predict correctly where the canon ball is going to land.
“This is a challenge if we want to increase acceptance of evolution in a country were almost half of the residents do not think humans evolved.”
If only all challenges were that easy. Just drop the names Kenneth Miller and Judge Jones, both of Kitzmiller vs. Dover fame.
Evolution is the sole landlord of a large and diverse, but very interconnected community.
Barnes, the author is a Biologos clown.
consciousness razor says
How’s that concrete? A person thinks that “somehow” it’s the work of a supernatural creator … and that’s all we’re saying? Seriously?
What if I believed that “somehow” the Earth is nonetheless flat, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the fact that I really can understand all it perfectly well with the help of round-Earth explanations? Somehow.
I won’t actually say how, but maybe it’s something that I can mumble to myself while nobody’s listening, so you can’t hear whatever the hell it’s supposed to be. To be clear, there’s no requirement that it needs to make any sense, that it should be a good idea or anything like that, since all we’ve got is that you can at least imagine that a human being could entertain such thoughts, no matter how incoherent or vaguely defined they may be. Isn’t that just as “concrete” as this bullshit?
John Morales says
In this case, ‘concrete’ means ‘specific’ — in this case, the referent being theistic evolution. A practical idea for achieving the goal, not a nebulous one.
(No, I’m not referring to clouds)
Pierce R. Butler says
… a supernatural deity is somehow responsible for evolution.
Observing the processes of evolution in this light, we must conclude this somehow responsible deity exhibits the properties of callousness (if not outright brutality) and inefficiency (at a minimum, flagrant wastefulness).
Alas for atheists, this model matches perfectly with all information available concerning the Judeo-Christian-Islamic god.