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!