Religion and Evolution

There’s a big discussion at Panda’s Thumb about whether the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the premier organization in combating creationism in science education, is following the correct course in refusing to go on the offensive against religion, given the alleged incompatibilities between science — especially evolution — and religion.

We posted our own position as a comment at Panda’s Thumb, but it didn’t make a dent in their conversation. As often happens, we’ll have to go it alone. This is, perhaps, a bit self-indulgent, but we think these are things that should be said.

We have no idea whether NCSE is following some kind of wishy-washy accommodationist course. If they are, we never noticed it. We often link to NCSE’s information about the alleged incompatibility between evolution and religion. For example, The Clergy Letter Project, and Statements from Religious Organizations, a list of denominations that accept (or at least don’t dispute) evolution. We do this, not because we’re being accommodationist, but to show that the alleged controversy is a dispute among denominations, and the debate is theirs, not ours.

Interestingly, the Caldwell case was filed by a creationist against the University of California at Berkeley because UC’s educational website, Understanding Evolution, had a link to NCSE’s Statements from Religious Organizations. Now some on the evolution side are objecting to NCSE’s information too. Life is strange.

Right from the beginning of our humble blog, we took the position that we would neither promote nor oppose either religion or atheism. We treat them both as irrelevant to science. We certainly make sport of creationism, but that’s because it’s pseudo-science, which isn’t unique to any religion or denomination. Nor is it essential to any of them, except the Raelians. There are those who insist that creationism is vital to their faith, but we won’t debate them about theological issues. Rather, we leave that to their co-religionists who don’t share their opinion.

Regarding the alleged incompatibility between science and religion, we generally ignore it — except for historical episodes like the Galileo affair. What we focus on here is that scientists must be free to pursue their work and to teach their subjects without political or ecclesiastical censorship. This is vital, and for that reason, one must always oppose trends toward theocracy. The flip side is that religion should be free of interference from science, but that’s always been the case so it’s a non-issue.

As to the existence of actual science-religion incompatibilities, we can never say that evolution is consistent with everyone’s understanding of his own religion, but this shouldn’t be necessary. For example, virtually all religions, even the most stridently creationist of them, have finally — after ferocious opposition — accommodated their faith to the solar system. If they can do that, then it’s possible to interpret any scriptural passage so that it doesn’t conflict with science. We regard that as ideal, but we’re indifferent as to whether people choose to do this.

Some churches actually enjoy the fantasy that they’re under assault by an evil scientific opponent. If that’s their pleasure, we should leave them to play that game without our participation. Some day they may tire of imaginary martyrdom.

Our preference is to let those denominations that reject evolution battle it out with others who disagree. Creationism is, and should remain, a denominational squabble, utterly inappropriate in science discussions.

The only time when such issues could impact science would be if we were living in or threatened with a theocracy. This isn’t by any means a theocracy — despite the ignorance of several legislators and school board members — so except for dealing with occasional outbreaks of official idiocy, the whole problem of “incompatibilities” is unimportant. At least it seems so to us.

But we are not lounging around in an ivory tower, isolated from the controversy. Everyone can – and should – insist on the freedom to pursue science separate and apart from his or anyone’s beliefs about religion. And vice versa, of course.

Those who would deny anyone such freedom are a serious problem; but the problem for science is one of of political freedom, not religious faith. (Note: we are, as you know, speaking of genuine freedom, not the misleadingly-named “academic freedom” promoted by creationists to force their religious views into science classes.)

When such conflicts arise — and we report on them daily — our position is that by insisting on freedom we can avoid all the tiresome debates about incompatibilities between science and religion. At least that’s how we handle it.

Addendum: See Religion and Evolution: Part II. Then see: Religion and Evolution: Part III.

Copyright © 2009. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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19 responses to “Religion and Evolution

  1. yooz a futsolger curmy! 🙂

  2. PZ also has a few thoughts about the NCSE where he agrees with Jerry Coyne’s points.

    I think the argument between the two groups is artificial and wastes energy. Both tactics need to be expressed in the overall strategy.

    The only time the ID group is successful (I’m not talking legal here) is when differences between the members of the group and the larger differences between the DI and religionists at large is forgotten or at least glossed over.

    Our arguing within the science group will give them another weapon to sway the masses.

    Hey Colloquy, I’ve noticed you haven’t been posting on PZ’s blog lately.

    I don’t think Curmy would be a good foot soldier, his head is so much in the clouds he doesn’t watch where he plants his foot. Never know what might be there.

  3. Colloquy says: “yooz a futsolger curmy!”

    I guess. It’s difficult to judge these things. We do what we can.

  4. Tundra Boy says: “I think the argument between the two groups is artificial and wastes energy. Both tactics need to be expressed in the overall strategy.”

    It’s certainly wasteful. What’s to be gained by criticizing the NCSE? Well, I can see one advantage. It’s probably beneficial to publicize that not everyone agrees with PZ’s overall approach to things.

  5. The Curmudgeon says: “We have no idea whether NCSE is following some kind of wishy-washy accommodationist posture. If they are, we never noticed it. ”

    I left a tongue-in-cheek comment at PT that NCSE “discriminates” against my religion. What else can they do – they have no clue what I believe (I’m either a generic theist or “agnostic, leaning theist” depending on which way the “electron spins”). Besides, what good is a “clergy letter” with just one name on it? 🙂

    Anyway, I’m a proud 10-year member of NCSE, and while these religion diversions are a “necessary evil,” I hope we can all keep the focus on getting the anti-evolutionists to tell us in detail “what happened when” (Eugenie Scott’s words) in biological history, and how they plan to test and critically analyze their *mutually contradictory* (Kennth Miller’s words) “theories,” *independent* of any problems they might have with “Darwinism.”

  6. mightyfrijoles

    B_S said

    “I don’t think Curmy would be a good foot soldier, his head is so much in the clouds he doesn’t watch where he plants his foot. Never know what might be there.”

    Tundra Turds

  7. Excellent post.

    I enjoy PT but I think this is one of those times that the are succumbing to groupthink.

    The NCSE is not “lacking vision” for not “having any offense”. To the contrary, the NCSE stands at the forefront of the fight to protect educational standards from becoming wishy-washy feel-good nonsense. If some people at PT believe that the NCSE is insufficiently anti-theist, then that is their problem. The NCSE is not against theism, it is against the presentation theism in science curricula. There are many, many religiously observant people working in science and engineering disciplines who believe religious teachings have no place in public school science classes. If not turning these people away from supporting quality science education by refusing to adopt an aggressive atheist position is “condescending” and “patronizing” then that is just too bad. To do so would play right into the hands of the creationists, who love to paint the science establishment as a barrel full of atheist monkeys.

    When PZ Meyers writes “our grievance is not that the NCSE is an insufficiently atheistic organization” I flatly don’t believe him. Why don’t I believe him? Because when he writes “We are asking that this pretense that religion and science are compatible … has got to end” I think he means it. He’s saying the same thing as the creationists. This is a creationist position. He may have arrived at it via a different derivation, but it’s the same.

    So in conclusion, that’s an awful, awful post. I regret reading it on PT. Writing of that sort belongs on Bill Dembski’s blog. It’s the same type of trash. And I say this as an atheist.

  8. Thanks, LC. My hope is that NCSE just ignores this silliness, and keeps doing what they’re doing.

  9. Both PZ and the PT are quite powerful in the blogosphere but that is their extent. The NCSE on the gripping hand extends its influence well beyond the internet.

  10. I think you’re right, Tundra Boy. PZ has made himself into an internet personality, but he’s a bit too radioactive. I think the NCSE is playing it just right.

  11. LC, I have to wonder if you actually read my post on the Thumb, which immediately preceded and elicited PZ/s post. “Groupthink”? I don’t think so.

  12. Richard, I read your post and stand corrected. I was reacting to what the “militant” attitude in Myers’ post. The overall tone of his post struck me as being very insular and a product of groupthink, a judgment I made purely on personal and subjective experience. I didn’t mean to smear the other PT posters, and I’m sorry if I did, but I stand by the notion that Myers is falling into that trap. My gut is telling me (and I admit this is subjective) that on this topic he is only listening to those voices with which he already agrees. Worrying about “kissing up to believers” (as Cloyne has said) and “collaborating with our opponents” (as Myers has said) is IMO an un-nuanced position.

  13. Excellent article, RBH, at PT, many thanks.

    Arguments about whether or not ‘science and religion’ are ‘compatible’ strike me as obtuse as some of the old Scholastics debating how many pins could be stuck in the end of an angel (or something). One would have to some expertise in theology, which I certainly don’t and which I doubt most scientists do. But I don’t see a problem in recognising that some, who have an interest and/or personal commitment to some theological approach, may indeed be competent and even distinguished scientists; it’s a matter for the individual, surely. It’s not, IMHO, religion that’s the problem, it’s the dishonest proselytisers like the Discoveroids and school-board Creationists that are the problem. But it invidious to hold up those extremists as exemplars of all religiously-minded folk.

  14. Apologies for coming into this late, but PZ’s main point is that the NCSE should remain secular and focus on the science and not the religion.

    I’m not particularly against bringing up say Pope John Paul II’s position on accepting evolution, but at the end of the day it’s an ineffective tactic. Creationists are fundamentalists which makes the allegory argument ineffective against them. The NCSE’s efforts in mentioning supporting religions only serves to placate the common not-so-religious to not-religious segment and to educate those that belong to accepting religions about their religion’s actual position.

    If I recall correctly, PZ said he would make a poor choice of spokesman and that his point is that people like Ken Miller who are openly religious and accommodationist aren’t really good choices either. How about someone that just sticks to, you know, the science. There is science involved, right?

    Perhaps it’s worthwhile to consider the pros and cons of NCSE bringing up religious points that won’t convince creationists since they’re fundamentalists. Whom exactly is the NCSE trying to placate here?

  15. VP wrote

    Apologies for coming into this late, but PZ’s main point is that the NCSE should remain secular and focus on the science and not the religion.

    And I think PZ is wrong in that. NCSE’s role is to support the advocates of honest science out in the boondocks, and one of the very useful tools for them is the existence of scientists who are theists. Rather than repeat a long comment I just posted on Blackford’s blog, I’ll just point to it.

  16. Valor Phoenix says: “Whom exactly is the NCSE trying to placate here?”

    NCSE isn’t going to placate anyone, and I doubt that they’re trying. I see only two reasons to even mention religion in this context. First, to rebut the creationists’ argument that evolution is atheism. It isn’t, any more than astronomy or geology, unless one belongs to certain denominations.

    Second, to point out that the “need” to be a creationist is a consequence of one’s denomination. That means it’s entirely a religious issue, not a scientific controversy, so we should stay out of it and not even mention “the controversy” in science classes (except for the purposes just stated).

    We don’t use class time to examine the divisive issue of whether one is saved by grace or by works, and we shouldn’t agonize in class over whether Genesis is literal or metaphorical. It’s their problem — but we need to point that out so we’re not saddled with “teaching the controversy.” It’s not our controversy.

    And yeah, PZ is entirely correct in saying that he’d make a poor choice of spokesman.

  17. Mhmm, so does that mean you’re in support of say a Catholic cardinal or some other ranking member such as their astronomer, one that is scientifically literate, to give a talk about the compatibility of the science and certain non-fundamentalist faiths alongside NCSE scientists?

    As someone that lives in Mississippi, I support the method used by my college professors. They didn’t address any hint of creationism, they just gave a brief overview of the history and development of the science and past controversies… past as in the burning of the Library of Alexandria, Galileo, Copernicus, etc.

    Which courses covered those bits of history? Not Zoology, Chemistry, Botany or Geology, they all focused on animals, ions, plants and rocks respectively. Astronomy and Geology II, which both covered the history of the Earth and universe covered the history of those disciplines.

    This is about science and education. The religious aspects need be no more than footnotes of history and legal precedent.

    The whole idea of religion being needed ‘in the boondocks’ for this is silly. How about instead of parading out some scientist that is openly religious, how about getting someone that actually works in an applied field, like seed crop genetics, criminal investigations lab or bio-mimicry engineering.

    I don’t know what your boondocks is like, but the people in my boondocks would be a lot more impressed with an applied job using evolution rather than some religious scientist dude.

    Which is the better argument, that there is a future and paycheck in evolution and education in general, or that evolution is okay with some guy’s personal faith/religion?

  18. Presumably addressing me (“you” lacking a clear antecedent, I infer from context), Valor Phoenix wrote

    The whole idea of religion being needed ‘in the boondocks’ for this is silly. How about instead of parading out some scientist that is openly religious, how about getting someone that actually works in an applied field, like seed crop genetics, criminal investigations lab or bio-mimicry engineering.

    I don’t know what your boondocks is like, but the people in my boondocks would be a lot more impressed with an applied job using evolution rather than some religious scientist dude.

    The fundamentalists in my boondocks would sacrifice jobs for their religion in a heartbeat, because salvation in the after-life is more important to them than comfort in this life. Friend, I sit with two dozen of them all day every day of the Freshwater hearing, and talk with them and listen to them. I know them.

    But they are the unredeemable. They will never be swayed except in rare instances. It’s the middle ones, the ‘moderate’ Christians, who are the political swing group, and both reassuring them that evolution is not equivalent to atheism and a clear and cogent presentation of the science and its applications are more effective than either alone. So it’s a false dichotomy to suggest it’s one or the other; both are useful.

  19. @ LZ, @Curmudgeon

    If not turning these people away from supporting quality science education by refusing to adopt an aggressive atheist position is “condescending” and “patronizing” then that is just too bad. To do so would play right into the hands of the creationists, who love to paint the science establishment as a barrel full of atheist monkeys.

    (First, I don’t agree with the premise that the effect is to “turn people away”, but its not the point I’m interested in.)

    Regardless of whether a certain behavior “plays into the hands” of creationists, it is only propping up an argument that is going to be false anyway. At a certain point merely stating the truth takes priority over being sensitive to whether you are providing “ammunition” for false arguments.

    I think we need to untether “aggressive behavior” from mere “factuality.” I think a cornerstone of the criticism of accommodationism is that it involves a measure of wishful thinking. You end up with problematic statements, like incompatibilities between faith and science being merely “alleged”, which happily [prescribe non-engagement with our religious friends.]

    The principle, that we need to curtail of argumentative behavior bleeds over into the making of statements that are, if not literally false, obscuring legitimate issues. I suggest that, to whatever extent we are going to engage on these issues in the first place, it is necessarily going to involve truthfully laying out incompatibilities.

    It may be the case that bringing these incompatibilities to the doorstep of our religious friends, when they haven’t asked for it and weren’t asking for a debate, is counter productive. However, I insist that issue be seen as separate from the discussion as to whether these incompatibilities actually exist.

    As examples, here are some points from Curmudgeon that, I think, have these problems:

    Creationism is, and should remain, a denominational squabble, utterly inappropriate in science discussions.

    The above point is great, but it’s represented as though it’s consistent with a hands-off approach. But we all know very well, that anyone who participates in creationist talk views their own issue as anything but a mere denominational squabble.

    As to the existence of actual science-religion incompatibilities, we can never say that evolution is consistent with everyone’s understanding of his own religion…

    Except that individual believers are often happy to help us on this point. And what happens when they insist in all earnestness that their religious view require a vigorous rejection of science? What should we say then? And what should we say about accommodationist insisting that there is no incompatibility?

    The way Curmudgeon represents this, it seems to me, is that he would indeed engage in such debate if only it were necessary. But, by a happy accident of fortune, it happens that we can’t discover anything about the reconcilability of a particular persons faith with the facts of (say) evolution. I respectfully submit that this is wishful thinking, embraced because of its preferable recommendation that we don’t kick up dust.

    Some churches actually enjoy the fantasy that they’re under assault by an evil scientific opponent. If that’s their pleasure, we should leave them to play that game without our participation. Some day they may tire of imaginary martyrdom.

    Except that such perceived victimization is often the vaulting-off point for religious ventures into science. It will often unfortunately be the case that their worldview is structured such that well-intended statements about science increase their sense of victimization, even when they are perfectly true. In such cases we are helpless but to continue inspiring them and it would be bizarre to respond to this by prioritizing co-operation over honesty.

    (since I spent this much time on my comment, I will be adding it to my blog)