To mark the 85th anniversary of the Scopes monkey trial (it ended on July 21, 1925), the History News Network commissioned two essays on public acceptance of evolution. One, by evolutionary biologist David Reznick (University of California, Riverside), highlights the failure of evolutionists to increase public acceptance of evolution. I share his frustration. What do we do? Some of us think that the numbers won’t budge until we break the chain that anchors evolution denial: religion.
The other essay, “A humanist’s reflections on evolutionary biology,” is by Everett Hamner, a professor of English and journalism at Western Illinois University. It’s an annoying piece ripped straight from the pages of the accommodationist playbook. Instead of seeing the solution as removing the obstruction, Hamner faults scientists and academics. It’s as if traffic has been stopped by a huge rock in the middle of the road, and Hamner wants us to resurface the highway. Here are his suggestions (in italics) about what we need to do:
- Carefully distinguish between science and scientism. . . . My students smell scientism: the assumption that since the natural order of things can be productively examined via objective, empirical means, there can be nothing outside science’s purview. . . .And thus more recently the New Atheism represented by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens has marketed a reductive determinism in the name of science, in the process occluding the scientific method’s openness to change, unpredictability, nuance, and variety. Keeping this difference sharp is critical to productive discussions.
It’s strange, but I’ve been teaching evolution for nearly thirty years, and I’ve never claimed in class—though I do believe it—that anything worth knowing and sharing about the world must be found out and verified by reason and empirical examination. Nor have I seen any other teachers of evolution bring up the issue. I seriously doubt that scientism is the major reason why kids reject evolution. In fact, only somebody who is seriously blinkered could believe this. The elephant in the room is, of course, what they learn at home.
But if a student came to me after class and asked about the relationship between science and “other ways of knowing,” I’d sure as hell tell her what I thought and ask her to defend the view that, say, dogma and revelation were valid ways of finding out things. (I did this with a graduate student just this month.) College is a place where you learn to examine and defend your ideas, and I thank god that my own professors constantly challenged my views. As a student, I spent many hours wrestling with professors’ objections to my ideas and my essays. It was a struggle, but a good one.
There’s more than acceptance of evolution at stake, too. Let’s remember what Sam Harris said: “Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying problem; the problem is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas occluded by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.”
- Humanize Darwin and other scientists. It is well known in advertising that a white lab coat raises an actress’s credibility with many viewers. For all its prestige, though, this symbol also connotes an objectification that treats patients as statistics. The wearer may become a trustworthy paragon of knowledge, but she may also seem to embody creaturely hubris in the face of divine will. . . Darwin was no saint, but neither was he the ardently anti-religious man that much propaganda imagines. Sensing his complexity helps many students begin to take his ideas seriously.
By all means let’s show students movies like Creation, and put a human face on science. It is, after all, a human enterprise. But let’s not pretend that Darwin was in any sense religious. True, he wasn’t “ardently anti-religious,” but it’s pretty clear that both his studies and the death of his daughter Annie effaced whatever vestige of theism he retained. Should we also tell the students about his famous passage on ichneumon wasps? It has been demonstrated over and over again that studying evolution shakes people’s faith. We needn’t (and shouldn’t!) promote that in the classroom, but we shouldn’t try to prevent it, either.
- Question bifurcations of the religious and the secular. If our culture fails to distinguish between science and scientism, it is prone to distinguish too absolutely between the religious and the secular. This is only comfortable. We bracket politics and religion from polite conversation, letting us pretend our ideas about race, gender, and other topics proceed from the purportedly neutral standpoint of secularism. But where is this secular no-place? Isn’t what counts as secular defined in relation to particular traditions and practices we call religious, and vice versa? The boundaries here are hardly unyielding: our “secular” friends express religious devotion to sporting events and national defense, while “religious” ones routinely champion popular media and political parties.
When I read stuff like this, the words of Orwell come to mind: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool.” Where is this secular no-place? It is, Dr. Hamner, the place where material processes do their thing in a material universe. It’s the place where we find things out by looking at the evidence rather than superstition.
Conflating science and superstition seems to be Hamner’s shtick, and maybe this is okay in his world of lit-crit where there is opinion and no truth, but I absolutely insist that the distinction is real and that it’s our job to preserve it. How can we get students to accept science if we pretend that it elides seamlessly into faith?
- Cultivate more careful readings of scriptures, not their dismissal. Blanket statements about the Bible and other scriptures remain frequent in our culture, even among academics. A still-common assumption among those outside religious studies is that the purpose of discussing Genesis or the Gospels is either to do theology or to debunk it . . .Too often Americans refuse to read from the library we call the Bible with as much attention to genre, historical context, and intertextual relationships as they extend to popular fiction, news radio, and Facebook postings. . . When people grasp the differences in purpose between the Bible, the Qur’an, and The Origin of Species, major stumbling blocks on the path to consilience begin to dissolve.
Yes, by all means let’s teach students (but not in science class!) the history of the Bible and the Qur’an. But what on earth should we say is their purpose? Are we going to play theologian and tell students that the stories of the Bible and Qur’an are just metaphors? If so, which parts are fictitious, and which historical?
It’s the position of accommodationists like those at BioLogos and the National Center for Science Education that there is a way to read the Bible that doesn’t conflict with evolution. And yes, there is, but is it the place of secular (oops) academics to tell people that this is the correct way to read the Bible? Are we supposed to tell students how to interpret their sacred documents? I for one want no part of such a messy business. In fact, it’s truly bizarre that some atheists are invested in pushing particular brands of theology.
At the end, Hamner recommends some books on science and religion, and you can bet that The God Delusion isn’t among them.
I’m getting weary of people like Hamner telling us that what we’re doing is counterproductive. Where is their evidence? There is none. There used to be a single anecdote, that of “Tom Johnson” (aka “Exhibit A”), but of course that went up in smoke. Now there is nothing but unsupported assertion. Against this we can set a pile of stories about the effectiveness of forthright atheism in weaning people from their faith and promoting acceptance of evolution. Granted, these are case studies, but there are lots of them, and until people like Hamner give us an equal number of anecdotes about how atheistic evolutionists, or wrongheaded teachers who push “scientism,” have set people against Darwin, I’ll keep doing my thing.
h/t: NCSE, where these essays are highlighted