In a “Room for debate” feature in yesterday’s New York Times, seven scholars and public figures weigh in on the question, “Should creationism be controversial?” It’s dispiriting because it’s a complete waste of space. No points are made that haven’t been made before, and the debate is largely about how we can deal with the supposedly discomfiting implications of evolution.
What’s even worse is that this debate was apparently inspired by Virginia Heffernan’s ludicrous essay on “Why I’m a creationist,” a piece that I critiqued a while back. Why on earth would a bunch of scholars debate such a juvenile rant?
I don’t want to summarize everyone’s short essay, but I’ll say a few words on each, and deal with two pieces that are particularly misguided.
“The science can be seen as purposeful“, by Karl Giberson, now at Stonehill College. Refreshingly, Karl is one of the saner voices in this debate. He accurately singles out the reason evolution bothers the faithful: it implies that humans—nobody cares about the squirrels!—are just a contingent and unpredictable result of a naturalistic process, and not deliberately produced by God in his image:
Evolutionists have fought hard to make sure we understand evolution as lacking direction or purpose. The theory has come to be strongly identified with atheism. Its most public champion is Richard Dawkins, whom Ned Flanders met in hell on a recent episode of “The Simpsons.”
Biblical creationists have fought even harder to keep evolution — the atheists’ creation story — out of Genesis. Its most public champion, Ken Ham, imposes a wooden and implausible literalism on the Bible to ensure that nobody can fit evolution in between the lines.
On Main Street, on television and in the pews of America’s many churches, leaders on both sides portray a choice between a world with purpose and one without. The trouble is, when they ask that either-or question, there’s no right answer.
Yes, Karl, there is a right answer. We evolved via an unguided process lacking purpose or foresight. Humans forge their meanings, their “purposes”, on their own. We weren’t given them by God.
“What we risk by accepting the science“, by Douglas O. Linder, a professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law. Move along folks, nothing to see here. Linder accepts evolution, recounts Darwin’s ambivalence about publishing his theory, and then affirms the truth of evolution. He then raises a “challenge”:
Our challenge is to accept evolution while maintaining a sense of wonder, concern for those whose survival is beyond their own means, and a vision of a colorful and surprise-filled world.
That’s no challenge at all: those who accept evolution have no problem with this stuff. The problem is reconciling evolution with the sense of human specialness instilled by religion.
“Science, too, calls for a leap of faith“ by Trevin Wax, managing editor of The Gospel Project, Wax makes a common error, also committed by David Redlawsk (see below): he claims that both religion and science rely, in the end, on faith.
Yet science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a creator. Evidence leads us only to a point, and then we draw conclusions. People like Heffernan look at the elements of our world that appear to be designed and purposeful, and conclude that a mind is supervising the matter.
Furthermore, as her article pointed out, even those who take the naturalistic point of view tend to live as if the creation story is true. We do not see our lives as meaningless, but purposeful. We live according to values and morals; we teach our children right from wrong. When we care for ailing parents or welcome children with birth defects, we are living against the “survival of the fittest” principle of natural selection. A purely naturalistic explanation of the world’s origins does not explain the way we live. Religious stories do.
The real issue here is not merely creation or the lack thereof; it’s about the source of truth. Those who condemned Heffernan believe science is the only reliable way to discover truth. But this belief in science collapses on itself: there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth. Once we take unproven hypotheses and dogmatize them, we have moved beyond scientific evidence into philosophical reflection on truth and the scientific method. Naturalist or not, when it comes to the world’s origins, we are all in the realm of faith.
Well, science can’t “prove” anything, but it can make some things seem likely or unlikely. One of those is a creator, and the universe shows no sign of such a being. But it shows definite signs of not being created by a benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent being. How can invoking such a god explain “natural evils” like earthquakes and childhood cancers? Science can explain those: geology and mutations.
As Victor Stenger always points out, the absence of evidence is evidence of absence if the evidence should be there. This is precisely the reason why we don’t accept the existence of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. You don’t hear people say, “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of Nessie.”
More important, Wax makes the elementary error of conflating religious “faith” with scientific belief. Here are two pretty accurate definitions of faith:
Walter Kaufmann: “Faith is intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.”
Oxford English Dictionary (one of several definitions): “The spiritual apprehension of divine truths, or of realities beyond the reach of sensible experience or logical proof.”
I’d say that most religious people would agree with these, or at least the second. Science, however, doesn’t operate on that kind of faith, but rather on belief or confidence based on evidence (and evidence that is sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person). Scientists and laypeople who trust science don’t get their “faith” from revelation or scripture, but from evidence that has passed critical scrutiny by other scientists. And you don’t trust your doctor, or your next plane flight, based on revelation: you trust them because your doctor prescribes antibiotics based on data showing that they work, and you trust your plane because it’s designed on principles of aerodynamics.
Wax’s incursion into philosophy, which smacks of the odious Alvin Plantinga, leads him to claim that “there is no scientific evidence to prove that science is the only reliable way to discover truth.” So bloody what? Experience, not a priori reasoning, has taught us that science is the only reliable way to discover truth, and so we rely on science and its attendant naturalism, rather than the lucubrations of religion, to discover how our cosmos works. There are plenty of spiritualists and faith healers who derive their methodology from “revelation” (often the revelation that quackery makes you rich), but who trusts them? If you had an infection, would you take a drug that has been tested in double-blind studies to kill the bacteria, or would you go to a shaman or faith healer? Your chances of surviving are much higher if you go to the doctor. That is what the data show. We don’t need to justify this through a priori philosophical rumination. The difference between a shaman and a doctor is the difference between scientific “belief” and religious faith. It is by the fruits that you distinguish them.
It is starting to really anger me that people like Wax make this elementary error, and it’s always made to drag science down to the level of religion. It’s a deliberate conflation of terms, because, in common parlance, you say you have “faith” in your doctor when what you really mean is that you have confidence that he knows how to help you.
“The risk of reading literally“, by Rev. Wil Gafney, an associate professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at The Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Gafney tell us to beware of reading scripture literally. There is, he says, a way to do it that helps weed out error:
I teach students to consider three aspects, to shift from asking “is the bible true” to “how is the Bible true.” First, determine what the text says. This requires knowledge of original languages, because all translations are unreliable at points. Second, consider as much as possible what the text may have meant in its original contexts. This could mean learning which expressions were euphemisms and how language may have evolved before and after the text was written. And third, ask what the texts says in our modern contexts – which values and themes transcend time and which do not.
So tell me, Reverend Gafney, was Jesus resurrected or not? Is believing in him as savior going to guarantee us a place in heaven? And was he born of a virgin? True, Biblical analysis, combined with science and archaeology, can eliminate parts of the Bible as pure fiction, but people like Gafney always want to preserve some parts as literally true. The trouble is, his method gives us no way to determine which are the latter. There are few religious people who aren’t fundamentalists in some ways.
“Save the umbrage; let’s talk calmly“, by Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. This is just a flat-out defense of sharia law. As for its excesses, he blames them on government, political party, or “clergy group.” But it’s the excesses of the clergy groups (i.e., radical Muslims) that has made sharia so odious. At any rate, his apologetics are neither convincing nor relevant to the discussion on tap.
“The story doesn’t have to be soulless“, by Mary Evelyn Tucker, senior lecturer and senior research scholar at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and the Yale Divinity School. Tucker pulls a sleight-of-hand here. She extols the virtues of art, music, and literature, but manages to slip in “spirituality” (read: “religion”) as a way of appreciating science and evolution:
We need not, however, enter into simplistic debates that lead to endless conflict. Rather, we can bring science and the humanities together to explore a new synergy of scientific fact and human values. Recognizing that we are now understanding these evolutionary processes through science and appreciating them through art, poetry, literature, music and spirituality gives us an opportunity to discover our own role in this unfolding story.
This is feel-good pablum dispensed by somebody who hasn’t gotten out enough. The debates are not simplistic: evolution strikes at the very heart of many people’s worldview and self-image. Reading John Donne or e.e. cummings isn’t going to magically dispel the controversy.
“Who I am, and who I am not“, by David P. Redlawsk, professor of political science at Rutgers University. Finally, and infuriatingly, Redlawsk again conflates scientific belief with religious faith. Really, are these people as clueless as they seem, or are they so blinded by their accommodationism that they can’t see the different ways that science and religion arrive at “truth”? (Well, I don’t believe religion does arrive at truth, but believers claim it does.)
Read and weep:
This journalist, Virginia Heffernan, writes that she does not even believe evolutionary theory, and its explanation of the rise of Homo sapiens. Instead she leans toward faith that the earth and humans were both created directly by God.
It looks like faith versus evidence. But the psychology is more complicated. Most of us – even those of us who practice science for a living – have to take an awful lot on faith. I’m not a biologist; I have never actually seen a microbe in person. But I believe in them. Likewise, I take it on faith when my doctor tells me a particular medication will work in a particular way to address a particular malady.
So why do I and others not believe in creationism? Why do I have faith in science? Part of it may boil down to identity and the internal motivations to maintain our identities in the face of challenges.
If that’s why you have “faith” in science, or in your doctor, Dr Redlawsk, then you’re on shaky ground. I just took two rounds of antibiotics because my doctor told me they have been shown to kill many gut bacteria. That had nothing to do with maintaining my identity, but with maintaining my gastric health. And, sure enough, when I went to the Internet to see what I was taking, it was precisely the stuff shown to be generally efficacious against many gut infections. Sure, not everybody does that, but trusting your doctor is not the same thing as having faith in your minister when he tells you that your kid needs to be baptized to be saved. My doctor has evidence, the priest has none. Redlawsk goes on:
An important part of my identity is the embrace of the scientific method. Those who do not share this seem quite misguided to me. I simply cannot understand how one can deny science – like evolution – but still accept that a doctor with modern medicine developed through the scientific method can cure a disease. Identification as a creationist seems to be equally at odds with identification with science.
For the most part, to accept the other’s position would be to challenge one’s own identity, the sense of who we are. Yet there is a certain irony that both sides in this debate are taking their positions mostly on faith, drawn from teachings we did or did not accept over time. And we are doing so, probably because this faith reinforces an identity that says “this is who I am.”
This is pure postmodern bullpucky, claiming that what’s important is not evidence but our own self-image. Yes, evolution does attack a lot of people’s self-image, but I don’t accept evolution, or antibiotics, because “that’s who I am.” I accept them because I want evidence for the things I believe. Science has it, religion doesn’t. And those who line up with science are not doing so based “mostly on faith.”
Hey, you apologists, accommodationists, and religionists, could you please stop trying to drag science into the benighted realms of religion by claiming they’re both based on faith?