To complement Greg’s post below, I’ll soon put up my own post about the Smithsonian’s new human evolution exhibit. Like Greg’s, that one will also highlight the science (and deficiencies thereof), but I just wanted to add a note about how religion was involved in the exhibit.
Now it’s true that exhibits like this have the potential to unsettle those of the faithful who are creationists or are on the fence. The facts in the Smithsonian exhibit are presented pretty uncompromisingly, and that’s good. What isn’t so good is that exhibits like this one often try to defuse religious objections by presenting a particular theological view, to wit: human evolution is compatible with religion. And of course I object to that because it’s theology and not science. Why not just give folks the science and let them draw their own conclusions? If they are disturbed, they can go to their own pastor or any number of sources that deal with science and faith. I take the Jack Webb approach to evolution exhibits: “All we want is the science, ma’am.”
In the vibrant scientific field of human evolution, new discoveries and research findings are regularly reported as lead stories in newspapers and other media. Despite strong public interest, however, many people find the idea of human evolution troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. While polarized public opinion on the matter is the usual focus, the diversity of contemporary religious responses to evolution is less recognized. These responses point to opportunities for a productive relationship between science and religion without assuming a conflict between the scientific evidence of human evolution and religious beliefs. . . The role of the BSIC is to offer support and advice regarding the public presentation of the science of human origins in light of potential responses by diverse faith communities to the subject of human evolution.
Well, I’m not keen on this because it’s publicly-funded theology (the Smithsonian is run by the government): government endorsement of a no-conflict model. That would seem to violate the first amendment, since it favors one form of religion (those faiths that accept evolution) over others (those that are creationist).
The Smithsonian committee comprised 13 people, eleven of whom are identified by their religion: “Muslim,” “Judaism,” “Mennonite Brethren,” and so on. There’s also a humanist—Fred Edwords—and a Dr. Joe Watkins, who seems to represent only himself.
Fortunately, I didn’t detect excessive pandering to religion in the exhibit, but it was there nonetheless. Here are some slides in an interactive computer display at the beginning of the exhibit:
My answer to the question below: get rid of religion.
And this, which refers to different “stories” without noting that all save one are wrong:
But in this respect the Smithsonian exhibit is still far ahead of its rival: the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), whose Hall of Human Origins does even more distasteful pandering,
Over at No Right to Believe, Ezra Reznick publishes an open letter to the AMNH, detailing the accommodationism that infects the AMNH exhibit (which he otherwise liked):
One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind.
And, wouldn’t you know it, Francis Collins also appears:
I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).
It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.
Collins, along with other accommodationisms, also appeared on video at our Field Museum’s Darwin exhibit a while back, assuring distressed viewers that evolution and faith are perfectly compatible.
To top this all off, Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a piece in last Saturday’s HuffPo: “How science museums are promoting civil religion-science dialogue.” He explains how the Smithsonian’s outreach committee affected the exhibit. There was some sensitivity training for volunteers, which is great—we don’t want docents insulting people who come to learn about human evolution. But there were two warning flags. Leshner notes:
It is possible to counter the dangerous polarization within our society related to science-religion issues, as demonstrated by the Smithsonian’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. A key to the exhibit’s success, Potts says, was the decision to center the exhibit around a question rather than an answer: “What does it mean to be human?” (Similarly, The Exploratorium in San Francisco presents information about human origins by asking, “How do we know what we know?”)
Yes, they counter the “dangerous polarization” by pretending that the exhibit is not about answers (which, of course, it is), and by allowing viewers to construct their own answers. This is something Greg worried about in his post below, but I didn’t realize it was part of a deliberate strategy to defuse religious conflict.) And the impact committee had another effect:
All of these and other tactics have allowed the museum to move “beyond the stereotype that scientists only believe one thing and people with strong religious views can only believe another,” Potts says.
In fact, they do this by pretending that there are no scientists who reject religion, and that science and faith are always friends. That’s intellectual dishonesty, and even if it’s in the service of promoting evolution, I reject it. Far better to leave out all mention of faith. Let the faithful see the facts, and ponder their discomfort on their own time. It’s not the job of public exhibits, particularly government sponsored ones, to take a specific position on theology.