Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809—all of you should know by now that that is also the day on which Abraham Lincoln was born—and biologists always mark Darwin’s birthday, often with a “Darwin Day” featuring evolution-related lectures.
One of the celebrations is “Evolution Weekend,” created by Michael Zimmerman, who has a Ph.D. in ecology. Zimmerman founded the Clergy Letter Project, a project designed to get the faithful to accept evolution by urging pastors to write letters asserting that evolution is compatible with church doctrine. (I’m not sure how successful this has been, since there are no data about conversions. And formal church doctrine doesn’t always dictate scientific belief: although the Catholic Church formally accepts a form of theistic evolution in which human souls were created by God, 27% of American Catholics still think that modern species were created de novo by God and have remained unchanged ever since. Statistics for mainline, non-evangelical Protestants are virtually identical.)
During “Evolution Weekend,” the faithful are supposed to discuss evolution and clasp Darwin to their bosom. That’s a good idea in principle, but Zimmerman tarnishes it by making false claims about faith and gratuitously dissing us nasty atheists. Here, for example, is a statement from the 2012 Evolution Weekend page:
Evolution Weekend is an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science. An ongoing goal has been to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries. Rather, they look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions.
Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and locations around the world understand that evolution is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in God. In fact, for many, the wonders of science often enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards God.
This is a paradigm of accommodationism, and of course a theological statement as well. Zimmer neglects, as he must, the palpable fact that religion and science are adversaries, both in their methodology and their conclusions. Only 16% of Americans, for example, accept evolution the way we scientists see it: as a blind, materialistic process without any divinely-imposed goal or purpose. As I’ve stressed elebenty gazillion times before, the American rejection of evolution stems almost entirely from America’s religiosity. Few creationists are secularists.
And, of course, the wonders of science must enhance and deepen one’s awe and gratitude towards God if you start out a believer, for what choice do you have? When evolution makes hash of your beliefs, you either dump them or confect rationalizations of how God of course would have used evolution as his means of creation. Every scientific advance must redound to God’s glory, even those, like evolution, that are absolutely at odds with both scripture and people’s beliefs.
Finally, I love Zimmerman’s ludicrous statement that both science and faith “look at the natural world from quite different perspectives and ask, and answer, different questions.” The first part is correct—the perspectives are not only different, and at odds—but the second part is garbage. Religion asks questions like “What is the nature of God?” and “What is his plan for our lives?”, but they never answer them. Such answers are impossible for three reasons: God doesn’t exist, there’s no way to find out the answer to those questions except for the unreliable method of revelation, and those revelations have given different answers to different faiths (and to different people within a faith). Religion doesn’t answer any questions. If Zimmerman thinks otherwise, let him come over here and tell us what questions it’s answered.
But I digress. Zimmerman is touting this year’s Evolution Weekend with a piece at PuffHo (where else?): “Evolution weekend: protecting both religion and science.” Already from the title you know it’s dire: why does religion have to be protected? Here’s Zimmerman’s agenda for Evolution Weekend:
1. To protect mainstream religion from those who are attempting to define religious belief so narrowly that millions of deeply pious individuals are excluded;
2. To demonstrate that religion and science need not be at odds with each other and to show that a vast majority of religious individuals have both understanding of and respect for the principles of modern science; and
3. To create an opportunity for people to think critically and articulate carefully about these important topics. In short, they are looking to elevate the quality of the debate by pushing aside the veil of ignorance that so many purposefully have used to confuse the issue.
What, exactly, is “mainstream religion”? Catholicism? Evanglical Protestantism? “Mainline Protestanism”? It doesn’t matter: a substantial percentage of adherents to all of those faiths reject evolution on religious grounds. Goal number 1 is, of course, a call to protect religion from those shrill and nasty atheists who question all religious belief, no matter how “liberal.”
Point number 2 is correct: religion and science need not be at odds with each other, but only if your religion is not theistic. That leaves deism as the one compatible form of faith. Most religions, of course, aren’t deistic, and so are inherently at odds with science.
I also doubt Zimmerman’s claim that “a vast majority of religious individuals have both understanding of and respect for the principles of modern science”: where did he get those data? They’re certainly not true for evolution: the vast majority of all Americans (and an even higher proportion of the faithful) either reject evolution or think that God guided the process of evolution. Religious Americans may aver that they respect science, but they certainly don’t understand it: only 59% of American adults know that dinosaurs and humans weren’t contemporaries, and only 53% of us know how long it takes for the Earth to go around the Sun (!!!).
And, as we’ve seen before from the work of Michael Sherkat, scientific illiteracy is positively correlated with religion: believers show significantly less understanding of science than do nonbelievers, and this is independent of gender, race, education, and where one lives. (Those tests of literacy, by the way, excluded questions about evolution.)
So Zimmerman is dissimulating for Jesus. And although he decries the fundamentalists for failing to embrace evolution, he attacks the atheists even more:
Some of the attacks on participants in Evolution Weekend 2012 will also undoubtedly come from “new atheists” who like to lump all religious individuals in with fanatical fundamentalists. In their eyes, anyone who expresses religious sentiments to even the slightest degree is no different from a Biblical literalist. These new atheists will attack the clergy who are participating in Evolution Weekend even though those very same clergy should be their biggest allies when it comes to combating the assault on science taking place in our public schools. But these new atheists can’t see past their own biases and recognize that only a combined effort will protect science.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Most New Atheists do not lump all religious individuals in with fanatical fundamentalists: that’s just a lie on Zimmerman’s part. How many of us think that a Quaker is the same thing as an Islamic radical, or a Unitarian Universalist the same thing as a Catholic bishop who claims that condoms don’t prevent AIDS? We don’t lump all religions together in terms of the harm they cause society. Some are worse than others. But we do lump them together in one respect: they all believe in a celestial father for which there is no evidence.
And I’m certainly not attacking the clergy who preach Darwinism from their pulpits. More power to them. I have little faith that they’ll achieve much (I still think that Richard Dawkins has brought far more of the faithful to evolution than any preacher), but they’re welcome to try; and if I had been invited to a church to talk about evolution, I would. I just wouldn’t tell anyone that religion and science are friends, or compatible.
The whole disingenuous tenor of enterprises like Evolution Weekend is summed up in a statement that Zimmerman makes near the end of his piece:
The clergy members participating in Evolution Weekend and the thousands upon thousands who have signed one of The Clergy Letters supporting the teaching of evolutionary theory in public school science classes demonstrate conclusively that the entire evolution/creation dispute is not a real debate. Rather it is a contrived controversy being promoted by those advocating a single religious world view.
“Not a real debate”? Give me a break! It is a real debate, and one that has serious consequences for people’s worldviews. It matters to people whether there was a real Adam and Eve, or whether that’s just a fiction. It matters to people whether evolution is a blind, materialistic, and purposeless process (and, by the way, does Zimmerman advocate pastors preaching that scientifically correct view from their pulpits?), or whether God steered it toward the production of Homo sapiens. It is not “a contrived controversy”—words meant to imply that a few people cooked it up in a smoke-filled room. It is a debate about reason and evidence, and one of vital importance to our society. And it is a debate that passionately engages many Americans.
It is this kind of stuff—this pervasive accommodationism, this disingenuous pretense that science and faith are friends, this idea that the science-religion debates are merely “contrivances”—that takes the luster off of Darwin Weekend. By all means tell the faithful that evolution is true, but let’s not pretend that that was God’s way of creating, or that humans are a special, God-grown branch on the tree of life. The 40% of Americans who reject evolution outright, and the 38% who think that evolution occurred but was guided by God, neither understand nor respect science, and are not my allies. My allies are those who teach evolution as it is understood by scientists.
It baffles me when I’m asked to make common cause with those who think that the “goal” of evolution was our own species, and that God inserted a soul in our ancestry somewhere along the line from Australopithecus to H. sapiens. Forget it.