Thursday, August 11, 2005

Weisberg on Evolution and Religion

Slate editor Jacob Weisberg has this piece up arguing that evolution and religion are fundamentally incompatible. He gets off to a good start:


The president seems to view the conflict between evolutionary theory and intelligent design as something like the debate over Social Security reform. But this is not a disagreement with two reasonable points of view, let alone two equally valid ones. Intelligent design, which asserts that gaps in evolutionary science prove God must have had a role in creation, may be—as Bob Wright argues—creationism in camouflage. Or it may be—as William Saletan argues—a step in the creationist cave-in to evolution. But whatever it represents, intelligent design is a faith-based theory with no scientific validity or credibility.


See the original for links.

Well said! It's nice to see a mainstream journal of opinion take such an unambiguous stand on the relative merits of evolution and ID.

Sadly, though, this is Slate we're talking about. That means every single article they publish must be contrarian in some way. As I've commented before, you don't get to look keen and insightful by bashing creationism. No. To look insightful you have to find some way to turn things around on those pointy-headed scientist types:


Many biologists believe the answer is to present evolution as less menacing to religious belief than it really is. In much the same way that intelligent-design advocates try to assert that a creator must be compatible with evolution in order to shoehorn God into science classrooms, evolutionists claim Darwin is compatible with religion in order to keep God out. Don't worry, they insist, there's no conflict between evolution and religion—they simply belong to different realms. Evolution should be taught in the secular classroom, along with other hypotheses that can be verified or falsified. Intelligent design belongs in Sunday schools, with stuff that can't.

This was the soothing contention of the famed paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, who argued that science and religion were separate “magisteria,” or domains of teaching. The theme appears frequently in statements by major scientific organizations and wherever fundamentalists try to force creationism or its descendents on local school boards. Here, for instance, is the official position of Kansas Citizens for Science, the group opposing the inclusion of intelligent design in the state's science curricula: “People of faith do not have to choose between science and religion. Science is neither anti-Christian nor anti-God. Science denies neither God nor creation. Science merely looks for natural evidence of how the universe got to its current state. If viewed theistically, science is not commenting on whether there was a creation, but could be viewed as trying to find out how it happened.”

In a state like Kansas, where public opinion remains overwhelmingly hostile to evolution, one sees the political logic of this kind of tap-dance. But let's be serious: Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions (and most of its not-so-great ones as well). Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.


Again, see the original for links.

Let's begin with that survey. To me this looks like a classic case of correlation not implying causation. The numbers Weisberg provides certainly suggest a correlation between acceptance of evolution and lack of religious faith. But where's the evidence that the former causes the latter? Were the seventy-seven percent of British people who accept evolution inclined towards religious faith prior to learning about evolution?

I always feel a little funny discussing this issue. I'm as hard-core an atheist as you'll ever find, but not because of evolution. I often tell people that it's not evolution that renders Christianity implausible - it's simple common sense that does that. To put it another way, if you really thought the whole rigmarole about virgin births and bodily resurrections was plausible prior to learning about evolution, you should still think that's plausible after learning about evolution.

I really don't see how evolution poses a threat to any but the most fundamentalist of Christian beliefs.

Weisberg later says:


Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, the archbishop of Vienna, was saying nothing very different when he argued in a New York Times op-ed piece on July 7 that random evolution can't be harmonized with Catholic doctrine. To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians. But the acceptance of evolution diminishes religious belief in aggregate for a simple reason: It provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does. Not a different answer, a better answer: more plausible, more logical, and supported by an enormous body of evidence. Post-Darwinian evolutionary theory, which can explain the emergence of the first bacteria, doesn't even leave much room for a deist God whose minimal role might have been to flick the first switch.


As usual, see the original for links.

In his snide dismissal of “Darwinists who call themselves Christians” Weisberg is simply perpetuating the idea that fundamentalism is the only legitimate form of Christianity. Evolution only explains how an ancient, relatively simple form of life evolved over time into the complex sorts of life we see today. If you previously looked to religion to explain that, than I would agree with what Weisberg says here. But the fact is, there's a lot left to be explained even after you accept evolution.

He is also assuming that the purpose of religious belief is to fill gaps in our understanding of nature. To put it kindly, that is hardly the only way to view God's action in the world.

I really wish I could claim that evolution rules out any meaningful sort of religious belief. Just as the creationists want to be able to claim that science supports their religious beliefs, so too I would like to claim scientific vindication for mine. But I can't, and it doesn't.

Unfortunatly, Weisberg is typical of many generally sensible pundits who weigh in on this issue. Anyone willing to live in the real world can see that evolution is one of the crowining achievments of science, while ID is a load of religiously-motivated nonsense. But rather than simply write an article saying that, he feels he has to find some angle that will allow him to criticize scientists nonetheless.

Weisberg's argument is both wrong and unhelpful to the cause. In asking why so few American's accept evolution, he whould begin by looking at how the media reports on this issue. The acceptable opinions are fawning allegiance to creationism in the right-wing media, polite skepticism in more mainstream outlets, or bemused indifference coupled with scientist bashing in the left-wing media. Short of slogging through a pile of biology textbooks, where are people supposed to turn for accurate information on this subject?

10 Comments:

At 1:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that it's not evolution, but common sense, which leads to atheism. I have a general feel for how the world looks, what happens, and what doesn't. The fantastic stories in the bible strongly violate my expectations, as do, for insteance, Grimm's Fairy Tales. So in lieu of a whole lot of evidence, I believe it is just historical fantasy/scifi.

 
At 5:51 PM, Blogger Hallq said...

That evolution and religion are compatible can be confirmed with a glance at one of several books by no less a Christian than C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain, for example, has a lengthy explaination of the Fall story in light of evolution. In short, Lewis believed that biological humans emerged through gradual change, and were then given souls. And he’s probably the most respected theologian of the last century, often cited favorably by fundamentalists.

 
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At 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that the theory of evolution is an important theory which explains very much about us as humans, but many scientists take it too far and try to base all human motivation and action upon desires that further the genetic code.
To the evolutionary claim that everything humans do is selfishly motivated, and all altruism has, at it’s root, the desire to continue the species.

Which would we rather have occur: Lets say that another world war breaks out, people are fighting against each other, killing each other, and this just continues to go on. It goes on until only a handful of the most aggressive, and violent men and women exist, but they naturally are afraid of one another and so they fight each other until there are two people left. Say a man and a woman, and they are the only remaining hope for the human race. And in order for them to have a child, the super-violent man would have to rape the super-violent woman, as she would certainly be afraid of him and his wickedness, as he would be afraid of hers. Now this would guarantee that the race would be continued, but is that our real goal?

In another situation, lets say people become more peaceful and loving with one another, even to the extreme that they have children less and less, because they are so pre-occupied with the spirit of compassion that they live without this biological desire for procreation ever coming into play. Gradually this spiritual joy becomes so universally received that the population dwindles down to the two least enlightened people in the world, and lets say that one is a man and one a woman. Would it not be the triumph of the human spirit over matter, if they too were still so divinely inspired, and the biological urges for continuing our race were so far removed from their state of mind, that the human race ended with them.

I believe nearly everyone, if they only had these two options, would choose the second scenario, if for no other reason than the first is so repulsive to the human heart.

 
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