Here’s Kevin Padian, paleontologist and President of the National Center for Science Education, commenting on the science/religion issue:
The two kinds people who believe that religion and evolution can not coexist are extreme atheists and extreme religious fundamentalists. Everyone else doesn’t really have a problem. [A majority] of Americans believe that a belief in god is compatible with evolution.
This is from an article in People magazine commenting on the plan by Kirk Cameron and Ray Confort to distribute doctored versions of The Origin of Species on college campuses this November. (Personally, I’m looking forward to picking up a copy.)
Padian’s statement is easily shown to be false. Still, I had intended to let it slide. I lack the enthusiasm for criticizing the NCSE possessed by people like Jerry Coyne. Whatever minor disagreements I have with them on the subject of religion, they are still the good guys, and I think they are heroes for doing the work they do. I would rather spend my time going after more deserving targets.
But then I read this post at Josh Rosenau’s blog. Specifically:
First, note that Kevin Padian is a fairly open atheist, so if this line were “anti-atheist” it would have to be a sort of self-hating atheism. Second, how is it factually wrong? Some atheists (but not all) think science and religion are incompatible. Some religious fundamentalists also think this. There are also a bunch of people in the middle of the spectrum of belief who do not think that. Whether these represent a majority of Americans depends how you ask the question and what you do with undecided responses, but it is absolutely the case that most Americans belong to religious groups whose governing bodies have asserted the compatibility of science (including evolution) and their brand of religion.
What, then, makes Padian’s factually correct statement about the beliefs of some atheists a “crack”? Is there any method at all to Coyne’s outrage?
Even before turning to the facts of the issue, we should note that Josh pretty blatantly moved the goalposts. Since atheists and religious fundamentalists together represent a small percentage of the population (even without the nebulous adjective “extreme” in front of them), Padian’s statement amounts to saying that there is an extreme fringe who thinks science and religion are incompatible, while “everyone else” disagrees. In context that “everyone else” is clearly meant to imply “just about everyone.” He does, at least, try to soften things with his final sentence (though as I will show the public opinion polls do not provide clear support even for that), but the fact remains it does not follow from what came before.
Padian said nothing about the govenring bodies of American religions. Such bodies can say whatever they want, but it is simply absurd to think they are necessarily speaking on behalf even of a majority of their members. Representatives of the NCSE routinely say things about science and religion with which I disagree, but I am still a proud member of that organization. Padian also did not say that “a bunch” of people in the middle don’t see a problem. As noted, he was saying far more than that.
Padian’s statement likened those of us who think there is a conflict between science and relgion to our hated enemies the religious fundamentalists. Among the smart set, fundamentalists are just about the lowest form of life there is. It is also generally considered a bad thing to be described as extreme. Given that, I’d say “crack” was a polite way of describing Padian’s statement.
Now let us turn to the merits of Padian’s statement. Is it true that everyone, save for a fringe of atheists and fundamentalists, think that religion and evolution get along swimmingly? If it is, then a lot of reputable polling companies have gotten things pretty badly wrong.
Let us start with this Gallup poll, from February 2009. In it we find that a scant 39% of Americans will say they “believe in evolution.” That number is down to 24% among people who attend church regularly. Granted, the phrase “believe in evolution” is rather unfortunate, but there can be little question of what is intended.
We can combine this with Gallup’s consistent finding that the percentage of people affirming their agreement with the statement “God created man pretty much in his present from at one time within the last 10,000 years” is in the mid to high forties. People have quibbled that this result is somewhat misleading, since the young-Earth option was the only anti-evolution choice and therefore includes some old-Earth creationists as well. Point taken, but it hardly matters in this context. We still have nearly half of Americans (not, mind you, self-identified Christians) who reject evolution.
Now let us consider this, more detailed, study from Pew, from 2009. We find, for example, that “Evangelical Protestants” account for 26% of the American population, but only 24% of them agree that evolution is the “best explanation for the origns of human life on Earth.” Let me remind you that fundamentalists are actually a small subset of evangelicals generally.
Among Christian groups represented in the survey, Catholics have the highest rate of acceptance of evolution, at a pokey 58%.
If you scale the rates of acceptance of evolution by religious grouping according to their level of representation in the US population, you find that the percentage of American Christians who reject evolution is roughly 57%. That does not include Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses, incidentally, which would drive that number higher. (For example, Mormons represent close to 2% of the population, but only 22% of them accept evolution.)
And we should not privilege Christians in this discussion. Only 45% of American Muslims accept evolution. Does that mean the other 55% are extreme religious fundamentalists (or atheists, I guess)?
Even among Jews the rate of acceptance is only 77%. This is telling, because among American religious groups Jews are certainly among the least doctrinaire, and the least committed to particular interpretations of scripture. “Jewish dogma” is practically an oxymoron, yet still 23% of Jews reject evolution.
These numbers pretty blatantly contradict Padian’s statement. If we focus on Christians, Muslims and Jews, they do not even support the conclusion that a majority see no conflict between evolution and religion.
Josh, who is perfectly aware of these numbers, tried one gambit for getting around them. People’s views on these sorts of subjects are complex and can be hard to capture with simple polling questions. Consequently, the results are sensitive to precise phrasings of the questions. That is certainly true, but it is hardly an adequate response. The questions in these polls are pretty darn clear and the numbers are overwhelmingly against what Padian said. You can play with the question phrasings all you want, but you are not going to make Padian’s statement look reasonable.
A better counter argument is the old standby about correlation and causation. These polls might show a correlation between religious affiliation and rejection of evolution, but that does not mean that people reject evolution because of their religion. Fair enough, but permit me two points in reply. The first is that Padian was the one who made the, well, extreme, statement about what Americans believe in this area. Surely it is for him to back it up with evidence, and it is reasonable for me to point out that such data as we have do not support his conclusion.
Second, correlation does not imply causation, but correlation coupled with a strong reason for suspecting causation certainly adds up to a compelling argument. Padian’s statement was clearly meant to imply that so long as you do not insist on a hyperliteral interpretation of Genesis you should not see a conflict between evolution and religion. But contradicting the Bible is the least of the problems evolution poses for religion.
Evolution kills the argument from design in biology, which surveys have shown is one of the main reasons people give for believing in God in the first place. Evolution by natural selection is also a horribly savage and cruel business, and one that tends to diminish the standing of humanity within nature. These objections are powerful and have nothing to do with the Bible.
This is not just theoretical. Even when I am circulating among YEC’s, when I ask them what they think of Christians who have made their peace with evolution (as I have done many times), the Bible is almost never the first thing they mention in their answer. Instead it is the blow to human dignity they point to, and to the waste and savagery of the process. Granted, that is anecdotal evidence, so take it for what it is worth. I can only say that it is a lot of anecdotes accumulated over a lot of years, all of which point in a consistent direction.
So Padian’s statement is false, and Josh’s defense is utterly inadequate.
Regular readers of this blog are aware that I think science in general, and evolution in particular, pose grave, even fatal, challenges to traditional notions of religious faith. We bat those arguments around quite a bit around here. But that argument is mostly academic. People can believe whatever they like, of course, and just because I find certain things implausible does not mean everyone else has to as well.
But the argument in this case is of considerably more practical importance. If you really believe that it is only a radical fringe of biblical literalists or crazed atheists who see anything other than cordial relations between science and religion then you have not adequately understood the problem. A great many people see a big conflict, and they are right to see it that way. If the grand strategy is to convert people to more moderate, evolution-accepting varieties of religion, then our efforts are doomed to failure. So long as religion remains a dominant social force in this country, we will continue to fight this battle.