Writing at Slate, Phil Plait has a post up about the big Ham vs. Nye debate. He gets off to a good start:
Last night, science advocate Bill Nye “debated” with creationist Ken Ham, the man who runs the Creation Museum in Kentucky. I was torn about the event; I think it’s important that science get its advocacy, but I also worry that by even showing up to such a thing, Nye would elevate the idea of creationism as something worth debating.
But I’ve thought about it, and here’s the important thing to remember: Roughly half the population of America does believe in some form of creationism or another. Half. Given that creationism is provably wrong, and science has enjoyed huge overwhelming success over the years, something is clearly broken in our country.
I suspect that what’s wrong is our messaging. For too long, scientists have thought that facts speak for themselves. They don’t. They need advocates. If we ignore the attacks on science, or simply counter them by reciting facts, we’ll lose. That much is clear from the statistics. Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.
About last night’s debate, my colleague Mark Stern at Slate argues that Nye lost the debate just by showing up, and I see that same sentiment from people on social media. But I disagree. We’ve been losing this debate in the public’s mind all along by not showing up. Sure, science advocates are there when this topic comes up in court, and I’m glad for it. But I think that we need to have more of a voice, and that voice needs to change. What Nye did last night was at least a step in that direction, so in that sense I’m glad he did this. (Emphasis in original.)
I agree with that. In fact, it’s almost exactly what I said in my “Debating Creationists” post.
Sadly, Plait goes badly wrong in what follows:
But Ham is insidiously wrong on one important aspect: He insists evolution is anti-religious. But it’s not; it’s just anti-his-religion. This is, I think, the most critical aspect of this entire problem: The people who are attacking evolution are doing so because they think evolution is attacking their beliefs.
But unless they are the narrowest of fundamentalists, this simply is not true. There is no greater proof of this than Pope John Paul II—who, one must admit, was a deeply religious man—saying that evolution was an established fact. Clearly, not all religion has a problem with evolution. Given that a quarter of U.S. citizens are Catholics, this shows Ham’s claim that evolution is anti-religious to be wrong.
Go to the original for relevant links.
The part where he says that people are attacking evolution because they think evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs is correct. But the rest of it is about as wrong as wrong can be. It is the party line among most scientists and pro-science organizations, but it is no less wrong for that. And until you appreciate just how wrong it is, you cannot really understand why America has such a big creationism problem.
Let us begin with some polling data. It is well-known that people’s opinions in this area are highly sensitive to small changes in question wording. The most careful polling available, though, strongly suggests that the percentage of people who accept young-Earth Creationism (YEC) is actually quite small. It’s certainly under twenty percent, and perhaps closer to ten. So right off the bat Plait’s thesis is looking dubious. If support for some form of anti-evolutionism hovers around fifty percent, but the percentage of young-Earthers is way smaller than that, then we seem to have two options. Either an awful lot of people are just confused about the consequences of their religious beliefs, or it is not just fundamentalists who have a problem with evolution.
In yesterday’s post I argued that while it is appropriate to describe YEC and intelligent design (ID) as different dialects of the same language, they are separate cultures nevertheless. Nearly all of the people I met at ID conferences were quite religious, but they were also contemptuous of YEC. They were not fundamentalists, and on many occasions they lamented the fact that YEC makes Christianity look foolish. Plainly, there is a large contingent of people who are not fundamentalists, but who also have a problem with evolution.
Even for the YEC’s, the Bible is not really the main issue. When I would ask them directly what they found objectionable about evolution, conflicts with the Bible were never the first thing they would mention. They start off hating evolution, and then use the Bible as one more weapon in their arsenal. If they thought that evolution was a nifty idea, they would suddenly discover that the Bible had been teaching it all along.
Things get worse for Plait when you consult the article he linked to in defense of his claim that Pope John Paul II described evolution as an established fact. The Pope said no such thing. The relevant quote is this:
Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory.
It takes some mighty creative reading to get “Evolution is an established fact,” out of that. And when you consider that the Pope then went on to hold forth about acceptable and unacceptable mechanisms for evolution, Plait’s description is starting to look a bit optimistic. John Paul II’s successor, Pope Benedict XVI, together with his minion Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, walked right up to the line of endorsing ID, without actually crossing over. None of this should make you optimistic that the Catholic Church is a great friend to evolution. They happily arrogate to themselves the right to hold forth on “the truth about man,” and still make Adam and Eve central figures in their Catechism.
It has always been thus.
In discussing what Darwin accomplished in The Origin of Species, it is customary to make a distinction between the fact of common descent and Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection. In pondering the response at the time from religious scholars, it is clear that common descent was generally tolerable (though it was common to carve out an exception for humanity), but natural selection as the primary mechanism flatly was not. Historian Frederick Gregory describes the situation thusly:
Unquestionably, the attempt to reconcile evolution and Christianity depended on a rejection of natural selection as the mechanism of evolution. A few writers, for example Asa Gray and George Frederick Wright, claimed that natural selection was not incompatible with a divinely ordered creation, but after Hodge, theologians for the most part abandoned the attempt to reconcile natural selection and design.
(This is from Frederick Gregory’s contribution to the book God and Nature, Lindberg and Numbers, ed.)
“Hodge” refers to Charles Hodge, an especially prominent Protestant theologian in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He is the one who wrote a book called, What is Darwinism? and famously answered that question with, “It is atheism.” More precisely, it was the absence of any sort of teleology in Darwin’s conception of evolution that consigned it to the status of atheism.
Gregory was referring specifically to the response of Protestant scholars and theologians. The response from the Catholic Church was scarcely an improvement. It is technically true that they never declared evolution to be heretical. But they came awfully close to doing so when they condemned a book by Rafaello Caverni, who defended a rather circumscribed view of evolution. The reaction from the Congregation of the Index, charged with deciding what was and was not heretical, is worth considering at length:
Until now the Holy See has rendered no decision on the system mentioned. Therefore, if Caverni’s work is condemned, as it should be, Darwinism would be indirectly condemned. Surely there would be cries against this decision; the example of Galileo would be held up; it will be said that this Holy Congregation is not competent to emit judgments on physiological and ontological doctrines on theories of change. But we should not focus on this probable clamor. With his system, Darwin destroys the bases of revelation and openly teaches pantheism and an abject materialism. Thus, an indirect condemnation of Darwin is not only useful, but even necessary, together with that of Caverni, his defender and propagator among Italian youth.
This goes on for another paragraph. Nor was this an outlying view among the Church authorities. Historians Mariano Artigas, Thomas Glick, and Rafael Martinez write:
Evolutionism was viewed by many Catholic theologians as a materialist and agnostic ideology based on a scientific theory that had no serious foundation. This ideology seemed opposed to Christian doctrine on the Bible, on Creation and divine action in the world, and on human beings. There was a consensus among theologians about Catholic doctrine, including aspects that, without expressly being dogmas of faith, were held to be closely related to them, and evolution, as it was presented by its most ardent proponents, certainly clashed with dogmas of faith and with other positions generally held by theologians.
(These excerpts are taken from the book Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution, 1877-1902, by Artigas, Glick and Martinez.)
Let us fast forward now to the early twentieth century. From 1910-1914 a series of pamphlets was published by prominent Protestant scholars. These pamphlets were known collectively as “The Fundamentals,” and this is where we get the term “Fundamentalism.” There were three articles in the series devoted specifically to evolution, and all were unambiguously hostile. Dyson Hague, in explaining the reasons for publishing the pamphlets in the first place, lamented the trend toward liberal theology:
The present day liberal theology may be traced to two streams of influence: First, the influence of German rationalism, preeminently the Ritschlian theology, and the critical theories of Wellhausen, Kuenen and their school. Second, the widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution.
To the first may be traced the free and easy way of the modernists of dealing with the Scriptures; and to the second, the revolutionized attitude of theologians with regard to sin, its source, its penalty, and its atonement.
I have belabored these points because they illustrate something important. Evolution as Darwin presented it was almost entirely unacceptable to the foremost Christian scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, writing in the decades after Darwin. They had specifically religious objections to the non-teleological nature of the theory, and to the conflicts they perceived between Darwin and the Bible. Yet none of these people were fundamentalists in the modern sense, none endorsed a young-Earth or a literal interpretation of Genesis 1, and all would have been embarrassed by Ken Ham. Even the contributors to The Fundamentals were overtly hostile to the idea of a young Earth.
(Incidentally, the perceived conflicts between Darwin and the Bible did not generally revolve around Genesis 1. The more serious issue was the Adam and Eve story in Genesis 3. Since this story is strongly tied in with what is said about Jesus in the New Testament, it is much harder to metaphorize than the creation story in Genesis 1.)
So, after all, that, let us return to Plait’s argument. He tells us that the problem is too many people perceiving evolution as a threat to their religious beliefs. Indeed, but why do they perceive it that way? Is it a failure of messaging on the part of scientists? Is it because Richard Dawkins or P. Z. Myers make snide remarks about religion? No, those are not the reasons.
It is because these people have noticed all the same problems the scholars of Darwin’s time were writing about. It is because evolution really does conflict with their religious beliefs, but not because of an overly idiosyncratic interpretation of one part of the Bible. It is because the version of evolution that so worried the religious scholars of Darwin’s time, that of a savage, non-teleological process that produced humanity only as an afterthought, is precisely the version that has triumphed among modern scientists. And it is because the objections raised to that version of evolution in the nineteenth century have not lost any of their force today.
So I think the issue is just a tad more complex than Plait suggests. It manifestly is not the case that only the most narrow of fundamentalists has a problem with evolution. Evolution challenges the Bible, refutes the argument from design, exacerbates the problem of evil, and strongly challenges any notion that humanity plays a central role in creation. These are not small points, and Plait needs to acknowledge them.
Plait concludes his essay with:
And who should do this? The answer to me is clear: Religious people who understand the reality of science. They have a huge advantage over someone who is not a believer. Because atheism is so reviled in America, someone with faith will have a much more sympathetic soapbox from which to speak to those who are more rigid in their beliefs.
I know a lot of religious folks read my blog. I am not a believer, but I hope that my message of science, of investigation, of honesty, of the joy and wonder revealed though it, gets across to everyone. That’s why I don’t attack religion; there’s no need. I am fine with people believing in what they want. I only step up on my own soapbox when a specific religion overreaches, when that belief is imposed on others.
So I urge anyone reading this who is a believer of any stripe to speak up. In almost every case, evolution is not a threat to your beliefs. It’s an important part of science, and the basis upon which our understanding of biology is founded. It’s like the Periodic Table in chemistry, or Newton’s Laws in physics; without it, biology makes no sense. And we know biology makes sense.
That’s mostly fine by me. I’m a big fan of Ken Miller, for example, and I wish we had a thousand more just like him. If BioLogos wants to set up shop and tell Evangelicals that they have nothing to fear from evolution they have my complete support. If the signers of the Clergy Letter Project want to tell their congregations that evolution is a marvelous thing, I will applaud their efforts. So long as they are OK with scientists deciding what goes into the science curriculum, I don’t even care if they glop up a perfectly good theory with an implausible metaphysical superstructure in which God is personally mutating the genes or whatever. I will challenge their arguments when I find them inadequate, of course, but I applaud their efforts nevertheless.
But there’s a reason they find their views to be such a tough sell. Conflicts with a literal interpretation of Genesis 1 are the least of the problems evolution poses for Christianity, and it is very debatable, to put it kindly, whether the more liberal clerics have successfully neutralized them. So, yes, encourage the more liberal believers to go spread their message. But don’t be surprised when they report a lack of success, and don’t blame Richard Dawkins when they do.
(Incidentally, the last few days have brought a wealth of new readers to this blog, so I can’t resist mentioning that I discuss all of these issues in far greater detail in my book Among the Creationists, published by Oxford University Press.)