Recently I discussed an essay by David Barash that appeared in The New York Times. Barash discussed a talk he gives to his animal behavior class about evolution and religion. More specifically, he explains why, in his view, evolution and religion are just incompatible. I mostly agreed with the substantive points that he made, but disagreed that such a talk was appropriate. Opening your class by attacking the religious beliefs of your students does not seem like good pedagogy to me.
The Times has now published multiple letters to the editors regarding Barash’s talk. Incredibly, all of them manage to provide some food for thought. Most of them demur from Barash’s view that evolution and religion are incompatible, but all of them are, at least, polite. Jerry Coyne has already responded. I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own, but to keep things to a reasonable length I’ll break this up over two posts.
Here’s the first letter:
Re “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class” (Sunday Review, Sept. 28):
I absolutely disagree with the evolutionary biologist David P. Barash when he asserts that religion and science, in the form of the theory of evolution, cannot be reconciled. Science begins with the Big Bang theory, and evolution according to Darwin begins with a simple one-cell life. But science can say nothing about what preceded the Big Bang or how life was injected into that simple cell.
In essence, science cannot say where we came from, where we are going or even where we are, and certainly not why we are. Those kinds of questions are the business of religion.
Science and religion do not compete. They are separate animals that can and should work together to discover what and who we are.
Charleston, S.C., Sept. 28, 2014
Science is not completely silent about what came before the Big Bang and about where life came from, but I take the general point that there are questions science cannot answer. The problem with the letter, though, is the assertion that certain unknowable questions are “the business of religion.” Let me suggest that this is the sort of nonsense we need less of. Religion does not provide answers to questions about meaning and purpose. It makes assertions about such things, but it is entirely unable to back up those assertions with persuasive arguments.
Likewise for any notion that science and religion should work together to discover what and who we are. I do not agree. Religion has nothing at all to contribute to the question of what and who we are. It brings no reliable investigative methods to the quest. That is why it is so often in the business of demanding unquestioning ascent, and often seems uninclined to engage in calm debate.
Nowadays we hear requests for science and religion to work together. That is what religion says at times and in places where it is weak. When it has the strength to do so religion, with its baseless claims to knowledge and dubious claims to authority, invariably insists on running the show.
I think David P. Barash may be deceiving himself about the efficacy of “The Talk” he gives his students, in which he attempts to illuminate the logical superiority of evolution over belief. Like him, I am always stunned by repeated surveys showing the public’s ignorance regarding evolution’s status as established science, and I’m sympathetic to his attempts at remedying the situation.
As often seems the case, however, his arguments soon become more grandiose than convincing. He argues that the patent amorality of the natural world leads to an “unavoidable” exclusion of a benevolent creator, just as random variation excludes the need for a grand “watchmaker” god.
While I agree that these distinctions are masterful explanations of how we understand the physical world, they do not unavoidably exclude a creative force. To overstate the case against a creator, in my mind, is as logically obtuse as preaching the reverse.
San Diego, Sept. 30, 2014
This letter raises a common trope in discussions of this kind. They key phrase is “unavoidably exclude.” Indeed, no scientific argument could meet such a burden of proof. If religious folks are only interested in preserving the bare logical possibility that God exists, then they can rest assured that science will not deprive them of that.
The problem comes when you want something more than the logical possibility that God exists. Barash’s arguments certainly pose a severe challenge to certain common religious beliefs, even while stopping short of an outright disproof. Serious religious people need good answers to those arguments to maintain an intellectually satisfying faith, and it is very debatable whether they have them.
As a Catholic biology teacher, I see that teaching students about life processes is a powerful mode for learning about their creator and understanding their place in the cosmos. Like Prof. David P. Barash, I recognize the centrality of evolutionary theory in biology; however, I also see that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive theories. The creation story in Genesis is meant to communicate that God created the world and has a certain relationship to it, not how he created the world.
Also, Mr. Barash does little to prove his claim that science and religion cannot be reconciled. It all depends on how science and God are defined. Science, without religion, becomes its own belief system. We would benefit to embrace science as a valuable, though limited approach toward understanding the multidimensional mystery of life.
Louisville, Ky., Sept. 29, 2014
The problem is that what evolution suggests about any creator that set it in motion is not very flattering. It was that, and not any arguments based on Genesis, that were are the core of Barash’s arguments. If God set evolution in motion then I must conclude that he prefers to do his creating through eons of bloodsport and did not have humans in mind at the start of the process. These are not lessons Christians seem inclined to accept.
Science does just fine without religion, and I’m not even sure what it means to say that science is in danger of becoming its own belief system. Indeed, science was entirely unable to thrive until religion’s power was diminished and curtailed. It is not religion that keeps science in check, but the constraints placed upon it by reality. If you’re theory doesn’t work when tested against evidence, then there is no hope for you. As with any human institution, in science bad ideas can persist to a frustrating degree. In this it cannot hold a candle to religion, however.
David P. Barash argues that science and religion cannot be reconciled. That is true if one reads the Bible literally. But if we extract from the myths of the Bible (such as the creation myth in Genesis) the moral underpinnings, then the teachings of the Bible and religion hold relevance even for the scientist. The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, from a common ancestor, in the divine image. Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.
Albert Einstein observed, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” The Nazi doctors who performed atrocious criminal experiments on humans were all educated scientists–but they lacked religious and moral values. If we can grasp the significance of the two disciplines and their legitimate functions and limitations, then science and religion might coexist peacefully and enrich one another.
(Rabbi) GILBERT S. ROSENTHAL
Needham, Mass., Sept. 28, 2014
That’s a mighty gentle reading of the stories in Genesis! One unambiguous teaching of Genesis 2, for example, is that women were created solely to satisfy the needs of men. The story of Noah ends with the curse of Ham, which to this day provides Biblical warrant to racist arguments. Moreover, we hardly need the Bible to instruct us about the equality of people. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out, evolution basically proves that all by itself. The idea that an anthology of ancient documents provides special instruction on this point is not correct.
Let me also suggest that it is time to retire that oft-abused quote from Albert Einstein. He was so scathing towards traditional religion and to any notion of a personal God that to invoke him in this context is rather unfair. As for Nazi scientists, I would certainly agree that they lacked a strong sense of morality. But any notion that morality must come from religion is ridiculous and must be rejected. It is not as though people filled to the brim with religious feeling always behave well, after all. I could far more reasonably point to the many examples of religion-fueled evil in the world and argue that its practitioners need a dose of secular thought.
That’s it for now! We’ll have a look at the other letters at a later time.