Pharyngula

More than once, I’ve said that I think the Discovery Institute is on the wane; Dover dealt a serious blow to their credibility, and demonstrated that their strategy was not an effective one for helping creationists get their way. That’s really all they had, was the promise that their pseudo-secular approach would give anti-evolutionists an inroad into the public school system, and it is clear now that that is not true.

I’ve also noticed that people give me a leery look when I say that—the DI has been a recent but ubiquitous feature in the Creation Wars—but now I can just tell you all to read this article.

“Dover is a disaster in a sense, as a public-relations matter,” said Bruce Chapman, a former Seattle city councilman and founder of the Discovery Institute, the country’s primary supporter of intelligent design. “It has given a rhetorical weapon to the Darwinists to say a judge has settled this,” he said.

Even some critics of evolution have taken the ruling as a sign that the fight to bring intelligent design into public schools may be over.

Judge Jones voiced it authoritatively, but I think we knew it all along: the backers of ID were almost all creationists of the old school, who saw this as nothing but a loophole they could exploit. Even the Fellows of the DI were readily admitting, outside of their official pontifications and press releases, that they believed their Designer was a God, and the Christian deity no less. The article does a nice job of documenting these beliefs, and here’s something I never thought I would say…I agree with Rush Limbaugh.

“Let’s make no mistake,” Limbaugh said on his radio show. “The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals.”

Fortunately, that last clause is all wrong (we still found it offensive), so I can still say Limbaugh is a pompous gasbag who derives his authority from oxycontin-fueled bluster rather than evidence, and my world isn’t totally shaken.

Oh, but wait…I also agree with Cal Thomas! My aching brain.

Columnist Thomas, a former spokesman for the conservative Christian political group Moral Majority, said the court decision shows that academic debates, lawsuits and alternate explanations are not the way to fight the secularization of the United States.

“It should awaken religious conservatives to the futility of trying to make a secular state reflect their beliefs,” Thomas wrote.

Now that statement has more ominous overtones coming from Thomas—I think he’s implying that we need to get rid of the secular nature of the state altogether—but in general I think he’s right. Right now we have a body of precedent on the separation of church and state (and enough religious people who also appreciate the protection that separation gives them) that makes it difficult for even the ignorant wingnuts with which the Republicans are trying to stock the courts to ignore, and it is so unambiguously clear that all forms of creationism are religiously motivated, that barring even more radical destruction of the institutions of our government, creationism is just not going to fly overtly in the public schools. The frontal assault on the education system has been rebuffed, and among the severely wounded still moaning on the glacis are the followers of the Discovery Institute, and their generals have also been exposed as comic opera buffoons.

Does this mean I think we’re winning the Creation Wars? Not at all. I think one fairly recent player has been knocked out of contention, at least temporarily, nothing more. The more insidious creationist strategy of sapping the educational system by stocking school boards with anti-intellectual cretins and applying pressure to suppress scientific education and increase scientific ignorance is ongoing and is painfully effective…and we haven’t mustered a strong response to it yet. We flail at individual instances, but don’t have a more permanent institutional strategy for promoting and maintaining good science teaching at the pre-college level. We’re holding the top of the wall while they undermine our foundations, and we know where that is going to lead.

I also think that while we must win court cases like Kitzmiller v. the Dover School Board, we’re fooling ourselves if we think legal decisions are anything more substantial than stopgap measures. Losing a case like that would be catastrophic, but winning has its own costs. It solidifies opposition by feeding resentment. Every court case in this struggle, from Dayton to Dover, has failed to change a single mind, and while they have told us much about creationists and creationism, they’ve done nothing to educate people about science and evolution. And that’s the only place where this war can be won, in public education, both in the schools and among the general public.

Comments

  1. #1 Shygetz
    April 26, 2006

    Well said!

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    April 26, 2006

    I said it this morning over at Panda’s Thumb, but I might as well repeat myself here. (ahem) I hereby predict that within five years, we shall see a replacement buzzword for “intelligent design”, a new meme mutating off the creationist stock. Again, not all creationists will pick it up; think of the continued YEC presence today.

    To make my prediction more falsifiable, I would like to add that the new wrappings will be just as transparent as the old, and that again, the neo-creationist arguments will be identical to the old chestnuts (up to the replacement of a few words, as we saw with Of Pandas and People).

  3. #3 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    PZ:

    Does this mean I think we’re winning the Creation Wars? Not at all.

    I think you’re viewing this very narrowly. All it takes to win is to keep the life sciences somewhat healthy in the US. From my outsider perspective, they’re not only healthy right now, but enjoying a golden age. That the majority of the public holds major misconceptions does not distinguish the life sciences from any other area of science. The only difference is that the misconceptions become articles of faith. Nobody’s pushing to get Aristotlean physics taught in high school, but that doesn’t mean the average American comes out with a deep intuitive appreciation of conservation of momentum and energy.

    Clearly, things can be better, and it’s a tragedy that any child with the potential and inclination to become a biologist could be led astray by old myths. We’ll probably never “win” in the sense of preventing this entirely, but I suspect we’re already winning in the sense that the resources are out there to engage growing minds. Most of the people who cling to a comfortable teleological view of life on earth were probably never very interested in really understanding it to begin with.

  4. #4 SteveG
    April 26, 2006

    I think stopgap is understating the point. It may not have turned the tide, but it is movement on the pond with a significant wake. The real value of Dover is to have pulled back the curtain on the ID folks and revealed them as political operatives. The on-the-fence crowd tends to be not well-schooled in science, but not knee-jerk anti-science either. These were the people for whom the appeal to fairness of the “teach the controversy” PR line was effective. Now they see that they were played. The folks who seemed to be taking the high road are in fact in the gutter. This is a real opportunity to change the narrative.

  5. #5 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Another thought. For all that I said above, PZ might be right that it’s good not to imagine we’re winning. These kinds of political fights need to be handled like a course of antibiotics. While Dover is a clear victory to celebrate, it doesn’t mean that we should give our opponents a chance to regroup and come back in a hardier form.

  6. #6 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    SteveG:

    The real value of Dover is to have pulled back the curtain on the ID folks and revealed them as political operatives. The on-the-fence crowd tends to be not well-schooled in science, but not knee-jerk anti-science either.

    I agree. The way I look at it, Dover was useful in hammering home a scientific point in the only way that the punditry can understand. Few of these people are schooled in science, but most of them accept the authority of jurisprudence, particularly when it’s clear as in this case that the judge was not biased towards the final decision. It’s a shame that we need this, but it has had a very salutary effect on the chattering classes who seem much less likely after Dover to present this as “He said/she said.”

  7. #7 Scott
    April 26, 2006

    Friends: I’m not an academic. I’m a high school science teacher. Professor Myers is correct; if by ‘we’ one means ‘the defenders of good science, including the fact of evolution’, then we are most definitely not winning.

    We are losing, because the first shots in the battle are not being fired either in academia or the public schools, they are being fired off in the churches. I agree with Professor Myers that the public needs to be educated. As an evolutionary biologist and (frankly) as a believer, I’m interested to learn how this should be approached. It is my conviction that any approach that excludes a direct appeal to the pews is unlikely to make any headway.

    Sincerely,

    Scott Hatfield
    epigene13@hotmail.com

  8. #8 boojieboy
    April 26, 2006

    I’m with Scott Hatfield here. I think the aftermath of the Dover decision is a golden opportunity to take some time to craft a conciliatory message to the other side. I know this flies in the face of the no-holds-barred approach that seems to get advocated around here, but there must be some middle ground, one that admits that the theistic perspective has value of some kind. Too often I think atheists make the mistake of giving religious persons the impression that their beliefs worthless.

    If we continue on in this us-vs-them manner, then zero-sum thinking will rule, and we’ll be fighting another attempt in a few years or so.

    Gould has already had a try with his notion of NOMA
    http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

    Can we not agree that this is a position from which reconciliation in some measure might be achieved?

  9. #9 Blader
    April 26, 2006

    I rather think the battle isn’t in the pews. You can’t fight God, especially in his house.

    The problem is that the sunday worshippers are coming out spreading disinformation and undermining science and reason.

    Less than 20% of the US population is christian fundamentalist, yet polls show that 60% think its reasonable to ‘teach the controversy’.

    The problem is that that 40% doesn’t have a clue what the controversy is all about. They think its about evolutionary science, when its actually about christian fundamentalism.

  10. #10 MikeM
    April 26, 2006

    Hold DI’s feet to the fire, but know when to stop. We can’t ignore other threats. I think DI’s “best” days are behind them, but someone else will come along.

    In the long run, the idea that takes the least amount of time to explain will win. If Christianity takes 5 minutes to explain, as I believe, then the idea that takes 5 years or more to explain is automatically at a disadvantage.

    As much as I admire and respect Richard Dawkins, we’ll rarely find someone with less than 2 years of college to read his books. We need someone to explain evolution in very easy terms. Mostly, though, the world needs a five minute summary of why ID is BS (that sounds like a good name for a book, eh?).

    If we can’t fight our attention span problems, we may have to tailor the message for folks who can’t concentrate on anything but sports for more than 5 minutes at a time.

  11. #11 woofsterNY
    April 26, 2006

    I work as a copyeditor at a newspaper, and I’ve been a bit surprised lately when evolution-related stories come across my desk.

    There have been two I can recall in the past couple of weeks, one related to human evolution, about the finding of a series of “missing links” in general proximity to each other, and another “missing link” story about the tiktaalik fish-landcritter.

    The surprise has been a pleasant one: the stories are written as straight science news and make no mention of the creationist view. In other words, the writer gathers the details for the evolution story, and apparently refrains from rushing out to ask some creationist mouthpiece for his/her opinion.

    However, I agree with PZ that this is not the time for complacency. I continue to believe that this whole thing should elicit a serious and ongoing reaction, not just from pro-science people and organizations, but from pro-American people and organizations.

    I continue to see this anti-science creationist lobby as profoundly and transparently anti-American. In the same way that most anti-abortion types seem to have a conceptual package in their heads that makes them hate contraceptives, condoms and sex education as much as they do abortion, the haters-of-evolution also seem (to me) to hate freedom of speech, the education system, the justice system, AND ESPECIALLY FREEDOM OF RELIGION – all of which causes me to also see them as haters-of-America.

    As to increasing the general public’s understanding of evolution, I would actually like to see an outreach effort INTO CHURCHES. Contact those religious organizations which have NOT signed onto the creationist agenda, and offer a gentle introduction to evolution for lay people — perhaps by a biologist who goes to the church.

    Frame it as non-confrontational intro, with a prefacing speech by the pastor, and simply say this is what evolution is, this is what it does, and here are the many reasons why it is important for American schoolchildren to learn it.

    Seems to me it would also be possible to carefully frame and explain the “why” of the creation science political lobby’s frantic opposition to evolution … but I can imagine it might be diplomatic in some cases to avoid the issue entirely.

    I imagine some sort of handbook or prepared materials for giving this talk, so that the various far-flung volunteer speakers could carefully avoid any sort of confrontation. But then again, if the pastor of the congregation was signed on to the idea and attended the talk, he could help mitigate any such.

    The simplest religious framing of the issue, at least for non-fundamentalists, would be that evolution over billions of years is the mechanism used by God to work the miracles of life-creation DESCRIBED AS METAPHOR in Genesis. I imagine that most religious people who also understand evolution include some such explanation in their personal understanding.

    For a person who accepts the argument, all the science that comes after — antibiotic research, interspecies relatedness, environmental issues, etc. — can be seen as compatible with, rather than in opposition to, one’s personal religion.

  12. #12 woofsterNY
    April 26, 2006

    Just an afterthought:

    I have to believe that every mainstream church has numerous supporters of evolution in its ranks, and that they would almost certainly come to an explanatory talk on evolution. If the ones with doubts saw those nodding heads in the pews, and if it was clear the pastor backed the message of the talk, it might provide a persuasive finger on the scale to tip the doubters over into greater support/lesser opposition to evolution.

  13. #13 Free Operant
    April 26, 2006

    PZ makes a critical point:

    We flail at individual instances, but don’t have a more permanent institutional strategy for promoting and maintaining good science teaching at the pre-college level. We’re holding the top of the wall while they undermine our foundations, and we know where that is going to lead.

    Ironically, PZ, your comment echoes a talmudic concept of a “fence (or wall) around the law.” That is, by building a fence around the law, we prevent even minor transgressions of the law. For example, the ACLU defends the rights of neo-Nazis to speak, not because it’s good for them to speak (it’s obviously not), but because it builds a fence around the first amendment. If you can’t stop neo-Nazis from speaking, then you can’t stop people from engaging in healthy politcal discussion.

    In the same way, we can defend science by building a fence. In politics and religion, the fence is constructed with behavioral limits. In science, the fence is constructed by respect for evidence. We should teach students in particular, and the public in general, how to respect and evaluate evidence. That should be the goal of science education, not the rote repetition of scientific concepts, as it is now.

    All scientific, academic, and professional associations have an interest in keeping the fence in good shape, and should contribute to it. That means putting aside professional turf battles and conflicts, so we can work together to educate the public.

    If we lose the battle on evolution, the next attacks could be on cosmology. Or, they could be on use of animals for biological and behavioral research, or in a hundred other areas. We really need to stand together on this one.

  14. #14 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Scott Hatfield:

    It is my conviction that any approach that excludes a direct appeal to the pews is unlikely to make any headway.

    Headway at what exactly? I’m a little unclear on what a “win” looks like. It’d be nice if most people grasped the basic concept of natural selection, but it’d also be nice if most people grasped, for instance, that shuttle astronauts are weightless because they’re in freefall and not because of their relatively insignificant distance from the earth. The only big distinction is that the churches don’t care one way or the other about what people think about physics, so at least we don’t have anyone actively combatting our attempts to teach it.

    Headway on both of these issues is going to happen in the science classrooms and perhaps through popular exposition on TV and in books. The churches aren’t going to help people understand science–that’s not their function–and misconceptions abound even in scientific areas that the churches are not going out of their way to hurt people’s understanding. As someone brought up Catholic, I can certainly appreciate the view that religious people ought to be able to reconcile evolution with their beliefs. However, I think that’s mostly a battle for maintaining sound theology rather than sound science. Fight that one in the pews, but I don’t think that’s PZ’s battle.

    Headway on keeping mythology (*) out of the science classroom is equally important, but it will probably have to be fought in the courts. I’m not sure there is really a “win” here either, just an endless game of whack-a-mole. Dover was a pretty good whacking, though.

    (*) I use mythology in the sense I was taught by a professor back in college, namely as “the sacred history of a people.” Religious texts are stories that bind groups together and I do believe in treating them with respect because people attach value to them. I believe in keeping them out of the science classroom because they do not belong there.

  15. #15 Steve LaBonne
    April 26, 2006

    Re outreach to churches- waste of breath. Mainstream churches don’t need it, they don’t have any built-in problem with evolution. Biblical-literalit churches simply cannot warm to evolution while remaining what they are. So you’re preaching either to the choir or to the “invincibly ignorant”. Focus like a laser on the main locus both of the problem and of any potential solutions- the public schools.

  16. #16 MikeM
    April 26, 2006

    This particular statement in the article bothered me:

    At the heart of the criticism is the institute’s position that Jones blindly accepted Darwin’s theory while ignoring what it says is scientific evidence of intelligent design.

    They have been given many, many chances to show their evidence. I can’t count the number of chances they’ve been given.

    And?

    Nuthin’.

    Does anyone have a copy of the 123 page book DI put out in response to Dover?

  17. #17 Chance
    April 26, 2006

    As an evolutionary biologist and (frankly) as a believer, I’m interested to learn how this should be approached

    First by simply ensuring the public school system remains strong. Second by stressing the difference in such places between belief and science. Third when possible explaining more easily understood errors by creationists.

    In truth all ‘believers’ are clinging to an irrationality. Which is ok, but they need to understand the difference.

    And lastly scientists need to except that evolution does real damage to Christianity despite the bending over of some who accomadate both. This is the crux of the entire issue. On some level it seems to me pretend to think it doesn’t.

  18. #18 Keith Douglas
    April 26, 2006

    It seems to me that we need some sort of funding in order to start putting together good TV on this, since most people seem to learn from TV. Unfortunately, TV can’t teach activity, but if the TV complements the schooling, that’s all to the good. Unfortunately, one would need an awful lot of money to crowd out the Targeted Advertising To Kids stuff (cartoons, etc.)

    Anyone know any billionaires with no projects and an actual social conscience? Unfortunately the socialist cynic in me must point out also that billionaires are rich in part because of the mindlessness and stulifying nature of the system, so …

  19. #19 Stephen Ayer
    April 26, 2006

    The creationist crazies should refocus their efforts on England. The education authorities over there are completely clueless… Stephen.

  20. #20 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Chance:

    And lastly scientists need to except that evolution does real damage to Christianity despite the bending over of some who accomadate both.

    Only if you see the creation myth of Genesis as a central tenet of Christianity, and apart from a few sects, Christianity tends to place its emphasis on other parts of the Bible. My own religious upbringing always treated the first part of Genesis as an allegorical tale along with other such books such as Job and Jonah. Even if you view the Bible as the Word of God, there is nothing that says God cannot make his point by telling stories. Story-telling has a long and worthy tradition.

    I do agree that as we learn more about the world around us, we tend to remove the practical need for belief in the supernatural. But I’m not sure why you would single out Christianity as particularly damaged by evolutionary theory.

  21. #21 Kristine
    April 26, 2006

    I’m of two minds regarding outreach to churches. On one hand, can you imagine the advantage of having people gather together if only for one hour a week to listen to lectures on science and evolution? It would be great to sponsor lectures in churches. I have always believed that to get the kids to learn science, you must also make it intelligible to their parents.

    But on the other hand, my experience is that evolution and particularly natural selection is so misunderstood by the average person (myself included) that it’s unavoidable that a congregation will take away the same old canards (evolution as a “ladder,” man as the “crown of creation,” I-don’t-think-it-can-just-be-chance anecdotes, etc.).

  22. #22 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Kristine:

    On one hand, can you imagine the advantage of having people gather together if only for one hour a week to listen to lectures on science and evolution?

    I can imagine a manatee flapping its flippers hard enough to fly out of the water, but I cannot conceive of the circumstances under which it would actually happen.

    Just because people gather together once a week to do something or other doesn’t give me any control over what they do there. Trying to turn the churches into science forums strikes me as a complete non-starter.

  23. #23 AndyS
    April 26, 2006

    Challenging beliefs is difficult if you want to get past calling people idiots which just makes them hold on to their position more desparately. If the desire is to persuade rather than browbeat, we need a more enlighted approach as a few people mention above.

    As Blader alludes, most people are not very knowledgable about how science works, just happy to enjoy the fruits of its success. Scott Hatfield reminds us that most people are religiously inclined and a good portion of them church goers. So rants by scientists regarding how horrible religion is are usually unpersuasive and often counterproductive with respect to the general population.

    Humanist organizations have been around for at least 70 years providing at times a thoughtful place for science and religion to meet on nonconfrontational turf. As an atheist I found myself in remarkable agreement with the following words written in 1933 by Dr. Arthur E. Morgan to explain why he would not sign the Humanist Manifesto (full text on infidels.org here):

    The problem of humanism is … to hold faithfully to a completely open-minded and critical attitude, while holding to, or eagerly seeking, the strong drives of faith, hope, and love. As such strong drives appear they will express themselves in heroic living, and by contagion will be transmitted.

    Your fifth item reads in part: “The nature of the universe depicted by modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” After eliminating the words “supernatural or”, it is still a theoretical negation of this faith, not by what it says, but by what it leaves unsaid. That statement has an unjustified cocksureness, and is not dictated by humility or imagination. Religion must be disciplined by scientific procedure, but not limited to it, except as a poet or musician should be so limited. It must run far ahead of a science.

    We need a way not just to inspire people about science but also to inspire them to live good, powerful lives with significance and meaning. Some do that by throwing themselves into progressive causes, others unfortunately find their significance and meaning in conservative evangelical Christianity. To attract the latter group to our casue, we must offer not just scientific understanding but demonstrate the same level of passion and feeling they have now.

  24. #24 Sastra
    April 26, 2006

    As others have stated, when it comes to religion the science is not really the issue. I think the best strategy for approaching the religious — both liberal and conservative — is to point out that Creationism is actually a “test for God.” Creationist claims amount to “IF evolution happened, THEN Christianity is false.” Although they have been using this as a powerful rhetorical argument for rejecting evolution, it seems to me that it can be turned back on them.

    Even fundamentalists know that they should never “test God” — ie set up a situation where, if some event or fact pertains, this means your religion is wrong. As Dawkin’s Law of Divine Invulnerability puts it, “God cannot lose: When comprehension expands, gods contract — but then redefine themselves to restore the status quo.” By cutting off the believer’s ability to reinterpret, Creationism ends up making God falsifiable.

    This isn’t coming from the atheists — it’s coming from Christians. And Christians have the most to lose, longterm. Science will out. So SOME Christians are trying to “make a test for God.” Are People of Faith going to let them hijack the public school system to do this?

    Hammer this home. It may do more good than all the lessons on natural selection or explications of science.

  25. #25 Chance
    April 26, 2006

    Only if you see the creation myth of Genesis as a central tenet of Christianity,

    Thats just simply not true. I have heard this often. Evolution makes a seemless transition from one group into another. There never really was a ‘first’ human, it’s all gradual changes. It seems to me the religions you speak of are not fully recognizing the ramifications of what they say they accept as compatible.

    I do agree that as we learn more about the world around us, we tend to remove the practical need for belief in the supernatural. But I’m not sure why you would single out Christianity as particularly damaged by evolutionary theory.

    Not all religions require man to ‘fall’ to justify ‘salvation’. And it seems, for the purpose of our discussion that Christianity ahs the largest problem with it.

  26. #26 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Chance:

    Not all religions require man to ‘fall’ to justify ‘salvation’. And it seems, for the purpose of our discussion that Christianity ahs the largest problem with it.

    Well, I sort of see what you’re getting at, though your first comment was pretty elliptical in this regard. I will accept that the notion of “original sin” is a core tenet of Christianity. So your argument seems to be that because original sin is based on Genesis and because evolution is in conflict with a literal interpretation of Genesis, that evolution is in conflict with Christianity more so than with other religions. Is that a correct assessment? I honestly don’t want to misrepresent your view. I have to admit I never thought about it that way before.

    What I would say, based on memories of a Catholic education, is that the creation story of Genesis is an allegory that explains original sin, among other things. Original sin is indeed taken as doctrinal truth, and that is the biblical basis for it. But the actual explanation of “the fall” is not really that there was a man and a woman and they ate fruit off the wrong tree–I mean, c’mon. I took a lot of things seriously and I cannot think of a single instance in which a Catholic educator expected me to believe that this was in fact the real story of why we have original sin. The doctrine is basically that we are imperfect for some undetermined reason and that Jesus’ dying was necessary for our salvation. You certainly don’t have to buy that one either, but I don’t see what evolution or a literal interpretation of Genesis has to do with any of it.

    To use another example of allegory, what about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave? Platonism holds roughly (and I do not) that the world we observe is sort of a sham version of the much better world of ideal forms. The Allegory of the Cave explains this, but it’s still an allegory. You don’t have to believe that there were any people chained up in a cave to try to grasp the Platonic view that we see only shadows of reality. You don’t have to believe in a man, a woman, a snake, and a fruit tree to try grasp the doctrine of original sin. (And it goes without saying that you don’t have to buy into any of this.)

  27. #27 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Chance:

    Evolution makes a seemless transition from one group into another. There never really was a ‘first’ human, it’s all gradual changes

    I didn’t mean to ignore this part. I’m just not sure I understand how gradualism is supposed to conflict with original sin. My understanding of the doctrine was that a human-like being could not possibly exist without the need for salvation, so original sin is not the result of a specific event. Original sin is the inevitable result of having free will, and the story of Adam and Eve is illustrative rather than historical.

    It’s true that having a gradual change causes all kinds of problems with where you draw the line between humans who supposedly have a soul with eternal life and other animals who are not typically thought of as having eternal life. I just don’t think that the conflict is particularly with Christianity–though I guess some religions with reincarnation could find a more harmonious coexistence with it. If you think humans have souls and other animals don’t, then you’d just say that there is some demarcation point despite the appearance of gradualism. Evolution itself is a natural process that sets the stage for the appearance of humans. That is not my view, but I don’t see how it is particularly bad Christian theology.

  28. #28 Kristine
    April 26, 2006

    “Trying to turn the churches into science forums strikes me as a complete non-starter.” But churches claim to be science forums, Paul, or at least they think they are. (These days, as Salman Rushdie said, people can’t walk the dog without invoking the supernatural! Check out any church website and look at the discussion groups offered–they are legion.) We had talks about evolution in church when I was a teen-ager. My high school science teacher attended my church. But the thing is, the “I don’t believe that it’s all chance” argument was presented as a “compromise” between naturalistic evolution and a belief in God (because not believing in God was never an option). Of course, by then, I did not believe in God, and was just going through the motions until I could escape to college.

    You’re probably right about it being a futile exercise, but I do think it’s a shame, because when these boring evening church groups don’t get their science from scientists and educators, they get it from the hucksters. I checked out my mother’s church website (my mother sees no conflict between evolution and belief in God) and there it is, a link to a video by Christopher Macasko with his mousetraps, offering “lessons” about intelligent design. Egad.

  29. #29 Chance
    April 26, 2006

    Paul,

    I’m not trying to be overly nitpicky and I can certainly understand(even respect) religions that try to incorporate obvious scientific truths into themselves. I just think evolution does real harm to the core tenets of Christianity.

    If death entered the world before ‘sin’ what on Earth are humans responsible for and what are we supposedly being saved from? The world was imperfect from the get go and certainly wasn’t caused by mans sin.

    You don’t have to believe in a man, a woman, a snake, and a fruit tree to try grasp the doctrine of original sin.

    Of course not. But then what value is such a doctrine. How can one possibly establish it? With evolution being a seemless transition at some point a certain individual must have become the first sinner. Or be born to souless parents. These things can be believed of course but the question is why?

    I just don’t see it making a coherent philosophy when one understands that evolution posits we are different from the other primates by degree only and not a fundamental aspect of biology. It also presupposes that we are in fact the optimum aspect of evolutionary ‘progression’ when it fact we are not.

  30. #30 Chance
    April 26, 2006

    PaulC,

    You posted after me or before I posted my reply. My point, and I’m not illustrating it very well here, is that eblief in God is perfectly compatable with evolution but the tenets of a particular religion make it unlikely to ever truly embrace it.

    Original sin is the inevitable result of having free will, and the story of Adam and Eve is illustrative rather than historical.

    My simple question here is why? Why does free will lead to ‘original sin’? And how could it do so? Even if the story of Adam and Eve is an illustration it fails. All they actually did was seek knowledge. In the story they defy Gods will, something that wouldn’t happen in our evolutionary scenario.

    It’s true that having a gradual change causes all kinds of problems with where you draw the line between humans who supposedly have a soul with eternal life and other animals who are not typically thought of as having eternal life. I just don’t think that the conflict is particularly with Christianity

    Thats my entire point. People who accept both have rationalized an entirely new set of problems which in my view are far more unsolvable in any rational sense. So people accept both without real examination.

    If you think humans have souls and other animals don’t, then you’d just say that there is some demarcation point despite the appearance of gradualism.

    But this is just words. In a biological sense there is no real demarcation point. It is seemless. We put the name Homo sapiens onto ourselves. I doubt erectus or neaderthalis would have seen us any different than what we really are. Another hominid.

    Evolution itself is a natural process that sets the stage for the appearance of humans.

    But that presupposes we are the endpoint. I understand your point but it opens far more serious questions than does simple biblical literalism despite the notion that it accepts both positions.

  31. #31 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Chance: About the only thing I’d say is that if evolution ever presented a challenge to Christian theology, the mainstream churches had already adapted to it around the time I was growing up (in the 70s).

    Insofar as “original sin” has any value as a doctrine, I think it is an attempt to treat the philosophical questions surrounding free will and the nature of good and evil: i.e. if God had made humans without any choice to be evil, their goodness would have no moral value, so free will is necessary, but its inevitable consequence is original sin. The story of the Garden of Eden is sort of the comic book version of this. I mean, you can say that this sounds like post-hoc rationalization, but this is how I was always taught the doctrine. I cannot speak for generations past.

  32. #32 MikeM
    April 26, 2006

    Only if you see the creation myth of Genesis as a central tenet of Christianity

    Here’s the problem I had with that: If you take the opening chapter as mere allegory, that means you’re intepreting. If you can interpret the opening chapter as allegory, then why can’t you interpret any or all of the book as allegory?

    If you can intepret the entire book as an allegory, then what meaning does it have?

    That’s the cool thing about Thomas, Judas, et al from Nag Hammadi; they change the ENTIRE meaning of the Bible.

    That’s really what pushed me away from Christianity. “Well, gee, if the story of Noah is just an allegory, then why isn’t Moses just an allegory, too?”

    It just doesn’t strike me as a very strong philosophy. “Eh, go ahead and interpret any part of the Bible any way you want. We can’t think why not.”

  33. #33 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    Chance:

    In a biological sense there is no real demarcation point.

    Sure, but in a biological sense, there is no measurable soul either. Or, for another example, in a chemical sense there is no difference between a bread wafer and a consecrated host, but Catholics believe that the latter and not the former is the body and blood of Christ. Mature religions are usually careful to keep their beliefs unfalsifiable.

    BTW, I am actually having trouble finding a Catholic site that quite agrees with my understanding of original sin, though it is tied into free will (but not as neatly as I suggested). There does seem to be an assumption in Catholic theology of an actual Adam who originated sin–conflicting with estimates of the likely initial population of Homo sapiens. On the other hand, Adam is definitely not in the Nicene creed, so I still feel safe in saying that the creation story is not a core tenet.

  34. #34 PaulC
    April 26, 2006

    If you can intepret the entire book as an allegory, then what meaning does it have?

    Two things. First, if the entire book is allegory, it has the meaning of any allegory. There is some moral point to be learned from it. Second, the reader is expected to make reasonable judgments about which parts are allegory and which are not. Jesus tells parables in the New Testament. I don’t think anyone is expected to believe he is recounting a genuine event in the story of the Prodigal Son, etc. Why is it such a stretch to take the separate books (e.g. Jonah and Job) that read more like parables than historical accounts and conclude that they are indeed allegory.

    I often wonder if biblical literalism is a relatively new thing and if in ages gone by, people understood that what they were hearing was a story, no less sacred for that, but not something that you could prove by digging up bones.

  35. #35 Chance
    April 26, 2006

    About the only thing I’d say is that if evolution ever presented a challenge to Christian theology, the mainstream churches had already adapted to it

    If you mean rationalized it I agree.

    if God had made humans without any choice to be evil, their goodness would have no moral value, so free will is necessary, but its inevitable consequence is original sin.

    Your losing me here. If humans are simply another flavor of primate(which they are) and the first ‘human’ wasn’t in reality any different from it’s parents I just don’t see how this makes any sense. You only see the change from one form to another when you look at the process over time. I don’t see any way to have a clear demarkation point.

    ‘Evil’ is arbitrary to some degree and varies from culture to culture and even within a culture.

    On the other hand, Adam is definitely not in the Nicene creed, so I still feel safe in saying that the creation story is not a core tenet

    But the Nicene creed only has any real value because humans need saving in the first place. An assumption made based on ‘original sin’. Of which Adam whether allegorial or not did.

    Jesus tells parables in the New Testament.

    Yes he does. He also speaks in very colorful lanquage. What is inconsistent with this stance is the fact that all churches pick and choose what they think is colorful symbolism or allegory and what isn’t. But this is a spin off conversation and I don’t want to go down that rathole.

    But it is amusing that the RCC views Genesis as allegorical but thinks wafers become the actual flesh of another.

  36. #36 G. Tingey
    April 26, 2006

    I think you are all being incredibly optimistic.

    The parallel example to be afraid of is the muslim world in approx 1200 AD by christian reckoning.

    Then the Mongols and Timur came, and the religious leaders clamped down, and persecuted the “scientists” and promulgated the idea that “Only Mahmud revealed the truth, all else is lies” and a lot of what we would now call scientists were persecuted.
    IT IS possible for a religious reaction to close down an entire renaissance.
    Something similar, but not so extreme, happened in “christian” Europe in the period 1300–1350.

    Beware the 2016 election in the USA – that is when you will have to watch out for the triumph of Gilead…..

  37. #37 Scott
    April 26, 2006

    I thank everyone for their comments on my question. I agree with the point that the doctrine of the Fall, more so than the literal truth of the creation stories, is critical for many believers. PaulC, Free Operant and Kristine all make some excellent points I’d like to respond to.

    PaulC asks what a ‘win’ would look like with respect to making ‘headway’. I would say we could declare a ‘win’ when the portion of the general public that supports creation being taught in the public schools is a distinct minority, say 35 percent or less.

    I further agree with PaulC that it is not the function of churches to teach science, but I don’t see that it necessarily follows that scientists should not engage. On a personal note, I know that engagement can be successful. I was privileged to defend evolution in public debate in a Baptist church back in February. I’m pleased to say that evolution actually carried the day in that debate, but more rewarding was the fact that many who met me that day for the first time have entered into correspondence with me and attended free pro-science seminars that I offered through my local church. I don’t call that any great ‘win’, but I do feel like I’m making ‘headway’ with the people I’m talking to.

    Philosophically, I’m not that keen about Gould’s NOMA but, as a practical matter, I agree with Free Operant that science needs ‘fence-building’ to demarcate it from religion. As an evolutionary biologist in the churches, I think that helping build the fence IS a legitimate function for religion because, as Frost says, ‘good fences make good neighbours.’

    To extend the analogy, a ‘fence’ that rests entirely upon one non-falsifiable set of assumptions about the supernatural, be it Biblical literalism or strict materialism seems less robust to me than a fence that has been built up, for different reasons, by people of faith on one side and professional scientists on the other.

    Kristine is right that ‘boring church groups’ of laypeople without scientific training are likely to find that vacuum filled by hucksters posing as scientists, as with her mother’s church. I would say that engagement with those groups might not only make it less boring (science IS cool, after all) but it could help them develop the background knowledge and habits of mind that would allow them to filter out ‘hucksters’.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read this,

    Scott

  38. #38 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 26, 2006

    There are a couple of ways of framing the Dover ruling, not all exclusive. I would like to see the framing of it as an illustrative way of how the Constitution works successfully, that it also shows that current accepted science is secular, and that secular doesn’t mean atheistic.

    If it is best to only make one frame, I would suggest to point out that is shows why separation religion-state is good. That success makes it less about evolution as such and more about uncontroversial good politics and bad pseudoscience.

    About teaching (or framing) the science perhaps it would be a good idea to press the matters of internal scientific review and provisional knowledge. It could counter the controversy BS and the Critical Analysis next step creationism that DI prematuredly ejaculated a few weeks ago.

    Good thing if they are becoming a sinking ship. Where will the rats go? Reasons to Believe seems to have a lot of cheese too.

  39. #39 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 26, 2006

    Scott,
    I don’t think it is possible to a priori state which questions science may or may not answer – it continues to surprise both ways. (We can have a long discussion about remaining dualisms such as supernatural and perhaps NOMA claims…) Free Operant’s fence suggestion however is doable and excellent IMO. But perhaps that is what you are saying.

  40. #40 Scott
    April 26, 2006

    With respect to a priori definitions of what is science and what isn’t, I demur; with Larsson, I might agree that there are cases that might ‘surprise both ways’ (consciousness studies, for example). My aside regarding Gould’s NOMA reflects my skepticism that the domains of science and religion really do not overlap. I think, in fact, they do, and even if there is a boundary that science can not in principle cross, we should attempt to approach that boundary as closely as possible, else we allow mere faith claims to be a ‘science stopper’.

    But, again as a practical matter, I would like to see fences built up, and from both sides, the better to preserve that which is distinctive of both.

    Scott

  41. #41 joe
    April 27, 2006

    not sure if this has been threaded before but i am worried that this post/comments has/have fallen for the big-pointy-hat-of-authority. PZ has commented before, quite rightly, that while it is nice if the archbishop of cantebury endorses evolution, it is in no way relevent to the discussion – scientists and the scientific method decide on the best theory. to say that now a judge has decided that evolution is ‘the best’ succumbs to the same fallacy except that in this case s/he wears robes instead of a hat and most importantly, endorses our point of view. i think the real argument here is about who gets to say what science is and if the judge has endorsed that it is a scientists job then it’s all good. i think its a bit of a copout for scientists to just point to this decision and say ‘game over’ because last time i looked, the courts have had some pretty attrocious decisions in the past and it’s not their job to evaluate science! – we can’t just pick and choose the decisions we like!

  42. #42 woofsterNY
    April 27, 2006

    RE: Church outreach

    The Discovery Institute and its fellow travelers (and the ideas they espouse) have gained ground in the past 20 years for two reasons.

    One, aggressive dullards have pushed their ideas.

    Two, complacent dullards have let them.

    If 100 million adults (or whatever the number is) are to be found in church every Sunday, getting their weekly happy pill, and the complacent dullards just sit back and think, “Oh, no biggie. As long as we’ve got the schools, we’re set” … well, it just seems like we’re missing one of the biggest factors that got us into this mess to begin with.

    “This mess” is an anti-science movement big enough to influence the elections of a significant number of congressmen AND to help fill the seat in the White House with their very own idiot president.

    A lot of those 100 million adults vote. A fair fraction of them will vote for the next 40 to 50 years.

    Ignoring them, ignoring what they think and do, is a very bad idea.

    I still think outreach into churches is a very good idea.

  43. #43 JudyBudreau
    April 27, 2006

    PZ and I are on the board of the newly formed MN Citizens for Science – more info when we’re up and running. It’s taken me months to begin to understand how threatened the teaching of evolution is, what the implications are if we fail to teach it, and how creationism proponents work – and I was very motivated to learn all of this since my school district was under attack. Most people won’t make the effort to understand the details.
    So – can we start with the assumption, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, that we all want solid public education, and that this includes understanding how evolution works?

    The discussion here echoes some of the issues MnCSE is thinking about addressing.
    1. Doesn’t it make sense to begin with people who support science, wherever we find them?
    In Minnesota, the law says we must teach evolution; the law says we cannot teach creationism in any form, including “Intelligent Design” and “Creation Science.” How best to support teachers who want to teach evolution? How best to encourage those who don’t? How do we inform school boards and their communities about their obligations? How do we ensure public school students get the education they deserve?
    2. Churches? Yes, absolutely, let’s use clergy who support evolution. They have a ready-made audience and a venue to educate/entertain them. How about local science types giving a talk on evolution with Q & A? The clergy and congregation can sort out the theology after we leave. But at least they’d understand science a little better. And no, it’s not worth addressing this with churches who are set against it. Start with people who support science, and who might use their church contacts as one way to spread the word about solid public education.
    3. In Mpls/St. Paul, we have Young Scientists Roundtable; a rotation of working scientists spend about one evening per month demonstrating and talking about their work with school kids and their parents. Usually well attended. http://www.twelve.tv/news/apr12-3.shtml
    Adults have Cafe Scientifique and the inimitable Geek Prom. How many other ways are there to connect regular citizens with science and scientists?
    4. My school district saw firsthand the switch from “teach ID” to “teach the controversy.” Can we reframe the controversy bit? A response might go like this, “So you’re interested in the evolution controversy. Evolution, of course, isn’t the controversy – intelligent design is, isn’t it? Do we really want to define science to include the supernatural? We’d have to include astrology when kids study our solar system. And if teachers talk about the Christian worldview of creation, they’d have to include other religious traditions, too, wouldn’t they? I’d much rather have teachers stick to science in the science classroom, wouldn’t you?”

    Very, very few people are as well informed about science as Pharyngula readers and commenters. We have to start with the folks who already accept science, and make the circle bigger from there.

  44. #44 Caledonian
    April 28, 2006

    and that secular doesn’t mean atheistic.

    Unless you’re suggesting that there are plenty of worldly, idol gods available for worship, that statement is utterly and completely wrong.

    Science is atheistic. So is plumbing. And neurosurgery. And electronics repair.

  45. #45 RavenT
    April 28, 2006

    Science is atheistic. So is plumbing. And neurosurgery. And electronics repair.

    No, that’s too strong a statement, because it would imply that a theist can’t be a scientist, a surgeon, a neurosurgeon, or repair electronics. Clearly, the available data contradict that assertion.

    Perhaps a more apt analogy for the relationship between science and atheism or theism would be the relation of Euclid’s Fifth Postulate (the one about how through a given point, there is exactly one line parallel to a specified line) to geometry.

    The postulate cannot be proven as a theorem, and is not necessary to have a completely consistent geometry. If you change it, you still have a geometric system: no parallel line –> Riemannian geometry; infinite number of parallel lines –> Lobachevskian geometry. It’s just different from Euclidean geometry, but it’s still geometry. Perhaps that is a useful analogy to how theism/atheism stand to the scientific method.

  46. #46 PaulC
    April 28, 2006

    Caledonian: You’re entirely wrong, and I’m not even sure what you’re getting at here. There’s really little to be gained from conflating two words referring to distinct concepts. You will find plenty of religious believers who willingly admit that they have “secular” duties–i.e. tasks involving the care of people’s “worldly” needs. The Catholic Church even has a “secular clergy”–encompassing clergy members that are not cloistered and so-called because they attend to the world outside the monastery (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_clergy) It’s doubtful you will find any clergy members with atheistic duties.

    I realize it’s tempting to use a word to mean something you want it to mean, but for this whole language thing to work out, you really have to let words mean what most people have historically used them to mean, even if you don’t like those people or agree with them.

    In your sense, I suppose an atheist could claim that every descriptive term about reality was synonymous to “atheistic” since God does not exist in reality and therefore these terms cannot imply his existence. So “blue” means “atheistic” (blue is a wavelength of visible light and does not contain god) “heavy” means “atheistic” (the gravitational force on an object does not require god in any way). I’m just not sure where this exercise takes us.

  47. #47 Torbjörn Larsson
    April 29, 2006

    “that statement is utterly and completely wrong.”

    About your conflation between secular and atheist, see PaulC.

    Now, personally I think observations support the atheist claim in several ways, and that there are variants that to me seem compatible with science as we practise it but that is of course hypothetical. (I have argued them here earlier to see if they are at all feasible, before studying litterature.)

    Today science is secular.

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