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March 29th, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: Christianity’s problem with evolution

Freethought San Marcos: A column

I had not intended to write a third column about evolution, at least not so soon after my last two. But attending two appearances by Jerry Coyne at Texas State University on March 23 has caused me to think through some of our problems with evolution in America–problems which seem to stem from religion, mainly Christianity.

The rationalist writer Michael Shermer, after reviewing an embarrassingly unscientific film by Ben Stein that was intended to support intelligent design and ridicule evolution, posed the question: “When will Americans learn that evolutionary theory has nothing whatsoever to do with religious faith and that ‘good science’ is the product of good data and theory, not good fit to scripture?”

This is the question that those who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God must face. Literalist, Bible-believing Americans reject evolution because it does not comport with the timeline and the teachings in the Bible. No serious scientist doubts the approximate age of the earth or the evolution of species. For now, those are scientific facts, subject to change if they prove to be wrong in any respect. For the biblical literalists, nothing in the Bible is subject to change no matter what the evidence shows.

But the Bible is a collection of stories written over a few thousand years, some of which may have a factual basis, and others that are not possible to accept as the literal truth based on our scientific knowledge. Those stories, altered numerous times by scribes–sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally–as they were copied by hand, provide the basis for a religious or theological understanding of life as described by the theologian John S. Haught in his book “Deeper Than Darwin”: “Even though Darwin is illuminating, it [sic] by no means tells us everything we need to know about life, even in principle. It certainly does not alone provide the space within which people, including the most devout Darwinians, can live their lives.”

From Haught’s view, science and religion are two different (and not necessarily conflicting) ways of understanding the universe. He believes that a scientific understanding of the universe is inadequate to explain everything that matters about the universe. What is missing from science is a religious or theological understanding of the world. In Haught’s view, we cannot be moral without this religious or theological understanding.

Of course, Haught’s theology, based on the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead, Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is not accepted by either biblical literalists or atheists, and his view of the morality of humans seems belied by both our experience in the world and by the relatively new field of evolutionary psychology.

Dan Barker, in his book “godless,” explains why atheists are good without God, beginning with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: “If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?… Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” (Now I understand why the Texas Board of Education wants to de-emphasize Jefferson in Texas’ public school curricula.)

After giving up on God, Barker, an evangelical preacher for 19 years, realized that “basic day-to-day morality is a simple matter of kindness, respect and reason.” Barker writes further: “Morality is in the mind–and reason is in the mind. No matter where you look for morality, it all comes down to the mind. Those believers who distrust the human mind are still required to look to some kind of mind for guidance, whether the mind of a god, prophet, preacher or pope.”

Barker’s conclusions seem to be aligned with the research of evolutionary psychology. In a lecture in October 2009, psychiatrist Andy Thomson discussed some recent findings of evolutionary psychology. Thomson explained that there is a part of the human brain that is involved with cost-benefit decision-making and another part of the brain that involves our moral emotions (a mixture of social feelings, emotions, and moral feelings). A third part of our brains mediates between these two functional areas. By using MRIs, psychologists have been able to witness how these parts of the brain function together when confronted by a moral dilemma.

By altering the dilemma to fit the culture in which the test subjects live, it is possible to test subjects from different backgrounds to learn if their brains respond to moral dilemmas in the same way. These cross-cultural studies of moral decision-making show that the same parts of brains are involved with moral reasoning in human beings from different cultures.

Moral distinctions have been witnessed in 6- to 10-month old infants watching a puppet show in which one puppet helps another up a mountain and a third puppet interferes with the ascending puppet and the helping puppet. The observed infants reacted negatively to the interfering puppet, demonstrating an awareness and rejection of immoral behavior.

Evolutionary psychologists have identified characteristics, some of which relate directly to morality, which appear to be sexually selected traits among humans, much as a peacock’s feathers are a sexually selected trait: kindness, empathy, conscientiousness, agreeableness, honesty, fidelity, heroism, wit, humor, creativity. It may be worth noting that Darwin believed that moral virtues were involved with sexual selection in humans. Perhaps the evolutionary psychologists will prove his prediction.

If the evolutionary psychologists are right, and the evidence of moral decision-making from evolutionary processes is far from proved, in a few million years the human species may behave in more morally adaptive ways than is true today. But what this research does support, at least tentatively, is that the observations of Thomas Jefferson and Dan Barker and many others is true: moral behavior does not depend on a belief in God or a particular religious dogma.

As long as a person believes in the inerrancy of the words of the Bible, that person will not be open to accepting the findings of science, no matter how persuasive those findings might be. They also are unwilling to accept observations which they can make on their own that a belief in God or religion is not necessary for a person to be moral or live a moral life.

For Christians who are not literalists and who do not believe in the Bible’s inerrancy, there are other options for navigating between science and religion. For these Christians, stories in the Bible convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the relationship between the two. A group of these Christian clergy have joined together in a project (The Clergy Letter Project) to explain their views about evolution, science, and their beliefs:

“We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.”

So there may be reason to hope that the conflict between religion and evolution may some day end. Jerry Coyne believes that, in perhaps 300 years, Americans will have become sufficiently non-religious that the conflict will largely disappear, as it has in much of Europe. Others hope that the literalist/inerrancy Christians will find different ways to understand their religion so that science is not precluded from their lives.

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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16 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: Christianity’s problem with evolution

  1. @Eric,

    Science (and Religion) cannot prove that the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, the Christian God, or Santa Claus exist… In spite of this, an overwhelming majority of evidence leads to the conclusion that these beings are mythological and the result of vivid human imagination…


  2. And another interesting fact: Science can not prove Casper the Friendly Ghost exists. Nor can science prove Casper does not exist.
    Deep thoughts.

  3. “No serious scientist doubts the approximate age of the earth or the evolution of species. For now, those are scientific facts,…”

    You cannot be serious with this statement. The Theory of Evolution is just that a conjecture based on observation. Likewise Creation is another possibility for th eorigin of life. DNA and its genetic code shoots a number of unexplained holes in the so called scientific fact of Darwin’s Theory.

    I wish Creation again was offered in the schoold systems as a competing theory. At least the religion of Darwin could be balanced and give our students hope in science again. What we have now is a sham and I believe Ben Stein lampooned it quite well.


  4. Science offers no proof, science offers only evidence.

    Science does affect religion. Religion does affect science.
    Perceived revelations of religion should never surpass scientific exploration. When religion does well, science suffers, yet still there are those, even scientists, who smile while saying there is no conflict between the two.

    Regardless, where is your proof, outside of your local sphere of influence, where any good derived from religion redeems it’s evils of the debasement of reality? If you can’t present evidence beyond you believing it good because of the happy feeling it gives you to believe it good, then what is the difference between the religious and drug addicts?

  5. Wise comebacks gentlemen. However, one cannot call Darwin’s theory a scientific one if it cannot stand up to scientific scrutiny.

  6. There is much more to religion than belief in a particular book or being. Organized religion provides charitable organizations, sub-communities of shared belief, and family support groups, all reinforced through rich and complex shared ritual. The secular world simply doesn’t offer many alternatives that have such large supporting organizations or hundreds of years of history and refinement.

    Also, the rise in fundamentalism demonstrates that many people share a strong need to belong to something rigid, very well defined and proscriptive. Many people don’t like to wrestle with the nuance of a thoughtful life, and prefer to (1) be told what to do and think and (2) have a solid foundation from which to tell others what to do and think. This need is so strong that people will blindly accept the literal truth of talking snakes, magically-parted seas, or the evils of exposed female flesh just to fulfill this need to belong.

    Finally, humans need magic. Magical thinking is a pervasive trait of the species, and no amount of evidence will change it. Even such spectacularly successful inventions as vaccines are brushed aside by those who need “natural”, “holistic” treatments more in tune with their body’s personal energy.

    So I don’t share Jerry Coyne’s optimism. Regardless of the obvious and repeated successes of science, rationality and open-mindedness, I fear we will still be faced with vast amounts of fundamentalism, one-dimensional literalism, and magical thinking in 300 or 1000 or 2000 years from now.

  7. John said: “The Theory of Evolution is just that a conjecture based on observation”

    The Theory of Evolution is a scientific theory (a model) which fits hundreds of thousands of separate facts and observations. It offers observability, it posits rational mechanisms (replication+variation+selection), it is testable, it is falsifiable, and it makes successful predictions. It’s predictions have been tested repeatedly for 150 years. And there has been no greater source of confirmation of the evolution of species or of common descent than the evidence found in DNA. The DNA that proves you and your cousin share a common ancestor is exactly the same DNA that proves you and a chimpanzee share a common ancestor.

    In this regard, Evolutionary Theory is no different than the Theory of Relativity, Tectonic Plate Theory, the Germ Theory of Disease or Atomic Theory. All are highly effective, working models. You can (and sometimes do) bet your life on the fundamentals of these theories.

    Now John, when you say you wish “Creation were offered as a competing theory”, which version of Creation do you mean? Genesis? Navajo? Scientology? “Intelligent Design”? Young Earth or Old? Which age of the universe?

    How is your “creation theory” observable? We’ve seen examples of the mechanisms of evolution in the lab and in the wild – from Darwin’s finches (the Grant studies) to bacteria (Lenski). Please tell us when and where we’ve observed even a “micro” example of your creation theory? What sorts of data would invalidate (falsify) your “theory of creationism”? What is Creationism’s mechanism? How is a new species “created”? What predictions does “creationism” make about future fossil discoveries or about the potential paths of development of life on Earth?

  8. Don’t worry, after lyndsey gramnesty and shumer pass the biometric national I’d card through we will all get to witness or evolution into slavery.

  9. Ah, the debate goes on. Yet, the interesting point is that there is still an ability to have discourse on the subject matter.

    The fundamental issue truly isn’t “Creationism” vs. “Evolution”, it’s the “Religious State” vs. the “Secular State”.

    True, the “Secular State” has problems; whether corporations created in the image of the sociopath or seeking ephemeral security at the expense of common sense.

    The “Religious State” also has problems; whether the persecution of minority faith traditions or suppression of thought which does not agree with the accepted norm.

    What people need to realize is that Europe experienced centuries of faith-based conflict which cost millions of lives. Whether lost directly in conflict, as a result of the disruptions to society which eroded people’s ability to take care of themselves, or through the effects of genocide, Europe is finally starting to learn from collective experience. Government shrouded in religion is a deadly mixture.

    One thought to remember: regardless of one’s side in the debate, in any discussion when one begins to belittle those with a dissenting view both sides are dehumanized. The result is that everyone suffers.

    Good luck

  10. Doesn’t the debate really come down to is a being who can create the entire universe being restricted to 24 hour days, or might God’s days be much longer. If God isn’t restricted to a human’s day length then the thoery of evolution largely follows the same order of creation as Genesis and whose to say that God wasn’t the guiding hand of evolution and maybe God left us clues so we could figure it out when we became more technologically advanced than desert nomads.

  11. Religion and Science are wholly incompatible. Bounded rationality
    may set a limit on the advance of our culture. Tis well known that
    religiosity predisposes to poverty. Look at Yemen for point blank
    case in point!

  12. Hmmm.

    Who’s to say humanity (fleeing a great evil) didn’t exit a cave in the Southwest to people the world? Who’s to say incubi and sucubi don’t have a basis in fact? Who’s to say the Easter Bunny (actually part of a pagan mythos adopted by Christianity) doesn’t lay eggs?

    If it’s science, stick to what you have a chance to verify — if it’s religion do as you will as long as you’re not harming others.

    If it’s a matter of exerting pressure on society’s fault lines to determine if forcing one religion down people’s throats causes problems, you likely will not like the result of your experiment.

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