Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
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. HankinsEmail | Print