Response to "Winning their Hearts and Minds"

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
Response to “Winning their Hearts and Minds”
Author(s): 
Sheldon F Gottlieb
Volume: 
29
Issue: 
2
Year: 
2009
Date: 
March–April
Page(s): 
33–34
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

In the religiously created, artificial creationism/evolution controversy, as in every social political conflict, there are basically three groups: the hard-core pro (non-theistic and theistic evolutionists), the hard-core con, and those in the middle consisting of the undecided and the apathetic — those who do not really care one way or the other. To convince people to side with a specific point of a view, arguments are framed by debaters not for the hard core but for the middle. One extreme will use information presented to support conclusions it already held while the other extreme tends to disregard proffered arguments.

When issues involve religion problems arise because one enters the world of belief — a world in which empirical data have little to no meaning when they conflict with beliefs — unsubstantiated beliefs substitute for facts and are considered to be facts. For this discussion, “religion” will refer primarily to Christianity (with a few changes reflecting other traditions, it could also refer to Judaism and Islam).

There can be no questioning of the axioms of the fundamentalists — there is a God and the Bible is the inerrant word of that God. Those opposed to science and evolution make certain declarations of the supremacy of belief and biblical inerrancy. This position is clearly stated in Biology for Christian Schools, second edition, a high-school level textbook by William S Pinkston Jr (Greenville [SC]: Bob Jones University Press,1991):

Christians who try to accept evolutionary theory when the Bible clearly teaches Creationism are saying that a section of the Bible is not true. The question of whether the Bible or human speculation is true then becomes a matter of choice, open for debate. Dr Bob Jones, Sr has rightly said: “Whatever the Bible says is so. Whatever man says may or may not be so.” This is the only consistent Christian position. All scientific facts and interpretation of those facts, therefore, must fit into the model prescribed by the Word of God. A scientific “fact” that does not fit into the model outlined in the Bible is either in error (and therefore not really a fact) or is being misinterpreted.

The above quote demonstrates that fundamentalist theists have successfully framed all science-versus-religion (SvR) discussions in such a way that they are in a no-lose situation; empirical data and reason are meaningless. Thus, speaking to a fundamentalist theist could (would) be futile.

Atheistic scientists claiming that God does not exist and who use science and/or evolution to buttress their arguments may well be absolutely correct, but those arguments cannot penetrate the unsubstantiated reality of fundamentalist religionists. Further, such arguments tend to confuse those who occupy the broad middle, who tend to be scientifically uneducated and who retain some ties, irrespective of how loose, to a concept of a supernatural being and world. Thus, fundamentalist religionists have an inherent advantage in SvR debates in that they frame the bounds of the debate and they speak with an absolute certainty while scientists speak in tentative terms. In fact, using evolutionary data for disproving the existence of God — rather than just for showing there is an alternative explanation for life on earth based on natural laws that does not require the concept of a God — may be going beyond the boundaries of the data and, among other things, serves the function of enhancing the inherent resistance of fundamentalists — even many non-fundamentalist believers — to scientific and evolutionary thought. Atheistic arguments and individuals may move some people but they could alienate others. This is especially true in the US where there is an additional level of complexity: the involvement of unconscionable pandering politicians and media figures — irrespective of their degree of scientific knowledge — who cater to a society historically dedicated to anti-intellectualism.

Thus, Domning’s interesting concept that theistic evolutionists are the people who, because of a common base of belief and common language, are the most capable of communicating with this large, possibly religiously oriented, scientifically unlearned, middle group has a certain deceptive truth. Of course, it is always desirable to have theistic or non-theistic evolutionists speak to the “undecided” and even to the believing fundamentalists. But is it desirable to have theistic evolutionists take the lead in speaking to the general public about SvR and the artificial, creationism/evolution controversy? The answer may not be a simple yes or no but more nuanced. The answer may lie within the philosophical framework of what one is trying to accomplish.

Reaching out to promote scientific literacy

If the sole purpose of talking to the “undecided” group is political in nature, that is, to demonstrate to the public at large that it is possible to be a “believer” and still “believe in” (as opposed to accept based on evidence) evolution, thereby decreasing public opposition to evolution, then, I suppose, there is much merit in Domning’s proposal. However, if the purpose also consists of educating the “undecided” group to the importance and power of natural explanations of natural phenomena and into the ways of science, then Domning’s approach is self-defeating. Why?

One of the essences of science is hypothesis testing. Theistic evolutionists, similar to fundamentalist theists, hold to an unsubstantiated belief in a supernatural being. The basic difference between the two groups pertains to the use of a certain book — the Bible — which both groups consider sacred but interpret differently. There is no way to formulate a hypothesis that would permit the testing of supernatural beliefs. Thus, the underlying basis of theistic evolution, like fundamentalism, is not completely science-based. It opens science to the criticism that science is not really free of the supernatural but that it tolerates (respects) supernaturalism. This is a view which scientists should neither support nor want to promulgate. In the realm of belief, one could make the case that the fundamentalist theists are better situated than are the theistic evolutionists.

Fundamentalists are absolutists. Once believers interpret the Bible, they raise important theological questions. What part of the Bible is literal? What part allegorical? What part metaphorical? Who makes these decisions? How does a believer know whether those making such decision(s) are right? Under such conditions, how does a believer — or anyone — know what is what or which is which with any certainty? There is the danger that one can conclude that biblical interpreters have preconceived positions and they interpret the Bible so as to support those positions: an origin of different religious sects. If such becomes the case, then why should the book still be considered holy? If humans interpret the Bible according to their personal dictates, then perhaps the Bible is not the word of God but the word of humans. If the Bible is not the word of God, then why is there a need for theistic evolution or theistic evolutionists?

Considering the complexities introduced by religion, any evolutionist, therefore could lead in the discussion on SvR and evolution–creation with one proviso: there is no need for atheistic evolutionists to be strident about the non-existence of God, despite the fact that fundamentalists have inextricably bound the two. The emphasis should be placed on explaining what is science, what is religion, and the differences between them, and framing all SvR creationism/evolution discussions from a scientific perspective (natural explanations of natural phenomena) and not a theistic perspective (untestable and unlimited imagination about the supernatural).

About the Author(s): 
Sheldon F Gottlieb
10418 Utopia Circle East
Boynton Beach FL 33437
shellyeda@gmail.com

Sheldon F Gottlieb was Professor of Biology at Southern Alabama University, and is now retired. His latest book is The Naked Mind (Flagstaff [AZ]: Best Publishing, 2003).