Thursday, June 03, 2010

Karl Giberson: Atheists, it's Time to Play Well With Others.

Karl Giberson has written an article for USA Today on the necessity of civil discourse concerning the evolution debate. He writes:
Few idiosyncrasies are more perplexing than the ways people connect science and religion. Widespread rejection of evolution, to take a familiar example, has created a crisis in education, and it now appears that biology texts might be altered to satisfy anti-evolutionary activists in Texas. Many on the textbook commission believe their religion is incompatible with scientific explanations of origins — evolution and the Big Bang — so they want textbooks with more accommodating theories and different facts.

Understandably, many thoughtful and well-educated people, believers and non-believers alike, find this unacceptable. Most of these critics emphasize that informed religious belief — even conservative evangelicalism with its insistence on an inerrant Bible — can accommodate modern science, including evolution. Leading Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke made this argument recently and was driven by theological gatekeepers to resign from his seminary. But Waltke was immediately snapped up by a similar seminary, indicating that partial thawing has begun even on the frozen waters of fundamentalism.
The thawing that Karl mentions does not immediately seem self-evident, given that there are many more stories about townsfolk or school boards being indignant about the teaching of evolution than there are stories of acceptance of it. I certainly hope that he is correct that the seminaries are becoming more open to the idea of acceptance of evolution because the large anti-evolution organizations and their followers sure aren't. These are becoming increasingly insular in their attitudes and teachings and are becoming, as Waltke wrote and as Karl reminds us, "a cult." I am still exploring the possibility that this YEC viewpoint constitutes a heresy.

For this article, though, he focuses on the "new atheists," who seek the purging of religious belief from society. These include Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and P.Z. Myers, to name a few. Each has vocally argued that people that practice science cannot have religious sensibilities and be credible scientists. To this, Karl writes:
There is something profoundly un-American about demanding that people give up cherished, or even uncherished, beliefs just because they don't comport with science. And the demand seems even more peculiar when it is applied so indiscriminately as to include religious believers with Nobel Prizes. What sort of atheist complains that a fellow citizen doing world-class science must abandon his or her religion to be a good scientist?
I am of two minds about this. Those of us that are theistic evolutionists argue that examination of the natural world is perfectly compatible with an understanding that God is the author of that world and that his power is demonstrated through the interworkings of it.

Having said that, we, as theistic evolutionists, are a little bit over a barrel in the sense that while we accept that God is the creator of that world, we do not accept all interpretations of how that world was created. We argue that those who believe that religious belief is damaging to a complete understanding of science are wrong. Yet we also argue that those who hold to a young earth creation position to the exclusion of other interpretations of scripture are also wrong and are damaging to the very same cause of Christ. While we might, on the surface, be okay with people holding that particular viewpoint, deep down we are not okay with them teaching it to other people, especially in the context of the public schools or home school curricula. Put simply, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want people to have plurality of thought, but we want, at the same time, for them to abandon their "cherished" belief in young earth creationism. We seek to convince those adhering to a young earth position of their error of their ways and are exasperated when they simply ignore the evidence that we provide them.

I believe that those that choose to educate their kids at home in recent earth creationism have the individual right to do so. It simply means that they will be inadequately prepared for college when they do get there. It may also mean that they have severe crises of faith, such as that by Glenn Morton. I would recommend that anyone that teaches their children the YEC point of view at least ought to read that account. They might not agree with it but it might give them an inkling of what they are up against.

The same cannot be said for the public schools. Here, the teachers have an obligation to teach the best science that is available because the kids are a captive audience. True, some parents can remove their children if they find that what they are being taught is objectionable, but most parents don't have the wherewithal to do that.

An additional consideration is that if creationism is taught alongside old earth science, it might backfire in a very bad way. The vast majority of young earth creationism arguments don't hold up to even the most cursory examination and this would give an enterprising science teacher the opportunity to, after demolishing the arguments, say, "just how stupid are those Christians, anyway?"

It may very well be that the best way that we can show that there is a way of following after Christ and accepting the findings of modern science is to be the best Christians we can possibly be, without arrogance or condescension but acting in love and humility of spirit. Then we can let the science speak for itself. This does not mean that we should sit idly by while untruths are taught. Indeed, I think it is our obligation to correct those misstatements, but we should respond to those teaching them in love and kindness, lest we, too, become "a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies"

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  1. Anonymous1:31 AM

    "This does not mean that we should idly by while untruths are taught. Indeed, I think it is our obligation to correct those misstatements, but we should respond to those teaching them in love and kindness, lest we, too, become "a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies"

    James i could easily learn to live with your very open and fair type of views .Im an ex, religious cult member who`s now an agnostic/atheist.Ive found many faithful folks including other ex members of the cult we all once belonged to.To seem to be very anti of even hearing any alternative point of view.To be honest this attitude doesnt do much for my own attitude towards faithful folk.I see no reason why conversation and discussion by non believers should seem to be needing to be censored.This only tends to leave me with a feeling,maybe religion overall is just all one big abusive cult, which never ceases trying to manipulate censor and control.I have just started to blog about my own feelings of this matter, and let me just say it is rather refreshing to read a blog of somebody who still holds faith yet doesnt see that faith needs to include any need to try to censor overpower and control.

    I think you are so very correct, being decent christians who still display some real love and understanding is the best option.The agression of many new atheists has been brought on, by many christians forgetting to display this important message.

    Thanks James i really enjoyed reading this post.

  2. Using the scientific method as the criterion, neither creation nor evolution is an established scientific theory. Evolution is stuck on the 3rd step of the 7-step process, establishing a testable hypothesis. After 150 years, the evolution hypothesis is still being “tweaked” and the 4th step, testing the hypothesis has not yet occurred. So, why is evolution being pushed as a “fact”? The scientific method also requires that a proposed principle be “falsifiable”, that is, there is a method to prove the hypothesis false. Since creation is based on the existence of God, and God cannot be proven by science, it is a matter of philosophy or faith, not science. Actually, evolution suffers from that same deficit and is, until the falsifiable requirement is met, more of a philosophical speculation than a scientific theory. An excellent resource regarding the creation-evolution debate can be found at

  3. Secular Humanism

    You write: "Evolution is stuck on the 3rd step of the 7-step process, establishing a testable hypothesis. After 150 years, the evolution hypothesis is still being “tweaked” and the 4th step, testing the hypothesis has not yet occurred."

    Au contraire, my friend. That is one of the primary strengths of evolutionary theory, all the way from the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium model to the discoveries of australopithecines and Tiktaalik.

    As far as it being a problem that evolution has been "tweaked," why is evolution any different than any other major theory? Theories in astrophysics and cosmology get "tweaked" all the time. This does not seem to bother anyone, Christians included. There are currently nine different big bang models of the formation of the universe. That number used to be eleven but a few years back, two of them were falsified because of new evidence. It has also recently been discovered that the universe has reached "escape velocity." It will likely never contract. Up until then there were plenty of models of universal contraction, including the very popular "steady state" model. Those had to be junked. That is called "being tweaked."

    You also write: "The scientific method also requires that a proposed principle be “falsifiable”, that is, there is a method to prove the hypothesis false."

    This is absolutely not true. If, by "falsifiable," you mean "repeatable," then almost all of the major branches of science, including astronomy and geology are not good scientific theories, since they rely on observation of past events. If we find human remains in the Carboniferous period, BOOM! evolution has just been falsified. You can extrapolate that idea to endless scenarios and you will still wind up with the same thing: evolution has not been falsified. Why? Because it has been tested ad nauseum. Example: Charles Darwin hypothesized that the earliest human remains would be found in Africa because that is where the closest living relatives of humans—chimpanzees and gorillas—live. Guest what? That is exactly where we found them. End result: evolution not falsified. Things like Punctuated equilibrium don't call evolution into question. They call the tempo of evolution in some instances into question.

    No theory can survive over a hundred and fifty years without being tested. Think about all of the major theories that have been thrown in the garbage can of history: Kepler's planetary motion, phlogiston, Lamarckian evolution, spontaneous generation. All have not withstood testing. Evolution has.

  4. Clarification: It is true that a principle be "falsifiable". I was reacting to the charge that evolution is not falsifiable. It most certainly is.

  5. Theistic evolutionists must do a better job of harmonizing Scripture with Science, and then do a better job of explaining that in a way that the average Christian in the pew can understand.

    What I mean by that is this: most non-theologians read Genesis 1 and 2, and assume that Adam and Eve were real, actual, historical figures (historical in the sense that they, one man and one woman, actually lived and were the first humans on earth).

    When these same individuals hear that Adam and Eve are just theological metaphors, and that humanity evolved over millions and billions of years from lower life forms, they automatically make the mental conclusion that evolution is "non-biblical."

    The vast majority of non-scientifically and non-theologically trained Christians will always come down on the side of the Bible - at least how they read it and are taught it.

    Scientist/theologians, like yourself, must make a stronger case for how the Bible does not contradict Darwinian evolution, and do so in a way that average people can understand.

    Up to now, in my opinion, this has not been done.

  6. You raise two issues that are in the center of the debate. First, the testing of the hypothesis. The scientific method consists of 7 steps: 1) Observation, 2)Articulate a question the observations raise, 3) Formulate a hypothesis to answer the question and explain the observations, 4) test the hypothesis, 5) Analyze the test data, 6) Publish the results of the testing and analysis for peer review, 7) Once the hypothesis is verified by peer review and replication, it can be considered a theory. Note the terms hypothesis and theory are usually used interchangeably in common use but have specific meaning within the scientific method.

    While there have been thousands of observations and over the past 150 years, much modification to the original hypothesis proposed by Darwin, there are not published tests of any evolution hypothesis that establishes the modification of an organism from one species to another. Modifications – many. Species change – none. So, from the strict requirements of the scientific method, step 4 has not yet been achieved. Even Einstein’s theories of relativity were not accepted until experiments proved them to be true.

    Evolution may be true. It certainly is an intriguing proposition. But without completing all the steps in the process, evolution remains speculation. Maybe some day a bright young scientist will conduct and experiment that proved the modification of one species to another but, until then, good science requires that we teach evolution as a concept that has not been tested and has not advance to theory, let alone fact.

    The falsifiable requirement is, perhaps the greatest challenge to the evolution hypothesis. Falsifiable does not mean “repeatable”. It means there is a way to prove the hypothesis false, just as there is a way to prove it true. The falsifiable test is usually presented at the same time the hypothesis test is developed. A good example is The experiment that showed light was bent by gravity thereby proving one aspect of Einstein’s concepts of relativity. Integral to the experiment was the falsifiable element – if light was not bent, that would prove the hypothesis false.

    Since any test that proves evolution true may take a considerable amount of time, the falsifiable component might also take considerable time – perhaps too much time to be observable. It should be noted that Richard Dawkins admits that evolution is not falsifiable.

    Given the impediments to evolution as an establish theory, would it not be more honest and better science to teach evolution as a hypothesis and expose its shortcomings? Good science can overcome the shortcomings, but they have to be admitted first.

  7. Charles wrote: "Scientist/theologians, like yourself, must make a stronger case for how the Bible does not contradict Darwinian evolution, and do so in a way that average people can understand. Up to now, in my opinion, this has not been done."

    And you would be completely correct. We have done an abysmal job of presenting our case. Part of this stems from the disagreement among those of us that are TEs about the historicity of Adam and Eve. Some believe that they were metaphorical, others believe that they were actual people that God interacted with but that there were other people around at the time (Where did Cain get his wife? Who did he build the city for?) TEs are still working out these questions.

    In a sense, we have gotten the cart before the horse. We have worked out our understanding of science quite well and have no trouble believing in God in the process. Then when we turn to scripture, the questions and problems arise. And it doesn't get any better—the flood is a non-starter. There isn't a shred of evidence that such a thing ever happened on a global scale, yet there it is. We plainly aren't reading the account correctly.

    The key is to get people to understand that interpreting something as metaphorical, or providing spiritual truth as opposed to literal truth, is not rejecting scripture. As Paul Marston points out, even people that think they are taking the Bible literally really aren't.