Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shermer on evolution and religion

I think this is a sensible and level-headed piece arguing that religion does not have to conflict with evolution (of course, certain type of beliefs may clash - but not all). Shermer lists the reasons for people's discomfort with evolution - and these are also applicable to the Muslim world - minus the age of the Earth issues. Perhaps most importantly, rather than insulting beliefs and believers, he strikes a positive tone in the article:

There are at least six reasons that make people resistant to accepting evolution.

1. The Warfare Model of Science and Religion. The belief that there is a war between science and religion where one is right and the other wrong, and that one must choose one over the other.

2. Belief that evolution is a threat to specific religious tenets. Many people attempt to use science to prove certain religious tenets, but when they do not appear to fit, the science is rejected. For example, the attempt to prove that the Genesis creation story is accurately reflected in the geological fossil record has led many creationists to conclude that the Earth was created within the past 10,000 years, which is in sharp contrast to the geological evidence for a 4.6 billion-year-old Earth.

3. Misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. A significant problem is that most people know so little about the theory. In the 2001 Gallup Poll, for example, a quarter of the people surveyed said they didn't know enough to say whether they accepted evolution or not, and only 34 percent considered themselves to be "very informed" about the theory. Because evolution is so controversial, public school science teachers typically drop the subject entirely rather than face the discomfort aroused among students and parents.

4. The fear that evolution degrades our humanity. After Copernicus toppled the pedestal of our cosmic centrality, Darwin delivered the coup de grĂ¢ce by revealing us to be "mere" animals, subject to the same natural laws and historical forces as all other animals.

5. The equation of evolution with ethical nihilism. This sentiment was expressed by the neoconservative social commentator Irving Kristol in 1991: "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded -- or even if it suspects -- that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

6. The fear that evolutionary theory implies we have a fixed human nature. The first five reasons for the resistance to evolutionary theory come almost exclusively from political conservatives. This last reason originates from liberals who fear that the application of evolutionary theory to human thought and action implies that political policy and economic doctrines will fail because the constitution of humanity is stronger than the constitutions of states.

All of these fears are baseless. If one is a theist, it should not matter when God made the universe -- 10,000 years ago or 10 billion years ago. The difference of six zeros is meaningless to an omniscient and omnipotent being, and the glory of divine creation cries out for praise regardless of when it happened.

Likewise, it should not matter how God created life, whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of God's works commands awe regardless of what processes He used.

As for meanings and morals, it is here where our humanity arises from our biology. We evolved as a social primate species with the tendency of being cooperative and altruistic within our own groups, but competitive and bellicose between groups. The purpose of civilization is to help us rise above our hearts of darkness and to accentuate the better angels of our nature.

Believers should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors. We have learned a lot in 4,000 years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Instead, science should be welcomed by all who cherish human understanding and wisdom.

Read the full article here.


Don said...

Looking at #4: thematically appropriate, no?

celerity said...

I generally see three possible conflicts between science and religion:

1. Logical inconsistency (creationism)
Claims by religion that are directly testable by science. According to Biblical literalists (creationists) the Earth is about 6000 years old. The actual age of the earth, measured with radioactive dating, is 4.6 billion years.

2. Faith and reason (mainstream religion)
Religion must rely on faith and science on reason. Religion is irrational and teaches us not to ask questions. Science uses reason and logic to study the world. As Steven Pinker put it "Reason is non-negotiable. Try to argue against it, or to exclude it from some realm of knowledge, and you've already lost the argument, because you're using reason to make your case. And no, this isn't having "faith" in reason (in the same way that some people have faith in miracles), because we don't "believe" in reason; we use reason."

3. The nature of our world (all religions)
Religions make claims about the nature of our world. From the perspective of modern science, these appear false. "The universe is fundamentally accidental, not purposeful. It is completely unanthropomorphic, to a degree not imagined by any religious tradition. [...] When our Gods do not appear at all in the best of our theories, they begin to look like Santa Claus", as Taner Edis writes. Furthermore, as Richard Feynman said "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama". Anthropocentrism simply doesn't fit in a scientific world view.

Accommodationists like Michael Shermer do, of course, have a point. From a pragmatic point of view, we must avoid talking about a conflict, simply in order to promote science and rationality among religious people (who otherwise may turn their back on science). In other words, even if there is a science-religion conflict, we should pretend there isn't a one!

I would also like to add, besides the above mentioned, one great challenge for theists is all the evil and suffering produced by natural selection. Natural selection is such a brutal mechanism... death, diseases, rape, murder, torture, suffering. Evolution doesn't support the idea of a 'loving' God very much.

Ali said...

On evolution I agree there shouldn't be any conflict, but for religions the greater problem is they make claims that are testable by science or claims that simply defy our understanding of natural laws, the whole miracle industry for one. Over the years science has been knocking down such claims one by one, how we came about being the latest one I wonder what would eventually happen, will the religions at some point simply run out of super natural explanations that get replaced by natural does seem to be heading that way.

Anonymous said...

The same old story again again to prove evolution as fact as gravitational law: young earth, 10,000 yr old earth...

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