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Sunday, February 24, 2008
Defusing The Religion Issue

The Discovery Institute's Dr. John G. West recently gave a lecture in which he claimed that supporters of REAL science are promoting religious instruction in public school science classrooms.

Public schools are certainly allowed to hold objective discussions of competing religious beliefs, in relevant courses, but that's not what the defenders of evolution are proposing. They are pushing one-sided, really, religious indoctrination with the clear intent of changing the religious beliefs of students, not just the science beliefs, but changing and molding the religious beliefs of students.

-Dr. John G. West

If what West said is true, it would seem to expose a startling hypocrisy on the part of evolution proponents. After all, it is normally the supporters of evolution who accuse their opposition of seeking to promote a specific religious view. Such an accusation requires serious consideration and a close examination of the evidence.

Unfortunately, West's lecture was full of insinuations but empty when it came to concrete evidence.

In his talk, West repeatedly claimed that Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), encourages science teachers to promote one religious view over others. To support his accusation, West cited an article written by Scott entitled "Dealing with Antievolutionism."

According to West,

She recommends that science teachers use science classroom time to have students read statements by theologians endorsing evolution. That's right, science class should be spent reading and discussing statements by ministers and theologians. She's quick to point out, however, that only theologians endorsing evolution should be assigned . . . but I guess that's not promoting a particular religious view in her mind.

Not surprisingly, in order to make this point, West had to completely ignore the context provided in the article. It turns out that Scott offered the above activity as an example of how one teacher makes students aware of the diversity of religious attitudes towards evolution.

Here is what Scott actually wrote:

Teachers have told me they have had good results when they begin the year by asking students to brainstorm what they think the words "evolution" and "creationism" mean. As expected, some of the information will be accurate and some will be erroneous. Under "evolution," expect to hear "Man evolved from monkeys" or something similar. Don't be surprised to find some variant of, "You can't believe in God" or some similar statement of supposed incompatibility between religion and evolution. Under "creationism" expect to find more consistency: "God"; "Adam and Eve," "Genesis," etc. The next step in constructing student understanding of concepts is to guide them towards a more accurate view. One goal of this exercise is to help them see the diversity of religious attitudes towards evolution.

After one such initial brainstorming session, one teacher presented students with a short quiz wherein they were asked, "Which statement was made by the Pope?" or "Which statement was made by an Episcopal Bishop?" and given an "a, b, c" multiple choice selection. All the statements from theologians, of course, stressed the compatibility of theology with the science of evolution. This generated discussion about what evolution was versus what students thought it was. By making the students aware of the diversity of opinion towards evolution extant in Christian theology, the teacher helped them understand that they didn't have to make a choice between evolution and religious faith.

So instead of promoting a particular religious view, as West contends, the purpose of the activity was to make students aware of the wide range of religious views concerning evolution, including some views that are compatible with it.

Not content to stop there, West continued:

Dr. Scott further recommends requiring science students to go out to interview clergy in the community . . . but not if the community is what she calls conservative Christian, because then the intended lesson, that evolution is okay...uh...with theology, that theology endorses evolution, might be undermined.

Again, West misleadingly distorted what Scott actually wrote:

A teacher in Minnesota told me that he had good luck sending his students out at the beginning of the semester to interview their pastors and priests about evolution. They came back somewhat astonished, "Hey! Evolution is OK!" Even when there was diversity in opinion, with some religious leaders accepting evolution as compatible with their theology and others rejecting it, it was educational for the students to find out for themselves that there was no single Christian perspective on evolution. The survey-of-ministers approach may not work if the community is religiously homogeneous, especially if that homogeneity is conservative Christian, but it is something that some teachers might consider as a way of getting students' fingers out of their ears.

As should now be evident, West consistently failed to acknowledge the stated purpose of the activities and, in so doing, managed to make it seem as though Scott is encouraging teachers to promote one particular religious view over others. In reality, the instructional activities described by Scott were intended to address a common misconception: the notion that religious people must reject evolution in order to hold on to their faith.

So, upon closer examination, West's accusations against Eugenie Scott turn out to be egregiously false. Scott does not encourage the promotion of religious views in the science classroom. She merely offers her help to science teachers who are looking to defuse the religious objections to evolution that originate outside of the classroom so that authentic learning can take place inside of it.

Pointing out that the diversity of viewpoints among religious people does not equate to promoting one viewpoint over another. That is a simple fact, one that West tried hard to obfuscate.

Representatives of the Discovery Institute claim that they really want students to learn more, not less, about evolution. If they really meant that, they would be supporting such attempts to defuse the religion issue because students are much more likely to learn about evolution when they can approach it without the fear that doing so will automatically lead them to reject their religious beliefs.

Unfortunately, this was not the only misleading part of West's lecture. He also used a quote from Dr. Kenneth Miller's book, Finding Darwin's God, to blatantly misrepresent Miller's viewpoint concerning evolution and the development of human beings:

Even the self-professed theists among evolution proponents tend to be less friendly to traditional religion than one might think. Let's take Ken Miller, who is usually cited as a traditional Roman Catholic by the news media. Yet he insists in his writings on evolution that it's an "undirected" process and that the development of human beings was "an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might just as well have left us out."

I happen to own a copy of Finding Darwin's God, and the text quoted by West is not reflective of Miller's view. Miller does not believe that intelligent beings capable of knowing their Creator are an "afterthought" or a "minor detail" in evolution.

The following long excerpt provides a clearer view of Miller's beliefs:

So, what if? What if the comet had missed, and what if our ancestors, not the dinosaurs, had been the ones driven to extinction? Or, to use one of Gould's metaphors, what if we wind the tape of life backwards to the Devonian, and imagine the obliteration of the small tribe of fish known as rhipidistians. If they had vanished without descendants, and with the them the hope of the first tetrapods, vertebrates might never have struggled onto the land, leaving it, in Gould's words, forever "the unchallenged domain of insects and flowers."

No question about it. Rewind that tape, let it run again, and events might come out differently at every turn. Surely this means that mankind's appearance on this planet was not preordained, that we are here not as the products of an inevitable procession of evolutionary success, but as an afterthought, a minor detail, a happenstance in a history that might as well have left us out. I agree.

What follows from this, for skeptic and true believer alike, is a conclusion the logic of which is rarely challenged--that no God would ever have used such a process to fashion His prize creatures. He couldn't have. Because He couldn't have been sure that leaving the job to evolution would have allowed things to work out the "right" way. If it was God's will to produce us, then by showing that we are the products of evolution, we would rule Him out as our Creator. Therein lies the value or the danger of evolution. Case closed?

Not so fast. The biological account of lucky historical contingencies leading to our own appearance on this planet is surely accurate. What does not follow is that a perceived lack of inevitability translates into something that we should regard as incompatible with a divine will. To do so shows no lack of scientific understanding, but it seriously underestimates God, even as He is understood by the most conventional of Western religions.

Finding Darwin's God, p. 272-273

Miller summarizes his position on the following page:

Can we really say that no Creator would have chosen an indeterminate, natural process as His workbench to fashion intelligent beings? Gould argues that if we were to go back to the Cambrian era and start over a second time, the emergence of intelligent life exactly 530 million years later would not be certain. I think he is right, but I also think this is less important than he believes. Is there some reason to expect that the God we know from Western theology had to preordain a timetable for our appearance? After 4.5 billion years, can we be sure he wouldn't have been happy to wait a few million longer? And, to ask the big question, do we have to assume that from the beginning he planned intelligence and consciousness to develop from a bunch of nearly hairless, bipedal, African primates? If another group of animals had evolved to self-awareness, if another creature had shown itself worthy of a soul, can we really say for certain that God would have been less than pleased with His new Eve and Adam? I don't think so.

Finding Darwin's God, p. 274

Clearly, Miller's theological views are more nuanced than West would have his audience believe. While Miller does not believe that human beings were the inevitable outcome of evolution, he does believe that God intended to create beings that were worthy of a soul. It is therefore false to claim that Miller's views are "less friendly to traditional religion than one might think."

Ironically, after maligning Eugenie Scott for encouraging instructional activities that defuse the religion issue, John West demonstrated exactly why such activities are necessary.

People like him are working hard to make sure that the fuse stays lit.

posted by Jeremy Mohn

<< Home | Neil Shubin Interview >> | So Much for Stealth >> | Discovery Institute Finally Sits Down >> | Evolution Crosses Finish Line...But Who Won? >> | Florida BoE Set to Vote Tomorrow >> | Still Standing . . . (One Year And Counting) >> | Apples and Oranges >> | ScienceDebate2008 Has a Date >> | Summary Article About Florida Hearings >> | Dover Isn't Over: Is Florida Next? >>

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