Archive for May, 2007

Is “Theistic Evolution” better than Creationism?

May 16, 2007

I’ve been reading PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula for a while now. If you don’t read it, you should. It’s wonderful. I usually find myself agreeing with Myers on most issues. Recently I’ve found a topic that I can disagree with him on. Strangely, it involves Mitt Romney.

My claim, hotly disputed by Myers is that it is (vastly) preferable to have someone understand the science of an issue (evolution in this case) than to dismiss the science and embrace superstition (god did it).

Now, it’s pretty easy to figure out that in a battle of wits with Myers I’m effectively unarmed, however I just don’t see where he’s coming from on this one.

He followed up with another post requesting clarification from his readers. He wants to understand their viewpoint because there was a significant number of dissenting opinions. That’s one of the things I love about scientists. You think I’m wrong? Show me how and I’ll believe you.

Anyway, I think Myers is wrong because he’s looking at the issue in black and white terms. Myers says that pandering to any form of religious nonsense is a slippery slope. He seems to be worried about some future world where theistic evolution is accepted and merged into ID. In the hypothesized ensuing court cases evolution somehow gets chased out of our education system and god gets let back in.

I’m not trying to caricature his argument. I have immense respect for his opinions and writing. I’m just not understanding him on this issue.

The point I would make is that it might be better to view science and religion as orthogonal for the sake of this discussion. Let me be clear here, I’m not advocating Gould‘s non overlapping magisteria position. I don’t agree with Gould on that one, I think science will eventually be able to address the questions that Gould believed were out of reach. However, in my disagreement with Myers, it becomes much simpler to determine whether an understanding and acceptance of evolution is to be preferred over literal biblical creationism. I think in all cases and places such an understanding is vastly preferable to superstitious nonsense.

I’m arguing for an incremental approach to the “education” of the religious population in this country. I claim that it’s naive and foolish to think that continually ignoring people’s faith is going to get us anywhere. It’s not. I think we need to lead people towards critical thinking and an understanding of science in a way that doesn’t threaten their faith. This allows religious people to gain a better understanding of the world they live in without the fear that their faith will be ripped away.

The argument hinges on one key point: increased understanding of the natural world, including evolutionary theory, will necessarily lead to a decrease in superstitious and religious thought. Throughout history, god has been invoked to explain all manner of natural phenomena. As science inexorably marches forward, superstitions have been relegated to deeper and darker corners of human discourse. I’m not saying they’re gone, but very few people, for example, worship the sun any more (George Carlin being a notable exception).

When people understand enough science and the method behind scientific progress, religion is in trouble. The other component needed to crush religion is the skill of critical thinking (disappointingly rare) but that will need to be discussed further elsewhere.

In summary, theistic evolution as espoused by Romney is preferable to creationism because it accepts scientific research as the only valid way to understand nature. Sure, it tacks on some superstition and it would be better if the superstition could be removed altogether but this is a good intermediate step. If we head down this path, we at least have a chance to move toward a world without superstition and religion. If we continue to gnash our teeth and denounce anything that even vaguely mentions god, we just can’t make any forward progress. People are too threatened by it.

This is a battle we should fight. It’s a battle we can win. It certainly won’t be the end of the struggle for rationality, but it’s a sensible, practical and, above all, a useful step for us to take.

Sorry PZ, you’re going to have to work harder to convince me I’m wrong.