Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Creation and Evolution: Ethically Neutral?

Before I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I started feeling fairly confident about the theory of evolution. I don't know if this makes me a bad mystic-spiritualist, but geology and stuff, fossils, whatever--it just makes sense. And for the record, I don't feel like arguing about it.

But, I have this trigger mechanism in my brain that trips a circuit whenever I hear someone using an "or else" argument--e.g.: God must exist, or else everything is meaningless. Things like that. So when I heard some guy on some panel about some topic arguing that the apparent increase in conservative forms of religiosity (fundamentalism) will probably be really bad for scientific understanding--in fact, he cited a "scary" statistic that only 51% of high school biology teachers believe in evolution--I felt my brain jerk.

Again: If I taught high school biology, and someone called me up and said, "Do you accept the theory of evolution," I would say yes. However, I don't exactly see what the great disaster would be. There have always been creationists among us, running around believing that they and all those around them are only about 200 or 300 generations removed from Adam and Eve. It seems fairly harmless to me. In fact, in one view, people are special-case animals, and in another, they are all children of god and one big family. The second view seems at least as likely to produce the outcomes we all want: love and comaraderie, etc.

Evolution has been big news since the early part of the 20th century, and dates back to the mid-19th. Is the world better? Are people nicer? Has "believing in evolution" helped our species?

I'm genuinely asking these questions: it may very well be that scientists would not have discovered all these fancy things that make us live longer if they went home at night and believed in God or creation or whatever. I'm just not trained in science enough to know. From my perspective, believing in creation may make you less-well-educated than me, or more stubborn, or fundamentalist, or whatever -- but I'm not going to avoid moving into a house one day because the neighborhood is creationist-friendly.

Am I wrong here? -- someone list the consequences of the creationist outlook (though keep in mind, I might counter with the benefits of the creationist outlook, just for argument's sake).

16 comments:

Richard said...

I've actually thought similar things, even though I accept without qualification the theory of evolution. Similarly, though an atheist, I have a hard time seeing the obvious benefit in the eradication of religious belief.

It could be said that if we swallow the creationist line, we will then be susceptible to all kinds of other bullshit, but believing in evolution and not believing in God hasn't stopped people from believing government propaganda, or believing in the essential "good intentions" of American hegemony.

I have more thoughts on this, but they will have to wait.

Casey said...

Thanks Richard -- that's reassuring. I couldn't figure out if I was just being contentious or if I really wondered about this... now I feel confident that I really wonder.

More thoughts are always welcome, here or at your place.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I'm an evolutionist, and one of the people that support not teaching creationism in schools. My base argument for this is the separation of church and state; I don't like the idea of endorsing any particular religious faith in a public institution. Yes science is a faith, but it tries as much as possible (usually) to present empirically verifiable data. It tries to be a non-faith.

I also see creationism in schools as a "gateway" step, much like partial-birth abortion. Then again, I'm all for progressive sex education (abstinence does not count as birth control), and I don't think too many creationists are running on that platform. Then again, I'm making some pretty sweeping generalizations, which is probably unfair.

brian said...

Why is atheism the only religion we're allowed to teach?

I've noticed that half of my 106 kids (the girl from Bolivia, the guy from Turkey) understand and are capable of talking about religion when the topic presents itself in class.

The other half, Indiana boys like myself, think Buddhism/Islam/Taoism/Hinduism/Anything without Jesus in the title was some sort of joke until sophomore year in college when we were forced at Butler (originally a Christian school) to read the Qur'an.

I think we're teaching ignorance, not acceptance. And the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" is (in my mind) better to teach kids about than nothing.

But Casey's Tao would of course tell us to let "knowledge" go rather than gain it, so I suppose public education must be unofficially Taoist.

brian said...

PS sorry about the verb tenses in paragraph three--that was rough, especially since I don't believe in "time" anymore...

Daniel said...

Is it riding the chain "link" fence to be an agnostic and microevolutionist? I'm fine with the finches; I just have a harder time with the monkeys. Then again my agnosticism is a bit Laodicean anyways.

So I'm with Brian in allowing more theories and equipping students with their own tools of analysis and empiricism (reading religious texts included).

Casey said...

The harder you have to try to be a non-faith...

Monica said...

For the most part, I'd say the Creationists are harmless, except when their Creationism is just a vehicle for some other, more sinister, agenda. Not all Creationists are crazy Fundamentalists. But . . . what do we do about the Creationists who believe in Evolution? You know . . . the ones who believe God created the process of Evolution, that he set everything in motion.

But I agree with Insignificant Wrangler: Creationism should be kept out of schools because of the whole separation of Church/State thing, though I think it's a prominent enough belief that it should get a passing reference in discussions about how we came to be. It's fine to say, "Many people believe X..."; it's not okay to teach it as a viable, scientific alternative to Evolution.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Back with Mon in response to Brian: I have no problem offering high school classes in religion, so long as it is a course in World religion in which many faiths receive equal/fair coverage. Make distinctions between fundamentalists and designists, literalists vs. interpretists, etc. Recognize, through Kant and other Germans, that America is founded not only upon European Christianity but also a form of Enlightenment agnosticism. Explore the foundations of what-I-would-have-refered-to-as-Eastern-but-after-Casey's-post-I-don't-know-what-to-call-them-anymore religions.

Not only do I not have a problem, but I think this should be a part of liberal education in an increasingly global society.

Casey said...

Enjoyable comments page, people. Good work.

brian said...

I'd like to enter the phrase "Indiana Dark Ages" into this discussion...

On a side note, I used to have an engineer for a roommate, and Casey once asked him, "What's happening in the Wireless Communications field?"

My roommate responded, "Oh, the iPhone is coming out soon. Has anything happened lately in the 'Truth' field?"

I'm sure Casey had some witty response at the time, but the answer (it seems to me) is Yes.

I mean, they developed the iPhone, but we learned how not to buy it just as quickly.

My parents went to a dinosaur dig in Wyoming yesterday. I'm not joking.

All of this was heading toward some sort of argument about science and Truth...

Casey said...

What you were trying to say, Brian, was...

Always look on the bright side of life...

Jon Sealy said...

I know I'm late, but I'd like to jump into the Brian/Marc debate. I had a lot of biology major friends in college, and they will heatedly tell you about how creationism is stupid/unscientific/etc. My feeling is that science as a field is about observation and logic and theorizing. We have observations that lead us to theorize about evolution, but do we have observations that lead us to theorize about creationism (other than religious/philosophical texts)?

But one mark of education, in my book, is being able to synthesize several distinct fields. We grow up thinking science is for this, social studies is for that, etc. I don't know. Maybe that's the difference between a high school and college education, the ability to see connections among fields (though it couldn't hurt to throw out in the Biology class lecture on evolution that it's just a theory, and that this theory conflicts with creationist stories [not just Christian creationism]).

But I also think it's a good idea to expose high school students to a bunch of different philosophies/religions so they won't leave high school believing Islam=terrorism.

Monica said...

So I listened to a lecture by Stanley Fish yesterday afternoon -- he had all of Cornell nearly up in arms with his characteristically provocative claims about what academics should and should not be teaching. Apparently, we have no right letting any of our values (and that includes speaking out against genocide, sweatshops, etc) take a turn for the political in a classroom. However, he said one thing that made me think of this discussion here on Casey's blog -- he said we absolutely should be talking about the Creationism as a phenomenon, and talking about how the belief came to be, and what it means to certain people.

BK said...

Getting back to Casey’s question about the consequences of creationism, and his example of a biologist who doesn’t believe in evolution… This is a bit of an educated guess, but I’d argue that not accepting what we now know (yes, know… just as certainly as we know gravity – also a theory – exists... the flawed “evolution is just a theory” statement is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of the use of the word “theory” in science) about how life develops would keep you from being able to advance our knowledge of biology in many specific areas, including the ones that have the most tangible gains for mankind – the ones that improve our quality of life and make it possible to, say, seek Truth. This point is easier to see if we consider other disagreements between religion and science: An astronomer who believed that earth was at the center of the solar system would have a very tough time accurately locating us in the universe. A meteorologist who believed that storms were manifestations of the wrath of an angry god would not do a good job of warning people about dangerous weather. These examples sound silly, but, given another couple hundred years, so will creationism.

All of the comments here are carefully and kindly stated, but some of them, as a result of their polite open mindedness, lend underserved credence to creationism. Let’s not confuse creationism and faith. Casey points out that the religious view of Mankind, “that [we] are all children of god and one big family,” is “at least as likely [as a scientific view] to produce the outcomes we all want: love and camaraderie, etc.” This is absolutely true. But that love stems from faith in general, not the particular, outdated beliefs of any specific religion. (Refusing to concede the difference between general faith – the “spirit” of Christianity, Islam, etc – and the particular legends of a given religion – the world was created in seven days, eating bacon is a sin, etc – is the definition of fundamentalism.) Love didn’t vanish when we developed the theory that lightening is the balancing of electrical potential between cloud and ground, or when we developed the theory that the earth circles the sun, nor will it when the grandchildren of today’s fundamentalists accept the theory that life on earth has evolved over millions of years. Believing in science and creationism at the same time is impossible. Simultaneously accepting science and faith is not only possible, it’s essential.

Casey said...

Monica--the idea that any values are apolitical seems a little 1970s to me. Stanley Fish should probably think about getting some rest and retiring one of these days.

Ben, you're right. But it's the old problem of persuasion: what if I just keep believing in creationism (which, I don't, but... play along)? How am I harming civilization if I cling to that belief, and even evangelize a bit?

As you point out, some sort of intermingling between science and faith seems necessary: if evolution is all there is, if there are no other values, scientists could argue (as they have!) for eugenics and other "amoral" (ha!) perspectives... alternatively, if I am a creationist (as many have been!), I do not need a little dose of science... those who believe the world is 6,000 years old go on living even if they don't accept science's explanation for why they live, how they got here, etc. And they don't harm anyone.

Somehow I think this has very much to do with Stanley Fish again...

I'm going to do another post on science as our guiding "myth," and whether or not myth-proper could equally suffice.