Defending Darwin
April 7, 2015 5:22 AM   Subscribe

I’m occasionally told my life would be easier if I backed off from my relentless efforts to advance evolution education. Maybe so. But to shy away from emphasizing evolutionary biology is to fail as a biology teacher. I continue to teach biology as I do, because biology makes sense only in the light of evolution.
posted by ellieBOA (63 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
The explanation clicked for most students, but not all, so I tried another. I asked the students to consider this: Catholics are the oldest Christian denomination, so if Protestants evolved from Catholics, why are there still Catholics? Some students laughed, some found it a clarifying example, and others were clearly offended. Two days later, a student walked down to the lectern after class and informed me that I was wrong about Catholics. He said Baptists were the first Christians and that this is clearly explained in the Bible. His mother told him so. I asked where this was explained in the Bible. He glared at me and said, “John the Baptist, duh!” and then walked away.

Okay, I'm an atheist and I'm offended on the grounds that someone has clearly badly failed this kid in his religious education as well as his secular one. It's a really illuminating example of why many of these fundamentalist strains of thought are really bad not only at science and reality but also at understanding the history and context of their own freaking religion.
posted by sciatrix at 6:33 AM on April 7, 2015 [27 favorites]


So, I’ve actually taught a lot of UK undergrads, and although I was teaching English, a lot of them came to me to express their discomfort with learning about evolution in their Biology classes.

I remember one in particular— he had to take Bio because he wanted to be a doctor, but he knew it would make his hometown pastor upset. Instead of having a hysterical fit in his biology lecture hall, however, he asked me about it, because we had been discussing critical thinking and evaluating multiple perspectives in my writing class.

I was the first person to ever tell him that lots of Christians (even evangelical ones who believe in the inerrancy of scripture) believe that the theory of evolution is totally consistent with the Bible, and that many leading theologians offer extensive discussions of how that can be. I told him that I was sure his hometown pastor meant well (I mean, I wasn’t, but still), but that a spiritual leader teaching his congregation to fear knowledge was not doing them any favors.

In my experience, a lot of those students who react so violently are reacting to the false dichotomy that they can live a life of faith OR a life of science, and that false dichotomy is too-often preached to them from the pulpit and the classroom lectern. One thing I really appreciated about this article is that the professor here intentionally pushes back against the falsehood that science and faith are anathema to one another, and that he does so by speaking in terms his students understand. By respecting their backgrounds, even if he finds those backgrounds incomprehensible and upsetting, he’s able to actually teach.

One of the things that is really noticeable when teaching first year college students is that so many of their “opinions” are really just ventriloquism, where they parrot the things their parents and communities believe out of the assumption that their parents are right. (I know for a fact that I was the same way, despite being raised super liberal. I used to quote my father and mother word for word, without even wondering whether or not those quotes were things I believed myself based on experience and information.) Part of the process of teaching those students how to think critically is getting them to start asking whether or not the beliefs they had inherited were defensible, or true, or consistent, not by attacking them, but by asking them to find points of contradiction and then dwelling on them, examining them, acknowledging that they exist.

I once had a student from hardcore coal country come into my class (different student from the one mentioned above), and he was deadset that we liberal college types would never ever ever convince him that coal was bad. Coal was how his daddy took care of his family. Coal was how he was going to college. Coal was his whole life. (And, of course, those were all true.) At the end of the semester, there was a campus event where people from coal country (i.e., not college professors, but good old Appalachian folks) came to speak about the ways in which coal companies had tried to force them off their land. One wizened old man talked about how the coal company had burned buildings on his property, had shot all of his dogs dead, had poisoned his stream, had tried to do everything they could to get him off his mountain. But it was his mountain, and his family had lived there for generations, and he wasn’t leaving.

After attending that event for extra-credit, my student came to me, looking troubled. He said that coal had been good to his family, but that trying to force someone off his land by scaring him just wasn’t right. It wasn’t right.

This comment is pretty far afield from Biology class at this point, but I just wanted to mention that the students this author teaches were mine too, for years, and most of them are smart and empathetic and open to new ideas, despite the cliches that often get brought up when it comes to Kentucky. I deeply respect this professor for recognizing that, and for accepting the challenge to work with these students on the process of opening their minds to new perspectives.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:36 AM on April 7, 2015 [52 favorites]


a fiendish thingy, I was reading your comment with the United Kingdom in mind until I got to 'Appalachian'. Only then did I realize you meant the University of Kentucky. There's my daily bit of cognitive dissonance.
posted by ursus_comiter at 6:55 AM on April 7, 2015 [27 favorites]


Yeah, more seriously--I TA at a university in Texas, and I went to college in the South and I actually interviewed at one point at a lab at UK. My current boss teaches our Human Biology course, which is often framed as "biology for people who don't believe in evolution" at other universities, and he very consciously teaches it as a class on the evolution of humanity. I was in high school in Kansas in 2004, and a local news station actually came in to interview my freshman year intro biology course about whether we "believed in evolution." I've spent a lot of time watching people of varying skill-sets and political backgrounds try to figure out how to educate students from conservative religious backgrounds about evolution--hell, I even worked with the prof I TAed with to help create a lecture for her evangelical church about how evolution works and what the evidence is. (Incidentally, the lecture was conducted with the full support of her pastor and she's the one who got it rolling; I have just spent way more time focusing on evolution than she has.)

Anyway. What I've noticed over the years is that things like explicit discussions of the compatibility of faith and evolution are frequently annoying to atheist students and students who are well versed in biology. However, they're really helpful for these students who are, as a fiendish thingy points out, really worried about false dichotomies and about challenges to their self-beliefs. The more you overtly push these students, the more you let them frame the threatening discussion as their holy martyrdom against godless Satanist science, the less you get done in the classroom with them--and the more they encourage other students who don't feel strongly either way coming into the classroom to view your work as incompatible with their faith.

What works is giving students information, reiterating how we get to the conclusions about life that we do, and being clear about the lines of reasoning which are and are not appropriate in a science course. Above all else, you have to be so careful about not "telling" them what is right--you have to very explicitly give them room to make up their own mind in light of the evidence. It's a really tricky teaching challenge, especially when you are (as I often am!) very angry at the campaigns of aggressive, deliberate misinformation intended to suppress and distort a fundamental baseline process of your science. Especially when you love this process enough, when you think it is beautiful enough, to dedicate your life to understanding some aspect of it as is true for many university professors. Evolutionary biologists are, by and large, angry and insulted by this, and it's very difficult emotionally for many of us to disentangle anger at those campaigns of misinformation from anger at the students bringing them into our classrooms.

I would love to see more of that careful education about evolution done in high schools and even earlier, before students ever get to college. This stuff does take up valuable classroom time, which could be better devoted to teaching more complex stuff or a more solid foundation for other parts of biology, ultimately resulting in students who are better at the subject. But unfortunately, the culture wars surrounding evolution are so targeted at K12 education that it's often impossible to get away with that--especially if you're a high school teacher in a more rural or poorly funded district. I had excellent access to information on evolution when I was in middle and high school, and a lot of that came from books in my school libraries and some of it even came from my classes--but I went to a well-funded and wealthy school in a good district. There is a very strong imbalance in how students are taught about this in K12 education, and in my experience it frequently falls along class lines in education more generally.
posted by sciatrix at 6:56 AM on April 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


My personal shorthand when trying to explain how science and religion can live peacefully together is "The Bible tells you what happened, and science tells you how it happened." Yeah, it's pretty simplistic, but it seems to work most of the time.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:59 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


But unfortunately, the culture wars surrounding evolution are so targeted at K12 education that it's often impossible to get away with that--especially if you're a high school teacher in a more rural or poorly funded district.

It is criminal how much K-12 is being mismanaged and undermined, and not just in the sciences. I once had a student in my freshman english class whose high school senior english class the year before went like this:

1. teacher hands out grammar worksheets (to seniors! In high school!)
2. students spend period filling out worksheets in silence
3. students turn worksheets in at the end of class
4. students watch while teacher dumps them all in the trash can
5. class is over

!!!!
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:03 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


My state high school graduation exam in mathematics memorably contained this multiple choice question:

A basketball is a(n):
a) circle
b) triangle
c) cone
d) sphere


No, this is not just a problem with biology. I tutored a student who failed this portion of our state graduation exam and needed to retake it when I was in high school. He could not read any graphs up to and including pictographs--you know, those little graphs where one little picture of a bee stands for two bees, and here are 2.5 pictures of bees and how many bees do we have in total? He had no diagnosed learning disabilities and was receiving no support aside from the tutoring of an acerbic fellow high schooler, which I was doing for volunteer credit. I was horrified by this even at the time, but the older I get and the more strongly I feel about education, the angrier and angrier I get at how badly this student was failed by his education for his entire K12 experience.
posted by sciatrix at 7:08 AM on April 7, 2015


Guy sounds like a great teacher. I mean, I loved science at my small Christian school. Especially Old Testament.

sciatrix says: "It's a really illuminating example of why many of these fundamentalist strains of thought are really bad not only at science and reality but also at understanding the history and context of their own freaking religion."

Like any restorationist sect, Baptists believe they were the first Christians and that, at some point--usually a hard cut-off like the death of the last apostle or the Edict of Milan, or sometimes more amorphous things like the integration and application of Greek philosophy to revelation or the deposit of faith--Christianity became perverted into Catholicism/Orthodoxy. Their sect's creators "restored" the true gospel by purging Catholicism of whatever was un-biblical about it. So to say they don't understand the history and context of their religion is sort of wrong; they just understand a history and context of their religion that is itself contrary to history and most of the evidence. (See here for a discussion of the restorationist trend within Protestant Christianity and, relatedly, Mormonism.)
posted by resurrexit at 7:18 AM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


I was the first person to ever tell him that lots of Christians (even evangelical ones who believe in the inerrancy of scripture) believe that the theory of evolution is totally consistent with the Bible

I continue hearing about compatibilty between religion and science, on how it is possible to keep hold on one's faith and at the same time accept evolution/science facts.

Am I wrong in thinking that this is just a lie told to religious people so they will start to accept more science? Like a bait and switch.
posted by yann at 7:25 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Am I wrong in thinking that this is just a lie told to religious people so they will start to accept more science?

Given that when I told him this I was describing myself and most of my family, yes, you are wrong in thinking this.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:26 AM on April 7, 2015 [16 favorites]


I continue hearing about compatibilty between religion and science, on how it is possible to keep hold on one's faith and at the same time accept evolution/science facts.

Am I wrong in thinking that this is just a lie told to religious people so they will start to accept more science? Like a bait and switch.


I am a biology professor who teaches evolution. I am also a Presbyterian. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health. He is also a Catholic. Stephen Jay Gould was among the greatest evolutionary biologists of the 20th century. He was a devout Jew.

As the article notes, most major religious sects (including Catholics and most mainline Protestant and Jewish denominations) in the US recognize the reality of evolution.

Many people who think religion and science can't coexist have a limited understanding of both.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:30 AM on April 7, 2015 [20 favorites]


Many people who think religion and science can't coexist have a limited understanding of both.

Or stated another way, many people who think religion and science can't coexist have an incorrect understanding of the limitations of both.
posted by resurrexit at 7:33 AM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


Given that when I told him this I was describing myself and most of my family, yes, you are wrong in thinking this.
Oh sorry, I thought you were an atheist, so probably in your case the question would be, how do you reconcile scripture and science when they state contradicting things?

Many people who think religion and science can't coexist have a limited understanding of both.

I think exactly the opposite, religion and science both make statements on reality, often contradictory, and they can't be both right.

edit: fixed the wrong quote
posted by yann at 7:33 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Belief in evolution is compatible with religous faith. It's compatible with all the major parts of Christianity. It's compatible with a lot of ways of interpreting the Bible. You can totally be a believer in both evolution and Christianity.

The epistemomological foundations of science, on the other hand, are incompatible with the epistemomological foundations of faith. You cannot sincerely and wholeheartedly adopt both. You end up with silly, meaningless, muddled ideas about "separate magisteria", "higher truth" (and twisted definitions of "truth" in general), "God of the gaps", or whatever.

I'm sorry, but it's true.
posted by Hizonner at 7:35 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


The epistemomological foundations of science, on the other hand, are incompatible with the epistemomological foundations of faith.

I think you mean the foundations of materialism are incompatible with the foundations of faith. Nothing in the scientific method excludes the immaterial; it is simply unable to reach there. That's why faith and science are capable of being reconciled. They typically don't overlap.
posted by resurrexit at 7:39 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Science excludes the unobservable and the unverifiable.

Whereas faith lets you take things as true without any verification and often without any shared observation. In fact, you're encouraged to do that.

What does "immaterial" mean, anyway? Faith has an observable effect on the material world. If the faith is caused by the truth of the things it believes in, then those things themselves have material effects.

... not to mention that most real-world faiths have lots to say about material things, although the will sometimes retreat relatively easily when pressed.
posted by Hizonner at 7:47 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


The damn Pope accepts evolution. "Epistomomological", on the other hand, I hope he rejects from his iriest of ites.
posted by Wolof at 7:48 AM on April 7, 2015


The epistemomological foundations of science, on the other hand, are incompatible with the epistemomological foundations of faith. You cannot sincerely and wholeheartedly adopt both. . . . I'm sorry, but it's true.

lol ok
posted by a fiendish thingy at 7:50 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Epistomomologistical?
posted by Hizonner at 7:50 AM on April 7, 2015


"Epistomomological", on the other hand, I hope he rejects from his iriest of ites.

Why wouldn't a pope love the science of knowing about Cookie Monster's love of cookies?
posted by resurrexit at 7:51 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


That would be "epistonomological". Consider yourself excommuninomnomicated.
posted by Wolof at 7:55 AM on April 7, 2015 [15 favorites]


In the case of the linked article in the fpp, the students that get angry do so, because they are being shown overlapping and opposite explanations on things. And telling them that faith and science can be reconciled is not really an honest approach, at least without telling them that in order to achieve such reconciliation, they will have to abandon some of their beliefs.
posted by yann at 7:56 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Science excludes the unobservable and the unverifiable.

Nooooo, science does not exclude the unobservable because it cannot reach the unobservable. It cannot, therefore, exclude the unobservable. You appear to be conflating science with a philosophy (or ideology for some) called materialism. It might make the most sense to you to adopt that philosophy, but you cannot claim that applying science compels you to be a certain type of philosopher.
posted by resurrexit at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


Epistomomological adj. Relating to the writing of letters to one's mother.
posted by murphy slaw at 8:00 AM on April 7, 2015 [12 favorites]


Oh sorry, I thought you were an atheist, so probably in your case the question would be, how do you reconcile scripture and science when they state contradicting things?

Is it so hard to understand that many Christians do not take everything written in the Bible literally? They understand much of the Old Testament to be allegorical or mythological. They try follow Jesus' teachings and examples. The events and teachings of the life of Jesus do not contradict evolutionary biology.
posted by General Tonic at 8:00 AM on April 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


Yeah, Jesus isn't recorded as saying much on the subject of genetics or biodiversity
posted by trif at 8:02 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


You end up with silly, meaningless, muddled ideas about "separate magisteria"

Yeah, that Stephen Jay Gould, what a flibbertigibbet he was.

I understand Dawkins' critique of Gould, insofar as religion-as-it-is-practiced has a noted tendency to intrude on science's turf, but this ignores NOMA's role as a potential diplomatic bridge between hardcore religious faith and pure scientific materialism. Gould never meant it as a hard-and-fast rule, but more as a useful metaphor to help us talk about the distinctions between ways of thinking.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:04 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


I disagree. In the context of my science class, I do not give a shit what they believe in their personal lives. I want them to understand how the science works, what the evidence says, and how to evaluate evidence to arrive at a conclusion. I want them to understand how this foundational aspect of the field they are paying me to teach to them influences other aspects of that field. I want them to be comfortable using their biological knowledge to approach future tasks and to integrate future information as they grow. I am here to teach them the science, and I only care about their religious beliefs insofar as those present an obstacle to learning the science.

There are plenty of scientists who comfortably integrate faith and scientific inquiry into their lives. Like I said, I teach with one of them. If pointing conflicted students at those models helps them to let go of their defensiveness about having to give up their faith and lets them focus on actually learning what I am trying to teach, I am all for it. I'm the atheist you probably confused with a fiendish thingy, yann, and while I have strong opinions on religion and thinking in my personal life, you had better believe that those are not allowed into my classrooms any more than opinions on how evolution is wrong because Jesus isn't a monkey are allowed into my classrooms. They are irrelevant to the course topic and to the stated goal of making it easier for my students to learn how the science works.

I mean, for fuck's sake, saying that these two things are completely incompatible is exactly what a fiendish thingy and I have been saying does not work. It increases the level of conflict in the room and distracts students from the material with a discussion about whether the things they grew up to believe, which their families and loved ones and support networks believe, is right or whether I am right. It makes the classroom about us versus them. That is pretty well antithetical to getting students to engage with the subject matter.
posted by sciatrix at 8:05 AM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


Applying science obviously doesn't require you to adopt any particular philosophical stance. It's just a method.

Wholeheartedly adopting the epistemology that motivates science, which fundamentally says that truth is defined by what you consistently observe, does require you to reject faith. And, yes, it also leads you more or less inexorably to materialism. But that's a side effect of the epistemological stance.

And, again, if your faith includes, for example, the idea that the reason you believe in it is that it is true, then your faith has a material consequence (namely your belief and any actions you take based on your belief). Which eliminates the whole "can't reach" business, because now you can observe the material effects of faith's claims. Dualism doesn't work and doesn't get you out of trouble.

So, yeah, if you want to play science as a game, then you don't have to adopt any particular view of truth. But if you want to use science as a way to truth, then you kind of do...
posted by Hizonner at 8:06 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


>> I continue hearing about compatibilty between religion and science, on how it is possible to keep hold on one's faith and at the same time accept evolution/science facts.

Am I wrong in thinking that this is just a lie told to religious people so they will start to accept more science? Like a bait and switch.


Here is the official Catholic position on evolution:
Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. Pope Pius XII declared that "the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God"
Pius XII died in 1958, so the Catholic church has officially accepted evolution for over half a century.
posted by I am the Walrus at 8:08 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


[...] this ignores NOMA's role as a potential diplomatic bridge between hardcore religious faith and pure scientific materialism.
... and ...
[...] I mean, for fuck's sake, saying that these two things are completely incompatible is exactly what a fiendish thingy and I have been saying does not work. It increases the level of conflict in the room
[...]
How is either diplomacy or "the level of conflict in the room" relevant to the compatibility of two views of truth?

It might be politically convenient if there were no conflict, but that doesn't make it so.
posted by Hizonner at 8:10 AM on April 7, 2015


You are welcome to teach a course on philosophy of science and religion, Hizonner. The point that I am trying to make is that in my class, we are here to discuss a specific scientific discipline. (In my case, it's genetics.) Devoting time to a philosophical discussion of whether the method of inquiry underlying science is incompatible with religion in a classroom is not only completely unrelated to that goal, it actively interferes with my students' ability to focus on the material and internalize it. Again, I am an atheist myself and I don't necessarily disagree with you on personal grounds, but that line of thinking has no place in a classroom full of socially conservative students if I want them to learn anything from me. And it certainly doesn't particularly matter given that human beings in general are capable of way stronger logistical contortions--it's not like, if you probed my moral and ethical codes hard enough, you wouldn't come up with other serious inconsistencies. That's fine. I'm not a philosopher and I honestly don't care much about them.

I don't give a shit about whether my logic of truth or my students' are internally compatible. I am not a philosopher. I give a shit about efficiently teaching my students how genetics works and how evolutionary biology works. If philosophical inconsistency is the price of getting my students to relax and listen to me instead of tensing up and rejecting everything I say on socially-based, us-vs-them grounds? That is a small fucking price to pay, and I will pay it every time.
posted by sciatrix at 8:16 AM on April 7, 2015 [19 favorites]


As a Brit it is intriguing to see such strong debate about this subject. It is almost unheard of that religious representatives would suggest that evolution is wrong. It would be that damaging to their credibility. I have no idea how science and religion are reconciled officially here as it is never a talking point. I assume it's a given? Any contributions on that point?

Climate change gets more airtime, but that's a different discussion...
posted by trif at 8:20 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Is today Scientific Literacy Day on Metafilter?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 8:34 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


Today and every day, TWS.

(well, we hope).
posted by emjaybee at 8:43 AM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]


Why not just tell students...

"This theory, ANY theory, is a model. Most of the data points collected to date fit the model, and the model predicts new data points which may be discovered in the future. When there are enough collected data points which don't fit the model well, parts of the model have to change to include the new data points as well as the old. In that case, scientists who understand the existing model very well will propose, review and debate how the model needs to change. That is the process of science that I am here to teach you and you are here to learn."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I always think the best analogy to explain "If humans came from monkeys why are there still monkeys" is "If you're descended from your grandparents, why do your cousins exist?"

how do you reconcile scripture and science when they state contradicting things?

In Catholic school religion class I was taught that the Book of Genesis, especially up until the point of Abraham, is not intended as a historical record, but as a series of stories and allegories, the point of which are the following: God created the world; God created the world good; Men and women are equal (I could never figure out where they got that one, though I would agree that nothing in the stories suggests otherwise; Sin separates us (and IS that which separates us) from God, ourselves, our fellow humans, and nature. The rest -- the seven days bit, the rib, the flood, the tower of babel, etc -- were stories meant to contain those messages. They were true in their meaning and not intended to be understood as true in their substance.

The post-Abraham bits, I was taught, were suspected of having some basis in truth, but were likely changed over time because the stories were passed orally long before they were written down. For example, I was taught that Moses did not literally part a sea. On the question of how that got there, we were taught the theory about the mistranslation: red sea was supposed to be "reed sea" (apparently the hebrew words are similar?) and that the Egyptians who went through with chariots got stuck in the reeds, while the Israelites travelling mostly on foot with carts would have gotten through more easily. We aren't taught that the Exodus didn't happen or may not have happened, but I suspect that's because our teachers were unaware of the historical consensus on this -- I have no doubt they would have told us this is that's what they had heard.

So basically, the way Catholic schools do it is to point out that there's no contradiction when you understand that lots of things aren't meant to be taken literally and things that may originally have been told as literally true stories have probably changed over time and even where they have not changed need to be understood in a particular context.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 9:34 AM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


Many people who think religion and science can't coexist have a limited understanding of both.

The reason I think this issue generates so much heat is that there are so many versions of religion, and so when the term is used, there is confusion about what is meant. Are we talking about a religion as is practiced and professed by the large majority of those who adhere to it? Do we mean the literal belief in magic necessary for angels, talking bushes, parting seas, and raising the dead? Or are we talking about more intellectual forms that deal in allegory and literary symbolism, that avoid anthropomorphizing a deity and supernaturalism, and that can retreat and nuance around potential conflicts in belief in both a Creator and a natural universe? I think that some forms of religion do not admit of a scientific outlook, while others do, and that the degree of compatibility is highly associated with the degree of abstraction the religion entails, as well as the attitude of the adherent toward the foundational stories that are told about it. Sometimes this attitude is a formal part of the religion; other times it is dependent upon the character of a particular congregation of adherents.

In the end, the question of compatibility of science and religion can only be answered conditionally and specifically. It cannot be answered in general.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:42 AM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]


Wholeheartedly adopting the epistemology that motivates science, which fundamentally says that truth is defined by what you consistently observe

This is a fairly outdated conception of "the epistemology that motivates science."
posted by atoxyl at 9:47 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


> I continue hearing about compatibilty between religion and science, on how it is possible to keep hold on one's faith and at the same time accept evolution/science facts.

Am I wrong in thinking that this is just a lie told to religious people so they will start to accept more science?


There is a lie being passed around, it's just not what you think it is. The lie is that religion only means Christian Fundamentalism.

There are strains of Christian Fundamentalism that are incompatible with science; witness the students mentioned in the article who were explicitly taught this. And it's understandable that Christian Fundamentalists would want to spread the idea that their religious beliefs are the only true religious beliefs. But what I've found interesting is how many people who aren't Fundamentalists also support this idea, or just kind of implicitly accept it. The thing that really brought this home to me was how often news stories would present some Pat Robertson opinions as "the christian point of view" or "the religious view", when there are tens, hundreds of millions of religious Americans who'd disagree with him.

Now, squeaky wheel gets the grease, and I don't think Pat Robertson should be ignored — there are a lot of people who follow his way of thinking and they do affect our society. But to cede the entire diverse world of religion to one group just seems irresponsible and bit lazy, and not good for our socieyt.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:55 AM on April 7, 2015 [11 favorites]


As an atheist, I am refreshingly free from having to make science "co-exist" with an unrelated belief system.
posted by Repack Rider at 9:56 AM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


(That's what I get for posting before reading to the end. You can replace my comment with "I agree with Mental Wimp, only with more aggressive language.")
posted by benito.strauss at 10:11 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


As a Brit it is intriguing to see such strong debate about this subject.

Half of Britons do not believe in evolution, survey finds.

Perhaps Britons just don't like to air their differences on this topic.
posted by No Robots at 10:13 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'm sorry if I made confusion (or offended anyone), it was not my intention to make general statements about religion and science neither to state that all people of faith are scripture-literal fundamentalists. My frame of reference was fiendish thingy's comment on how he told to one of his students that a lot of christians believe that evolution is consistent with the bible. The specific situation I was commenting was telling this to someone who has been taught all of his life that the genesis is the real explanation of life on earth.

That statement is certainly helpful to help the person to relax and be a little more receptive but knowing that a lot of this person's beliefs will be completely changed if he accepts evolution while telling him that religion and science can cohexist is not imho 100% honest. I am not advocating for full confrontational teaching, just that maybe I'd keep that argument out of the discussion.
posted by yann at 10:14 AM on April 7, 2015


My frame of reference was fiendish thingy's comment on how he told to one of his students that a lot of christians believe that evolution is consistent with the bible. The specific situation I was commenting was telling this to someone who has been taught all of his life that the genesis is the real explanation of life on earth.

1. *she

2. I'm not confused or offended, but you are still saying that in your opinion, the biblical account of creation and the theory of evolution are not compatible. That's fine, but telling a student that many people consider them to be perfectly compatible is not at all misleading or dishonest, because the fact is that most people in most churches DO believe that. Genesis 1 is an acrostic poem that can be interpreted simultaneously as literal fact and as metaphor for the Cosmic Calendar.

Genesis says that a deity brought matter into being, made light, made life. It does not say how, because poems are not manuals or how-to guides. Many religious people believe that evolution is an elegant and beautiful portrait of the "how". Telling a student who has never heard of such an interpretation is not a lie.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 10:47 AM on April 7, 2015 [10 favorites]


I don't think people are offended, yann. They are just telling you that you are wrong on some of you points.

This is the good part of MetaFilter, where people tell us how they live their own lives doesn't line up with the general ideas some of us have formed. Here, specifically, are people saying that religion and science co-exist in their lives, or in the lives of co-workers or friends. You might have to change some of the ideas you have if you accept these statements, but hopefully you're open-minded enough to not distort the facts to fit a pre-existing theory.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:22 AM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


Times like this, I am relieved at my indifferently Jewish upbringing and my current wobbly Jewish agnosticism, because I can haul out Gaiman paraphrasing Chesterton ("Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten,") and call it a day.
posted by nonasuch at 11:51 AM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


That's why faith and science are capable of being reconciled. They typically don't overlap.

Well, they kind of do, even after centuries of trying to change that, and that's still causing problems. As I see it, religion was one of the first human avenues of intellectual exploration, the first attempt to go beyond immediate experience of the world and determine what else there was. As such its portfolio in the beginning was pretty much everything. It encompassed theology, magic, philosophy, law, history - and science.

As our understanding grew, those areas, well, evolved into their own distinct specialties that often do their specific jobs better than religion did. Some areas have been left to religion, while others have crowded religion out. Religion as philosophy is still perfectly workable and a valid part of human inquiry. But religion as law tends to end badly for all concerned, and religion as science just doesn't work.

So yes, they can be reconciled, but only by pushing religion back out of those areas where it contradicts what we know through more verifiable means. (This is something the west has been struggling to do since the enlightenment.) If your faith is about exploring how we can best live our lives and seeking purpose in existence, then sure, that can absolutely be reconciled with evolution or anything else scientific. But if your conception of religion doesn't work unless the world is 6,000 years old, there were never dinosaurs, and man was here since Day One, then you have a problem and you pretty much have to pick one.

FWIW, I would argue that the kind of fundamentalism the author deals with in his classes has less to do with religion proper - which continues to grow and change in response to new knowledge and experience - than it does with simple tribalism. The conflict between science and religion is not some existential issue. It's an avenue for the assertion of identity politics by marginalized white people.
posted by Naberius at 11:53 AM on April 7, 2015 [8 favorites]


As an atheist, I am refreshingly free from having to make science "co-exist" with an unrelated belief system.

You might be personally, but there are atheist objectivists who have to reconcile their crazy statements about humanity with science, and there are atheist homeopaths out there somewhere, and atheist Lysenkoists, and atheist UFO conspiracists, and so on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]


As a Brit it is intriguing to see such strong debate about this subject. It is almost unheard of that religious representatives would suggest that evolution is wrong. It would be that damaging to their credibility. I have no idea how science and religion are reconciled officially here as it is never a talking point. I assume it's a given? Any contributions on that point?

UK Catholic, educated in UK Roman Catholic state schools, here - my experience was pretty much as If only I had a penguin... described. Our science education comprised standard factual lessons on evolution, the Big Bang, etc., in which environment the notion of reconciling faith and science never came up in relation to those topics* - discussion of that side of things was confined to Religious Education classes, proceeding from the basis of scientific fact.

*The only bearing Catholic teaching had on our science lessons consisted of Not Being Taught About Methods Of Contraception, but that is a topic for another thread.

Incidentally, my brother-in-law (a physics teacher) and my sister bestowed upon their second son the middle name of Higgs - commemorating the fact that he was born on the same day the discovery of the Higgs boson was announced.

They're a devout Baptist family.
posted by Morfil Ffyrnig at 12:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I wish my most heartfelt secular blessings upon anyone doing the hard work of teaching evolution to a resistant class.
posted by Zed at 12:56 PM on April 7, 2015 [5 favorites]


I spent part of my childhood in Malta, which is Very Catholic, and was educated in a convent school. The nuns taught us religion in a very similar way to how If only I had a penguin describes (almost like there was a unifying theology behind it all!). So fundamentalist churches have always seemed a bit nuts in comparison. There also seems to be a distrust of actual theology in those religions too - I guess if you are going to elevate blind faith over all else, you don't like critical thought on any topic.
posted by tinkletown at 1:27 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]


So yes, they can be reconciled, but only by pushing religion back out of those areas where it contradicts what we know through more verifiable means. (This is something the west has been struggling to do since the enlightenment.)

Within Western Christianity (i.e., the Catholic Church), it goes back earlier than that, at least to the Christian Averroists, and probably before that on a smaller scale.
posted by resurrexit at 2:16 PM on April 7, 2015


I was raised Greek/Russian/Ethiopian/Whatever Orthodox Christian (same religion, just different languages and ethnic traditions), and it was made perfectly clear to me as a child that the Bible was a product of the Church, and not vice-versa. This notion of the Bible as the source axiom from which one derives dogma is a recent invention from the original Fundamentalists, who were trying to keep Christianity relevant with hip new discoveries like dinosaur bones.

You can see how well that worked out, as well as how poorly. We're still fighting a 19th century attempt to use 17th century Newtonian reasoning to make a 4th century book apply to new discoveries–and that's not even appropriate to the branches that constitute the majority of Christian believers. But we seem to have legitimised it pretty well this way, unfortunately.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 2:58 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


The verifiability argument from the atheist perspective has always bugged me where non-Christian religions are concerned. There is plenty of evidence of an experience of something more than our conscious mind normally observes. Whether this takes the form of a talking frog or burning bush the personal experience is just as valid as any scientific observation because we each have a specific frame of reference from our own perspectives. *I* am “here”, “now”, being “me.” “You” are “there” relative to “me” but relative to yourself, “you” are “me” being “here,” and in a different “now” as well.

Physical laws can’t account for this reference frame. In fact, GPS technology proves that all positions are relative in spacetime.

Now, what significance we attach to a given experience, and how we share it, is important. Certain physical laws can be universally shared as well as independently observed.
But your own experiences will always have more weight, because it’s your life, it’s your perspective. If I attach cosmic significance to certain experiences I’ve had, no one is in any position to refute me as to the meaning it has in my life.

(Bernard d'Espagnat has addressed the other side of this equation, that scientific knowlege can't describe mind-independent reality.)

Where this goes off the rails is in the hierarchy we demand in those experiences. In religion - I could see the resurrected Jesus Christ and have just as valid an experience as St. Paul but – hierarchy of meaning demands that St. Paul’s version is “canon” and mine is not.
(Science refines theory though in this regard. If religion did that while retaining the canon concept, new information would change the reality picture in much the same way comic book continuity changes.)

So too, in science, if I can see a certain color no one else can, if I was one of the first humans to mutate and see a certain resolution or taste, say, hot peppers and enjoy them while everyone else thinks they’re horrible poison, it’s a non-sharable experience. I can’t explain why I like stupid hot chilis or what the color Blern looks like to you because you have no experience of it. So my experience is considered a delusion.

It’s completely possible that our minds are capable of picking up on things more complex and subtle than we can consciously perceive and so we have these experiences – throughout history and with a great deal of evidence and variety – that are not falsifiable. The inconsistency of how the experiences are shared (mutually (cross religion) or internally inconsistent ) not withstanding. How the bible or koran or Buddhist text interpret this experience are obviously contradictory in many ways. And yet, in some ways point to the same ‘thing.’ The arguments for a particular method or god or whatever aren’t resolvable relative to each other.

So the root of that is the “me” perspective. Why am I “me” or why do I perceive in this particular subjective way. And more importantly, what significance can I attach to this?
Well, science has focused on refining theory (more or less solid theories, if not proven) in observation and has derived knowledge from that source.
No amount of knowledge though, can contend with the kind of existential despair that comes attached to considering one’s existence. The GPS is proven technology, it can tell you how to get anywhere on earth. It can’t tell you why to go there or what it’s like to “be” there.
That requires a personal experience and, though not scientific, is not an unreasonable worldview.

Which brings us back to the rub of how to share experience and how to prioritize without imposing an arbitrary hierarchy which denies one’s own personal experience.
It is indeed a very dangerous thing to deny another person the validity of their pain.
I don’t know how many changes “you” reading this have been put through, but you get some experiences behind you, lose some people you love, get some real scars, and someone tells you it’s bullshit because Jesus or because it’s just brain chemistry, well, people can get a little irked.

Education is, by definition, sharing knowledge, so there has to be a systematic way to share it, in the past hierarchical but now, apparently, more of a moderation, and more importantly a universality. Everyone has to be able to see the same thing the same way. Otherwise the tests are useless.

And indeed, it goes the other way. What one makes of evolution, the significance of it in one’s own worldview, whether it’s part of God’s plan or we’re the product of statistical aberrations in a barren and uncaring universe where we have to impose our own meaning, should not be cast aside as unreasonable simply because it’s personal and unsharable.
It just can’t be tested, is all. You want information you go to a teacher. You want meaning, you gotta get a guru, priest, go Nietzsche, whatever.

And the real enemy is, as mentioned above by a fiendish thingy, is that parrot mentality. If people refuse to think then they’re not going to learn any new information nor gain any wisdom or enlightenment into the realities of their existence.

So truly, there need not be any contention between a relgious life and scientific inquiry as long as we understand the uses of such thinking (doesn't matter how much I know about meditating and the effect it has on the brain if I don't meditate) and goals are mutually exclusive.
At the very least as far as personal experience and externally imposed heirarchy goes. Looking at the tension there from that perspective throws the real bones into sharp relief.

Indeed, is there any clearer dichotomy than the line between those who wish genuine inquiry - whatever the subject or system - and those who demand dogmatic obediance?
posted by Smedleyman at 3:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's true that religion and science can coexist, but it's also true that they mostly don't. God of the gaps and all that.
posted by Justinian at 4:15 PM on April 7, 2015


Physical laws can’t account for this reference frame.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding you, but as far as I am aware this is the opposite of true.
posted by Justinian at 4:16 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't know, Smedleyman, there seems to be a lot of woo in there.

I think the biggest problem in debates about religion and science is the confusion of aims. If you cast both science and religion as models, then, according to Box's dictum, they are both wrong, so we can stop arguing about "rightness" or "consistency." The second part of the dictum, "some models are useful," highlights the idea that each has a purpose and they are not the same. The purpose of science is to elucidate and predict how the world functions and to use those predictions and understanding to manipulate to advantage, either through harm reduction or benefit production. The purpose of religion is not that. The target of religion is man, and usually it has the intent of manipulating some aspect of humanity and its behavior, be it moral or emotional behavior: sorrow, fear, love, or hate. It doesn't seek to explain the entire universe, but only prescribe and proscribe human behavior.

This is why science has an epistemological rigor, which is necessary not only to encode and stabilize acquired knowledge but to systematically update and improve it, and religion tends to be more heuristic, with practice often deviating wildly from theory as social forces, outside threats, and changing populations morph the rules and the mores. When looked at in this way, there is no conflict between them, because they serve different purposes. One can argue about them individually and whether they serve those purposes effectively (usefully), but there is no intellectual space in which they can be ranked as better or worse, or compatible or incompatible.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:08 AM on April 8, 2015 [4 favorites]


Yeah, the TL:DR version is heirarchy vs heriarchy. Once we get past that we're looking for genuinely useful ways to live and to observe the universe.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:47 PM on April 8, 2015


In fact, GPS technology proves that all positions are relative in spacetime.

Relativity of position is tautological. You don't need GPS to tell you this.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 2:14 PM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Relativity of position is tautological. You don't need GPS to tell you this.

I guess I'm completely wrong about everything then.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:14 AM on April 13, 2015


When looked at in this way, there is no conflict between them, because they serve different purposes.
Yeah, exactly.

but there is no intellectual space in which they can be ranked as better or worse, or compatible or incompatible.
Precisely.
With the exception that both, or indeed all because anything humans do is human oriented, often have a problem with heirarchy.

Religious heirarchies are fairly obvious.
Scientific ones include what money is spent on what programs and so forth.

There's a lot of talk about how religions have caused wars (no argument there) but little about how much science and technology has driven war (and vice versa).

The point being, yes there is no intellectual space in which they can be ranked as better or worse - but heirarchy within either (or any system really) reveals the extent to which they are arbitrary or oppressed by a single subjective point of view.

That's the difference between hucksters and someone who's genuinely looking for something to describe experience. Even if the latter is just plain wrong, at least they're honestly wrong.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:21 AM on April 13, 2015


I think we have to be careful about conflating the organizations and the concepts. Both religious and scientific institutions are created and run by people, and they can do good and bad things with those organizations. You won't find advocacy for war in science books (except, of course, military and political "science", but I'm not addressing those sciences right now), and religious texts don't advocate for current wars, although their founding mythologies often refer to past wars as either glorious and just victories or humiliating and unjust defeats and some versions certainly have doctrines that incorporate the concept of a holy war. There have been scientists who have advocated for creation and use of new weapons of destruction, but it is the political and military class who have made the decisions to develop and use those weapons and no scientific organization has ever attained the kind of social and political control that religious organizations have. I say this as a hedge against a false equivalency between the role of scientists and religious leaders in war-making that some might entertain.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:38 AM on April 14, 2015


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