Thursday, August 11, 2005

Being serious

Slate wades into the debate over evolution vs. religion, sez Quit pretending they're compatible:
let's be serious: Evolutionary theory may not be incompatible with all forms of religious belief, but it surely does undercut the basic teachings and doctrines of the world's great religions (and most of its not-so-great ones as well). Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.

That evolution erodes religious belief seems almost too obvious to require argument.
Weisberg then proceeds not to present a clear argument, which is only fair. Two data points don't make a trend, and Darwin's religious views are complicated and irrelevant.

Dawkins did famously say that evolution makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. But his point is not that one must be an atheist because of evolution, but that it's easier to answer questions without invoking God, if that's what you want.

I don't know what I think of "non-overlapping magisteria." It's true that science and religion do different things, and that one can draw lines to keep them from overlapping. If those lines seem to restrict the scope of religion, it's easy to say, as the Catholic Church did in Vatican I, that religion can only speak with absolute truth on matters of faith and morals. Similarly, if science seems like it might be restricted from questions about metaphysics, I don't think anyone will mind that much.

The problem is that the overwhelming success science has had in explaining so much of the material world has given it a status as a generic truth detector, rather than a truth detector with a limited scope.

This is not the fault of scientists. Scientists don't present themselves as arbiters of Truth, just as people investigating a particular question, narrowly defined.

Science is a way of rejecting false claims. Science has rejected the claim that the earth is 6,000 years old. Radioisotope dating, dendrochronology, ice cores and many other lines of evidence all point to an earth that is 4.8 billion years old. If your religion tells you that the earth is 6,000 years old, no more, no less, that's a problem, I guess.

But if you believe that the world was created by God, and you believe that your religious text was written by God, you have a clue into how to resolve your conflict. The Bible is true, it's God's word, but so is the Earth, they have to be telling you the same thing. What science tells you about the world cannot be false, neither can the Bible be wrong about it. Find a set of logical views that satisfy those constraints. Maybe the animals didn't come bubbling up out of the ground, like C. S. Lewis describes in Narnia. Maybe the beginning of Genesis should be understood as an allegory or a metaphor. Maybe, as Sagan suggested in the Dragons of Eden, the story of the tree of knowledge of good and evil isn't about a tree, but about knowledge of good and evil, the beginnings of a moral sense in humanity. Whatever makes sense for you is fine. Your religious beliefs are yours to decide about. But if you reject evidence from the world, you're ignoring some of what you hold that God created.

It's your call, but don't ask other people to ignore empirical evidence. The only conflict between science and religion is the one that people choose to create for themselves.