i get more mail – belief in evolution allows me to ignore my sins

By Alison Campbell 09/06/2010

I’ve had another e-mail – with the fastest invocation of Godwin’s Law that I can remember seeing in a while:

I am horrified to find that neo-Darwinists have hijacked the New Zealand Science Syllabus and are now using it to propogate their religion. As a Christian minister, I’m alarmed that the Atheists, Bioethicists and Nazi Apologists are supported by New Zealand taxpayers to advance their theories as “facts”.

The intention here is to smear by association: we’re pretty much all in agreement that much that was done in the service of the 3rd Reich was evil, so if Nazis are associated with evolution, that must be evil too. Which is total nonsense. Hitler didn’t invoke Darwin. And if he had? It doesn’t make evolution wrong, any more than if Darwin had recanted on his deathbed (he didn’t).

My correspondent also seems to misunderstand the nature of ‘facts’ & ‘theories’ in science. In this case evolution is both a fact and a theory. We have ample evidence that evolution has occurred (& is occurred) – this lets us view it as a fact. The theory of evolution is the explanation for those facts. (PS At this point I should have added – & will now – that evolutionary theory is not a ‘religion’. It’s science & thus evidence-based. Religion is a matter of personal faith.)

Now that’s out of my system… My correspondent went on to make several ‘points’:

What renders Evolution as problematic (even as a tool of the Divine) is that:
(a)  It does not stand up to examination (see article below)
(b)  All of life is discrete, being “after their own kind”.
(c)  The fossil record shows so much of life “appearing” (and) over a relatively short time.

The ‘article’ mentioned here is a compendium of the usual misunderstandings & misconceptions about evolution, which I may go on to talk about in another post. For b) – the misconception here is that there are no transitional forms; we never see a crocoduck (or an owlcat), for example. I’ve addressed that one previously.

And on c) – remember here that the ‘relatively short time’ is in fact millions of years. Even the Cambrian ‘explosion’ occurred over perhaps 30 million years. (Part of the problem with this one, for many people, may be that such timespans are almost impossible to conceptualise.) The term ‘explosion’ is in fact something of a misnomer. DNA data, for example, suggest that many animal lineages go a lot further back, & there are what appear to be animal embryos that date back around 700 million years or so.

As you will know, there are those Christians that are inclined to believe the Genesis 1 account is correctly rendered “days” and those that don’t, prefering “aeons”.
Neither belief is fatal to the idea of God as Creator, so:
(d) Creationism (in whatever form) gives an account for creation.
(e) Evolution gives no such account …… leaving only the supposition that non-existence created existence.  That is Magic, not Science.

Creationism ‘gives an account for creation’ only to the extent that the Biblical creation tale is just that: an account written much later than the postulated events it describes. (We need to remember that there are actually 2 creation tales, Genesis 1 & Genesis 2; my correspondent mentions only Genesis 1 but why should this one be any more correct than the other?) The other issue here is that other faiths have different creation stories, so who decides which is ‘right’?

Evolution doesn’t give an account for creation – but then, Genesis (either version) conflates creation of the universe & the world with creation of species. Evolution deals with living things & to suggest that evolutionary biologists say otherwise is to create a ‘straw man’. The theory of evolution cannot explain the origins of the universe. It can, however, provide a mechanism to explain the evolution of living things from the point at which life first appeared. (‘Life’ being a fairly loose term: if we take it as something capable of self-replication then we could be considering an RNA world.)

I can understand that you would want there to be no God….. since that would do away with Absolute Truth and leave you not guilty of your sins. 
Without God there is just the random stuff of Phenomenology and so no ultimate Right and Wrong.   That is simply a delusion to avoid facing the idea that “the soul that sinneth, shall die”.

We’re getting a long way from my usual blog topics now (& into Ken’s territory). .. But my correspondent is wrong to say that I ‘want’ there to be no God. That’s putting words into my mouth (another straw-man argument). From my perspective: personally I see no objective evidence that there is a God. What’s more, the question of any god’s existence one that science can address, since science doesn’t deal in the supernatural. (Nor does science deal in absolutes.)

Nor can I understand the need for some external, all-powerful arbiter of right & wrong. It’s perfectly possible to behave in an ethical fashion towards others without worrying about the ultimate consequences of what will happen if we behave badly, & in fact many people do just that, applying what you could call the ‘golden rule’: treat others as you would like them to treat you. It’s also quite likely that there is an evolutionary basis for human morality.

I’ll finish by pointing out that lack of belief in a deity doesn’t mean that I must feel that my life lacks meaning, or hope, nor does it mean that I can’t see the beauty of the world around me. As Richard Dawkins has said:

The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite. (from Unweaving the Rainbow, 1998)

0 Responses to “i get more mail – belief in evolution allows me to ignore my sins”

  • Alison, It’s good to have people such as yourself championing the teaching of actual science in biology classes. It is unfortunate that you end up receiving such irrational rants.
    I guess it could be worse, we could be in the USA where the religious right seems to have a lot more power.
    As the creationists push for ID to be taught in science, perhaps a counter effort is required. Perhaps we should push for rational thinking to be taught in religious studies?

    • I don’t mind the e-mails & letters too much, although I might have a different view if I was swamped with them 🙂
      Can’t see your suggestion about rational thinking being taught in religious classes gaining much traction. But I think there’s a very strong case to be made for helping all students to gain skills in critical thinking – something everyone needs but which isn’t necessarily taught terribly well. Students taking Scholarship Bio definitely need to be able to think critically about the information put in front of them, & it’s something I spend a fair bit of time on when I’m doing scholarship preparation days with schools. However, I’m not sure that it’s taught universally & well…

  • My remark about rational thinking was facetious with regards to it being done in religious studies, though I agree skills in critical thinking should be taught somehow – ideally embedded into all teaching.

    • I know 🙂 And we both know what the outcome would be if such a proposal were to be put forward…

  • Wow… Zero to Godwin in less than a paragraph.

    I hope you sent your correspondent a link to this as a reply.

    • I meant to but it slipped my mind in the rush to do other stuff 🙂 Thanks for the reminder!

  • I’m interested in your comment “Science doesn’t deal in absolutes.” My first reaction is “Are you absolutely sure?” Before I get accused of putting words into your mouth, could you explain what you mean by the statement?

    • What I meant (bearing in mind that I was ‘arguing’ with someone who’s into absolute Right & Wrong) was that you’ll rarely get a scientist who’ll say they’re absolutely 100% certain about something; we’re always open to the possibility that some dearly-loved idea 🙂 will be proven incorrect. That possibility might be vanishingly small, but it’s there. Whereas my correspondent’s beliefs are absolute.