Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Rejoinder to Comments on "Winning Their Hearts and Minds: Who Should Speak for Evolution?"

Should theistic evolutionists take the lead in publicly defending evolution? Shelly Gottlieb gets to the heart of the matter when he says that the answer depends on "what one is trying to accomplish". However, I do not fully agree with the choices he offers. One possibility he proposes is "to demonstrate to the public at large that it is possible to be a 'believer' and still 'believe in' (as opposed to accept based on evidence) evolution"; the other is "educating the 'undecided' group to the importance and power of natural explanations of natural phenomena."

Instead, what I would like to demonstrate to the public is that one can be a religious believer and still accept evolution based on evidence (as opposed to "belief"). Now, if that somehow helps convince them of the power of natural explanations, fine; but that's not my main goal, nor is it necessarily very relevant to the creation-evolution dispute. As Erik Pietrowicz correctly notes, "The public is not generally concerned with making the distinction between scientific evidence and religious belief." Generally, they want to make sense of their existence and find meaning in their lives. Fundamentalists offer them explanations that cannot be reconciled with modern science, and rubbing that fact in just makes them more uncomfortable. If we see our job (especially outside the classroom) as only being to "educate" the public about the ways of science, we are ignoring what our audience sees as important. That is what I would call self-defeating. Evolutionists have been doing that in debates with creationists for forty years and more — and look where it has gotten us.

Gottlieb argues that theistic evolution "opens science to the criticism that science is not really free of the supernatural but that it tolerates (respects) supernaturalism." Actually, this should not describe science, but rather scientists (except for the openly intolerant ones). As Keith Miller says, "while science as a discipline is religiously neutral, individual scientists are not. We each live out our scientific vocations within a broader context." We were all born human before we were trained in science, and we did not check our humanity at the door of the laboratory.We did not forfeit our right to believe in the supernatural, or our civic duty to respect those who do. If we had done so, we would be less than fully human, and even more alienated from our non-scientist fellow citizens. (We Catholics used to have a saying: "Error has no rights." Fortunately, it was abandoned as church policy almost half a century ago, when a different view prevailed: "People have rights, even people who are in error!")

If, on the contrary, we want to communicate with the public and persuade them (and we have to do this to make our schools safe for science), then we need to use that non-scientist part of ourselves, along with our scientific training. We who are believers need to be role models who prove the theological neutrality of science, by showing that believers can be just as comfortable with Darwinism as atheists are. And when fundamentalists question the quality of our belief, we have to be able to defend it, along with our approach to interpreting the Bible and our overall worldview.

Pietrowicz poses the related question: If and when religion and science clash in the minds of students, how should the instructor respond? Certainly not by demanding that they "believe in" evolution in order to pass (though they can be required to learn the evidence presented even if they do not buy the interpretation). But I see nothing wrong with also saying something like "Hey, I'm a Christian too, but I don't have a problem with evolution. If you want, we can discuss that sometime outside of class." In many cases, that would pique the curiosity of students on both sides of the issue, and might lead to a fruitful, even enjoyable off-campus bull session. The key is to avoid pugnacity, defensiveness, or putting students down: respect really pays off and is part of what we should be teaching, in addition to the science.

In such a conversation about beliefs (with questioning students or committed fundamentalists), most scientists who are not believers will quickly find themselves tongue-tied, reduced to sputtering impotence or insufferable arrogance — neither response will be very persuasive. Not all fundamentalists are ignorant, or intellectual pushovers. The sincere ones have serious concerns that deserve serious responses. Explaining how science differs from religion may be a good start, but it does not get us all the way to explaining the meaning of life. Scientists who are unwilling or unable to go beyond science in order to defend science must face the fact that they cannot reach many of the people who need to be reached.

Committed atheists, in particular, have to decide which they care about more: making our schools safe for evolution, or ridding the world of religion. The latter, whether desirable or not, is emphatically not a prerequisite to achieving the former; and in any case, trying to do both at once just inflames the controversy and alienates religionists who are the atheists' potential allies in supporting good science. This does not help the cause of science education.

By Daryl P Domning
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.