Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Winning Their Hearts and Minds: Who Should Speak for Evolution?

Book reviews in recent issues of RNCSE have showcased a growing number of authors and reviewers who advocate some form of theistic evolution. However, other recent books by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and other militant atheist advocates of evolution have attracted much more media attention — naturally, since extreme views always sell more newspapers than moderate ones.

Moderate views on creation-vs-evolution are not in short supply. Yet despite the Gallup polls consistently showing 35–40% of Americans somewhere between the poles of special creationism and strictly materialist evolutionism (with only 9–15% for the latter view), this reality is studiously ignored both by creationists and by materialists like Dawkins (and others). This not only polarizes the debate unnecessarily, but fundamentally misrepresents it. To break this impasse and move toward defusing evolution as an explosive social and educational issue, I propose the perhaps shocking idea that it is time for theistic evolutionists to take over from atheists as the public face of evolution advocacy.

A Cultural Stalemate

The stalemated conflict between creationists and evolutionists here in the US (and now spreading abroad) reminds me a bit of conditions in a certain Middle Eastern country where religious passions have also contributed to a dangerous degree of political polarization. At one extreme, we have religious fundamentalists whose worldview is deeply threatened by what they see as a corrupting secular culture and ideology and who resist this at all costs, sometimes by (intellectually) unscrupulous means. At the other pole, with scant understanding of and less sympathy for the thinking, culture, language, and concerns of their religious adversaries, are militant evangelical atheists, waging a heavy-handed, ill-advised Global War on Theism that needlessly provokes their opponents and only inflames the situation. Having seized the mantle of spokespersons for evolution, and the spotlight of the media, they drown out the voices of fellow evolutionists who would pursue a less arrogant and abrasive policy.

Secular critics like these tend to rest secure in the Green Zones of college campuses and major cities. Many scientists, in fact, declared "Mission Accomplished" years ago and dismissed the creationists as just a few diehards whose time has passed. But the sectarians who dominate much of the countryside, and have the hearts and minds of much of the population, are actively targeting their IEDs (intelligent educational designs) at school boards and state legislatures across the country. Meanwhile the noncombatant population, caught in the crossfire and not necessarily committed to any extremist faction, wants nothing more from them than answers to the great questions of human existence: the meaning of life, the reasons for suffering, and whether there is a God, an afterlife, and ultimate justice (Pennock 1997).

In this asymmetrical warfare, the secularists make easy, static targets. They fruitlessly deploy ponderous scientific artillery against the lightweight arguments of "scientific creationist" guerrillas, and wonder at how the latter always blithely dance aside to fight again another day. But the creationist leaders and their lay followers are clearly motivated by those existential and theological concerns and not by science, so the scientific arguments do not lay a glove on them.

As long as the secularists insist on prosecuting the war unilaterally in this way, they will not prevail. The only hope for a successful outcome lies with a coalition: the secularists must ally themselves with — indeed, yield leadership to — theistic evolutionists, who understand the creationists’ religious culture, speak their religious language, and can engage them on their home turf.

The Diversity Among Theists

Anyone who pays close attention to creationists’ rhetoric will see that they ignore whenever possible the inconvenient existence of the large segment of Christianity that accepts evolution (Matsumura 1995: 22). Since most of their philosophical and moral arguments are aimed at atheists, these arguments fall flat when they are confronted with opponents who share many of their theological presuppositions. Such opponents can cut to the chase, posing to creationists the key question, "What is it about evolution that really bothers you? Because if it is a fear that life in the Darwinian view has no meaning and no room for God, then I am here to testify that you can be both a Darwinian and a Christian — in fact, a better, more intellectually consistent Christian!" In other words, Christian extremism is best left to other Christians to handle in-house.

Fundamentalists with an unshakable commitment to biblical literalism, of course, will not be open to this approach. But many people cling to a literal reading of Genesis only because no one has ever shown them acceptable answers to their existential questions that do not conflict with science. By agreeing with the creationists that such answers are impossible, the extreme materialists self-defeatingly drive such folks into the creationist camp.

What I am proposing is simply that those who embrace theistic evolution, Christians especially, shed whatever shyness they have about saying so, in public and in private, and actively engage family, friends, colleagues, clergy, elected officials, news reporters, and anyone else who evinces doubt about the compatibility of evolution and religious belief. Lack of knowledge is no longer an excuse, given the rich resources recently provided by writers such as Beatrice Bruteau, Denis Edwards, Stephen Godfrey, John Haught, Kenneth Miller, Michael Ruse, Patricia Williams, and many others — most of them reviewed or otherwise represented in these pages. Fill the silence that these authors have begun to dispel. We need not agree on all the theological details; the goal is simply to make it unmistakably clear that the atheists have no monopoly on Darwinism. Speak about it, write about it, publish your own insights; but in and out of season, bear witness that you and many like you see ways to reconcile faith and science without compromising either.

Objections to this proposal are foreseeable. The militant atheists will say that it publicly divides the evolution camp; that it is an intellectually dishonest tactical sellout to theism; and that it inappropriately drags religion into a scientific debate just as the creationists do.

However, it is disingenuous to pretend that all evolutionists see eye-to-eye on philosophical or theological matters. We rightly criticize creationists who obscure the divisions among anti-evolutionists, as is done at the new Creation Museum in Kentucky (Heaton 2007). In fact, both extremes downplay their divisions, which they see as weaknesses. For the creationists, it really is a weakness, because they feel the need for science to buttress weak theology, and therefore they must make the science point unambiguously in their direction.

But the diversity of theological views among evolutionists is potentially a strength for us in this conflict, because it corroborates one of our central arguments: the theological neutrality of good science. It shows that a variety of religious views is compatible with the facts of science — and some of those views may be acceptable to many who have hitherto counted themselves as anti-evolutionists. It humanizes what is now seen by many, and held up by our adversaries, as evolutionists’ rigid hostility to religion and contempt for the deepest concerns of most human beings. That kind of religious rigidity is something we associate with fundamentalist religious groups. Think: if we are all about good science, then how did we get maneuvered into being known by a huge public mainly for an extreme religious viewpoint (and one that many of us do not even share)? Who are the real fundamentalists in this fight?

Religionists are hardly unaware that various churches and their members have theological differences. They will not be scandalized to learn that scientists also disagree on these matters that are outside of science. The point is to build a bridge across the divide, by showing them that (surprise!) many evolutionists can and do agree with them on many points of religious doctrine.

Furthermore, this is not a false irenicism, smoothing over fundamental differences between creationists and evolutionists just to quiet the controversy. In truth, many (perhaps most!) evolutionists are theists of one sort or another. Their views are as sincerely and validly held as those of the atheists and have as much (perhaps more!) claim to be representative of evolutionist thinking. Atheists have every right to believe that theists are woefully misguided in failing to see the obsolescence of religion after Darwin; but that is their philosophical opinion, not an infallibly proven proposition of science or logic. No one is expecting them to shut up or sign on to theistic evolution for the sake of a united front; but the theists are justifiably tired of having the folks on both ends of the spectrum pretend they don’t exist — presumed to be atheists by the creationists, and presumptuously spoken for by the real atheists.

The Nature of the Debate

Does my proposal drag religion into a scientific debate? Let’s get real: this has not been a merely scientific debate for a hundred years. The atheists themselves, like the rest of us, proclaim this from the rooftops: the scientific community accepted evolution generations ago, and creationism today has none but religious motives. Yet we keep acting as though the creationists’ phony scientific arguments can be laid to rest by piling on more and more layers of new scientific data. Maybe that will persuade a few folks on the fence who are genuinely perplexed by scientific questions; but it is assuredly irrelevant to most people who disbelieve evolution — because they are scientific laypeople and do not lose sleep over the Second Law of Thermodynamics or whether paleontologists have a correct understanding of punctuated equilibrium. What they do care about are those eternal existential questions, and whether belief in evolution is a threat to civilized society as we know it. Until we start addressing those concerns, the two sides of the debate will continue talking past each other, just as they have for the last 40 years and more.

Finally, is my proposal basically a tactical one? Of course it is — because the old tactics have failed to achieve more than a courtroom stalemate, while the soul of creationism is marching on in churches, classrooms, political campaigns, and the rest of society. We have been fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons. If we are content to rest on our courtroom victories, as the winners of every stand-up fight, we will end up as we did in Vietnam: or as Sitting Bull supposedly said after the Little Bighorn, we will have "won a great battle, but lost a great war."

To really protect education from creationism’s inroads, it has to be marginalized not just scientifically and legally but theologically; and the atheists among us cannot do that. The voices of other evolutionists need to be heard. There are many such voices out there; let’s start putting them front and center.

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