As the latest legislative season wound down with a large number of creationist bills introduced around the country and as the latest Gallup poll came out showing that creationism continues to enthrall many Americans, there were a flurry of articles discussing how to apportion blame for this sorry state of affairs. Oddly enough all seem to have missed some critically important aspect and thus the explanations offered explain very little.
The discourse began with a piece in The Atlantic by Robert Wright. His hypothesis is as simple as it is wrong! He argues that creationists and scientists agreed to a détente two decades ago and all was well until the "new atheists" came along to upset the status quo.
A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone. The deal worked. ... A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact. ... I don't just mean they professed atheism -- many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.
Is Wright unaware of the many court cases in which creationists didn't let Darwinians reign in biology class? The National Center for Science Education lists ten major court cases in which creationists tried to insinuate their filthy camel noses into the public-school tent. All of those took place between 1968 and 2005.
This is a point that Coyne disputes both vehemently and graphically, if less than persuasively, when he says "Wright is talking out of his nether parts." He goes on, more reasonably, to say, "The reason people choose religion over evolution is not because New Atheists tell them they have to make that choice. It's because their faith tells them they have to make that choice."
As head of The Clergy Letter Project, an international collection of religious leaders and scientists who promote evolutionary teaching, I have good reason to believe that the rhetoric of people like Coyne, Dawkins and Myers have, in fact, moved people away from a pro-science, pro-evolution perspective and toward religious fundamentalism. I've interacted with tens of thousands of clergy members over the years and I've been depressed by how many of them have pointed to the position of the "new atheists" saying that if they're the spokespeople for evolution, they want nothing to do with it. Have these clergy members actively promoted creationism? I have no way of knowing, but what they haven't done is promote evolution as have the thousands of their colleagues who have joined The Clergy Letter Project.
More perniciously, the "new atheists" have aligned themselves with biblical fundamentalists by consistently arguing that people must choose between religion and science. In fact, however, the goal of The Clergy Letter Project has been to demonstrate to religious people around the world that no such choice is necessary. Religion serves a very different purpose than does science and when religion makes no scientific claims there is no conflict between the two. There's good reason to believe that if people feel they must choose between the two, religion will more often come out on top.
Michael Ruse, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes much the same point that I just did. He goes on, however, to lay some of the blame at the feet of mainstream, rather than fundamentalist, denominations.
But when did you last hear the Catholic hierarchy holding forth about the need to teach evolution in schools and to expel biblical literalism? And I am not sure that a lot of the Protestant Churches are much better.
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. ... We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.
Are the "new atheists" responsible for creationism in America as Wright argues? Of course not! But neither should they be immune from the criticism that their inflammatory language and derision of religion keeps many from more fully understanding science, in general, and evolution, in particular.
Are religious people responsible for promoting the continuing battle between evolution and creationism? Of course! But that does not mean that ALL religious people are playing this role. Religion is not synonymous with fundamentalism any more than Muslim is synonymous with terrorist. Indeed, thousands of religious leaders have become some of the most articulate and most outspoken supporters of evolution -- without compromising their religious faith.
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