Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?

March 24, 2009 • 4:01 pm

As long as I have been a scientist, I have lived with my colleagues’ view that one cannot promote the acceptance of evolution in this country without catering to the faithful. This comes from the idea that many religious people who would otherwise accept evolution won’t do so if they think it undermines their faith, promoting atheism or immoral behavior. Thus various organizations promoting the teaching of evolution, including the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education, have published booklets or websites that explicitly say that faith and science are compatible. In other words, that is their official position. In contrast, the view of many other scientists that faith and science (or reason) are incompatible is ignored or disparaged. As evidence for the compatibility, these organizations incessantly repeat that many scientists are religious and that many of the faithful accept evolution. While this proves compatibility in the trivial sense, it doesn’t show, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, that the two views are philosophically compatible.

As an example of the “official position” of some groups on compatibility, an alert reader sent me the URL of a site at The University of California at Berkeley, Understanding Science 101, that discusses the nature of science and how it’s done. There are a lot of good resources at this site, but perusing it I found, to my dismay, a sub-site that pushes the compatibility between science and faith:

With the loud protests of a small number of religious groups over teaching scientific concepts like evolution and the Big Bang in public schools, and the equally loud proclamations of a few scientists with personal, anti-religious philosophies, it can sometimes seem as though science and religion are at war. News outlets offer plenty of reports of school board meetings, congressional sessions, and Sunday sermons in which scientists and religious leaders launch attacks at one another. But just how representative are such conflicts? Not very. The attention given to such clashes glosses over the far more numerous cases in which science and religion harmoniously, and even synergistically, coexist. In fact, people of many different faiths and levels of scientific expertise see no contradiction at all between science and religion. Many simply acknowledge that the two institutions deal with different realms of human experience. Science investigates the natural world, while religion deals with the spiritual and supernatural — hence, the two can be complementary. Many religious organizations have issued statements declaring that there need not be any conflict between religious faith and the scientific perspective on evolution.

Francis Collins

Furthermore, contrary to stereotype, one certainly doesn’t have to be an atheist in order to become a scientist. A 2005 survey of scientists at top research universities found that more than 48% had a religious affiliation and more than 75% believe that religions convey important truths.2 Some scientists — like Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, and George Coyne, astronomer and priest — have been outspoken about the satisfaction they find in viewing the world through both a scientific lens and one of personal faith.

It seems to me that we can defend evolution without having to cater to the faithful at the same time. Why not just show that evolution is TRUE and its alternatives are not? Why kowtow to those whose beliefs many of us find unpalatable, just to sell our discipline? There are, in fact, two disadvantages to the “cater-to-religion” stance.

1. By trotting out those “religious scientists”, like Ken Miller, or those “scientific theologians,” like John Haught, we are tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs, including beliefs that God acts in the world today (theism), suspending natural laws. For example, I don’t subscribe to Miller’s belief that God acts immanently in the world, perhaps by influencing events on the quantum level, or that God created the laws of physics so that human-containing planets could evolve. I do not agree with John Haught’s theology. I do not consider any faith that touts God’s intervention in the world (even in the past) as compatible with science. Do my colleagues at the NAS or the NCSE disagree?

2. The statement that learning evolution does not influence one’s religious belief is palpably false. There are plenty of statistics that show otherwise, including the negative correlation of scientific achievement with religious belief and the negative correlation among nations in degree of belief in God with degree of acceptance of evolution. All of us know this, but we pretend otherwise. (In my book I note that “enlightened” religion can be compatible with science, but by “englightened” I meant a complete, hands-off deism.) I think it is hypocrisy to pretend that learning evolution will not affect either the nature or degree of one’s faith. It doesn’t always, but it does more often than we admit, and there are obvious reasons why (I won’t belabor these). I hate to see my colleagues pretending that faith and science live in nonoverlapping magisteria. They know better.

Because of this, I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do just that, and that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That’s not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren’t. End of story.

In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution. I think that this may mean that our nation will have to become a lot less religious before acceptance of evolution increases appreciably.

47 thoughts on “Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?

  1. Thank you for a very thought-provoking post. I’m a church-going, Bible-reading, scripture-quoting Christian who has no problem with science. I believe in evolution, plate-tectonics, dinosaurs, etc and these beliefs have in no way diminished my faith in God. In my opinion, the Bible was written thousands of years ago by and for people living thousands of years ago. Think about trying to explain human reproduction to a 5 year old. There is no way they could comprehend fallopian tubes or spermatozoa or the endometrial layer. So we tell them about the stork. Give them a few years to build up a base of knowledge and they can understand the real story. There is no way a person living thousands of years ago could have comprehended atoms, North America, or DNA. So they wrote a story about 6 days, a garden and a flood. I’ve rambled on too long. Thanks again!

    1. I HAVE to be concerned at comparing our lovely heavenly Father to this. Did Jesus not say “Even you Father,s THO YOU ARE EVIL know how to give good gifts to your children”? God does not need to tell porkies about creation, he told us it in very carefully worded language which EXCLUDED all the other ‘creation’ stories to show the truth. Just as I never resrted to lieing to my children about the stork, but at the appopriate age answered there questions with simplicity, yet HONESTY. Nothing they learnt in school later contradicted what I had already told them.

      The data available to use by scientific observation has never once countered the simplicity of the Genesis account. The original author is right. Darwinianism/macro-evolution is NOT compatible with a Bible- based belief in God. I am not afraid of that statement, and in doing so I have much greater consistancy in answering the question of evil and suffering in this world.

      your brother in Christ,


  2. Yes, with you all the way on this one.

    I’m reminded of those wonderful words from your February post that superstitious beliefs are “like the fate of fieldmice confronted by a combine harvester [i.e. evidence and reason], continuously retreating into the shrinking patch of uncut wheat [superstition].” Over the last century religious scientists have moved from special creation, to god’s hand guiding evolution and then back into setting up the laws of physics.

    The sooner scientists finally close the door on trying to live intellectually dichotomous lives the better we’ll all be.

    End the oxymoron “religious scientist”!

  3. I was in third grade when I came to the realization that science and religion were pretty much opposites and that there is no way they can both be right on those things on which they disagree (which seems to be almost everything).

    C’mon NOMA people, if an eight-year-old can figure this out, why can’t you?

    1. If religion is ‘a belief in a deity’ then why is that per se against science?

      Science is the systematic study of evidence.

      Evolution is a theory or hypothesis which does NOT stand up to scrutiny. It ignores any data which questions the theory of billions of years.

      1. Evolution is a theory or hypothesis which does NOT stand up to scrutiny. It ignores any data which questions the theory of billions of years.

        This is a completely wrong statement. There are hundreds of thousands of pieces of evidence in fossils, DNA, geology, embryology, etc., etc.

        Evolution stands up with evidence as much or more than any other scientific theory.

  4. Link to the NCSE news item:

    A U.S. Supreme Court case against Cal’s “Understanding Evolution” site was decided yesterday–or rather, evaded. The lawsuit was from a person claiming that the site’s statement that Darwinism is compatible with religion contradicts her religious belief and violates the Constitutional separation of church and state. The case was dropped, not because the constitutionaity question was decided, but because she didn’t have “standing”.

    Anyway, I suppose the “compatibility” statement of the “Understanding Science” site is safe for now–not good I think, since it’s such a ludicrous statement and it sure looks like theology to me although perhaps there’s some fine line here that I’m not seeing. Anyway, I don’t see why Cal thinks they have to make such statements. I see nothing wrong at all in just presenting science and leaving the theology out altogether. The site mentions in one place that science doesn’t deal with supernatural explanations; surely, that would be sufficient.

    Is every science textbook going to have this “compatibility” song and dance in it?

  5. Most of us realize that science is not compatible with most religious beliefs.

    I don’t have much respect for my fellow atheist scientists who pretend otherwise.

    Thank-you for posting.

  6. Well put.

    The one thing that annoyed me about the Nova series Evolution was that of the 8 episodes that one was entirely devoted to that very question. The political and social ramifications are there for all to see, but really does a science program need to spend 1 of the 8 hours it has exploring a question of religion when there is so much in the science to explore?

    It’s really a shame that almost all journalism on the issue these days is to do with the controversy, it’s created a positive feedback loop in the general public.

  7. One possible reason why this occurs is that religious freedom was an important to create a tolerant, pluralistic society. Pointing out that some people square their religious beliefs with scientific information is a way of saying, “We value a tolerant society.”

  8. Amongst the mostly excellent programmes the BBC have produced for Darwin Year they have felt obliged to include one called ‘Did Darwin Kill God’: “Philosopher and theologian Conor Cunningham declares that it’s time to set the story straight and argues that it is possible to be both a Christian and accept the theory of evolution.”

  9. Simply put, a religious scientest does not deserve proper respect as a human being. He/she is lying to themselve in spite of the evidence and that it is contrary to their science background and training.

  10. Jerry: I agree with you that there are real philosophical conflicts between science and even liberal versions of religion. However, I don’t think that by “trotting out” someone like Ken Miller we are putting “our imprimatur on their beliefs.” We are just pointing out the empirical fact that *it is possible* for someone to be a confessed Christian and a thoroughgoing evolutionist. As far as I can tell, it requires some cognitive acrobatics worthy of Cirque de Soleil, but that’s their problem, not mine. I find the idea of the loud, spiteful and destructive god of the Old Testament reduced to one only active in quantum events both ludicrous and a bit sad. But if it can float your boat while staying out of the way of your mind operating rationally on things that matter, then I’m not going to criticize it. I can’t imagine Ken Miller’s kind of faith satisfying most religiously inclined, but I can’t see much of a downside if it did, either.

    Ian’s comment above is instructive. He says “Simply put, a religious scientest [sic] does not deserve proper respect as a human being.” I’m afraid that we will encourage the Ians of the world if we require an atheist litmus test of all scientists. I’m with commenter Zen, above. I’m for tolerance where I can’t see how someone’s beliefs interfere with rational discourse. If fewer people see evolutionary biology as a threat to their belief system when they first encounter it in school, more will come to see that evolution is true. And maybe, just maybe, the truth will set them free.

    1. By ‘religious scientist’ you obviously actually mean ‘evolutionist’.

      Let’s not forget Farrday, Boyle, Marie Curie, Galileo, Newton etc were all ‘religious’ using your term. AND yes, the established ‘church’ got it wrong too!

      Science is a line of study, not a belief system!

  11. Jerry, look at your article posted also at A few people misunderstand your stance there and claim you are supporting NOMA and appeasement!

    I think you need to set them straight.

    As far as John Sullivan’s comment above, I think Ian’s “…does not deserve proper respect as a human being.” is totally out of line, but I do see us respecting scientists who are deeply religious less as responsible scientists.

    I do disagree with you and Zen. I feel that someone’s beliefs can interfere with rational discourse. It depends on the nature of those beliefs.

  12. Well said.

    Science starts out from the assumption that every phenomenon which occurs can be explained, and proceeds from there. Religion asserts that there are phenomena which cannot be explained (e.g., transubstantiation). The two are directly at odds.

    But the greatest problem is that religions make assertions which run contrary to reality.

  13. I’ll try again, after my first comment did not appear (yet, anyhow).

    Evolution is just science, and is not inherently opposed to religion at all. Meaning that it is incompatible with much American religion, and, like all sciences, it fails to support god claims.

    So there is not much reason to single it out. Neuroscience strikes more deeply into the claims of most US religion, for it does not allow for add-on woo like the “soul.” If one looks at ID, too, one notes that ID exists largely to defend nonsense like “souls,” and it also bases some of its anti-evolutionary claims on the notion of this “non-material” and essentially magical “soul.”

    If one wishes to say that science altogether tends to diminish and to erode religion, well and good. Evolution is simply a part of that, and not typically the most threatening part.

    Glen D

  14. One of the most praised pronouncements of the Dover legal case was that evolution and religion were compatible (read Jones’ decision, and the trial transcripts). So, to answer your question “Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?”; the answer is yes. Or, to put it in the easily understood words of my generation: you smart scientists “shit in your own mess kit”. Now eat it.

  15. Sorry, Barry @15 but you are not telling the truth.

    Judge Jones issued his 139-page findings of fact and decision ruling that the Dover mandate was unconstitutional and barring intelligent design from being taught in Pennsylvania’s Middle District public school science classrooms.

    Among the judge’s 139 page decision:

    We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980’s; and (3) ID’s negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community.

  16. I do not pretend to be a scientist,although I studied intro. math,physics, and chemistry.

    Thus I understand the ‘scientific method of proof’ as I assume you do.

    Does evolution pass this “proof”, or should it be called a theory, or philosophy?

  17. Don’t ever let the “faithful” annoy you or get under your skin. It’s simply not worth your psychic energy to contemplate eternity,(if they’re right).

    Ask them what is ‘their agenda’?

  18. drdavejensen:

    You do not understand the word ‘theory’ as many people misconstrue it.

    Partial, from Wikipedia:

    A theory, in the general sense of the word, is an analytic structure designed to explain a set of observations. A theory does two things:

    1. it identifies this set of distinct observations as a class of phenomena, and
    2. makes assertions about the underlying reality that brings about or affects this class.

    The term is often used colloquially to refer to any explanatory thought, even fanciful or speculative ones, but in scholarly use it is reserved for ideas which meet baseline requirements about the kinds of observations made, the methods of classification used, and the consistency of the theory in its application among members of that class. These requirements vary across different fields of knowledge, but in general theories are expected to be functional and parsimonious: i.e. a theory should be the simplest possible tool that can be used to effectively address the given class of phenomena.

  19. This is really not about science versus religion. This is about science period. Proving the existence of the “genesis molecule” of the bible using pure science would still be unacceptable to a science community bias against God. The use of the word genesis alone would get your paper rejected.

  20. You know what, Ray Turner?

    I just read a pretty good book recently:

    Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origin By Robert M. Hazen

  21. Ray,

    Is the science community bias against god, God, or Gods? Please specify.

    If all three, then I would agree…except it’s not a bias, but the default position a rational person, scientist or not, should take.

  22. Very good points you have, Jerry.
    What many seemingly not understand is that religion is the anti-thesis to science.
    Religions, and in particular the abrahamic ones, are about accepting ‘truths’ without questioning or doubting.
    Since science is the opposite, where nothing is ‘holy’, and what doesn’t stand up to scrutiny is deemed invalid, the two are both in principle and in practice incompatible. They do not even touch.
    And historically it is very quick to verify that science survived in spite of religion, not because of religion.
    The Arab world had a period of great scientific achievements, and I am very confident that during this period the clergy were kept in tight reins, because it is the clergy and their insatiable need for control that throughout times have caused most human misery.
    So, science is science, and religion is nonsense.

  23. I would hope that we can all remember a very important fact: Science is fun.

    The earnestness of these discussions can become, frankly, ridiculous. When UC Berkeley, NAS, and NCSE argue that science is compatible with religion, they are doing political work for which I am grateful. I don’t expect them to agonize over the contradictions.

    Just as I don’t think that the editors of New Scientist should have expected a kind of Spanish Inquisition for their irreverence February 18.

    Jerry, Daniel, Richard and Paul: “You have made a lot of extra, unpleasant work for the scientists whose work you should be explaining to the general public. We all now have to go out and try to correct all the misapprehensions your cover has engendered.”

    Miss Shields in Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story: “Now I know that some of you put Flick up to this, but he has refused to say who. But those who did it know their blame, and I’m sure that the guilt you feel is far worse than any punishment you might receive.”

    Where’s the difference?

  24. First, the doctrine of NOMA is rotten through and through.

    Historically, religions have been encyclopedic systems of belief, offering explanations of a vast range of phenomena as well as providing guidance for their adherents’ actions. As encyclopedic systems, they inevitably come into conflict with science, as science provides more and more facts about how the world actually works. Religion can avoid direct conflicts only by retreating into highly abstract and more-or-less unfalsifiable positions. Some modern-day versions of religion may well have retreated so far from falsifiability that they are no longer in direct conflict with science, but that’s a fascinating historical development, not an indication that religion and science exercise inherently different and non-overlapping magisteria.

    Even when religion avoids direct conflict with good science, and is thus not PLAINLY irrational, it tends not to be believable when its image of the universe is held up against the emerging scientific image.

    In particular, who, in the light of science, can seriously adopt the orthodox Abrahamic idea of a loving and providential (yet all-powerful and all-knowing) deity? Who can believe – without having been brainwashed, er “socialised”, into it – that a loving and providential god is responsible for the emergence of rational beings in its divine image only after the passage of hundreds of millions of years; the extinction of countless species; various planetary catastrophes and mass extinctions; and throughout all this, ever since sentient creatures evolved a few hundred million years ago, the ever-present agony of nature red in tooth and claw?

    When it comes to the moral teachings of religion, some of them are uncontroversial because almost any moral system must find a place for them. But the specifically religious content of religious morality is usually sick and miserable. It typically involves a nasty kind of ascetism; it fossilises moral injunctions from unenlightened times (injunctions that were of dubious value even then, and are totally disconnected from modern needs); and it is usually couched in terms of an implausible absolutism.

    Religion has never, except as a strategy of retreat, restricted itself to teachings about morality. And when when offers its own distinctive moral teachings, the effect is usually a morality that we’d be better off without.

    (Longer version over here: )

  25. I think it is also important to sometimes point out that believers (or others, for that matter) who claim the compatibility are in fact noticably distorting science in order to do so. For example, the official Catholic position is one of psychoneural dualism, which runs into problems in physics, biology, etc. Even the “purely ethical” considerations some claim to adopt are fraught with implicit metaphysics, usually incompatible with science as well. Think, for example, of the nature of human beings as implicitly understood by a specific understanding of punishment or sociality.

    Even the “deistic god” is IMO incompatible with science, though weakly. I think, however, there’s an important point buried in my last remark: namely that incompatibility comes in degrees, or at least a partial ordering. The “Earth is 6000 years old, etc.” creationist has much more incompatible beliefs than the deist, and there is a range of possibilities in between.

  26. I have an observation and a question. My observation is that neither the above article nor any of these posts make any attempt to define “religious beliefs.” There can be little doubt that some religious beliefs conflict with scientific theories. But the question at hand is not whether there exist some religious beliefs that conflict with science, but whether religion is fundamentally and necessarily incompatible with science — that is, whether all views that could possibly be seen as religious conflict with science. Unless you can rule out any possible counterexample, the statement “science is incompatible with religion” overreaches.

    My question has to do with Mathematical Platonism (MP). It is my understanding that many mathematicians think of mathematical entities (such as the set of natural numbers) as things that exist independently of _any_ material representation or instantiation of them (i.e. piles of stones, Peano axioms, etc.). This belief, as I understand it, is rooted in a need for a suitably strong definition of truth in mathematics. However, this view of mathematics arguably has a religious valence, given that it asserts the existence of things with no material instantiation.

    I have no doubt that my brief explanation of MP is open to many kinds of attacks, but I would like to know if anyone a) agrees with me that MP has a religious valence and b) whether those people would therefore entertain the possibility that MP is a counterexample to the assertion that religion and science are incompatible.

  27. Scott, to be honest I don’t know what you mean by the term “religious valence”. As I understand it, MP claims that there is a sense in which mathematical abstracta such as numbers and sets of numbers are “real” things. Whether or not that’s intuitive, I don’t think it’s enough to amount to religion (I tend to think that doctrines like MP are matters of semantics, but maybe I’m being unfair).

    Religion is a rather fuzzy-edged concept. E.g. the courts find it difficult to define for tax purposes, as in the leading Australian case on the subject:^scientology

    But I think you’d need a lot more than a philosophical doctrine like MP before you say, “We have a religion here.”

    Likewise, plenty of hardline atheists adhere to some kind of moral objectivism or moral realism, but I don’t think they thereby become religionists.

  28. As a scientist, I’ll have to call you out on #2. Correlation and causation aren’t the same thing, so while those stats show that science and religious beliefs are negatively correlated (and I personally don’t doubt that they are connected in some way), I think it is a pretty huge leap to say that these stats support the idea that learning one particular scientific theory (evolution) leads to the rejection of religion. It certainly wasn’t the case for me and many other deconverted people I’ve talked with, although that is anecdotal.

  29. “In 25 years of effort, these organizations don’t seem to have had much effect on influencing public opinion about evolution.”

    I’m sorry, but I seriously doubt this and would take the court cases like Dover as evidence to the contrary. The fact of “the controversy” being favorite media meat shows that there is more than one side and I personally feel that the IDers and creationists, while still a vocal minority are–over all–getting their butts kicked (and they know it). They are MUCH less successful than the Complementary and Alternative Medicine quacks. Yes their constant attacks are annoying and yes, they sometime get things passed at the State level but, as I said, over all they seem to be on the losing side.

  30. I think Jerry confuses “cater” with “respect”. To take the time to understand the opposition in this debate and the heart of their concerns while treating them with a degree of respects is not catering. In all fairness these posts are not particularly disrespectful towards people of faith, but look at some of PZ Meyers posts and it’s easy to see where this can lead. Again, honest dialogue between theists and atheists regarding matters of science and respect for those with opposing views is no vice.

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