Evolution exhibits and religion

October 6, 2010 • 11:07 am

To complement Greg’s post below, I’ll soon put up my own post about the Smithsonian’s new human evolution exhibit.  Like Greg’s, that one will also highlight the science (and deficiencies thereof), but I just wanted to add a note about how religion was involved in the exhibit.

Now it’s true that exhibits like this have the potential to unsettle those of the faithful who are creationists or are on the fence.  The facts in the Smithsonian exhibit are presented pretty uncompromisingly, and that’s good.  What isn’t so good is that exhibits like this one often try to defuse religious objections by presenting a particular theological view, to wit: human evolution is compatible with religion.  And of course I object to that because it’s theology and not science. Why not just give folks the science and let them draw their own conclusions? If they are disturbed, they can go to their own pastor or any number of sources that deal with science and faith.  I take the Jack Webb approach to evolution exhibits: “All we want is the science, ma’am.”

To deal with religious discomfort, the Smithsonian formed a “Broader Social Impact Committee.”  Greg mentioned this committee last March. Here’s its mission:

In the vibrant scientific field of human evolution, new discoveries and research findings are regularly reported as lead stories in newspapers and other media. Despite strong public interest, however, many people find the idea of human evolution troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. While polarized public opinion on the matter is the usual focus, the diversity of contemporary religious responses to evolution is less recognized. These responses point to opportunities for a productive relationship between science and religion without assuming a conflict between the scientific evidence of human evolution and religious beliefs. . . The role of the BSIC is to offer support and advice regarding the public presentation of the science of human origins in light of potential responses by diverse faith communities to the subject of human evolution.

Well, I’m not keen on this because it’s publicly-funded theology (the Smithsonian is run by the government): government endorsement of a no-conflict model.  That would seem to violate the first amendment, since it favors one form of religion (those faiths that accept evolution) over others (those that are creationist).

The Smithsonian committee comprised 13 people, eleven of whom are identified by their religion: “Muslim,” “Judaism,” “Mennonite Brethren,” and so on. There’s also a humanist—Fred Edwords—and a Dr. Joe Watkins, who seems to represent only himself.

Fortunately, I didn’t detect excessive pandering to religion in the exhibit, but it was there nonetheless.  Here are some slides in an interactive computer display at the beginning of the exhibit:

My answer to the question below: get rid of religion.

And this, which refers to different “stories” without noting that all save one are wrong:

But in this respect the Smithsonian exhibit is still far ahead of its rival: the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), whose Hall of Human Origins does even more distasteful pandering,

Over at No Right to Believe, Ezra Reznick publishes an open letter to the AMNH, detailing the accommodationism that infects the AMNH exhibit (which he otherwise liked):

One of the scientists on display (I have forgotten his name) asserts that “science cannot tell us what is right or wrong, what is good or evil, what is the meaning or purpose of existence. That’s what philosophy is for; that’s what religion is for; that’s what moral and ethical frameworks are for.” I found this statement to be incoherent and misleading (at best). First of all, note that nearby displays in the exhibit deal with the evolution of human art, tools, music and language — and their analogs in other species — and we can likewise recognize precursors of what we would call moral behavior, like cooperation and compassion, in other social animals. Science certainly does have much to say on the subject of morality — for instance, the theory of evolution itself has had profound implications for how we treat nonhuman animals (our cousins in the tree of life) and humans of different races. In general, science can potentially tell us whether and how much a given creature might suffer in a given situation — surely the primary concern of morality. As for meaning and purpose, the theory of evolution reinforces the understanding that there is no “cosmic purpose” behind our existence; that the universe doesn’t care about us and wasn’t created with humans in mind.

And, wouldn’t you know it, Francis Collins also appears:

I was further disappointed to see a video of Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, proclaiming that while science is the way to explore the natural world, he also believes in a personal God, and finds science and faith to be complementary. To realize how nonsensical and unscientific this statement is, replace the word “God” with the name of a specific deity — Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc. After all, it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on. A Muslim or Hindu scientist would hold different (often contradictory) beliefs. And yet none of these religious dogmas are supported by any good evidence, as is true for the belief that a personal God exists at all — indeed, 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences reject the belief in such a God (according to a 1998 survey).

It seems as if the curators were worried that people would emerge from the exhibit thinking, “Well, if we evolved naturally from nonhuman animals, then our lives are meaningless and there’s no reason to behave morally.” This is nonsense, but instead of highlighting how a scientific understanding of the world (and the theory of evolution in particular) can and should strengthen our appreciation of life’s value and our commitment to treating each other ethically, the exhibit chooses to reinforce the tiresome tripe about how science can’t address the big questions of life (while presumably religion can), and how we need to rely on a supernatural deity to give our lives meaning and tell us how we ought to behave.

Collins, along with other accommodationisms, also appeared on video at our Field Museum’s Darwin exhibit a while back, assuring distressed viewers that evolution and faith are perfectly compatible.

To top this all off, Alan Leshner, executive publisher of Science and CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, published a piece in last Saturday’s HuffPo:  “How science museums are promoting civil religion-science dialogue.” He explains how the Smithsonian’s outreach committee affected the exhibit. There was some sensitivity training for volunteers, which is great—we don’t want docents insulting people who come to learn about human evolution.  But there were two warning flags.  Leshner notes:

It is possible to counter the dangerous polarization within our society related to science-religion issues, as demonstrated by the Smithsonian’s David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. A key to the exhibit’s success, Potts says, was the decision to center the exhibit around a question rather than an answer: “What does it mean to be human?” (Similarly, The Exploratorium in San Francisco presents information about human origins by asking, “How do we know what we know?”)

Yes, they counter the “dangerous polarization” by pretending that the exhibit is not about answers (which, of course, it is), and by allowing viewers to construct their own answers. This is something Greg worried about in his post below, but I didn’t realize it was part of a deliberate strategy to defuse religious conflict.)  And the impact committee had another effect:

All of these and other tactics have allowed the museum to move “beyond the stereotype that scientists only believe one thing and people with strong religious views can only believe another,” Potts says.

In fact, they do this by pretending that there are no scientists who reject religion, and that science and faith are always friends. That’s intellectual dishonesty, and even if it’s in the service of promoting evolution, I reject it. Far better to leave out all mention of faith.  Let the faithful see the facts, and ponder their discomfort on their own time.  It’s not the job of public exhibits, particularly government sponsored ones, to take a specific position on theology.

36 thoughts on “Evolution exhibits and religion

  1. Or maybe they should present both sides, as creationists always whine for, and include a quote from Richard Dawkins, about religion and science being incompatible?
    The double standard in the meaning of fairness is quite inexplicable.

    1. Yes, once again “fairness” to religious people actually means “deference.”

      Jerry is spot-on: Present the science. Period. If people have a theological discomfort with the science, then let ’em talk it over with their clergy. Elsewhere.

    2. Respectfully, I think this double standard is quite easily explicable: The Smithsonian is (understandably) fearful of the consternation a neutral presentation of the science would induce in its religious visitors. That some (many?) religious visitors will respond with hostility and outrage is a mathematical certainty, and the people who run the Smithsonian are smart folks who know that the threat from those whose delicate religious sensibilities have been perturbed is orders of magnitude greater than that posed by a few slightly irritated scientists. There will be visitors who complain to their congressional representatives in complete hysterics over the Smithsonian’s temerity.
      I agree with Andy: Fairness is simply code for deference, or even concession. Even so, it’s understandable that the folks running the Smithsonian would be aware of the practical necessity (repugnant as it is) of offering a kind of preemptive mollification, such as it is. All things considered, it could be a lot worse.
      Finally, I think the back-and-forth below over what constitutes a “faith,” the difficulty – even here – of determining a reasonable compromise, and, not least, the clear 1st Amendment considerations, demonstrates that religion shouldn’t be part of this “conversation” in the first place. Period.
      But, “That will happen,” to quote the great William Shakespeare, “when monkeys fly out of my butt.”

    3. Yes, persent both sides as when you see the religious nutters’ ‘case’ for creation parallel with the EVIDENCE for evolution, it would be no contest.

  2. FWIW, I don’t have a huge problem with the first of the three slides. The phrasing could use some work to avoid what seems like an implicit endorsement of the compatibilist position… But there’s nothing explicitly objectionable in it. I don’t think it’s entirely inappropriate for a science museum to briefly mention that some people find no conflict (which is a fact), as long as they don’t endorse that position. The faith-science conflict is enough of an elephant in the room, particularly for an exhibit on human origins, that a brief mention of it (along with the various major positions people hold) is probably acceptable.

    The second slide is definitely inappropriate, though. While it still hides behind phrases like, “Some people consider…”, it is crystal clear what they are trying to say. And what they are saying is well outside the scope of a science museum’s mission. (Not to mention IMO wrong…)

    1. An example of the appropriate tone I think can be found in the flyer the NCSE produced to counter Ray Comfort’s Origin of Species stunt. In particular, I thought this phrase was spot on:

      People of all faiths and of none have accepted evolution on its scientific merits.

      That’s all that really needs — or ought — to be said about it by a scientific organization.

      1. I think the quoted statement is misleading, since it is certainly not true that people of literally all faiths accept evolution.

        1. Hmmm, a fair point. I guess it depends what you mean by “all faiths”. How finely do you want to subdivide it?

          I still think it strikes the appropriate tone, even if that particular word choice could be strictly interpreted as inaccurate. I particularly liked the “and of none” to the phrase, because to me that avoids endorsing the compatibilist position — it merely points out that such a position exists. I’m fine with that.

          1. I guess it depends what you mean by “all faiths”. How finely do you want to subdivide it?

            Well, I would certainly argue that the various theologically incompatible Christian sects count as separate “faiths”. At the very least, I think the quoted statement would be objected to by various literalist groups (and not just of the Christian tradition) as being wrong, or at least misleading (in that the only way it could be right is to lump groups with large doctrinal differences together under one “faith”).

            I particularly liked the “and of none” to the phrase, because to me that avoids endorsing the compatibilist position — it merely points out that such a position exists.

            I agree, I appreciate that wording as well.

  3. government endorsement of a no-conflict model. That would seem to violate the first amendment, since it favors one form of religion (those faiths that accept evolution) over others (those that are creationist).


    This is a dangerous move because it is explicitly endorsing one form of religious belief over another. The US government should not be in that business – it should not be deciding what is acceptable and what is not.

  4. They’re doing the same thing at the Natural History Museum in NY. A couple of rows down from the Sahelanthropus diorama is a large, accommodationist-approved video on auto-loop featuring Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins saying, essentially, “Take a deep breath, it’s okay to believe in a loving God who wanted it this way.”

    1. I have to say I like the smithsonian doing it less. For two reasons: 1) AMNH is a private organization and so, it may endorse religion if it so pleases, unlike the government. 2) AMNH in the end needs fees paid by visitor to operate, whereas the smithsonian doesn’t.

      1. Yes, this is unfortunate.
        Although I found this interesting: AMNH is a publicly-supported, tax exempt educational corporation pursuant to sections 501(c)(3) and 170 of the Internal Revenue Code. This tax exempt status provides an exemption from income tax to AMNH for its related educational activities and it provides tax deductibility to donors for gifts to AMNH.

        To maintain that status, AMNH must operate exclusively for its exempt public purpose. In addition, it is required to comply with various operational constraints. These constraints include that no part of AMNH net earnings may inure to the private benefit of any individual, that AMNH may not devote a substantial part of its activities to carrying on propaganda or otherwise attempting to influence legislation, and that AMNH may not participate or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

        Wouldn’t religious pandering be considered propaganda? Perhaps this is an educational approach issue involving the NAS, but I think it would be sad if the reason for accommodationism is simply to assuage a donor populace.

        I also wonder if Koch’s funding of the Smithsonian carries the same influential weight as political campaign contributors do in terms of shaping public policies. If so, this will remain a game of appeasement for funding rather than establishing secular educational principles.

  5. Yes, once again an instance of religion overlapping its magisterial boundaries.

    If only religion would be content to keep to its own area of influence. You know, all those questions that science can’t answer.

    But instead, here we go again.

  6. it’s not as if Collins is a deist or a generic theist (whatever that might be) — he is an evangelical Christian, and claims to believe many specific truth-claims of his doctrine: the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of the Bible, and so on

    But based on your post Is Francis Collins a deist?, I came to the conclusion that we really don’t know if Francis Collins knows what he really believes. I wonder what George Carlin would have been inclined to say about Francis Collins. 🙂

  7. To play advocatus diaboli here, one could argue that, before the rise of science, religion purported to “explain” human origins, with an origin myth being a central part of most religions. Creationists, of course, still do. But perhaps the mention of religion in a museum on human origins is not entirely inappropriate.

    1. I’ll only agree with you to the extent that the mention is made within the context of: “We were wrong before. Myths do not accurately describe our understanding of the science.”

      That’s not what’s being done here. What’s being done here is that the science is being presented with a little “nudge-nudge-wink-wink-say-no-more” permission that it’s really OK to believe in patent nonsense.

      Even the Collins-Miller “god-directed” evolution in vogue with the accommodationist crowd is nothing more than a way to wedge in beliefs in myths contra to the established scientific evidence.

      If such a notion came from any sector other than religion, we’d laugh it off the stage.

      1. Yeah, it’s as if they put up slides about alchemy in the chemistry section explaining that you can still believe in the transmutation of lead into gold even if you are trained in chemistry, it’s ludicrous.

        1. Not that simple. People like Collins do not say, nor does the exhibit,that you can still believe in pre-scientific reasoning. If the exhibit said that you can believe god made adam out of playdough, or whatever, then your analogy would be correct.

  8. I think the accommodants are creating a straw man here…Do they actually get this information about the reactions of the religious FROM the religious…Really, If you are offended by the Idea of common ancenstry with our ape cousins et al, why on earth would you bother to go to the Hall od Human Origins to begin with? Just to make yourself mad? ’cause it hurts soooo good. And if that’s the case, why bother appeasing that kind of juvenile behaviour at all?

  9. Yeah and I saw that video of Collins up in NYC a few years ago and it got my ire up…That was before I had found youse mugs on the internets…Yourself, P.Z. Sean Moran etc…My flame has been fueled a good bit since then. When I go up later this month, I’m gonna have to avert mine eyes and ears lest I forget how awsome the rest of the exhibit is

    1. Who is this Sean Moran of which you speak? I have found a chef, a footballer and a party animal from Glasgow, none of whom seem likely to be he.

      OT, if I’d known about the interwebs’ future when I named my kids they’d have been called Marmaduke, Aloysius and Lettice, instead of Anrew William and Madeleine!

  10. Huh. I wonder if my colleagues at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics are working god into their cosmology and planetary evolution. I’ll have to ask … but I think I’ll wear my bulletproof undergarments.

  11. I must confess that, were I employed by one of these museums, what it would take to push back against the compatibilist mandate is not something that I possess.

    All the greater my gratitude to those who do.

  12. Any chance the wusses over at the Smithsonian might actually grow a pair and add a little disclaimer after this statement, like so?

    “however, many people find the idea of human evolution troubling when viewed from a religious perspective. ”


  13. What we need is for the Smithsonian to include an exhibit discussing the origins and evolution of religion itself. Are there no cultural anthropologists who are studying this field? I’m talking about an exhibit that shows a timeline starting with our earliest experiences with religion (evidence of burial rites among our prehistoric ancestors) through to today’s morass of various religious views. A “Tree of Belief”, if you will.

    I think that this, coupled with a secular exhibit of *only the science* involved in evolution, would be a powerful tool to explain to people that yes, beliefs served some kind of social purpose at some point in the past (helping us to survive as a species and encouraging the kind of curiosity that led us to today’s scientific understanding), but they are quaintly anachronistic in today’s world.

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