David Barash’s post in the Sept. 27 online New York Times, ““God, Darwin, and my college biology class,” incited a lot of discussion. In it Barash describes how he sees science and religion as incompatible, but also how he tells that to students in his animal behavior class at The University of Washington (a public university) in an attempt to overcome the cognitive dissonance of religious students.
In my own take on Barash’s post, “David Barash on the incompatibility of science and faith,” I praised him for his public proclamation of science’s incompatibility with faith (after all, I have a book on the subject coming out in May), but considered it inappropriate for Barash to engage in what is essentially theology in a public-university science class. Some readers disagreed, seeing a positive value in trying to overcome student prejudice so they could accept the science. David and I had a cordial exchange over email, and he explained to me the secular purpose of what he called “The Talk.” I could see where he’s coming from, but I still wouldn’t give my own students “The Talk.”
What is disappointing, though, is the reaction of the Times‘s readers to Barash’s op-ed. There were nine letters about his piece, all published under the heading “Science and religion” in the NYT Sunday Review. While several agreed with me that The Talk was not kosher, all but one argued that science and religion are absolutely compatible. Maybe my book is needed after all.
Here are all nine letters with brief commentary by Professor Ceiling Cat:
To the Editor:
Re “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class” (Sunday Review, Sept. 28):
I absolutely disagree with the evolutionary biologist David P. Barash when he asserts that religion and science, in the form of the theory of evolution, cannot be reconciled. Science begins with the Big Bang theory, and evolution according to Darwin begins with a simple one-cell life. But science can say nothing about what preceded the Big Bang or how life was injected into that simple cell.
In essence, science cannot say where we came from, where we are going or even where we are, and certainly not why we are. Those kinds of questions are the business of religion.
Science and religion do not compete. They are separate animals that can and should work together to discover what and who we are.
Charleston, S.C., Sept. 28, 2014
The writer is the author of “The Gospel of Yeshua: A Fresh Look at the Life and Teaching of Jesus.”
Well, we know the secular responses to this one. Perhaps some day science will tell us what preceded the Big Bang, and although we may never know for sure how life began (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t injected into a simple cell: who did the injection, and where did the “simple cell” come from?), we’re making progress. Further, if we can produce the origin of life in the lab under realistic early-Earth conditions, there can be no more objection to the notion that life could have originated without divine intervention.
Finally, as most of us know, religion cannot tell us where we came from (science says “evolution”), where we are going (underground), or even where we are (I’m in Midway Airport), and the question “why we are” simply makes no sense. At any rate, religion addresses these questions but cannot answer them. Why do people keep saying that religion gives us answers when it only gives us guesses, and has no way to determine whether those guesses are correct?
To the Editor:
I think David P. Barash may be deceiving himself about the efficacy of “The Talk” he gives his students, in which he attempts to illuminate the logical superiority of evolution over belief. Like him, I am always stunned by repeated surveys showing the public’s ignorance regarding evolution’s status as established science, and I’m sympathetic to his attempts at remedying the situation.
As often seems the case, however, his arguments soon become more grandiose than convincing. He argues that the patent amorality of the natural world leads to an “unavoidable” exclusion of a benevolent creator, just as random variation excludes the need for a grand “watchmaker” god.
While I agree that these distinctions are masterful explanations of how we understand the physical world, they do not unavoidably exclude a creative force. To overstate the case against a creator, in my mind, is as logically obtuse as preaching the reverse.
San Diego, Sept. 30, 2014
Well, yes, I think “The Talk” shouldn’t be given, but of course nothing can unavoidably (i.e., logically) exclude a creative force. But neither do we have evidence for it, so why even bother to mention it? What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. We can “unavoidably” exclude the intervention of a creator with precisely the same conviction that we can exclude the existence of a monstrous reptile lurking in Loch Ness.
To the Editor:
As a Catholic biology teacher, I see that teaching students about life processes is a powerful mode for learning about their creator and understanding their place in the cosmos. Like Prof. David P. Barash, I recognize the centrality of evolutionary theory in biology; however, I also see that evolution and creation are not mutually exclusive theories. The creation story in Genesis is meant to communicate that God created the world and has a certain relationship to it, not how he created the world.
Also, Mr. Barash does little to prove his claim that science and religion cannot be reconciled. It all depends on how science and God are defined. Science, without religion, becomes its own belief system. We would benefit to embrace science as a valuable, though limited approach toward understanding the multidimensional mystery of life.
Louisville, Ky., Sept. 29, 2014
Ms. Shaugnessy apparently knows exactly what the writers of Genesis meant, and it certainly was not anything literal about the origin of the universe. Was she there when they wrote that book of scripture? I think not. And certainly many famous theologians over the last two millennia thought that Genesis was indeed a literal history of creation. The only reason this teacher thinks she “knows” what the writers of Genesis meant was that we’ve since learned about evolution. But the authors of scripture didn’t know about evolution! The chapter is indeed the Bronze age version of a science book: a prescientific attempt to explain the origin of Earth and its species.
As for her claim “Science, without religion, becomes its own belief system,” that is a false equation of science and religion, and of course science without religion is still science. Science has no need whatsoever for the existence of religion’s superstitions. Further, of the two “belief systems,” give me science any day, for at least science produces evidence for one’s “beliefs.”
To the Editor:
David P. Barash argues that science and religion cannot be reconciled. That is true if one reads the Bible literally. But if we extract from the myths of the Bible (such as the creation myth in Genesis) the moral underpinnings, then the teachings of the Bible and religion hold relevance even for the scientist. The most important lesson of the creation myth is that we are all created equal, from a common ancestor, in the divine image. Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.
Albert Einstein observed, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” The Nazi doctors who performed atrocious criminal experiments on humans were all educated scientists — but they lacked religious and moral values. If we can grasp the significance of the two disciplines and their legitimate functions and limitations, then science and religion might coexist peacefully and enrich one another.
(Rabbi) GILBERT S. ROSENTHAL
Needham, Mass., Sept. 28, 2014
The writer is director of the National Council of Synagogues.
Here we go again: modern claims that “Genesis is not a textbook of geology or astronomy; it is an attempt to discover the true meaning of human existence.” Sorry, Rabbi Rosenthal, but that’s your take on it now-—a take that is neither one that was embraced throughout history nor one that is even close to universal now. What are you going to say, Rabbi, to Biblical literalists? As for Rosenthal’s attempt to tar science because scientists have done bad stuff, well, so have religionists. In fact, I suspect that many Nazi doctors. like many Nazis themselves, were indeed religious. What warps people is not science, but absolutist ideology, which, in fact includes many religions.
To the Editor:
David P. Barash notes that evolutionary processes show “no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” In other words, he argues (very reasonably) that absence of evidence is evidence of absence. However, in religious logic, this absence only indicates that the creator is withholding the evidence — perhaps to test your faith.
Science deals with theories that stand or fall on the data; there must be (at least potentially) tests to prove or disprove the theories. Religion is a non-falsifiable “theory of everything” in which the conclusion need not fit the facts, but rather the facts must be fitted to the conclusion. This methodological conflict is the essential reason that science and religion are incompatible and not merely nonoverlapping.
Professor Barash falls into the trap of trying to apply scientific logic to religion. Indeed, the New Testament firmly discourages use of the scientific method: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
Evanston, Ill., Sept. 29, 2014
The writer is a professor of physics at Northwestern University.
This is all very good except for the last paragraph, for many religious people do indeed embrace truth claims. It is not a “trap” to ask, “What is your evidence for those claims?” Responding that “you should just believe because Jesus,” the answer that many religionists give, is not a rational answer, and deserves outright rejection, or even mockery. We should press forward, always marching under a banner that says, “How do you know that?”
To the Editor:
Perhaps The Talk should begin with a preface and change of venue. David P. Barash should gather his students where they have a clear view of the nighttime sky and acknowledge that he is a human being with limited intelligence, living on a small planet traveling through space at 67,000 miles per hour, rotating around a medium-size star in a small solar system that is on the fringe of a galaxy that is one of billions out there in the universe. Sometimes a little dose of humility discourages scientists from thinking that they have all the answers.
Bel Air, Md., Sept. 29, 2014
Who said science has all the answers? If it did, there would be no more science! At least, unlike theologians, we don’t pretend we have answers when we don’t. We don’t make stuff up and pass it off as truth, as churches do regularly. When you see people calling for scientists to have more “humility,” you know you’re dealing with an accommodationist, and probably a religionist. I’d like to see these people telling believers and preachers to have more humility, for those are the people that simply make stuff up and tell everyone it’s real.
To the Editor:
In discussions about the alleged conflict between science and religion, our ethnocentricity is apparent. We seem to regard our own religion as what “religion” really is, and assume that if our religion has a problem with evolution, then all religions must have that problem. However, many religions have no problem with evolution. It doesn’t bother most Hindus or Buddhists. The problem, then, lies not in “religion” per se. But if we believe that Scripture is an infallible source of historical and scientific facts, then we are asking for trouble.
STEPHEN E. SILVER
Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 29, 2014
The incompatibility between science and religion is not refuted by pointing to the existence of science-friendly believers or believers (like Francis Collins) who are scientists. The incompatibility lies in how any religion can claim it know anything about gods, their nature, their intentions, their actions, and their moral codes. That is, science is a genuine way of understanding the universe, and religion is not, though it pretends to be. If a religion makes no empirical claims based on faith (and that excludes Hindus and many Buddhists, who accept the supernatural doctrines of karma and reincarnation), then yes, that “religion” is compatible with science. But I know of almost no religions that fill that bill.
To the Editor:
A colleague of mine, a professor of biology, with whom I shared this article mentioned that he too has The Talk with his students — the only difference being that his conclusions are the opposite of that of the author. Indeed, an evolutionary biologist should know better than to suggest that religion does not evolve. In the 21st century, orthodox theology has unapologetically confronted the conflict of science and religion, and declared not only that the two are compatible but also that they wonderfully complement each other.
Great Neck, N.Y., Sept. 30, 2014
LOL! “Orthodox theology” declared compatibility only because science proved many of religion’s claims wrong or untenable, forcing the faithful to make the best of a bad job. And what the deuce kind of “orthodox theology” is Shavolian talking about? Certainly not the orthodox theology of the Southern Baptists or of fundamentalist Islam—or even of Orthodox Judaism, which rejects evolution. Religion surely does evolve, but not because the lucubrations of believers and theologians has led us to a more accurate notion of god. No, it evolves simply because science and secular morality forces religion to evolve by dispelling its insupportable claims. I’m reminded of the convenient “revelation” the Mormon elders had in 1978 saying that it was now okay for blacks to be lay priests. Does anybody believe that that revelation came from God? Hogwash! It came because secular morality had evolved to the point where regarding blacks as inferior beings was odious and insupportable. The alternative is to suppose that God changed his mind.
To the Editor:
Prof. David P. Barash argues that evolutionary biology has “demolished two previously potent pillars of religious faith.” Contrary to his claim that evolutionary biology has narrowed the space for religious faith, many theologians and scientists argue that Darwin has opened new horizons for the understanding of God and the place of the human person in the cosmos. It turns out that Darwin’s work is as great a gift to theology as it was to biology!
While Stephen J. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria,” or “noma,” principle — viewing science and religion as separate but compatible — may be simplistic, it at least allows room for theological exploration, which Professor Barash would shut down. Mr. Barash presents his stereotyped comprehension of religion as the only one. Does he not realize that the discouragement of exploration is anti-science?
Until he is willing to openly consider Judeo-Christian religion and spirituality in all its many forms, I would ask that Mr. Barash please spare us, and his students, The Talk.
GLENN R. SAUER
Fairfield, Conn., Sept. 28, 2014
The writer is a professor of biology at Fairfield University.
Here we have what I’ll henceforth call “the N + 1 Fallacy” (thanks to the reader who coined this): the idea that if you haven’t considered every religion, and every strain of faith in every religion, you’re not entitled to pronounce on it. Yes, I agree that the students should be spared the talk, but not on the grounds that Barash is wrong about the incompatibility of science and religion. They should be spared the talk because such discussion seems inappropriate in a science class, and seems to me to skirt the First Amendment.
h/t: Diana MacPherson