02/28/17

“Conflict” Between Science and Religion

© Michail Panagiotidis | 123rf.com

The watershed event for the perceived conflict between science and religion in American culture was the Scopes Trial. After William Jennings Bryan’s speech opposing the admission of expert testimony on evolution in the trial, the lead defense lawyer, Dudley Malone, said he defied anyone “to believe that this is not a religious question.” Malone went on to say: “We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence.” In his closing remarks, the chief prosecutor, Tom Stewart said: “They say it is a battle between religion and science. If it is, I want to serve notice now, in the name of the great God, that I am on the side of religion.” So the premise there was conflict between of science and religion was present within the Scopes Trial from the very beginning.

That battle continues today, notably by individuals like the biologist Richard Dawkins, who said: “I am very hostile to religion because it is enormously dominant, especially in American life. And I don’t buy the argument that it’s harmless.” But is this conflict model the way scientists today see science and religion? Recently, Elaine Howard Ecklund and a team of researchers completed a survey of over 22,500 scientists from around the world. They investigated the scientists’ perceptions of the interface of science and religion, as well as the personal religiosity of the scientists. Their study, “Religion Among Scientists in International Context,” can be found here.

Ecklund et al. acknowledged that globally, science and religion have an “uncertain” relationship. Richard Dawkins sees conflict; but Francis Collins, the Director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), sees compatibility. And the debates resulting from this uncertain relationship have been occurring outside the U.S. For example, there was an uproar among faculty at the University of Hong Kong when Hong Kong’s Education Bureau proposed guidelines to teach intelligent design in the public school system. Debates about science and religion are taking place around the globe and scientists are taking part in the discussions.

Do scientists from national contexts with very different approaches to religion still think the rationalism and supposed secularity of science will overtake the truth claims of religion? Or are they—especially when it comes to matters of personal religious identity—more similar to those in their local national contexts? Is a global science taking over the world of religion? Or are there even ways that religious communities and scientific communities can work together for the common good around the globe?

The Religion Among Scientists in International Context (RASIC) study assessed biologists and physicists from eight regional areas—France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, the UK and the US.  RASIC looked at how scientists understood religion, how their religiosity compared to that of their local population, and the implications of their findings for different views on the connection between science and secularity.

In four of the regions, Italy, India, Turkey and Taiwan, over 50% of scientists had a religious affiliation. The highest percentage was in India, where 94% of scientists reported religious affiliations of some sort. The three regions with the lowest reported religious affiliations were France (16%), the United Kingdom (27%) and the United States (30%). In all regions except Hong Kong and Taiwan, a higher proportion of scientists indentified with a religion when they were 16 than they do now. Belief in God among scientists ranged widely from Turkey with the highest (61%) to France with the lowest (5%). The UK and the US, which are at the heart of the global scientific infrastructure, reported proportions consistent with earlier surveys of belief among so-called elite scientists.

Ecklund et al. said that from their data on religious beliefs, practices or identities, it was difficult to conclude that science and religion were in conflict. See “Scientist, What do You Believe?” for more information on the earlier surveys. Also see the table below, taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study.

However, when scientists are compared to their local religious populations, there was evidence of lower religiosity among scientists. In France, the UK and the US, the proportion of the general population who attends religious services once a week or more were at least two time larger than the scientists from the same region. The gap was widest in the US, where 33% of the population reported at least weekly attendance, compared to 11% of scientists. “The majority of scientists in the US (60 percent), UK (66 percent), and France (81 percent) are nonattenders.” The proportion of scientists who have a religious identification was lower than the general population in every region but Hong Kong and Taiwan. See Figures 1 and 2 in the Ecklund et al. report for more information on these issues.

The views of scientists on the science-faith interface were counter-intuitive if you believed the conflict narrative. “A substantial majority of physicists and biologists in the eight regional contexts studied do not adhere to this view.” The conflict narrative would also presume most scientists would see the science-religion relationship as one of conflict, and then take the side of science. But only in the UK and the US did those percentages approach or exceed 30%.

The prevailing view among scientists is that science and religion are independent of one another. France, Italy, Taiwan and the US had 50% or more of their scientists seeing religion and science as independent of one another, while all other regions had at least 35%. Ecklund et al suggested that Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisterial” was helpful here. The concept refers to science and religion as nonoverlapping spheres, with science dealing with the empirical observation of the natural world and religion dealing with meaning.

Another surprising finding for the conflict view was with how scientists thought their exposure to science influenced their views on religion. No more than 22% of scientists in the US thought their exposure to science made them less religious; and the US was the region with the highest percentage. See Table 3 taken from the Ecklund et al. report of the RASIC study for more information on these topics.

In her review of the study for BioLogos, Sarah Lane Ritchie gleaned “five surprising facts” from the study, repeating several of those noted above. Significantly for evangelical Christians, she thought the study went a long way in dispelling the myth that scientists themselves are hostile towards religion or not at all religious. When the public discourse surrounding science and religion consistently depicts “evolution-affirming scientists as being at war with evolution-denying religious individuals or groups … it is easy for public perception to become skewed in a way that does not reflect the facts.”

She concluded that not only were many scientists religious, but even those who were not religious generally held an independence view, rather than a conflict view, of how science and religion were related. “This research undermines both the conflict narrative surrounding science and religion, and the assumption that scientists themselves are not religious.” So the conflict model of the relationship between science and religion is not the dominant view of most scientists, but it seems to be deeply influential at the popular level, especially among evangelical Christians in the US. To a certain extent, this influence dates back to the Scopes Trial.

Alister McGrath, who holds advanced degrees in both science and theology, remarked in Science and Religion how the Scopes Trial was a public relations disaster for conservative, fundamentalist Christians. He noted how William Jennings Bryan had unwisely framed the trial as a “duel to the death” between Christianity and atheism. Clarence Darrow, a well-known attorney—and agnostic—on the Scopes defense team, was able discredit Bryan by simply calling him as a witness for the defense.

The legal move was as simple as it was brilliant: Bryan was called to the stand as a witness for the defense, and interrogated concerning his views on evolution. Bryan was forced to admit that he had no knowledge of geology, comparative religions or ancient civilizations, and showed himself to have hopelessly naïve religious views. The “monkey trial” (as it is widely known) came to be seen as a symbol of reactionary religious thinking in the face of scientific progress.

Several scholars consider the Scopes Trial to be a key event in the restructuring of American religion. One of those, Edward Larson, said it would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the Scopes Trial had in transforming Christian fundamentalism in the U.S. Afterwards elite American society stopped taking it seriously. The trial’s setting stamped the entire movement with an irrevocable image of the rural, small town South. The national media stopped covering its normal activities. Conservative Christians rapidly lost power within the mainline denominations. And most significantly, a string of defeats occurred for antievolution legislation in the northern states. While fundamentalists responded by withdrawing from political and cultural encounters for several decades, the Scopes Trial came to embody the “conflict” between science and religion.

The quotes in the introductory paragraph were taken from Edward Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning book on the Scopes Trial, Summer for the Gods.

02/7/17

No Contest; No Victory

photo of the Scopes Trial; Clarence Darrow and the defense team.

A few years ago Rachael Gross wrote an article for Slate entitled: “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” She noted how few issues have divided Americans as bitterly as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. She thought it was “woeful” that “the majority of people in Europe and in many other parts of the world accept evolution,” while 4 in 10 adult Americans believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Evolutionary theory does not exist in a vacuum, she said. It is supported by findings in geology, paleontology, biomedicine, and other fields. “If we want to be a nation of politically and scientifically literate and informed people, then we have to teach good science—and that starts with evolution.”

But we need to ask what kind of evolution and what kind of creationism she means. Is it evolution that occurred entirely through natural processes or did a supreme being use evolution to bring about and develop nature? There also should be a consistent distinction between individuals who hold that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning (PFB) from those who believe in evolution guided by a supreme being (ESB), and those who affirm humans evolved by natural processes (ENP). Gross also cited two polls in her discussion. Although each poll used a different construct to describe what they meant by “creationism,” she did not point out the differences between them.

One poll was by Gallup and one was by the Pew Research Center. When Gross discussed changes since 2009 in the Pew surveys, the 2009 data can be found here. The Pew 2014 poll looking at evolution did not break down all the age groups by the three categories on origins. But it did report that US adults overall were as follows: 31% said humans existed in their present form from the beginning (PFB); 24% believed their evolution was guided by a supreme being (ESB); and 35% believed evolution occurred from a natural process (ENP). When looking at individuals between the ages of 18-29 in 2009 and 2014 from the Pew polls, on their views of human origins, we get the following data.

So there is evidence suggesting younger American adults are adjusting their position on human origins to the secular evolution position. But when Gross said that 73% of US adults under 30 believe in some kind of evolution, she combined believers in evolution through natural processes, or secular evolution, with those who believed in evolution through a supreme being. There is a significant philosophical gap between the action of a supreme being creating human beings, either through evolution or as fully formed individuals, and humans evolving through an entirely natural process without the action of a supreme being. See “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution” on this website for more on this difference.

Within the Pew 2014 Religious Landscape Study, 73% of individuals between the ages of 18-29 were fairly certain or absolutely certain there was a God; another 8% believed in God, but were not too certain of that belief; and 19% did not believe in God or did not know if they believed in God. So there would seem to be a large portion of 18 to 29 year old individuals (perhaps 32%) who believed in God and who also believed in natural evolution. I don’t think they should be referred to as necessarily gravitating towards secular evolution. If their belief in God holds, a category like deistic evolution would seem to better describe them.  The category of individuals who believe God created through evolution, ESB, also has the potential to grow larger as views on human origins shift. It is not an inevitable transition to an entirely secular sense of evolution as the older group of people believing humans existed in their present form from the beginning die off.

The Gallup poll Rachel Gross mentioned added a further distinction to the humans created in their present form by adding that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. This position on human origins would be consistent with a group of Christian believers known as young earth creationists (YEC), which hold that all things were created within the 10,000-year timeframe. However, there is a necessary distinction between YEC and PFB—humans existed in their present form since the beginning—if the beginning of the heavens and earth was billions of years ago, and the creation of beginning of humans was significantly longer than 10,000 years ago. This position is what Denis Lamoureux and others have referred to as progressive creationism. See his web lectures in “Beyond the ‘Evolution’ vs. ‘Creation’ Debate,” particularly “Views on the Origin of Universe & Life.”

But an option consistent with a progressive creationist position of human origins was not offered in the Gallup poll—or in any other poll on human origins that I am aware of. The Gallup poll has been asking the same three-part question about human origins, given as follows, since 1982:

Which of the following statements comes closest to you views on the origin and development of human beings? 1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but god guided this process. 2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God has no part in this process. 3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

The Gallup and the Pew polls implicitly include the evolution—creation dichotomy in the structure of their questions. In both surveys there are two evolutionary positions and one creationist position. The Pew questions more accurately focused on the flash point issue of human evolution, while the Gallup poll collapses the age of the earth variable—held only by young earth creationists—into their creationist position. Not surprisingly, the percentages between the two polls show some differences. The following Gallup chart illustrates the results on the issue dating back to 1982.

As a result, a creation-evolution dichotomy is perpetuated. Arguing that Christians need to choose between science and religion has become entrenched in the dispute since the Scopes Trial. And “fundamentalists” are as much to blame as those holding to a secular or godless sense of evolution. Ironically, William Jennings Bryan held and publicly affirmed a human origins position consistent with what I’ve identified here as progressive creation. He saw Darwinism as a dangerous idea because he thought people would lose their consciousness of God’s presence in their daily lives.

In a speech he first gave in 1904, “Prince of Peace,” Bryan said he had a right to assume a Creator back of the creation. “And no matter how long you draw out the process of creation, so long as God stands back of it you cannot shake my faith in Jehovah.” In Summer for the Gods, Edward Larson commented how this allowed for an extended geologic history and even for a kind of theistic evolution. But Bryan “dug in his heels” regarding the supernatural creation of humans. He saw it as “one of the test questions of the Christian.”

I do not carry the doctrine of evolution as far as some do; I am not yet convinced that man is a lineal descendent of the lower animals. I do not mean to find fault with you if you want to accept the theory; all I mean to say is that while you may trace your ancestry back to the monkey if you find pleasure or pride in doing so, you shall not connect me with your family tree without more evidence than has yet been produced.

He concluded his speech by saying that one of the reasons he objected to the theory of evolution was because if man was linked to the monkey, it became an important question whether humanity was going towards the monkey or coming away from him. “I do not know of any argument that may be used to prove man is an improved monkey that may not be used just as well to prove that the monkey is a degenerate man, and the latter theory is more plausible than the former.” You can listen to a vocal dramatization of his speech here on YouTube; there is a text only copy here. There are content differences between the two because Bryan gave the speech repeatedly over the years. The given quotes are from the text of the oral YouTube version of “Prince of Peace.”

The Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate in 2014 had neither the historical significance nor the drama of the Scopes Trial. But it does illustrate how times have changed and how, rightly or wrongly, the young earth creationist position on human origins, represented by Ken Ham, has become identified as the default view of biblical Christians. You can watch a video on the debate here.

An NPR article, “Who ‘Won’ the Creation vs. Evolution Debate?,” noted the live online debate drew 500,000 viewers at one point. By the middle of November in 2016, the YouTube video had over 5,700,000 views. Britain’s Christian Today website took a poll on who “won” the debate and had 42,567 responses. Ninety two percent thought Bill Nye won, while only 8 percent thought Ken Ham won. Michael Schulson, writing for The Daily Beast, thought Nye’s willingness to engage Ham in a debate threatened to reduce substantive issues to mere spectacle.

The televangelist Pat Robertson thought Ken Ham made a mockery out of Christians. Quoted in The Christian Post, Robertson said he was able to find his faith in the evolutionary process itself. “I don’t believe in so-called evolution as non-theistic. I believe that God started it all and he’s in charge of all of it. The fact that you have progressive evolution under his control. That doesn’t hurt my faith at all.” You can watch a short video of Robertson’s views on The Christian Post link. Robertson further said: “Let’s be real; let’s not make a joke of ourselves.”

A little over a month after the Scopes Trial concluded, Clarence Darrow wrote to H. L. Mencken, one of the reporters who covered the Scopes Trial: “I made up my mind to show the country what an ignoramus he [Bryan] was and I succeeded.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Christians believing in creation are still seen and portrayed as ignoramuses. The Memphis paper, the Commercial Appeal made the following comment about the infamous exchange between Darrow and Bryan in the Scopes Trial:

It was not a contest. Consequently there was no victory. Darrow succeeded in showing that Bryan knows little about the science of the world. Bryan succeeded in bearing witness bravely to the faith which he believes transcends all the learning of men.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.

11/25/16

Structure of an Evolutionary Revolution

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

Editorial cartoon of Darwin as an ape (1871)

In the mid 1990s I had the opportunity to attend a local community play in the Rhea County Courthouse located in Dayton Tennessee. This courthouse was where one of the most famous trials of the twentieth century took place, the Scopes Trial. The New York Times described what took place there as “one of the most colorful and briefly riveting of the trials of the century that seemed to be especially abundant in the sensation-loving 1920s.” Every July local residents put on the play in the second floor courtroom, which has been restored to look the way it did during the July 1925 trial. In front of the courthouse is a plaque commemorating the place where John Scopes was convicted of violating a state law by teaching that humans descended from a lower order of animals.

In the basement of the courthouse is a museum, which contains memorabilia like the actual microphone used to broadcast the trial. When the annual play is put on, some of the museum pieces are used as props in the trial. The play’s dialogue is taken primarily from the transcript of the trial itself. The audience sits in chairs facing the judge’s bench. Members of the audience are selected to portray the jury, whose only task was to sit in the jury box and then leave the courtroom several times during the play when the real jury was excused.

Scopes was found guilty and he was fined $100, the minimum penalty. His attorney appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which threw out his conviction on a technicality. He went on to study geology at the University of Chicago (on a scholarship by his supporters) and became a petroleum engineer. But almost 100 years later, his trial still represents one of the seminal times in American history where there was a clash between science and religion. Clarence Darrow, the famous defense lawyer who was one of the lawyers on the defense team for Scopes, said in his closing remarks:

 I think this case will be remembered because it is the first case of this sort since we stopped trying people in America for witchcraft . . . We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.

That sentiment is still alive today, as is the perceived conflict between the scientific theory of evolution and the religious doctrine of creation. The public portrayal of the so-called evolution-creation “debate” has misconceptions similar to those evident in Darrow’s statement. One example of thie misconception is an article Rachael Gross wrote for Slate a couple of years ago, celebrating how “Evolution is Finally Winning Out Over Creationism.” A key factor in her analysis was pointing to how “a majority of young people endorse the scientific explanation of how humans evolved.” By scientific she means a purely secular evolution—something not directed by any divine power.

Her hope is there will be a continual shrinkage of those who oppose evolution. One way this would occur is through individuals “converting” to evolution, regardless of their political and religious beliefs. “For the movement behind evolution to triumph, younger Americans who have been raised to believe in creationism need to be open to changing their minds.” Another way is by “generational momentum,” meaning that the switch will happen as older adults who believe in creationism die off. This is not really simply a crass hope based on waiting for old people to die or that young people will switch their views with regard to the “doctrine” of evolution.

It also reflects the thought of science philosopher Thomas Kuhn in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In this seminal work on the history and philosophy of science, Kuhn said that normal science referred to research firmly based on one or more past scientific achievements that a particular scientific community “acknowledges for a time as supplying the foundation for its further practice.” The process of normal science takes place within a scientific paradigm—where research occurs within the context of a scientific community committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice. “That commitment and the apparent consensus it produces are prerequisites for normal science.” Kuhn acknowledged that the notion of his term ‘paradigm’ is intrinsically circular: “A paradigm is what the members of a scientific community share, and, conversely, a scientific community consists of men [and women] who share a paradigm.”

Any new interpretation of nature, whether a discovery or a theory, emerges first in the mind of one or a few individuals. It is they who first learn to see science and the world differently, and their ability to make the transition is facilitated by two circumstances that are not common to most other members of their profession. Invariably, their attention has been intensely concentrated upon the crisis-provoking problems; usually, in addition, they are men [or women] so young or so new to the crisis-ridden field that practice has committed them less deeply than most of their contemporaries to the world view and rules determined by the old paradigm. How are they able, what must they do, to convert the entire profession or the relevant professional subgroup to their way of seeing science and the world? What causes the group to abandon one tradition of normal research in favor of another?

In answering these questions, Kuhn went on to observe that the proponents of competing paradigm are always at least slightly at cross-purposes. “Neither side will grant all the non-empirical assumptions that the other needs in order to make its case.” While each may hope to “convert” the other to his or her way of seeing science and its problems, the dispute is not one “that can be resolved by proofs.” Kuhn quoted the theoretical physicist Max Planck who said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Kuhn went on to say:

The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is more like a conversion experience that cannot be forced. Lifelong resistance, particularly from those whose productive careers have committed them to an older tradition of normal science, is not a violation of scientific standards but an index to the nature of scientific research itself.

Darwin’s theory now exists as a foundational paradigm for a secular understanding of human origins. Within this context, Rachael Gross hopes for a completed paradigm shift within evolution that denies the possibility of any intervention from outside of the natural order. Young adult believers in creation need to convert fully to a belief in secular evolution. There is no room in her sense of evolution for theistic evolution/evolutionary creation. At most, it exists as a way station on the journey to secular evolution.

From this perspective, evolutionary creation unscientifically combines religious belief and evolution. Its needs to be jettisoned within a sincere scientific conversion experience to evolutionary belief. Older adults who are committed to the unscientific tradition of creation need to die off. Gross is carrying the banner once waved by Clarence Darrow in the Scopes Trial: “We have done our best to turn the tide . . . of testing every fact in science by a religious doctrine.” The evolutionary revolution marches on.

Darrow and Bryan

Darrow and Bryan

However, there is an unacknowledged assumption with regard to the philosophy of science when Gross equates secular evolution with “science.” Basic philosophical assumptions necessary for science include that nature is uniform; and that observable patterns in nature provide clues to help us understand the unobservable patterns and processes in nature. Our knowledge of the processes and patterns in nature is limited since we have not yet examined all there is to see in nature, nor have we observed it throughout it entire existence. This uniformity in nature is then necessarily assumed to hold universally. We assume the uniformity of natural causes in creation, in nature, but cannot prove it is true scientifically.

Francis Schaeffer pointed out that while early scientists like Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton believed in the uniformity of natural causes, they did not believe this natural uniformity existed in a closed system. He said this little phrase constituted the difference between natural science and a science rooted in naturalistic philosophy. It was the difference between what he called modern science and modern, modern science. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer said: “It is important to notice that this is not a failing of science as science; rather the uniformity of natural causes in a closed system has become the dominant philosophy among scientists.”

Secular evolution would then be the product of what Schaeffer called modern, modern science. It rejects the possibility of a god or transcendent power outside of nature utilizing the natural process of evolution to develop life on earth. From this perspective, the Scopes Trial was fundamentally a dispute over two different systems of scientific philosophy with regard to evolution. The ridicule of literalist biblical belief and interpretation, embodied in the exchange between Darrow and Bryan, was collateral damage in the exchange. The underlying structure of the dispute over evolution is over the philosophical basis on which science can be done.

Pitting religion and science against one another as Darrow, Bryan and others have done, not only sets up a false dichotomy between them, it gives a distorted view of what the evolution revolution is all about.

If you are interested in learning more about the Scopes Trial, try this page about the Scopes Trial Museum or the Wikipedia page on the Scopes Trial. You can also read: Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer Prize winning book about the Scopes Trial and “No Contest; No Victory.” Also, look at: When All the God Trembled, which discusses Darwinism and the Scopes Trial.