Embarrased by Darwin

Whenever I get God-botherers knocking on my door these days I try to treat the exercise as a learning one. That is, I quickly divert the discussion to questions that interest me. Like – what is the attitude of your church towards parliamentary prayers or tax exemption for the advancement of supernatural beliefs?

A while back I asked a Jehovah’s Witness door-knocker where his church stood in the evolution-creationism debate. I did this because I had become aware that while 75% of New Zealanders accept evolutionary science about 40% of New Zealand Christians still prefer to believe in creationism. So I was genuinely interested.

I was not surprised to find out that his church does support creationism. But I was surprised by how difficult it was to get an answer from him. He spent 10 minutes attempting to avoid or divert the question. Like: “that is an American controversy and we don’t interfere in American affairs.”

Why be embarrassed?

Eventually he did come clean. And, of course, once he did all the tired old arguments came out. “Evolution is only a theory,” “Lots of scientists support creationism”, etc., etc. Even a promise to present me with the “scientific evidence for creationism” (a Jehovah’s witness tract he didn’t have on him at the time).

But why did he initially avoid answering my question? Perhaps he, and many other New Zealand creationists, are aware that their support for creationism is unpopular in New Zealand. Perhaps they are embarrassed about holding and promoting such views here. I can accept that.

But I can’t accept it when supporters of science appear to be embarrassed about evolutionary science. Like when evolution gets glossed over in school curricula because teachers are afraid of offending students with religious beliefs. After all scientific knowledge is scientific knowledge. It’s tested against reality, not belief.

Consequently, I felt it was rather unfortunate that Phil Smith felt the need to make apologetic gestures towards religious belief in his introduction to the first NZ Royal Society Darwin Lecture. Why did he have to assure listeners that speakers in this series are unlikely to broach the “question of God” (an assertion which was almost immediately proved wrong by the lecturer Professor Lloyd Spenser Davis)? Why did Smith try to exclude science from any role in “religious questions” by asserting that “science says absolutely nothing about the existence of God?” Why did he have to fall into the non-overlapping magisteria trap which attempts to place limits on humanity’s scientific endeavours? Why be so concerned about the sensitivities of a minority of creationists? This is a bit like the museum in Northhampton which covered up part of an information sign at a display about Charles Darwin and fossils – because of a complaint by a visiting Christian fundamentalist!

The fact is that we just cannot avoid confronting religious attitudes when we discuss the history of science. We can’t avoid mentioning religious persecution of Galileo when we discuss the history of the heliocentric solar system. We are not concerned about religious sensibilities in this case. Similarly, discussion of the contribution of Darwin to modern science must inevitably confront the fact that old religious ideas of special creation have been proved inadequate. It will also have to deal with the fact that some religious groups oppose this science. We shouldn’t attempt to avoid these facts just because some people may be offended.

I’m pleased to see that Professor Paul Rainey also didn’t avoid referring to religious concepts in the second Darwin LectureThe Evolution of Biological Complexity. Neither did Richard Dawkins in his Channel 4 documentary The Genius of Charles Darwin. We just can’t avoid confronting outdated religious ideas when we discuss the history of science. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about this just because it may offend some relgious fundamentalists.

See also:
Royal Society of New Zealand Darwin Lectures
Part One: The Evolution of Darwin
Part Two: The Evolution of Biological Complexity.
Part Three: The Principles of Evolution; History of Life
Part Four:The Fossil Record
Part Five: Evolutionary Psychology
Part Six: The Storytelling Ape: Evolution, Art, Story, Culture
Evolution Overdrive

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2 responses to “Embarrased by Darwin

  1. Excellent post. I absolutely love the idea of asking proselytizers about secular/political issues. I had never thought of that. Sadly(?) we’ve moved to a different part of town (just a bit more affluent). At the apartment we used to get a lot of gospellers and my mom does quite a bit. To date I haven’t had anybody come knockin’ on my door.


  2. I myself have had much experience in dealing with those that take the Bible a little too seriously. Science is important in learning about our world. The scientists may not have gotten it entirely right the first time around, but the theories out there today certainly beat the pseudo-mystical beliefs of an outdated and oppressive system for credibility. I feel sorry that science must be suppressed because of a single belief system, especially one that teaches love and respect on the surface.


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