Asking Clarifying Questions

Evolution and Religion

My roommate is a Christian.  His mother is a clergywoman, his stepdad a clergyman and his aunt a preacher as well.  He invariably interrupts me whenever I open a conversation on something cool I learned regarding evolution with the standard disclaimer that he is religious.  Yesterday, I told him that he should really think about how it is weird that if I were to explain to him that the sky is blue because of light ray refraction, or that the reason that lakes turn over just before freezing in winter because of the unusual crystalline properties of water ice and its density, that he wouldn’t interrupt me about his religion.

He equates evolution with atheism. No matter how many times we go through that whole thing about “This is what we find out through science, and this is how they do it, and religion really shouldn’t interfere with your interest in it,” the conversation gets stuck there. To me it seems as though his religious belief is blocking him from an area of understanding of nature that is really fucking cool.  It saddens me, and makes me think that the main purpose of religion is the preparation for death and making sure that one is going to the right place for eternity.  What else we can do in the meantime is meaningless in the long run when eternity is at stake.

This is the nihilism that is religion. (I find it extremely odd that there is so much ethical resistance to euthanasia.  The idea that the extremely sick should have their suffering prolonged indefinitely so that they can experience the “dignity of suffering” is an incredibly cruel interpretation of “God’s Will.” If you believe they will be in Heaven when they go, let them go.)  Death is inevitable, and we should spend our lives prepping for it and not offend God by questioning the world around us.  It is why we must deal with the idiocy of theodicy and let theologians justify the reasons that nature plays horrendously cruel tricks on us; “Suffering is God’s way of letting us know that he has a Plan that we can’t fathom.”  But, to find alternative explanations to the God hypothesis is ludicrous.  For every answer that scientists propose that coincides with the observations of the natural world and how it works, the response is “Silly Atheist, you are not as learned as Kierkegaard.”

Spreading enthusiasm for evolution, such as I experience, and the extreme wonder that the intellectually curious find in teasing out the details is not easy when faced by such resistance. I don’t think anyone who is also enthusiastic about science has the answer, either.  If they did, then we wouldn’t be seeing the acceptance of evolution stall and continually have to face resistance from so many quarters.  We  wouldn’t see so many polls that place a public acceptance of evolution below that of creationism.

The strategy of groups such as the NCSE will work with some people, I think. But I don’t know.  There seems to be this underlying assumption that they know how to do it, by being assuring and enlisting the help of theologians and by saying that many scientists believe in God and see no conflict.  It may work for some people, but for others it won’t matter.  They know that death can come at any time and that if they are not solid enough in their faith when it comes, then they go through the coal chute to Hell and eternal agony and fire.  It’s not likely when faced with that sort of fear they are going to accept such assurances, and certainly not from someone who doesn’t interpret the Bible the Right Way. Creationism is not an intellectual conclusion.  It is an emotional conclusion.  It backfills data to agree with their foregone conclusion (which is what makes it ridiculous).

No one really knows the strategies that will work to help break the barriers that place religion in front of intellectual curiosity about evolution.  What we do know is that there are many people who are making assumptions that it should only be done in calm, assuring and moderating tones and that the straightforward approach of the New Atheists is going to set everyone else back a hunnert years so that the Friendly Atheists have to start all over again. 1

The insistence that atheists be quiet about what we think are the implications of evolution and cosmology are very religious in nature, in the sense that the accommodationists want to use “shaming” to influence the behavior of a subset of their own group.  They are also using a “sense” of what is the absolute right way to develop a strategy of what they seek to achieve.  To those of us who are serious about atheism, and especially for those of us who left religions that place a high value on using guilt as a means to modify behavior, it is a reminder of what we are trying to get away from when we finally declare our atheism publicly.

The conciliatory approach that has been tried for years has not done much to change the situation, and the New Atheists, no matter how gentle and careful we are to stick to the details on why we hold the positions that we do, seem to offend people just by our very existence.  And yes, we lash out angrily at this often and return the offense with ridicule and bile.  We have our reasons and we have human emotions, so no one should be too surprised.  We expect to be shamed by our religious friends and relatives, so it doesn’t bother us as much as it does from other atheists and agnostics.  They should know better.

It’s the assumption part that makes me angry. It is what made me so angry about the book Unscientific America, and it is what makes me so angry about the idea of “Framing Science” when it comes to the interplay between science and religion.  It is what makes me so angry about the comfortable atheism that Michael Ruse insists on, when he says that Dawkins makes him embarrassed to be an atheist.  I will tell you now that I am more interested in having a beer with a creationist than I am with someone who insists that he or she knows the “right approach” to build enthusiasm for evolution.  I get to the point where I can’t stand to be around people who know this answer, but can’t see the irony in the idea that they have come to this conclusion on how to increase the acceptance of science without using science to find out.

Sociology may be a young science, and like economics it is not a “hard science” in comparison to chemistry, physics, biology and the other fields.  But it does provide tools for understanding what can and should be done to help people see the excitement that discovery of the natural world and its workings brings to us no matter what their religion says about the natural world.

The sociologists should be the ones to help us figure out how to do this.  What needs to be done before people like Massimo Pigliucci, Matthew Nisbet, Sheril Kirshenbaum, Josh Rosenau, Chris Mooney and hundreds of others (who I admire greatly on so many fronts but with whom I disagree on this issue,) is to ask people clarifying questions before deciding whether or not there is a one-size-fits-all approach.

My bet is that there is not. However,  I don’t know for sure.  I am basing this on my impressions and a rational decision using incomplete data that have not been seriously analyzed.  I would like for the friends of science and religion to prove that they are really friends of science in order to find out how to help people see the wonder that is the natural world without continually placing philosophical roadblocks in place.

If the data conclusively show that in order for Johnny and Susie to grow up to be good scientists, I should shut up about atheism, then I will consider it. Until then, don’t shame the New Atheists.2  We get enough of it from the religious and self-righteous.

And I just want to share info about cnidarian opsins and the evolution of vision with my roommate without having to get sidetracked into this same discussion about atheism every single time.

  1. I am a very friendly person.  I am also very honest about my atheism; the whys and wheres and hows are not something I hide when I try to explain myself to people who have a hard time comprehending.  I smile while not conceding, and it is the “not conceding” that makes me a New Atheist.  The smiling part keeps me connected as a person to a non-atheist. []
  2. It’s a silly term but we appear to be stuck with it. []

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One Response to “Asking Clarifying Questions”

  1. December 20th, 2009 at 2:56 pm

    Joshua Zelinsky says:

    My general response to such individuals is to say something like “look. I don’t think evolution implies atheism. Many religious people accept evolution. But if you are so convinced that evolution forces atheism, then you should become an atheist. The evidence for evolution is simply overwhelming.”

    I’m not sure that putting Josh Rosenau in the same category as the others you mention is fair. My impression is that he does take the sort of inquiring, nuanced position you suggest here. I may just be partial because of his first name though.

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