Transforming How the World Sees Science and Religion

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January 22, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

Today's entry was written by Michael Zimmerman. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Transforming How the World Sees Science and Religion

This past March, historian of science Ronald Numbers had a wonderful book released. The book, edited by Numbers, is entitled Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion. The introduction begins with the following provocative statement: “The greatest myth in the history of science and religion holds that they have been in a state of constant conflict.” He and other contributors explain how much of the perceived conflict between science and religion is not much more than a combination of manufactured hype and ignorance. I recommend the book highly.

As the founder and director of The Clergy Letter Project (www.theclergyletterproject.org), an organization devoted to demonstrating that religion and science can comfortably and productively coexist, I’m well aware of the power of both of the points made in Numbers’s book.

Many vocal, fundamentalist ministers and atheistic scientists proclaim that people must choose between religion and evolution. In perhaps its most extreme version, Pat Robertson went so far as to proclaim that disaster may well visit Dover, Pennsylvania. The Fox report of the incident reads, “Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson warned residents of a rural Pennsylvania town Thursday that disaster may strike there because they ‘voted God out of your city’ by ousting school board members who favored teaching intelligent design.” On the other hand, Richard Dawkins says that if you do not accept evolution you are “ignorant, stupid, or insane.”

Cynical anti-evolutionary leaders know that if forced to choose between religion and science, the majority of people will likely opt for religion, so they do everything they can to perpetuate the belief that such a choice must be made. I’m delighted to say that thousands of far less cynical religious leaders and scientists have banded together to demonstrate that no such choice need be made; that it’s perfectly possible to be deeply religious and to understand and appreciate all that modern science has to offer.

Indeed, more than 12,000 Christian clergy members in the US have signed The Christian Clergy Letter, demonstrating the importance of both religion and evolution. The thousands of ministers endorsing this statement come from every state in the Union and they represent some of our smallest congregations as well as some of our largest cathedrals. Some were ordained decades ago while others just this year. Some are conservative and some are liberal. Men and women of virtually every race are represented. The single thing that ties them together is their abiding commitment to Christianity – and yet this incredibly broad group of religious leaders has stepped forward to encourage the teaching of evolution.

These Clergy Letters should set aside any doubt that deeply religious people can accept evolution.

In its continued attempt to stress this point and in the hopes of raising the quality of the dialogue on this important topic, The Clergy Letter Project sponsors an annual Evolution Weekend event. On the weekend closest to the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin (12 February), congregations all over the world take steps to achieve these goals. Many congregations hear sermons on the topic while others participate in a discussion group. Others structure Bible classes, for adults and/or students, on the topic while still others invite speakers to address the issue. Each participating congregation does what it feels will be most productive for its congregants while, collectively, around the world, an incredibly powerful message is being sent. The events began in 2006 and in each succeeding year participation has increased by more than 30 percent. In February 2009, 1,049 congregations from 15 countries participated. Evolution Weekend 2010 is scheduled for 12-14 February 2010.

Additionally, The Clergy Letter Project has created a list of scientific consultants who are eager to advise clergy members on scientific issues. This list includes more than 850 scientists representing every state and 29 countries. Some of the scientists on the list are deeply religious, and represent a variety of religious traditions. The point is that the mere existence of the list demonstrates conclusively that scientists and religious leaders are perfectly capable of working together.

If you would like to join this exploding movement, please contact me at mz@butler.edu. If you’re an ordained clergy member, I would be delighted to add your name to one of our Clergy Letters. If you’re a scientist, I would be proud to add you to our list of consultants. If you would like for your congregation to participate in Evolution Weekend 2010, it would be a pleasure to add you to that rapidly expanding list. Or if you’re neither a scientist nor a clergy member but simply have a deep interest in the relationship between religion and science and would like to be on our mailing list, let me know.

Scientists and religious leaders, together, are transforming the way the world perceives the relationship between religion and science and both fields are being enriched by their actions.

Michael Zimmerman, a Ph.D. biologist, is founder and director of The Clergy Letter Project. He can be reached at mz@butler.edu.


Michael Zimmerman is Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Biology at Butler University. As an ecologist, Zimmerman focuses on plant-animal interactions, particularly those associated with pollination. Zimmerman also has a professional interest in science literacy in general and the evolution-creation controversy in particular. Zimmerman's work has appeared regularly on the op-ed pages of many newspapers nationwide. He has been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and founded The Clergy Letter Project .

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Knockgoats - #3167

January 22nd 2010

“On the other hand, Richard Dawkins says that if you do not accept evolution you are “ignorant, stupid, or insane.””

Well that’s a simple statement of fact. It only implies that you “must choose between religion and evolution” if you accept that all believers are ignorant, stupid or insane. Even I wouldn’t go that far. “ignorant”, by the way, isn’t an insult: we’re all completely ignorant of many things.

Galileo didn’t go to jail, but he was silenced and placed under lifelong house-arrest. That seems to indicate a certain degree of conflict, no?


Charlie - #3174

January 22nd 2010

I made this argument for the essay Faith with Inquiry, but the message is the same:

Remember science does not say it holds all of the answers but rather it only makes conclusions it can base off of evidence.  That said, one could believe what science has discovered and leave the undiscovered to religion.  But by taking this approach, one’s methods of seeking out answers about the world is in harsh contrast.  There is no room for faith in science because faith is the direct opposite of what the scientific method is.  One must have evidence to support a theory for it to be considered true.  If faith were taken into consideration, evidence would not be needed and I could say anything created the universe and I would accept that statement on faith.  This is why there is conflict between science and religion, the approach to seeking out and answering questions is conflicting between science and religion.


montes - #3175

January 22nd 2010

These issues certainly do indicate ‘a certain degree of conflict’.  But I think the conflict is found within the misunderstanding of the key players rather than the actual science and faith.  Dawkins seems to think that evolution disproves God (or at least justifies his atheism), when evolution does not touch on metaphysical realities at all.  And the church attacks evolution thinking the same thing, that it somehow is working to disprove God.  The church has felt threatened in that they have been challenged to rethink their biblical hermeneutics due to science and biblical criticism.  As a result they put their guard up and start swinging rather than thinking critically about the issues.  Scientists like Dawkins have reacted in the same way and have started swinging in order to protect their science.  There is no need for either party to act in such a way.  Thanks Michael Z for the post.


Glen Davidson - #3183

January 22nd 2010

Many vocal, fundamentalist ministers and atheistic scientists proclaim that people must choose between religion and evolution. In perhaps its most extreme version…  On the other hand, Richard Dawkins says that if you do not accept evolution you are “ignorant, stupid, or insane.”

Yes, but that statement by itself has nothing to do with whether or not one must choose between religion and evolution.  He didn’t include “religious” in that short list.  And he’s close to right about that, except that “in denial” works as a common fourth reason many don’t accept evolution. 

It’s true that Dawkins thinks you need to choose between science and meaningful religion, but he was simply pointing out how very wrong anti-evolutionists are in that quote.

Glen Davidson
http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p


Knockgoats - #3201

January 22nd 2010

montes,
Dawkins seems to think that evolution disproves God (or at least justifies his atheism)

He certainly doesn’t think the former, so why do both you, and Michael Zimmerman, distort his position? It’s plain dishonest. What the discovery of evolution by natural selection did do was to destroy a major argument for theism: the argument from design. It therefore most certainly does “touch on metaphysical realities”, if by that you mean, whether there is a god.


Michael Zimmerman - #3206

January 22nd 2010

I’m sorry that Knockgoats believes that I was distorting Dawkins’s position.  Although I am convinced that Richard Dawkins is an amazingly bright individual and a wonderful writer, I am also convinced that he has led many to believe that evolution and religion are absolutely incompatible.  In my work with The Clergy Letter Project, I can’t tell you how many clergy members have said to me that they are opposed to evolutionary theory, and to a great extent science as well, because of the comments of Richard Dawkins.  His stridency makes it very difficult for many to engage in meaningful discussion. 

I come to the evolution - creation controversy from the position of a scientist attempting to improve the level of science literacy among the general public.  From my position, I’ve found that Dawkins’s efforts have been counterproductive with much of the religious community, a group that might well play a pivotal role in helping us make major improvements in science education if we help provide the appropriate opportunities.


Chris - #3208

January 22nd 2010

We really need to get more Evangelical ministers and pastors to sign this.  It’s really difficult to get mainstream Evangelical Christians to care much about a list that is dominated by UCoC, Presbyterians and United Methodists.


Gregory Arago - #3209

January 22nd 2010

Why don’t you celebrate on another day to reduce ideological undertones and avoid idolizing Darwin? And why not a gravity weekend or a relativity weekend? You seem just as fixated with ‘evolution’ as your opponents do!

“more than 12,000 Christian clergy members in the US have signed The Christian Clergy Letter, demonstrating the importance of both religion and evolution.” - Michael Zimmerman

On the Clergy Letter site it reads ‘An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science,’ rather than a letter concerning ‘religion and evolution.’

“deeply religious people can accept evolution.” - M.Z.

There are certain *types* of ‘evolution’ that deeply religious people should not accept. See the Inauguration of Benedict XVI to see which *types* of evolution are *not* acceptable. It would be extremely helpful if you could include critiques of ‘evolutionary philosophy’ alongside of the rightful endorsement of ‘evolutionary science’.

And perhaps a nod to BioLogos at this year’s event too? : )

Yes, I would also recommend the book Galileo Goes to Jail and other Myths about Science and Religion.


Gregory Arago - #3228

January 23rd 2010

Michael Zimmerman wrote: “the religious community, a group that might well play a pivotal role in helping us make major improvements in science education if we help provide the appropriate opportunities.”

What American universities need is more philosophy of science, not just more science.

If you want to show that it is o.k. to accept evolution, then you simply must also be involved with explaining how to ‘limit evolution’ so that it does not become a worldview. What are you doing to promote this?

Once people see that evolution is simply a biological theory, or an ecological or zoological theory, or that it belongs *only* in natural-physical sciences and thus has *NO* consequences for their religious, philosophical, ethical views, etc. then you’ll have helped to prepare the ground for a regeneration of perspectives.

Otherwise, it just seems like you are trumpeting Darwin’s view of evolution, which indeed, when it comes to his speculative notions of humanity and religion, is far from ideal.


Knockgoats - #3232

January 23rd 2010

Although I am convinced that Richard Dawkins is an amazingly bright individual and a wonderful writer, I am also convinced that he has led many to believe that evolution and religion are absolutely incompatible.  In my work with The Clergy Letter Project, I can’t tell you how many clergy members have said to me that they are opposed to evolutionary theory, and to a great extent science as well, because of the comments of Richard Dawkins. - Michael Zimmermann

Dawkins co-signed an open letter with the Anglican Bishop of Oxford protesting against the infiltration of creationism into British schools. If so many clergy are “ignorant, stupid or insane”, that’s not his fault, but rather tends to justify his broader opposition to religion.


Knockgoats - #3233

January 23rd 2010

why not a gravity weekend or a relativity weekend? - Gregory Arago

Because there is very little ideologically based opposition to the theories of gravity or relatively. Rather obvious really.

Once people see that evolution is simply a biological theory, or an ecological or zoological theory, or that it belongs *only* in natural-physical sciences and thus has *NO* consequences for their religious, philosophical, ethical views - Gregory Arago

But this is not true: there is no such impermeable wall between natural science and religious, philosophical and ethical views. The interrelationships are complex, but it’s not use pretending they do not exist.


Michael Zimmerman - #3239

January 23rd 2010

“You seem just as fixated with ‘evolution’ as your opponents do!”

Indeed, I am fixated on evolution because that’s the place where those who have opted to promote their narrow view of religion have centered their fight.  Evolutionary theory is as robust a scientific theory as any (and is far more understood than gravitational theory). It is the cornerstone of modern biology, with huge implications for other fields as well.  When it is undermined in an intellectually unsound manner, all of science is at risk.  Perhaps even more importantly, as Gregory Arago says, understanding the philosophy of science is critical - and that means understanding the boundaries of science.  When poor religion is permitted to be passed off as science, both religion and science suffer enormously.  Science does have its limits - there are things that the scientific method can explain and there are things, things that are incredibly important to many humans, that fall outside the reach of the scientific method.  This is something that more people need to understand.


Michael Zimmerman - #3240

January 23rd 2010

“Why don’t you celebrate on another day to reduce ideological undertones and avoid idolizing Darwin?”

In fact, changing the name of Evolution Weekend to Science Weekend would, no doubt draw in hundreds, if not thousands, more congregations.  But it is time to reclaim"evolution” as a perfectly acceptable word to be used within polite company and within religious discussion.  To cede the word to those who define it inappropriately means that ignorance has won.  (And as Knockgoats has said, ignorance does not imply denigration, rather it is a fact, a fact that education can fix.)  Finally, Evolution Weekend has nothing to do with idolizing Charles Darwin.  Yes, he was a brilliant man, but the purpose of the event to to focus on the relationship between religion and science, particularly evolution.  Using his birthday as a focus helps bring attention to the event and that attention helps raise the quality of the dialogue.  That’s a very good thing in my opinion.  Remember, evolutionary theory, as we understand it today, is very much more than what Darwin hypothesized in his lifetime.  How could it not be given all we have learned since then.  And that is the way with science.


Gregory Arago - #3243

January 23rd 2010

Thanks, Dr. Zimmerman. I agree with the thrust of what you say here. 

Do you have any comment on ‘evolutionary philosophy’?

For example, what do you think about the fields of ‘evolutionary economics,’ ‘evolutionary psychology’ or ‘evolutionary ethics’?

Are there fields in which you believe that evolutionary theory doesn’t apply or shouldn’t apply? Or does it/should it in fact apply everywhere in the Academy?

You say evolutionary theory has “huge implications for other fields as well.” Which fields would you exclude from this?

Thanks in advance for your answer!


Knockgoats - #3245

January 23rd 2010

there are things, things that are incredibly important to many humans, that fall outside the reach of the scientific method.  This is something that more people need to understand. - Michael Zimmerman

What things would those be, and why do you consider they “fall outside the reach of the scientific method”?

For example, what do you think about the fields of ‘evolutionary economics,’ ‘evolutionary psychology’ or ‘evolutionary ethics’?

From what little I’ve read of it (a book by Geoffrey Hodgson), “evolutionary economics” is largely misnamed. For evolutionary psychology, it’s useful to distinguish “evolutionary psychology” - any psychological research that takes into account that we are evolved organisms, from “Evolutionary Psychology”, a school of thought that makes a number of specific claims, some of them known to be wrong. As for evolutionary ethics, evolutionary theory can illuminate why we have the capability for making ethical judgements, and some of the content of those judgements, but cannot justify any moral judgement, as you cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”.


Michael Zimmerman - #3248

January 23rd 2010

“For example, what do you think about the fields of ‘evolutionary economics,’ ‘evolutionary psychology’ or ‘evolutionary ethics’?”

I think that any discipline that can find a way to pose falsifiable hypotheses about the natural world could be seen as falling squarely within the realm of science.  In that vein, I think that much of evolutionary psychology and evolutionary economics can be seen as being scientific.  Plenty of people, though, from Stephen Jay Gould (along with Dick Lewontin) in his “Spandrels of San Marcos” article to Michael Barash, have warned about going too far and beginning to tell “just so stories” rather than doing “real” science.

I agree with Knockgoats that science cannot justify moral judgments.  Science is but one human endeavor, one I think is powerful and great fun, but we should never assume that it is the only endeavor of importance and we should never believe that it takes away human free will!


Gregory Arago - #3334

January 25th 2010

Michael,

Yes, part of the definition of ‘science’ according to philosophers of science is falsifiable hypotheses, along with verifiable ones, making research programmes, multiple methods, etc.

To equate ‘economics’ or ‘psychology’ with ‘natural science’  is to commit ‘reductionism,’ though perhaps you did not mean to suggest this. Maybe you meant that social sciences are also ‘scientific’ & therefore should also apply ‘evolution’ in their respective realms?

What happens though when people say that smth like ‘rape is natural’ because it is part of our evolutionary past? Does the moral realm supervene on such a perspective?

I’ll rephrase my most important question to you because you’ve thus far avoided it. When could evolution become unscientific? That is, how do we know when science becomes ideology?

Dawkins is promoting a view of evolution that I’m sure you disagree with, as a religious person who is a scientist & who is not ignorant or insane. What are you doing to defend against evolution being used as an anti-theistic worldview? Again, what are examples of things that *don’t* evolve?


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