The Ignorance of Some Scientists

evolution religionOk, it’s been a while since I’ve been as worked up as I am about a scientist who publicly ridicules religion and dismisses out of hand the possibility that women and men of faith — particularly Christian faith — can hold both their beliefs and solid scientific truths at the same time. The most recent instance of what I am calling “the ignorance of some scientists” appeared in the New York Times this weekend in an article titled, “God, Darwin, and my College Biology Class,” by the University of Washington evolutionary biologist David Barash.

Professor Barash tells the story of his routine introductory lecture given to students early in each new semester. He makes it clear that if one is uncomfortable with the concept of biological evolution on account of religious beliefs, they would do well to suspend those convictions or at least not allow them to get in the way of adequately and accurately learning biology. Up to this point, I am essentially in agreement with Barash. Those who are often loosely grouped into some general category called “fundamentalist” or “biblicist” who believe that the earth is only a few thousand years old or that the universe was created in a literal week are certainly entitled to hold such theologically empty, historically unsound, and biblical unsubstantiated views. However, they will undoubtedly cause problems when those who hold such views attempt to study the natural sciences.

Where I depart from Barash’s view is when he takes a further step to claim that evolution has essentially demolished fundamental religious beliefs. He writes about his talk to his students:

I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.

That reference to Professor Stephen Jay Gould has to do with Gould’s proposal that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” which means that one can hold both world views because they deal with totally different material and fields. This is popularly referred to at times as the different foundational questions of “how” and “why,” proponents of Gould’s way of thinking argue that science seeks to address the former and religion the latter.

Barash disagrees — vehemently, by his own admittance — with Gould. Barash does not believe that science and religion are ultimately compatible, but rather present an irreconcilable tension.

I actually agree with Barash in his distaste for the “Non-overlapping magisteria” argument. While I do believe natural sciences and religion are concerned with essentially different questions, they in fact overlap quite a bit.  So we may agree on that point.

The problem, though, in Barash’s easily perceptible theological ignorance. His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of competence and his ostensible unfamiliarity with the work of those who are both scientists and theologians haunts his own fundamentalist presuppositions.

I would love for him to sit down with Ilia Delio or Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne or any other scholar who holds doctorates in both scientific fields and theology. Even those who haven’t earned advance degrees in both areas, those like John Haught or Elizabeth Johnson, have gone far out of their ways to not only take the natural sciences seriously, but to engage in complex and rigorous research that correlates the depth of the Christian theological tradition with the scientific discoveries Barash thinks “demolish” religious belief.

Barash argues that there are three critical “strikes” to religious belief that evolution blows. The first is the defeat of “what modern creationists call the argument from complexity.” I actually don’t have any problem with that. Arguments from complexity are not seriously considered by real theologians who study creation or theological anthropology, not at least in terms of the caricature he presents (which is probably more closely connected to the beliefs of the pedestrian biblicist).

The second is what he calls the “illusion of centrality.” Here’s what he says:

Before Darwin, one could believe that human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block. No more. The most potent take-home message of evolution is the not-so-simple fact that, even though species are identifiable (just as individuals generally are), there is an underlying linkage among them — literally and phylogenetically, via traceable historical connectedness. Moreover, no literally supernatural trait has ever been found in Homo sapiens; we are perfectly good animals, natural as can be and indistinguishable from the rest of the living world at the level of structure as well as physiological mechanism.

And this is where I get really worked up!

I agree completely with the contention that human beings are not above and against, nor entirely distinct from the rest of nonhuman creation. As do many other theologians, as does the scriptural tradition. In fact, I’m proposing to write a dissertation that seeks to advance precisely this line of thought, critiquing among other things models of creation and theological anthropology that are typically presented in terms of both dominion and stewardship. Much of my own theological research in recent years has been working in this area and following the leads of theologians — I’m even presenting a research paper directly related to this question in November at the American Academy of Religion annual conference in San Diego. This idea is not entirely new.

While I agree with Barash that evolution has helped us to see many of the problems and pitfalls of anthropocentric theologies, he is very wrong to talk about there being “no literally supernatural trait” to be found in Homo sapiens. Yes, we are perfectly good animals, maybe even the cleverest, but returning to the distinctive foundational questions of both fields — how vs. why — there is, by definition, now way for biology to uncover anything “supernatural!”

It would be like an astronomer claiming that whales do not exist because there has been “literally no whales  ever found in space.” Though natural science and religion are not “non-overlapping magisteria,” they are also not the same thing. This is where the groundbreaking work of people like Karl Rahner (“supernatural existential”) and Teilhard de Chardin (on evolution and theology) is especially instructive.

Likewise, just because one is learned in one field of research and scholarship (biology) does not mean that she or he is qualified to so definitively proclaim apodictic truths in another field (theology). If the theologians I named above, including myself, take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, he should do likewise and take seriously our work. He might actually learn something.

Barash’s last “blow to religion” is with regard to theodicy. He writes that, “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.” This is hardly worth comment other than to say that this line of reasoning is easily contestable given that it is an interpretation that borders very closely to the land of opinion. One can affirm the veracity of evolution (as I certainly do), but disagree about the moral quality of that process.

To conclude, I want to say that the way Barash comes across is not unlike the scientifically ignorant religious fundamentalists he critiques. Their childish and literal interpretations of complex scriptural narratives are to science what Barash’s absolutist and incontrovertible interpretations of evolution are to theology.

This irony hasn’t been lost on me. And I hope that Barash may also realize this discovery. Maybe then his way of thinking could evolve just as the species have, though I hope it doesn’t take as long.

Photo: Stock

10 Responses to “The Ignorance of Some Scientists”

  1. Tom Petriano Says:

    Thank you for taking the time to offer a thoughtful rebuttal to this article. I too found it very troubling.

  2. An interesting case of a scholar whose entire epistemology defines truth exclusively in terms of what is empirically demonstrable making wildly undemonstrable assertions on topics utterly outside of his discipline and familiarity. Once again we see that ignorance and arrogance are a lethal tandem. Thanks for taking this on Dan.

  3. […] the blog Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century.  The post was titled, “The Ignorance of Some Scientists,” and was written in response to a recent New York Times editorial entitled, “God, […]

  4. Reblogged this on Teilhard de Chardin and commented:
    There is an interesting internet discussion between Dan Horan and John Slattery regarding David Barash’s provocative article in the New York Times. I lack the time to do justice to this topic but the substance of my views is very similar to Fr. Horan’s so I am reblogging his post but I encourage you to read the Professor Barash’s original article and Mr. Slattery’s response to Fr. Horan also.

  5. As a person who took the road of Humanities in college, I admit that I am not versed to hold an argument with the scientific community over the concept of a God of Creation vs no God. I do know however, how I feel when I read about individuals such as Professor Barash.

    Initially I feel anger—angry that a person of faith (in this case myself) should be told that they (I) may have to hold that (my) faith in check, or better yet, toss it out a window while taking his class—Throughout my career in education, I certainly have known professors. . . the fact that he has to clarify that such an individual (one who adheres to the Christian faith) would not necessarily fail his class but would be hard pressed to hold on to those beliefs leaves me angry—that he is insisting on an “exclusiveness” to his class based on faith or no faith is irritating—not to mention that there is a slight undercurrent of a threat of failure or at the very least, the threat of a lack of success)
    I then have a sense of almost sadness.
    As an observer, as well as retired participant in the field of education, a field of which Dr Barash is actually member of whether he would agree or not with that thought, as well as his being a member of the scientific community of which he most likely views as his only “field”, I often marvel at such individuals who’s ego are such that they are blinded by their own thoughts and voices.
    The fact that a member of the scientific community, a community that has long loved the “quest of the hunt”, the wonderment of the undiscovered and the yearning for the discovery, the seeking of the plausibility to the myriad of questions. . .that fact that he seals shut the box of discovery with his own finality of the issue leaves his biology class a class of the doctrine of Barash vs the field of biological study.
    When I begin to see myself as Creator verses created, allowing my ego to blind my own vision, then I lose any and all hope for discovery –as that is what our lives are, a journey of discovery. I also put myself and my ego above everything else as I have created the gospel of me. . .
    Simplistic in thought? Yes. But then again I never did say I was a scientist. I must always be mindful that I am not the Created, but the created as I keep my eyes and mind open during this journey of discovery and of the quest of learning and yet acknowledging that there is indeed much which is greater than myself.

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel Says:

    Fr Horan, I am curious why you are critical of the claim that science and faith do not overlap. Could you elaborate further on this for us.

    While wanting to insist on the most intimate involvement of the transcendent God in his creation, I cannot see how science qua science can discover anything that can weigh for or against his existence, precisely because the infinite God utterly transcends the world he has made. I expressed my own views in this blog series: http://goo.gl/HhOqA6, as well as this article http://goo.gl/I67yQf.

  7. The first quotation you list raises the question of what it means to respect someone’s beliefs. Whether or not one, at the end of the day, concludes that Christianity is true, any thoughtful person should agree that this is not an attitude of respect toward it’s claims.

  8. The problem with evolutionists is that they won’t admit that Darwin, who by the way was a rather religious man, would not recognize today’s “grand theory”. While calling themselves “Neo-Darwinians” often, they actually had to completely change evolutionary theory several times since Darwin, and probably to a greater extent than biblical teachings have been changed since the council or Trent …

  9. […] have called Barash “intellectually dishonest.”  Even Catholic writers berated Barash.  As one Franciscan blogger put it, “His laboratory pontification exceeds his areas of […]

  10. […] forever irreconcilable, “[brings] religion into his science class.” Others go further, arguing that since many “theologians… take seriously the work of biologists like Barash in his field, […]

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