In Michael Shermer‘s opinion piece on CNN, he makes the case that evolution and religion can coexist peacefully. I’d love to agree with this, since it agrees with my general philosophy to avoid taking a militant stance whenever possible, and you just don’t see many eventual meetings-of-minds during a militant action — it becomes win/lose, and while winning does mean prevailing, it does nothing to stop the conflicts that existed in the first place. I’m idealistic that way, I want to convince people, not just get my way. And I do agree with this, Shermer’s point about the Warfare Model of Science and Religion, that “The belief that there is a war between science and religion where one is right and the other wrong, and that one must choose one over the other” is the cause of these disturbing statistics:
A 2001 Gallup Poll found that 45 percent of Americans agree with the statement “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so,” while 37 percent preferred a blended belief that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,” and a paltry 12 percent accepted the standard scientific theory that “Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process.”
And I agree that the way the questions are written tends to polarize the outcome, causing people with a belief in God to gravitate towards the most God-related answer, it’s part of the psychology of religious affiliation to testify to one’s faith, since the rewards of that are perceived as far greater than the rewards of gaining earthly knowledge or using logic and reason. And that’s the place where I start to feel uneasy about agreeing with this cooperative approach. The nature of religion is that it takes an adversarial position to knowledge – the proverbial Adam and Eve did not eat “an apple”, they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and became aware. This position is established very early on in the formulation of the Christian mythology, and the recurring theme of blind faith being rewarded is going to exert a strong influence to make the least logical (and most blind) choice among the three options.
And that’s where I start getting uneasy with my agreement. If you start from a position of compromise, all the negotiations are going to go downhill for you from there (prime example: health care reform – Democrats made concessions before going in, then gave up more and more, all in search of the elusive consensus that never came). Is it going to help if we water down the questions, or agree to include references to creationism when teaching the science of evolution? Or are we needlessly diluting our message, inviting more and more compromise, until we are left with disclaimers on every bit of scientific evidence? This is where I start agreeing with Richard Dawkins, that: “…there is a more pernicious and pervasive influence, which is an active shutting down of the critical faculties. Religion teaches us to be satisfied with non-explanations, and this is viciously corrosive of science and of the life of the mind generally.”
There are numerous studies that would tend to refute Dawkins’ allegation, but the information is confusing – whereas a belief in an afterlife or in the Bible as the word of God tends to decrease as educational level increases, the incidence of religious practice (church attendance) tends to increase – though this could reflect a desire to conform to cultural norms, since as Dawkins puts it, “…to own up to being an atheist is tantamount to introducing yourself as Mr. Hitler or Miss Beelzebub. And that all stems from the perception of atheists as some kind of weird, way-out minority.”
45% of people believe humans were created all at once at some time in the past 10,000 years, in spite of the need to dismiss overwhelming evidence to the contrary as false clues that were set in place specifically to challenge faith. I’d like to agree with Michael Shermer’s assertion that science and religion can be compatible, but the prevalence of anti-scientific beliefs suggests that Dawkins’ more militant approach is needed to combat this “mind virus.”