Sunday, June 10, 2012

How to deal with science you don't like: call it religion

Artist: Person who didn't exist yet, according to nearly
half of Americans
The revelation that in 2012, 46% of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form by God in the last 10,000 years is a little staggering. Staggering but not shocking, considering that Gallup has been conducting a poll on evolution belief for the past 30 years with pretty much the same result. This answer was one of three possible, the other two being 1) humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but the process was guided by God, and 2) humans evolved in the same way, but God had no part in the process.

I don't like these possible answers. For one thing, it doesn't look like it was possible for respondents to simply say "I don't know," so the poll forces them to assert a belief that they may not actually hold. For another thing, "God had no part in the process" is a nebulous statement. It could mean that God didn't specially guide the evolution of humans though he did put things in motion originally, which is a common belief of theists who accept evolution. But it sounds more like the respondent is asserting that God doesn't exist. A person shouldn't have to affirm God's non-existence or complete irrelevance to evolution in order to express a belief in evolution as it actually occurs-- that is, without any necessary guidance.

But let's go back to that "present form in the last 10,000 years" thing. Humans have been around in their present form for the last 10,000 years, yes. For that matter, they've been around in their anatomically modern form for about the last 200,000 years, and have been behaviorally modern (capable of symbolic thought, language, culture) for about the last 50,000. The city of Jericho is 11,000 years old. 46% of Americans don't even have their human history right.

What does this tell me? It tells me that evolution isn't the problem. By that I mean, I don't think the content of the story that conflicts with "We were specially made by God" is really an issue so much as the fact that it does conflict, and obviously so. It's not as offensive a creation story as those produced by a lot of religions, because religious creation stories generally entail that humans were created by some god or another, more or less deliberately. Evolution doesn't include that, so its creation story is abhorrent and false. Presumably it would be just as abhorrent and false if it asserted that we humans came into existence in some other very non-deliberate way, such as emerging from the earth like plants. Genesis says that God made Adam from dust, but he made him-- formed him, in God's own image. Special creation is the key...our existence must be on purpose, in order to have purpose.

That is, I expect, the kind of thinking behind Kansas school board member Ken Willard's recent objections to the science standards the state is developing along with 25 other states and the National Research Council. Willard, a Republican (surprise) has in the past "supported standards for Kansas with material that questions evolution," and now:
Willard said the draft embraces naturalism and secular humanism, which precludes God or another supreme being in considering how the universe works. He said he intends to raise the issue Tuesday. 
"That's going to be very problematic," Willard told The Associated Press in an interview. "They are preferring one religious position over another."
Unfortunately the public review period for the science standards is now closed, however in a section on the site titled The Nature of Science in the NGSS, I see this:
What is central to the intersection of the practices, core ideas, and crosscutting concepts?  Or, what is the relationship among the three basic elements of The Framework for K–12 Science Education? Humans have a need to explain the world around them. In some cases, the need originates in potential dangers, sometimes it is a curiosity, and in other cases the promise of a better life. Science is the pursuit of explanations of the natural world. As a foundation for K–12 science education, the issue is explaining the natural world and especially the formation of adequate, evidence-based scientific explanations. To be clear, this sort of explanation should not be confused with how students engage in the practice of constructing explanations. Obviously, students in K–12 are not likely to construct new explanations of the natural world; they can understand and engage in the process scientists use to acquire scientific knowledge. 
Might this be the root of Willard's objections-- the assertion that science is for explaining the natural world? That explanations must be based on evidence in order to be scientific? That is "naturalistic," in the sense that naturalism entails a belief that the universe obeys rules, and science is a means of discovering and explaining those rules. Naturalism also entails that nothing exists beyond the universe, or if it does it doesn't affect the workings of the universe, but the science standards don't appear to assert that this is true. I don't see anything that "precludes God," unless by that Willard simply means that the standards do not invoke God. His god, presumably-- one gets the feeling that acknowledgement of a deistic god would not suffice at all.

The refusal to take a position on religion is not itself a religious position, but I am guessing Willard does not believe this. Either that, or he is trying to obscure that fact by clumsily slapping on philosophical labels in order to turn it into one, which is far from a new tactic:
One of the most robust and effective conspiracy theories on the right, the notion that "secularism" – or, just as often, "Secular Humanism" – is a religion is meant to be taken entirely literally: right wingers genuinely believe it refers to an actually existing religious practice. How do conservatives know? Because, they say, the Supreme Court said so. It was, as religious historian and Lutheran minister Martin E. Marty has written, "an instance where one can date precisely the birth of a religion: June 19, 1961." That was the day the Court ruled in the case of Torcaso v. Watkins striking down the Maryland Constitution's requirement of "a declaration of belief in the existence of God" to hold "any office of profit or trust in this state" — specifically, in atheist Roy Torcaso's case, the office of notary public. In his decision, Justice Hugo Black, writing for a unanimous court, further asserted that states and the federal government could not favor religions "based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs" – and, in a fateful, ill-considered, and entirely offhand footnote explained: "Among religions in this country which do not teach what would be generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others."  
From here, things get wacky. As unearthed by the outstanding scholar Carol Mason in her masterpiece Reading Appalachia from Left to Right, in 1974 a Jesuit priest and Fordham University law professor named Edward Berbasse argued that "since humanism is now considered by the court to be a religion , it must be prevented from being established by the government." An activist asked him if that meant they could win their fight to ban the satanic textbooks being forced down their children's throats in Kanawha County, West Virginia by taking the matter to the Supreme Court. "I think you may have the material if you can get a crackerjack lawyer," Father Berbasse responded. A Supreme Court case was never actually attempted – not least because, as Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have pointed out, "While historically there has been an organized humanist movement in the United States since at least the 1800s, the idea of a large-scale quasireligion called secular humanism is a conspiracist myth." In Kanawha County, the textbook fight was fought out with dynamite instead. Nationwide, however, the conspiracist myth took on a life of its own – even unto the halls of Congress. 
For Secular Humanism was not just an imaginary religion. It was, as the subtitle to a 1984 book still revered by religious conservatives, put it, The Most Dangerous Religion in America. How so? Because it held that man, not God, determines human affairs. From that, as Martin Marty explained, the ascendant religious right developed the claim that "when a textbook does not mention the God of the Bible ... it necessarily leads to a void which it must fill with the religion of Secular Humanism." (It's a religion. Thus the Capital Letters.) And that any textbook which does not mention the guiding hand of God is rock-solid proof that the "secular humanist" conspiracists had written it; the absence was the presence.
Nobody honestly thinks that science in general is a religion. They just try to treat it as one when it comes to theories that they object to on religious grounds in order to make it constitutionally problematic to teach it. If it isn't a violation of anyone's religious freedom to teach that plants photosynthesize, it isn't a violation to teach evolution.

Last Easter, Pope Benedict took the opportunity to misrepresent evolution with regard to humans specifically, claiming that the Catholic Church accepts evolution, so long as it entails that humanity was specially created. That is, not evolved. I wrote then:
I'm sure it's possible to understand evolution and still find it depressing and threatening, but it's remarkable how many people who find it depressing and threatening do not understand it.  A hard-liner could quibble about the idea that we evolved "to" do anything at all, but in the context of simple order of events it is quite true that we evolved rationality into the world, in the same way that Daniel Dennett wrote that we evolved free will into the world. At least our version of it, in our world. Richard Dawkins, probably the greatest proponent of evolutionary theory alive today, likes to dwell on the unlikelihood of each of our personal existences, however significant they are to us. In Unweaving the Rainbow he wrote:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively exceeds the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
The reaction I have to such thoughts is awe and wonder. The reaction that people like the Pope have is apparently revulsion and fear-- we, you and I, could not have come into this world without an act of special creation. Life has no meaning otherwise.  Yet here all of us evolution-believers are, comfortably denying ourselves to be the product of a design independent of the process of natural selection, and yet somehow managing to not commit mass suicide in a fit of despair. Some of us believe that there is a god behind the whole process and others don't, but the simple idea of being evolved individuals doesn't shake any existential pillars and cause our sense of teleology to come crashing down. How is that? 
I want to call it humility. But that wouldn't be at all humble, now would it?

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