Re: God, Darwin and My College Biology Class

At the New York Times, David P. Barash has written an opinion piece: “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class“. It’s another in a long line of poorly reasoned pieces from scientists believing they have some special insight into philosophical and religious matters.

Let me get my agreement with Barash out of the way: “there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion.” Yet he goes on to claim that evolutionary science has “undermined belief in an omnipotent and omni-benevolent God.” That’s where he starts going off the rails.

His first claim is that evolution demolishes William Paley’s argument from complexity:

Since Darwin, however, we have come to understand that an entirely natural and undirected process, namely random variation plus natural selection, contains all that is needed to generate extraordinary levels of non-randomness. Living things are indeed wonderfully complex, but altogether within the range of a statistically powerful, entirely mechanical phenomenon.

That evolution is “undirected” is a metaphysical claim. If creationism or intelligent design cannot be taught in public schools because they violate the separation of church and state then neither should atheistic metaphysical beliefs be allowed to be taught in public schools. Barash is a professor at the University of Washington, a public university. I agree with blogger Crude’s comments:

My understanding is that David Barash works at a public university. Splendid.

Then David Barash should be fired.

More than that: David Barash’s firing should be demanded by anyone who insists that religion and religious claims must be kept out of the (public) classroom and out of science. He can believe whatever he wants about religion, God, science, theodicy, philosophy, metaphysics and more. What he cannot do is take on the role of a teacher on the public dole, inserting his religious beliefs into a science class.

Or if someone insists that David Barash should not be fired, that it’s okay for a public teacher to lecture as he did about what ‘science shows’ relating to God and religion, there’s only one other reasonable alternative: upend the Dover decision, and declare that if a teacher in a public school wishes to take the opposing view – that evolution is not in fact capable of giving a total explanation of biology in the relevant sense, that science has uncovered or suggested ‘supernatural’ findings in man and elsewhere, that what we know of the world gives evidence for the existence of a supernatural, even benevolent creator – they may do so. Intelligent Design and even creationists will suddenly win after all.

Me? I’m calling for consistency, and a reasonable, continued separation of Church and State. And that means calling for David Barash to be fired for his “Talk”.

And I demand the same of anyone else who claims to want church and state separated. Be consistent, or be gone.

Barash next attacks the belief that humans are distinct from other lifeforms. Yet, going back to at least Aristotle, humans have been identified as rational animals. Such an identification accounts for both the similarities and differences between humans and non-human animals. Evolution provides an historical account of how humans may have arisen but it does not break new ground in claiming that humans are animals. He continues:

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.

The terms “natural” and “supernatural” are poorly defined. It’s not as if scientists have some supernatural detector that they can flip on and scan the human body with to look for supernatural traits.

The third point Barash brings up is connecting evolution with the problem of evil. He notes that the natural world is filled with “predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things.” I have no intention of diving into theodicy in this post. I will merely note that suffering, pain, and death are obvious facts of the world that in no way require knowledge of evolution to accept. In fact, our ancestors probably saw more suffering, pain, and death than the average modern Westerner. Evolution has not made the problem of evil any more difficult.

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.

No gymnastic routines are necessary at all. Religion does not depend on Paley-type arguments from complexity (also note you can move back the argument from biology to cosmology). We already knew that humans are animals and evil exists before we knew about evolution. Frankly, evolution does nothing to advance atheism.

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