Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Peter Hess of NCSE Tells Us About How to Make Evolution Compatible with Christianity

Minda Berbeco once taught evolution and she was surprised that her students wanted to talk about religion. She decided to consult with Peter Hess, the director of religious community outreach at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). Her blog post is on the NCSE website at: When Students Ask about Religion.

Peter Hess mentioned that many people see a conflict between science and religion so Minda asked him what she should say to such people. Hess replied ...

I would recommend citing examples from the numerous scientists who have integrated current science into their religious worldviews, scientists such as Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins, Robert Russell, and Father George Coyne.

Another tack would be to cite statements from theological figures, such as Pope Benedict’s statement in Communion and Stewardship (2002), when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger:
Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage.
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting that you cite the views of such scientists and theologians as authoritative. There’s a wide range of religious reactions to evolution, from rejection to embrace, and you may not feel comfortable in endorsing any of them. (Indeed, a teacher in the public schools is required not to endorse any of them in the classroom.) But many people who reject evolution for religious reasons are ignorant about, or have never been seriously exposed to, the range of religious reactions to evolution. It may come as a complete surprise to them that devout religious people—perhaps even people of the same faith—have no theological objection to evolution. And opening people’s horizons is part of what education is all about, isn’t it?
There's so much wrong with this advice that I hardly know where to begin.

First, Hess seems to assume that Minda Berbeco is a Christian because otherwise his advice makes no sense. Surely, he wouldn't expect an atheist like me to tell students that the Pope is an authority on evolution? What if the teacher is a Muslim, a Buddhist, or a Hindu? What should they say? (Peter Hess is Roman Catholic.)

Second, he says that the views of these scientists (and the Pope) should not be cited as authoritative but if he really believes that then why cite them at all? Why not cite those religious scientists who think there really is a conflict between evolution and their religious beliefs?

Third, just because some scientists have been able to rationalize their acceptance of evolution with their Christian beliefs does not mean that there's no conflict. That is not a very good way to teach students how to think critically. After all, there are scientists who believe in homeopathy and astrology but that doesn't mean there's no conflict between real science and those pseudosciences, does it?

Fourthly, I agree that opening people's horizons is an important part of education. That's why I would tell students that, yes, there is a very real conflict between science and religion. It's quite likely that your faith will be severely challenged if you learn about evolution and science. Many students have never been seriously exposed to the atheist position. Somehow I don't think that's what Peter Hess has in mind when he talks about "opening people’s horizons."

Peter Hess recommends that students visit the Christian accommodationist webpages on the NCSE website [Science and Religion]. So, fifthly, I recommend that NCSE offer a more balanced view of this issue where they point out that there are many scientists who believe the conflict is very real. (I would be happy to write something.) NCSE should also expand their discussion to include non-Christian views of evolution.