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Evolution as symbol of the clash between Faith and Science

Posted by Skeptigator on August 25, 2008

The New York Times ran an article, A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash, last Saturday. The article follows a teacher in the Florida education system and one of his Christian students. The teacher was instrumental in the adoption of the new Florida education standard that now requires all Florida public schools to teach evolution as the “organizing principle of life science”.

For the longest time I really couldn’t articulate even to myself why there is so much contention about evolution. If it were simply that evolution contradicts a literal interpretation of Genesis then why isn’t modern geology also vehemently opposed. Sure there are critics from the same Creationist camp that doubt any dating of geological activity, sediments or rocks beyond 6,000 years old but by and large most people could care less about such an obscure academic debate. Or at least it doesn’t raise any hackles when someone says the Earth is 4 billion years old, give or take a couple hundred million years.

So what is it about Evolution that creates such controversy. Evolution as a scientific theory is less a theory(with reams of supporting evidence) and more a symbol of the clash between scientifc knowledge and religious knowledge. In a very discreet way evolution illustrates the amoral (notice I didn’t say, immoral) nature of science and inherent value judgments that religion make.

Science, which is simply a body of knowledge*, inherently makes no value judgments about the knowledge it acquires or contains. Science doesn’t discover the mathematical formulas that govern the motions of planets and determine that it is good. The rightness and wrongness of 2 + 2 = 4 is an irrelevance.

Scientific knowledge is what it is, subject to revision. And there we’ve discovered something about scientific knowledge that is it’s greatest objective strength. Science is constantly discovering new things and discarding or revising old knowledge. It’s this “nothing sacred” nature of science that makes it so powerful. Without that self-correcting mechanism mankind would still think it was the center of the universe.

At the same time we can make statements as to the nature of Nature but it must always be provisional (“as far as we know”). And here is where Science gets itself into trouble particularly with believers. The believer is privvy to a body of unchanging, absolute knowledge. There is no equivocation in, “God is great”, he simply is. The knowledge that man acquires, via the scientific method, is constantly changing whereas religious/God’s knowledge is timeless and absolute, you can bank on it.

While Science makes no moral judgments as to the rightness or wrongness of gravity, religious knowledge has an inherent moral value to it. There is no amoral body of religious knowledge. To clarify what I mean, the purpose of the stories of the Old Testament, for example, are meant to convey some moral instruction as to the nature of good and evil, God or some other moral purpose. The Old Testament tells us that we should put no gods before the one true god but (historical) Science wants a catalog with corresponding belief systems of those other gods. Science assigns no moral value to those other belief systems, it simply wants know about them.

So what does all of this have to do with evolution or the article mentioned above. When you take the provisional nature of scientific knowledge and it’s inherently amoral stance and put it up against a shystem of knowledge that assigns moral value to all of its knowledge, you will inevitably have conflict. Evolution illustrates this disconnect very clearly because at the very outset evolution makes statements as to the nature and origins of mankind that bring it directly in conflict with the moral value of mankind as put forth by Christianity.

To a believer because evolution describes the origin of human life and our relative place among the other animals on this planet it is therefore automatically making a statement of morality or assignment of value. This is a legitimate statement to the believer because their body of knowledge makes statements of morality and/or assignments of value based on the origin of mankind.

From the article mentioned, the science teacher made the following statement that I think sums things up nicely,

“Science explores nature by testing and gathering data,” he said. “It can’t tell you what’s right and wrong. It doesn’t address ethics. But it is not anti-religion. Science and religion just ask different questions.”

This discussion could devolve (pun intended) into the legitimacy of the “non-overlapping magisteria” argument, that “no such conflict should exist (e.g. between Science and Religon) because each subject has a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority”. That is certainly a valid argument to have but not one that is relevant to the point I’m trying to make.

The question is does my idea/understanding about the character/nature of Science vs. Religious knowledge make sense or at least does it bring a little better understanding as to why the 2 types of knowledge do come into conflict (at least in my head).


* I use this sense of the word since it’s the most relevant however Science could just as easily be described as the process or method for discovering knowledge of the natural world. I’m making the distinction clear here so the “hyper-definitionists” (you know who you are) don’t spontaneously give birth to a cow because I didn’t spend 14 paragraphs defining the word Science.

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3 Responses to “Evolution as symbol of the clash between Faith and Science”

  1. dystressed said

    Great post. I really like the article.

  2. Infektid said

    Its pretty amazing that people are so objective when it comes to evolution being taught in schools. I’m dumbfounded by the ignorace of these people to actually use the claim of “God did it” as a “reasonable” answer to “why?” or “how?”.

    I guess I never grew up in an environment where religion was forced down my throat. Sure my family made me goto to church, but they never required me to sit down and read the bible. Thats too bad though, because had they, I probably would have made my sunday school teachers look absolutly rediculous.

    I applaud Florida for actully taking a step to teaching real science in the class room, because as we all know the education in American is serverly lacking, and in definate need of revamping.

  3. firstofall556 said

    Good post.
    I think the teacher was right in how he handled the lessons. He wasn’t saying you have to believe in one or the other. That was key to allow the kids to start to think for themselves. Which is extactly what the religous leaders are afraid of.

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