Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Religion vs. Science (Part 2)

The past two centuries of human civilization has brought about a myriad of scientific discoveries and technological inventions. As we embark on the second decade of the 21st century, the pace of progress is only accelerating. However, these advancements have incited some profound and contentious questions. Many of these questions arise from the discrepancy between ancient religious ideologies and recent scientific theories. These disparities have instigated religious, social, and political animosity, particularly in the United States. Why has this conflict developed? What is the most controversial issue? Most importantly, can religion and science coexist?

I will endeavor to answer these questions in a three-part series. Today, I will examine “What is the most controversial issue?” Note: Because I will be concentrating substantially on the United States, the primary religious doctrine scrutinized will be Christianity.

In my first post of this series, I touched on the scientific theories which have caused the most friction with religious belief, namely heliocentrism (historically), evolution and the Big Bang. I mentioned that the two latter theories are routinely dismissed by those who hold a conservative religious philosophy because they can provoke intense fear and an agonizing identity crisis. Of all the controversial scientific theories, evolution is currently the most contentious, since most high-schoolers in the US take a biology course which includes evolution. In today's post, I will examine the specifics of evolution which incite the fear and the identity crisis and attempt to determine why they do so. I will also detail the countermeasures conservative Christians have taken in the United States in an effort to combat the influence of evolution.

Evolution is the gradual change of organisms over extended periods of time due to natural selection, which initially leads to variation within a species and then eventually leads to an entirely new species. Because of this, it is logical to assume that all organisms currently alive share a common ancestry. Charles Darwin proposed the theory of evolution in his book On the Origin of Species, published after his now-famous journey on the HMS Beagle. It was immediately controversial, both in the scientific world and the religious establishment.

In the century and a half since the publication, evolution has grown to be the accepted theory on the origin of the diversity of life within the scientific community, especially with the discovery of genetics as the mechanism of natural selection. However, the religious debate still rages on. This debate is centered on the origin of humans. Evolution proposes that humans evolved from ape-like ancestors about 200,000 years ago. Conservative Christianity, however, believes that God created humans about 6,000 years ago. This belief is based on Genesis 1-2, the absolute beginning of the Bible, which describes God's creation of the heavens, the Earth, plants, animals, and finally, Adam and Eve, the first humans. A large majority of conservative Christianity believes this story is a literal and true description of events, a belief called creationism, for they believe in the unconditional inerrancy of the Bible.

Conservative Christians seem to be threatened by evolution because, in their mind, it takes away the "specialness" of humanity. The Bible specifically says God created the first humans from the dust with His own hands. It also alleges that God granted humans superiority over all the plants and animals of the Earth. However, by claiming that humans are just descendants of "lower" animals, conservative Christians evolution makes us equal to all other life forms on the planet. They also believe that evolutionary theory removes the possibility of God, which they find offensive. As I stated in my last post in this series, denying God or their beliefs about God is threatening not just to their faith, but to their very identity. It is why their negative reactions towards evolution and other controversial theories are so intensely fierce.

The debate between evolution and creationism comes to a climax with the issue of which theory should be taught in public schools. In the early 1900's, many Southern states in the US passed laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools. In Tennessee, it was the Butler Act, enacted in 1925. This law was infamously challenged the same year in the Scopes Monkey Trial, where John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution and fined $100. For several decades, the controversy died down. By the 1960's and 70's, many public schools were teaching evolution as scientific fact. However, in the late 1980's, Louisiana passed a law requiring that creationism be taught alongside evolution. The controversy was reignited and a lawsuit progressed all the way to the United States Supreme Court. In Edwards v. Aguillard, the Supreme Court ruled that creationism cannot be taught in a US public school. They determined that the teaching of creationism violated the First Amendment of the US Constitution because it attempted to advance a particular religion.

The outrage from conservative Christians was enormous. In response, they formed a new theory: Intelligent Design. Basically, it is a pseudo-science claiming "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection". Throughout the late 90's and early 00's, local school boards in conservative areas of the US began to advocate a policy called "teaching the controversy". This would often entail Intelligent Design being added to the high school biology ciriculum, despite that there are extremely few scientists researching and advocating Intelligent Design.

Once again, the controversy came to a head during a court trial, this time in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in Dover, Pennsylvania. In 2004, the Dover Area School Board passed a resolution requiring that all high school biology classes be read a short statement claiming that "[g]aps in the Theory of Evolution exist for which there is no evidence". It also informed the students that a textbook advocating Intelligent Design, called Of Pandas and People, was available to any student interested in learning more. Understandably, quite a few parents in the school district were upset, and a group of them sued the Dover School Board. The verdict of the lawsuit was in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge ruled that Intelligent Design was just creationism repackaged and, therefore, it violated the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.

This debate personally effected me as well. Several months before the ruling in Kitzmiller, the school board of my hometown passed a similar resolution. I was in 11th grade and taking AP Biology. My biology teacher was extraordinarily irritated and refused to read the statement. This caused a minor scandal in the school district. Parents on both sides of the debate were complaining. There were several deeply religious students in my class, including one I considered a friend, who were upset when our teacher blatantly insulted creationism and Intelligent Design. She and the students who defended her, including myself, were threatened with hell and violence. The true passions involved in these conflicts are difficult to capture in a news story or a documentary.

Although Intelligent Design has faded somewhat from the national consciousness, the movement is still strong. In 2007, Answers in Genesis opened the Creation Museum in Kentucky, which presents an account of the origins of life consistent with creationism. Homeschooling is becoming more popular with religious families, especially now that textbooks advocating either creationism or Intelligent Design are easily available. The movement has shifted focus from legislating its beliefs into public schools to withdrawing their children from society and educating them with a narrow worldview which does not include information that contradicts their beliefs. Honestly, I feel that is a testament to the strength of the scientific theories. The evidence is so compelling that these people refuse to allow their children to study science for fear they will reject their religious upbringing. Unfortunatly, this leaves their children woefully ignorant in areas such as science and history, and places them at a remarkable disadvantage if they decide to attend a non-religious college. It is also contributing to the decline in the scientific and technological relevance of the United States and the so called "dumbing down" of America.

The conflict between science and religion bothers me for a multitude of reasons. Growing up in the Bible Belt, I had quite a few friends who were fundamentalist Christians. As an astronomer who studies theories rejected by conservative Christianity, there are times when I have visited back home and been condemned just for discussing my work, including by friends and family. I am automatically assumed to be an atheist and my research is taken as a personal attack. Although it pains me to admit it, this is quite painful, especially because I do believe in God. However, I am also encouraged by the increasing numbers of religious believers who are able to reconcile their faith with the facts of science. It gives me hope that science will win the day.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this. I particularly appreciate it since I have been on both sides.