NZCSIOP does not take a stand against religious belief, per se, and many Christians are committed Skeptics. While Mr van der Lingen’s essay may appear to contradict this stance, he is not arguing that religious belief is incompatible with being a Skeptic; he is only challenging some claims and methodologies adopted by those who take a particular set of positions regarding the relationship between evolutionary science and contemporary Christian belief.
For a long time I have promised to write something on creationism for the New Zealand Skeptic. I must admit that I would like to ignore creationism, as I find the arguments of the so-called creation scientists extremely tedious. And that is probably the main reason why I haven’t put pen to paper (or fingers to the computer keyboard) earlier. But unfortunately creationism remains a serious threat to science education, the role of science in society and critical thinking.
Moreover, as a geologist I cannot ignore creationism, as it denies and attacks fundamental (excuse the pun) aspects of my science, specifically the theory of evolution and radiometric dating. Without accepting these one could not practise geology. For instance, one could not search for hydrocarbons, nor solve the jigsaw puzzle of plate tectonics and continental drift, nor study paleoclimate.
We have been fortunate that in recent years we have been able to listen to talks by eminent international evolution scientists, like Stephen J. Gould (in 1991), Ian Plimer (this year), and Richard Dawkins (this year), who have done a great service to science by their writings and lectures. It was really Dawkins’s lecture in Christchurch, and especially an answer he gave during the discussion after his talk, which provided the main point for this article.
Someone asked whether, in his opinion, religion was compatible with evolution. He answered that he was aware of many scientists who accepted the theory of evolution and were also religious, but that he personally did not think they were compatible.
This touches on a very sensitive point in the struggle of science against creationism. One can almost say that it is not “politically correct” to say that religion is incompatible with the theory of evolution. Many people go to great length to explain that religion and evolution do not contradict each other. After all, God may well have used (gradual) evolution to reach His objectives for this planet, that is, to create man, animals and plants. And it is pointed out that most “mainstream” religions accept the theory of evolution. By saying that, one hopes to put the “fundamentalist” Christians in an offside position.
Ian Plimer even went as far as to get the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane to write the foreword to his book Telling Lies for God. The only thing I can say in response to that type of “political correctness” is that it shows (to borrow Shermer’s title to his recent articles in the New Zealand Skeptic) “How thinking goes wrong” (for clarity of argument, when I write about “religion” I mean “Christian religion”).
To illustrate my point I would like to quote from a discussion I had some years ago in the letters column of Geotimes, a geological newsletter from the US. From time to time, creationism comes up as a topic of debate.
In the May 1984 issue, Frank Press, the President of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote an editorial, titled “Science and Creationism”. In it, he stated, among other things, that “it is false, however, to think that the theory of evolution represents an irreconcilable conflict between religion and science. A great many religious leaders and scientists accept evolution on scientific grounds without relinquishing their belief in religious principles”. In the same breath he quoted from a resolution from the Council of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in 1981, that “Religion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief”.
In the same issue of Geotimes, there was a letter from Schoch and Prins from the Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University. They wrote: “Whereas personally we are evolutionists, we believe that creation accounts (such as that found in Genesis) need not contradict conventional evolutionary theory if religious belief and scientific fact are viewed as two different kinds of truth”.
And further on: “Thus, religion and science use two coexistent, non-overlapping language meaning structures, even when the words sound and are applied the same. Religion and science need not contradict one another, but can coexist without intruding on each other’s realms”.
All this was more than I could stomach. I sent in a letter, which was published in the October 1984 issue. In this I stated that some consider it a useful strategy to say that many scientists who accept evolution are also devoutly religious, to give evolution respectability in the eyes of non-scientists.
However, in my opinion this amounted to “doublethink”, defined by Orwell in his book 1984 as “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”. I mentioned the above quotes from Schoch and Prins as fitting the definition of doublethink. I further wrote that, according to the above quoted resolution of the NAS Council, religious scientists would be entertaining “Mutually exclusive realms of thought”, that is, to practise doublethink. I ended by saying that religious scientists “can’t have their cake and eat it”.
Not surprisingly, I seemed to have touched a raw nerve, resulting in several letters to Geotimes. Three of them were published in the February 1985 issue, and I know of more which were not published. It would take up too much space here to quote them verbatim. However, quoting parts of them will assist in fleshing out my thesis.
J.M. Mulholland wrote: “I have enjoyed the ongoing debate among geoscientists about how to best handle the pressure from scientific creationists to have Biblical creation taught on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. Up to now I felt little urge to join the debate, but the letter by G.J. van der Lingen (October Geotimes) struck a chord. I have to take issue with his inference that scientists who are religious must either have a deceptive strategy to give evolution respectability in the eyes of non-scientists’, or are deceiving themselves by practising doublethink. If we believe in one God, omnipotent and creator of all, then we must believe that He created the universe and its population.”
And a bit further: “Scientists who hold Judeo-Christian beliefs might say that God’s creation took place perhaps 4 to 6 billion years ago and that He created only the basic chemical elements of the universe. The Bible demonstrates that God’s intervention in the history is a rare and sporadic event, and the evolution and rise of humans from lower animal forms may be the earliest instance” (italics by me).
A James Tanner wrote: “I happen to be one of the religious scientists Gerrit J. van der Lingen refers to in his letter on creationism and science, and I do not believe I am practicing double-think’. My religious beliefs and my scientific (evolutionary) beliefs are not, in my eyes, mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, my beliefs in evolution has reinforced my belief in a Supreme Being.”
The essential point made by (non-fundamentalist) Christians, who (now) accept the theory of evolution, is that God created humans (and presumably other animals and plants) by the process of evolution. However, this implies that there was a God-ordained design in evolution, and that the final intended outcome was Homo sapiens, the “Crown of His creation”. Or, as someone expressed somewhat differently: “Evolution as the preordained unfolding of the Creator’s plan”. It also implies that evolution, for all intent and purposes, has now finished.
This is in direct conflict with the ideas of most evolution scientists, like Stephen J. Gould, who, in his 1991 talk, compared evolution with a tape recorder. According to him, if we could wind back the tape, and start all over again with a blank one, the outcome would be totally different.
As the scientific theory of evolution does not support pre-ordained outcomes, the Christian solution to reconcile their religion with the theory of evolution does not work. Consequently, their version of the theory of evolution has to be classified as pseudo-science, and my accusation of doublethink remains valid. To this can also be added the accusation of “thinking backwards”.
As a simple geologist, I have not been thoroughly trained in philosophy and logic. I have to gather building blocks for constructing my views of “life, the universe and everything” from many varied and scattered sources. For me, one of the most seminal building blocks was Ralph Estling’s article “The trouble with thinking backwards” (New Scientist, 2 June 1983), a critical analysis of a posteriori logic.
Explaining what “thinking backwards” is can best be done with an example. We need a starting point and a final outcome. As the final outcome we can use the lecture by Richard Dawkins in lecture theatre C1 at the University of Canterbury. There were about 700 people in the audience (overflowing into a second lecture theatre with closed-circuit television). Let us take as the starting point 1950, when I started my studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. I do not know where Denis Dutton was at that time, probably just starting primary school in the US.
On the first of October 1950, say, someone asks what the chances are that on 9 September 1996, an Englishman by the name of Richard Dawkins, having become Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, will give a lecture titled “Climbing Mount Improbable” to an audience of about 700 people in lecture theatre C1 at the University of Canterbury, and that everyone of his audience will sit in a particular (“pre-ordained”) seat, either in the main lecture theatre or in the “overflow” room, and will be wearing the particular combination of clothing items as they did. One can add an infinite number of other “pre-ordained” conditions, such as the cars or bicycles people drove to the university, or the number of times they breathed in and out during the lecture. Doing the calculations, one has to keep in mind that, in 1950:
- probably half of that audience was not yet born
- lecture theatre C1 was not yet built (it has only just been finished)
- part of the audience was scattered around the world (for instance, I came to New Zealand via South America)
- the TV programme Dr Who was not yet conceived.
Any such calculation of chance (the odds) can only be a very rough guesstimate. But people have made such calculations. Sir John Eccles once calculated the odds of him existing as one in 1010,000. And our intrepid astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle calculated the odds of terrestrial life having originated on earth as one in 1040,000. I would have been on relatively safe ground if I had guesstimated on 1 October 1950 that the odds of Dawkins’s lecture meeting taking place as it did were 1 in 1050,000. In other words, impossible. But the meeting did take place. By saying that the meeting, on probability grounds, could not have taken place, I am practising “thinking backwards”. Only when the meeting as it took place had been pre-ordained would I have been right.
In conclusion one can therefore state that, because Christians require pre-ordained evolution to make the theory of evolution acceptable to them, evolution and religion are still incompatible. Only by thinking backwards can one have one’s cake and eat it.