Response to Luskin / Calvert story on "theistic evolution"

In a post Monday, October 17, 2005 on the Discovery’s Institute’s Evolution News and Views blog, (a misnomer if I’ve ever heard one), Casey Luskin makes the following comment in regards to the Caldwell’s recent suit against the evolution website:

Caldwell thus does not allege that teaching evolution endorses religion. Rather Caldwell is alleging that when the government specifically suggests to students that “religion need not conflict with evolution,” that the government is telling students what their religious beliefs should be. According to Caldwell, this form of telling students how their religious beliefs should deal with evolution constitutes impermissible religious endorsement on the part of the government.

There is an important misconception here that also came up at the Kansas hearings. Informing people about different religions’ views on the nature of God’s relationship to the natural world, and thus those religions’views on the relationship between science and religion, is not the same as endorsing those views. More specifically, it is educationally appropriate to highlight the beliefs of Christians and other theists who accept evolution in order to combat the mistaken notion that Christians can’t accept evolution: doing so is not the same as saying that such theists are correct. Scientifically, we can’t pass judgment on any theological position, but we can offer accurate observations about the scope of religious belief.

Let me tell a story from Kansas concerning this issues, and then draw some conclusions.

During Pedro Irigonegaray’s closing statement at the Kansas hearings in May, we made the point that there are many Christians (and other theists) who accept evolution. Such theists, we pointed out, do not accept the argument put forth by ID leader John Calvert that “methodological naturalism” (i.e., science) implies “philosophical naturalism” (i.e., materialism and atheism) because they believe that God works through natural causes. Such theists accept that science is a legitimate and accurate use of our God-given reason to investigate the physical world, and that God’s presence in the natural world will manifest as a logically consistent world to our senses. (Since the hearings I have become aware of a nice quote from St. Augustine about this: “Nature is what God does”).

The existence of such theists, we argued, negates the ID argument that science is necessarily friendly to atheism and antagonistic to theism. Note that we were not arguing for the truth of the theistic evolution position, for that it is theological perspective outside the domain of science. Rather we were arguing that science is metaphysically neutral in respect to beliefs about spiritual reality: science can be, and is, embraced by a full spectrum of religious beliefs, from evangelical Christians to atheistic materialists. The slides which outline our argument can be found here.

Calvert misunderstood this basic distinction (as Luskin does above), as he made clear in his closing response to Irigonegaray’s presentation, when he said,

What is so fascinating is that the Minority Report is not interested in all of science. It’s interested and it’s focused only on the issue of origin science. An origin science, I’m sorry, is a very peculiar science. It’s peculiar in two respects. It is a science that unavoidably impacts religion, and much of what we heard today was proselytization for theistic evolution because that happens to be a religious concept that’s consistent with evolution.

(my emphasis) (Talk Origins transcript of the hearings)

No, we were not proselytizing. We were not saying that the theistic evolutionists are right. We were highlighting the existence of theistic evolutionists because if you accept that they hold a legitimate religious viewpoint, than Calvert’s argument about the relationship between science and atheism is shot down by the simple presence of a counter-example.

Calvert failed to understand (or chose to misunderstand) our point.

There are two basic reasons for this misunderstanding, I think, one being political and the other being religious. From a political view, the IDists cannot afford to acknowledge theistic evolution (and other perspectives which support science) because to do so would undercut the basic dichotomy that fuels the wedge: the false assertion that one is either for God or for science.

Religiously, the truth is that the IDists believe the theistic evolutionists are wrong – that they are not even good or proper Christians: as Johnson once said, theistic evolutions (he called them “liberal Christians”), “are worse than atheists because they hide their naturalism behind a veneer of religion.”

Calvert expanded on his view on this subject in a paper (a “brief” entitled Response to Reply), filed after the Kansas hearings in which he wrote the following. (I have punctuated this with bullets to highlight his points, but the text is identical.)

The Authors [the ID Minority] agree that many who believe in some form of evolution are committed theists. But what some believe and what others do not believe is irrelevant because beliefs are usually predicated on many factors other than logic and an informed understanding of evolutionary biology.[See footnote 3 below] The issue is not what this or that person believes. The issue is what is the logical effect of suppressing one side of a scientific controversy regarding origins on theistic and non-theistic religion. What may one reasonably expect an impressionable young child to come to believe if all he is shown is evidence that supports and does not contradict the proposition that life arises from unguided evolutionary change? Logically, this favors (but does not require) non-theistic religions and belief systems. At the same time it conflicts with theistic beliefs that many parents seek to instill in their children that life results from guided, rather than unguided change.

[Footnote 3 from above]

The claim that: Many scientists who are theists believe in evolution, therefore evolution has no conflict with religion, is not logically coherent because there are many reasons why scientists who are theists do publicly deny or take issue with evolution. Based on the testimony at the hearings and numerous conversations I have had with scientists and biology teachers over the past six years I know that many theistic scientists who fall into this category do so:

(a) because their religious beliefs are held for completely unrelated to science;

(b) because they have been misinformed about the adequacy of the evidence that supports evolution,

(c) because their reputation, job performance and job security depends on their allegiance to the theory,

(d) because they work in operational or applied science where evolution is generally irrelevant and there is no reason to question it, and

(e) because they can easily avoid social and political controversy by thinking of evolution as a “tool” used by God to do his work without truly understanding the nature of the evolutionary mechanism and its logical conflicts with their the beliefs.

Of all these reasons, concern about reputation and job security is probably the most significant reason for not voicing any doubts about Darwin. Indeed a theist can actually win friends and influence people in high places by simply toeing the line. Who wants to wind up like Nancy Bryson or Roger Dehart? Who desires the kind of verbal abuse that is levied upon anyone who has the courage to voice sincere and honestly held reservations.

Let’s put this in simpler language: Calvert is saying that if you are a theist who accepts evolution, you hold a logically contradictory position. However you persist in holding this position, perhaps not even seeing the contradictory nature of your beliefs because you are some combination of misinformed about evolution and/or God, uncaring, cowardly in respect to your beliefs, and so on.

No place is there any acknowledge that such theistic evolutionists might have a legitimate religious view. Calvert, and many others in the ID movement, can just not conceive there are other ways of understanding the nature of the metaphysical/spiritual world, and thus the necessarily conflate two distinct things: informing people (including students) about people’s beliefs, the existence of which disproves the basic premise of the Wedge, on the one hand, and asserting or teaching that some particular religious beliefs are true. For them, talking about a religious perspective and proseltyzing for it are synonymous, it seems.

It is not surprising that the IDists don’t “get” this (irrespective of the political reasons for not wanting to get it), because most of them are so certain of their religious perspective, and so certain that other perspectives have some degree of pernicious effects, that they really can’t conceive of a range of religious beliefs being tolerable. As has been made abundantly clear in Kansas, for the IDists either you admit the possibility of supernatural design into science or you are in league with the dreaded human secularists whose beliefs are responsible for the sorry state of modern civilization.

I have not looked closely at the materials on the Evolution website, but I can imagine that there are places where the distinction that I am pointing out (between teaching about religious beliefs in regards to science vs. teaching that certain religious beliefs are in fact true) may not be as clear as they should be. However, with that said, I am certain that Casey Luskin or Larry Caldwell or the IDists in general do not understand and/or don’t want to acknowledge the distinction. And I am reasonably certain (from a layman’s point of view) that there is nothing legally wrong with teaching about religious views as part of an argument that science is neutral in regards to metaphysical belief.