NOMA is Alive and Well in Ohio

In Rocks of Ages Stephen Jay Gould famously argued for Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA), the notion that science and religion appropriately address different domains of knowledge (magisteria), and that therefore there is no necessary conflict between them so long as each sticks to its own domain. While that argument has its detractors, it was alive and well a few weeks ago in Ohio.

On November 14, with four high school science teachers I attended a panel presentation at the Center for Science and Industry in Columbus, the presentation being co-sponsored by COSI, the Ohio State University, and WOSU, the Columbus PBS station. The presentation was titled “The Intersection of Faith & Evolution: A Civil Dialogue.” The panelists were Jeff McKee, a paleontologist from Ohio State University, Patricia Princehouse, who lectures on evolutionary biology and philosophy at Case Western Reserve, David Ruppe, a pastor and scholar of religion, and Francis Collins, the Director of the Human Genome Project and an evangelical Christian. (I mention Collins’ religious affiliation because he was the only presenter for whom it was explicitly mentioned in the introductions.)

The event was heavily over-subscribed, with the organizers having to open several satellite venues with video feeds of the live event at COSI. Having got my reservation in early, I was in the second row in front of the panel along with one of the teachers, where we had easy access to the microphone for audience questions.

The show started with a short skit that had three teen-aged kids in sleeping bags talking about the age of the stars (billions vs. thousands of years), why they’re different (physics vs. begats), and whether one of the girls could be both a pastor and a scientist. The resolution, of course, was the claim that the two aren’t antithetical. (That it was a girl who felt that quandary was a tip-off to the general theological stance of the evening.)

The format of the main event was a bit frustrating. I used the term “panel presentation” above rather than “panel discussion” purposely, since the panelists did little or no discussing among themselves. Rather, each panelist gave a roughly 8- to 10-minute summary of their view of the intersection of the title, and then the floor was opened to questions from the audience, some relayed from the remote venues.

The main point of each of the first three presenters – Collins, McKee, and Princehouse – was basically that theistic evolution was a viable option for theists, and that there is no necessary conflict between the two. Collins, the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief and an evangelical Christian, made the argument common to theistic evolutionists, namely that science answers “how” questions about the world while religion answers “why” questions. Collins briefly outlined his basic position, in the process arguing firmly against intelligent design and creationism and against a literal reading of Genesis. You can hear Collins on NPR making much the same points here.

McKee is the author of several books, among them The Riddled Chain: Chance, Coincidence, and Chaos in Human Evolution. McKee briefly described some of the fossil evidence for human evolution (he was formerly at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and did some of the excavations). He correctly observed that human evolution most threatens the religious opponents of evolution, the intelligent design creationists of various stripes within the big tent of ID. If it were just whales that evolved there would be considerably less heat about it.

Princehouse (2003 winner of NCSE’s “Friend of Darwin” award) presented quotations from a number of authors – classical and modern, scientists and theologists and philosophers – describing various forms of accommodation between (mainly Christian) religious beliefs and science in general and evolution in particular. Ruppe focused mainly on the semantic confusions associated with the issue on both the science side and the religion side. I’d like to have heard more from him.

The audience’s questions tended to focus on Collins. For example, one questioner (who had read Collins’ book) correctly identified Collins’ alleged “evidence for belief” as fundamentally a God of the gaps argument. According to Collins, naturalistic science can’t account for human Moral Law (Collins’ capitalization) or the origin of the universe and its (alleged) fine-tuning, and therefore belief in a God is at least partly justified. To his credit, Collins answered that he wasn’t claiming “proofs” (his word) but rather only indications or pointers. McKee addressed the issue of randomness and contingency answering a question about his book.
There were a number of other questions that my notes failed to capture.

A significant disadvantage of the format was that audience questions were disjointed, there was no follow-up, and virtually no discussion among the panelists about the questions (or answers). And, of course, it was all very civil. :)

It’s probably a little cruel, but I had the most fun watching Georgia Purdom of Answers in Genesis, who was sitting across the aisle. I’ve known her distantly for some years, since she was at Mt. Vernon Nazarene University, and I was sure that the presentation would not sit happily with her literalist biblical stance (she now works full time for Answers in Genesis). At a talk she gave a couple of years ago I thought a microbiologist friend of mine was going to stroke out at Purdom’s remark that “Creationist scientists and secular scientists look at all the same evidence, but they interpret it differently because they have different presuppositions.” Sure enough, Georgia didn’t like the presentation.

There were some interesting discussions in the lobby over cookies and lemonade after the formal presentation. I spent 15 minutes in relief of Jeff McKee explaining to a philosopher why irreducible complexity was a pseudo-problem for evolution, and had fun with another philosopher over Dembski’s explanatory filter – anyone who doesn’t know what a conditional probability is or what a uniform probability density function means ought not try to defend Dembski. (I’m not sure why I ended up talking mostly with philosophers.) I also met a high school teacher who had brought 30 high school students from an International Baccalaureate program who were excited about the event and were fun to talk with.

On the drive home with the four science teachers we talked about their situation. They teach in a conservative community (there’s a district headquarters of the Seventh Day Adventist church here), and every year they face students who have been thoroughly immersed in young earth creationism by their parents, pastors, and parochial or home schooling. A few years ago the local school board defeated a move to insert DI-style “critical analysis of evolution” language in the high school biology curriculum, complete with extracts from Jonathan Wells’ Icons of Evolution trash. (To its credit, the local school board defeated that attempt well before the Ohio State Board of Education managed to do so.)

As I mentioned above, Gould’s notion of NOMA has its detractors, and I myself don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for it, but I was persuaded by my talk with those teachers that it can be helpful to them in defusing tensions about teaching evolution in their classrooms. I asked them how often they faced creationist students objecting to evolution and their answer was “Every year.” Anything one can do to help the folks out there on the front lines of public education is worth a good close look.

I suspect it may also help them in dealing with the parents of those children. As I wrote several years ago here on PT, the primary motivation driving the parents’ opposition to the teaching of evolution is fear for their childrens’ salvation. As I wrote then, given their worldview and assumptions that is not an irrational fear (I do not comment on the rationality of that worldview here: I take it as a given):

There is a genuine belief that accepting an evolutionary view of biological phenomena is a giant step on the road to atheism, and in learning evolutionary theory their children are in peril of losing salvation. Given the beliefs they hold, this is not a silly fear. From their perspective, atheism is a deadly threat, and evolution is a door through which that threat can enter to corrupt one’s child. No amount of scientific research, no citations of scientific studies, no detailed criticism of the Wellsian trash science offered in “teach the controversy” proposals, speaks to those fears. If one genuinely fears that learning evolution will corrupt one’s children and damn them for eternity, scientific reasoning is wholly irrelevant.

Under those circumstances, examples like Collins, a scientist, evangelical Christian and theistic evolutionist, are very valuable. They can potentially help reassure all but the most fundamentalist parents that learning about evolution does not necessarily set their children on the path to atheism and hence to Hell. Ken Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God was very useful in the skirmish in the local district four years ago, particularly with school board members, and I anticipate that Collins’ The Language of God will be even more useful should another such skirmish arise.