Friday, February 25, 2005


Adult Sunday School Class is Pro-Evolution

Living in the midst of the wealthiest county in the nation, I am seldom surprised by the conservative views of my friends and neighbors. The lawyers, accountants and professionals who attend my church often espouse the views one might anticipate from the upper middle class; pro-republican, pro capital punishment, anti gun control, etc.

However, my Sunday school class did surprise me with a near consensus against the moves the Kansas School Board is planning. Several people came prepared to fight the good fight in favor of keeping creationism and intelligent design out of our kids' biology classes. They brought newspaper clippings and strong emotions. (If only we could harness that passion to serve Christ!)

In fact, most of my Sunday school adults believe that "evolution took place over millions of years but God guided the process."

Our curriculum, "FaithLinks," is published with the approval of the Methodist church, and lays out a tolerant position calling for dialog. The class seemed to agree on this position.

The study guide quoted a 2001 survey that showed 45% of all adults believe the creation story in Genesis is a factual account, right down to 24 hour days. An additional 43% believe as my Sunday school class; the total number of adults believing in some form of divine intervention in human origins is therefore 88%. The number believing in evolution as a purely natural process with no help from God is a mere 12%. (I call the strict naturalistic view the 12% view).

Interestingly, one of the class members refused to accept the statistics, clinging to the notion that the majority of Americans do not believe that God played a pivotal role in human origins.

If we go based on a purely democratic notion of teaching our children the same things we as a people believe, then introducing a notion of divine intervention -- let's call that "intelligent design" into our high school science classes seems reasonable. The majority opinion supports either direct or indirect action by God.

We were blessed with the presence of a chemist and also a science teacher. They, like everyone else, felt that the plan to paste warning labels in our children’s textbooks is misguided.

When everyone agrees and sits around telling each other things we all know to be true, learning comes to a screeching halt. The Methodist position is to attempt to understand the issue from different viewpoints and to engage in dialog. If the views expressed are all unanimous, no genuine exploration of divergent views can take place.

Powerful arguments can be advanced in favor of placing the labels on the textbooks and introducing various ideas into the classroom. Though it appears to serve conservative political ends and to be misguided, we should be familiar with the arguments and know the answers if we want to truly be informed on the issue.

Intelligent Design asks us to consider statistical analyses of the probability of particular sequences of nucleotides to determine if pure chance can account for the sequence. The analysis is based on similar techniques used to analyze radio signals in the SETI project – an analysis looking to distinguish noise from communication.

They argue that they are begging for objectivity and adherence to the strictest, highest scientific standards. They argue that the evidence they have found should be a part of science education, based on the most objective consideration of all the evidence, even evidence that contradicts the 12% view.

Does the evidence support their arguments? I don't know, and I am not really qualified to review the statistical analysis they apply to the evidence. I do know they are not getting serious consideration.

One of our class members attended the hearing the Board held in Topeka. He said about four-fifths of the speakers were against the introduction of the new ideas into our science standards. I did a quick search on Google using the terms "teach evolution" and found the first hundred or so hits were either against the intelligent design people or simply did not address the issue.

Under the circumstances, with press coverage almost wholly negative, if I were in their shoes I would feel like I had taken a stand on principle in the face of almost overwhelming opposition. I would feel (like the members of my class) that I had the moral high ground, and that the opposition was not even listening to my views. (As indeed they aren't).

Their argument is ultimately about the nature of science. They believe they have found objective evidence in nature that intelligent design under girds evolution. That is, they think they have evidence arising from purely mathematical analysis of observations of empiric phenomena that supports what most people already think they know, that God either directed evolution over a period of millions of years (the view of my class) or that God created everything in 7 days of 24 hours each, as in Genesis.

Kansas Attorney General Phil Kline appears to be endorsing a warning label for school text books, similar to one recently attempted in Georgia. The warning label recently ruled unconstitutional in Georgia said:

This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact,
regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with
an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered.

Sounds rather harmless.

However, we put warning labels on cigarettes, drugs and bottles of alcohol. The mere presence of a warning label sends a message, even if the text, taken by itself, appears innocuous.

Can the state require the introduction of the intelligent design evidence into high school classes? It should be pointed out that a process that's unconstitutional in Georgia is not necessarily unconstitutional in Kansas. It depends on the level of the court that decided the issue; a finding in the federal circuit that binds Georgia does not apply to Kansas. Only a court that has jurisdiction over Kansas can make that decision.

So the answer is a qualified yes -- Kansas can do this, at least until a successful court challenge.

As Christians and thoughtful people, we should be asking what we are afraid of. For me, red flags go up when many people become emotional and passionate about an issue and they all agree that they have the moral high ground on a question that is fundamentally philosophical and value laden.

The definition of what is science and what is religion belongs to philosophy; scientists and theologians may think they know best what their own subject is all about, and we would be fools to engage in a dispute involving their opinions. But the fact is, a person who drives a car is not always the best person to explain how it works. I venture to say most practioners in science are unfamiliar with the works of Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn or have read Galileo's writings . That doesn't make them bad scientists, any more that you are a bad driver just because you don't really know what an intake manifold is.

Scientists are taught that theories compete in the marketplace of ideas. Theories that best account for all the evidence are adopted and widely held; theories that fail to account for all known data are discarded.

This rosy view of the way science ought to work has a kernel of truth in it, but as Kuhn showed, the situation is far more complex. Careers may hinge on a particular theory; publication of radical departures from the established notions in peer reviewed journals may be difficult; full professors with big investments in old ideas may be reluctant to recognize evidence that contradicts the theory they built their reputations on.

Whether or not science has a place for theistic explanation is a philosophical question. Certainly, as practiced since the time of Galileo (generally credited with invention of the scientific method by historians of science), science has not invoked the supernatural in any of its explanations.

But it is a mistake to think this history derives from some fundamental rejection of God and religion. Rather, it is an application of Ockham's Razor. (I swear I’m not making this up). This 14th century thinker posited that explanations should always be parsed to the bare minimum. Since there was no need to invoke God in the theory of gravity, or relativity, God does not appear in those theories.

Interestingly, the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking has speculated in recent years on the need to invoke some non-naturalistic principle to explain the origin of the Big Bang.

(Friendly comment from Les: "Not exactly. It was framed in the way Einstein used to use it, a generalistic concept not the kind that produces an infinite regression.")

The upshot is, we Methodists ought to get our own personal beliefs clear before we dismiss ideas of others as excessively simplistic. The belief that God guided evolution is theistic, and the journey from that idea to intelligent design is exceedingly short. The motives of the Kansas school board members appear to be purely political, but that's only from the outside looking in.

I hope this essay encourages people to re-think, re-evalute and re-reason their deeply held faith regarding what is and what is not proper science.

We should all respect each other as individuals. Opinions based on knowledge, logic, and reason earn special respect. An appreciation of the other point of view is essential for genuine dialog to occur.

'the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking has speculated in recent years on the need to invoke some non-naturalistic principle to explain the origin of the Big Bang. '

Not exactly. It was framed in the way Einstein used to use it, a generalistic concept not the kind that produces an infinite regression.
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