Thursday, August 11, 2005

Once Again: The Bible Is Not a Science Text

In this piece on Slate, Jacob Weisberg tries to show why religion and evolution are fundamentally incompatible. I'm with Weisberg on his policy prescriptions--like most sensible people, he opposes having science classes teach "intelligent design" ("creationism in a cheap tuxedo," as one teacher calls it). But he's wrong about evolution and God being irreconcilable concepts. Here's why.

Weisberg starts with a statistical argument:

Look at this 1993 NORC survey: In the United States, 63 percent of the public believed in God and 35 percent believed in evolution. In Great Britain, by comparison, 24 percent of people believed in God and 77 percent believed in evolution. You can believe in both—but not many people do.

First of all, even if it were true that relatively few people believe in both evolution and God, that wouldn't prove that the two concepts are in fact logically exclusive. The negative correlation could simply reflect cultural and social patterns. Most people in Massachusetts voted for Kerry and root for the Boston Red Sox. That doesn't demonstrate any logical contradiction between being a Red Sox fan and a Republican.

What's more, the statistics Weisberg cites don't necessarily support his conclusion that "not many people believe in both" God and evolution. It's true that the numbers he mentions for each set of believers appear roughly complementary: 63 + 35 equals a sum close to 100, as does 24 + 77. But that doesn't necessarily mean that, in the real world, there is little or no overlap between the two groups. To know that, you'd have to cross-check each individual respondent, which the original pollsters Weisberg cites didn't do. So Weisberg is jumping to a conclusion unsupported by the data--a pretty basic logical error that seriously undermines his statistic argument.

Weisberg then tries to make a more substantive argument--that the fundamental concepts underlying evolution and religious belief are logically incompatible. He cites some people who believe this to be true (such as Samuel Wilberforce, the British bishop who attacked Origin of Species in an 1860 review) and sums up his argument this way:

To be sure, there are plenty of scientists who believe in God, and even Darwinists who call themselves Christians. But the acceptance of evolution diminishes religious belief in aggregate for a simple reason: It provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does.

Two things here. First, one would think that the existence of significant numbers of scientists who find evolution and religion perfectly compatible would seriously undercut both Weisberg's statistical argument and his quoting of a handful of religious leaders, like Wilberforce, who think they aren't compatible. What makes Wilberforce a more reliable authority on the question than the Christians who disagree with him? Weisberg doesn't say, and so the two sets of authorities simply cancel one another out.

But the nub of the issue is this: When Weisberg writes that evolution "provides a better answer to the question of how we got here than religion does," he is misinterpreting the purpose of religion. As I've explained before, religion--specifically Christianity--is not a primitive form of science, seeking to explain the physical, chemical, and biological mechanisms by which living things came to be and developed over time. Rather, it's an exploration of the philosophical and spiritual issues underlying human existence: What is the purpose of life? What is the nature of good and evil? How should human beings relate to the universe and to one another? These are religious questions, not scientific ones.

It's true that the Book of Genesis includes legendary material from ancient Jewish tradition that deals with topics now generally addressed by scientists. In the same way, other parts of the Bible refer to material that historians, geographers, and archeologists now study. Some of this scientific, historical, geographic, and archeological material is accurate, while some isn't--which has nothing to do with the validity of the core message of the Bible.

Remember, when Jesus was asked to summarize holy scripture, he didn't respond with the cosmology of Genesis or a technical analysis of how God designed the human nervous system. He said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27). That's the essence of Christianity, not the tale of the six-days' creation from Jewish folklore.

Oddly enough, Weisberg ends up making the same mistake that Christian fundamentalists make. The only difference is, where the fundies say that the science of the Bible is correct, Weisberg says it's wrong. He'd be right if the Bible were a science text in the first place--but it's not. That's why millions of us are Christians in our faith and Darwinians in our science, and find no contradiction between the two.
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