In a New York Times opinion piece on a recent Sunday (ironically, always on a Sunday), college biology professor David P. Barash submitted an article entitled “God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.” Barash notes that increasingly students come to his class thinking evolution is more or less optional. I found the same thing teaching religion classes. When student presentations at state universities addressed Genesis it was fairly common to have a large number of undergraduates suggesting that evolution is “just a theory” and “intelligent” design was a viable option. I tried to show them in class that the Bible does not support the shenanigans that creationists impose upon it, but the message rolled off like rain from an evolved waterfowl. Still, I do have to take exception to some of Barash’s broad strokes. He feels that religion and science cannot coexist. I wonder, however, what he means by religion.
Religion is an ill-defined word. One of the most pragmatic usages I’ve heard is that religion is what people use to give meaning to their lives. Religions may be theistic or a. Religions may be anti-science or pro. Religion, per se, is no threat to science. Fundamentalism is not religion. Fundamentalists use religion to further their ends, which are often political. Since many religions grew up around sacred writings the urge was there from the beginning to take these holy words literally. They gave meaning in a pre-scientific era. Newton, Galileo, Darwin—and even before them Plato and Aristotle—simply shifted the angle of illumination. The problem is that many religious believers feel they have the answers already. New facts only confuse the issue. Left to their own devices such beliefs quietly go extinct.
It is only when a conscious decision is made to champion archaic writ against empirical evidence that science and religion join combat. Most religious people in scientifically advanced societies have no problems with evolution or particle physics. They simply show the way the world is. The vastness of the universe should give us all pause, but it does make you wonder which way to point your telescope to spy the almighty. I sympathize with Barash. It is not easy to find many of your students, in either science or religion classes, with their minds already made up. Still, it might help to realize that religion is not the culprit here. Literalism is a kind of mental problem. Until it is rightfully separated from religion we will all be left wasting valuable class time trying to convince students of the facts of life.