It seems that October is most often this group’s month for dealing with weighty topics that have been of importance to the group for a little while. Last year our October topic was about evolutionary PRATTs, the tendency of some evolution supporters to rely on arguments that are just as faulty as what’s typical of creationists, and the year before that it was about James Watson and whether what happened to him was fair. This year’s October entry follows the same pattern, covering an issue that has been relevant to this group for a long time, especially recently.
As is stated in the summary on the group’s main page, this group has always had a neutral position towards religion in general. We neither advocate it nor oppose it, although we obviously oppose religiously-based attacks on science such as creationism. What this amounts to in terms of our guidelines for submissions is that we’ll accept submissions that display either a pro-religion or anti-religion viewpoint, as long as they’re relevant to evolution. In general, this group seems to be more popular among atheists than it is among religious people, so we tend to receive more submissions with an atheistic point of view than with religious point of view. But when we receive submissions related to theistic evolution, as long as they meet the rest of this group’s guidelines, we always accept them also.
In August, this group had its first example of someone leaving the group because they opposed our position about this. (I won’t say who it was, in case they would prefer that their identity be kept private.) What they opposed specifically was our having accepted this stamp submitted by Dogss, and the theistic evolution perspective that it portrays. I suspect that the person who left the group would have been willing to stay if we had removed this stamp from our gallery, but as unfortunate as it is for this group to lose members, we consider our principle about neutrality with regard to religion too important to be willing to change it.
This incident has made me realize something, though: I don’t think we’ve ever explained why we’ve chosen to take the position about this that we do. This is something that deserves to be explained, both for the sake of anyone else who might consider leaving the group because of our position about it, and more generally in case there’s anyone else who’s curious about it.
The most basic premise of our position about this is that creationism is much more harmful than Christianity in general. (I would make a broader statement about all religions, but Christianity is the only one that’s really relevant here, since all of the theistic evolution submissions we’ve received have been Christian-themed.) I think one of the best explanations I’ve written about the harm which can be done by creationism is one that I posted at Christian Forums here. This thread was written for the benefit of one specific person who was both a Christian and a creationist, so it’s written to explain how creationism is harmful from a Christian point of view, but most of the problems with creationism that I’ve described there are problems regardless of one’s perspective. Because the most basic assumption behind creationism is that we must trust a written account (the Bible) more than we trust direct observation—and this is part of the official doctrine of creationist organizations such as Answer in Genesis—the mindset behind creationism interferes with cognitive processes that are vital to many other aspects of life. And if a person ever does realize through direct or indirect observation that creationism is false, while also having been taught to believe that creationism is essential for salvation, the consequences can be disastrous.
What about Christianity in general? From the fact that I deconverted from Christianity in 2002, it should be clear that there are certain things about Christianity that I disagree with, and the same is true of most religions in general. However, what I’ve come to realize over the past eight years is that it’s possible to be a Christian in a way that avoids most of the problem that are often associated with Christianity. Christians can avoid allowing their religion to interfere with science if they aren’t creationists, Christians can avoid allowing their religion to affect how they treat homosexuals if they believe that the Bible’s prohibition of homosexuality refers only to the type of homosexuality that existed in Roman times (which involved pedophilia), and Christianity does very little harm as long as these sorts of things are avoided. As I pointed out in my entry from December of last year, under some circumstances religion can even be beneficial, as is demonstrated both by programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and by the central role that Christianity played in the fall of communism in eastern Europe 20 years ago.
Even though Emily and I both personally disagree with Christianity, our position for this group is that in the absence of doctrines such as creationism, Christianity is harmless enough that it would be a waste of effort for us to try and fight it. And more importantly, if we wish to fight creationism as effectively as possible, we will be able to do this far more effectively if we remain neutral towards Christianity as a whole than if we were to try and fight it also.
There are two reasons for this, and the most obvious is that if we tried to attack all of Christianity, we would be alienating one of our largest and most devoted groups of potential allies. Worldwide, most Christians are not creationists, and the most vocal opponents of creationism are often the Christian theistic evolutionists who are aware of how harmful creationism is to Christianity. Kenneth R. Miller is one of the best examples of this. People like Kenneth Miller attack creationism on grounds that are not only scientific, but also theological, arguing that it’s incorrect to believe that the beginning of Genesis should be interpreted literally. Atheists tend to overlook this line of reasoning, either because they aren’t familiar enough with Christian theology to argue it convincingly, or because they see no point trying to get Christians to change their interpretation of the Bible when they think Christians ought to abandon the Bible entirely. But for anyone who cares about fighting creationism rather than Christianity in general, this is a line of reasoning that should not be overlooked, which brings me to my second point.
One of the most basic principles of human nature related to debating with creationists is that if you care about convincing a person of something, attacking their entire system of beliefs is not the way to do it. Most people are far more reluctant to change their entire system of beliefs than they are to change one specific aspect of it, so if people who argue against creationism create the impression that they expect others to abandon Christianity entirely, they’re less likely to succeed. On the other hand, if it can be explained to a creationist how evolution is compatible with Christian theology, this will make them all that much less resistant to it. I think this is a very general principle of persuasion: the less a new idea requires a person to abandon their existing beliefs, and the more it can be shown to be consistent with what they believe already, the more likely they are to accept it.
The classical example of how effective this method of persuasion can be is a scene from the Bible, in which the apostle Paul preaches to the Romans on Mars Hill in Acts 17. The ancient Romans worshipped dozens of different gods, all of whom they believed had to be offered sacrifices regularly, because gods who did not receive enough sacrifices would get angry and cause misfortune. The Romans were afraid that they might fail to sacrifice to certain gods because of not knowing about them, so in order to avoid this risk they included an altar labeled “To an unknown god.” Even though Paul certainly would have disagreed with the Romans’ worshipping multiple gods, he decided that rather than trying to get the Romans to abandon this idea, he had a better chance of convincing them to worship the Christian god if he were to introduce this god to them as the god that they were already worshipping without knowing its identity. According to acts 17, Paul had a fair amount of success with this method.
The version of Christianity Paul taught to the Romans probably included creationism, although it wasn’t any less scientific than most other ideas about the origin of the world that existed in the first century A.D. But even though this time the Christian creationists are the ones setting up metaphorical altars based on false beliefs, we can still learn a lot from Paul’s method of dealing with this.
Now that I’ve explained the reasoning behind our group’s policy of neutrality towards religion, here is this month’s question: What do you think of our policy about this? This policy is such a fundamental part of our group that it’s unlikely we would be willing to change it, but I’m still interested in hearing other people’s viewpoints about it.