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When the Non-religious Tell the Religious to Accept Evolution

I don’t necessarily believe that religion has to always be incompatible with evolution, but it’s always amusing when unreligious people try to convince the religious that Darwinism is highly compatible with religion. The famous example is of course Eugenie Scott, a signatory of the Third Humanist Manifesto, who recommends that biology teachers discuss pro-evolution theological viewpoints in public schools. This past week has revealed two more examples of attempts by unreligious scholars telling the public that religion and evolution are compatible:

H. Allen Orr
In an article in the latest issue of New York Review of Books, evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr attacks Dawkins for fighting against religion and says, “it’s far from certain that there is an ineluctable conflict between the acceptance of evolutionary mechanism and the belief that, as William James put it, ‘the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe.'” But Orr also acknowledges: “I don’t pretend to know whether there’s more to the world than meets the eye and, for all I know, Dawkins’s general conclusion is right.”

Ronald Numbers
Another attempt to sway the religious was made by famous historian of creationism, Ronald Numbers. His article in Journal of Clinical Investigation last summer gave minimal indication that evolution and religion can conflict:

[T]he creationists have fostered a false duality between science and religion. A majority of people do not hold a literal young-earth interpretation of the Bible. The clerical community has a shared interest in keeping science and religion apart. They do not want religion to be presented as science and, like a large block of religious scientists, do not see any conflict between religious belief and evolutionary theory.

Additionally, in a recent interview, Numbers said that Dawkins’ arguments against religion do “a terrible disservice to public policy in the United States.” Yet in the same interview Numbers himself discusses how evolution influenced his drift away from religion. Numbers explained that while he was at “Berkeley in the ’60s as a graduate student in history and learned to read critically,” he was “exposed to critiques of young earth creationism” and subsequently abandoned his belief in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Today the noted historian of the evolution-debate claims in the interview that he has no religious beliefs, even though he desires to believe:

What are your religious beliefs now?
I don’t have any.

Are you an atheist?
I don’t think so. I think that’s a belief — that there’s no God. I really wanted to have religious beliefs for a long time. I miss not having the certainty of religious knowledge that I grew up with. But after a number of years of trying to resolve these issues, I decided they’re not resolvable. So I think the term “agnostic” would be best for me.

(Seeing the light — of science: Ronald Numbers — a former Seventh-day Adventist and author of the definitive history of creationism — discusses his break with the church, whether creationists are less intelligent and why Galileo wasn’t really a martyr, by Steve Paulson (Salon.com)

Numbers also gives his view as to why so many non-religious Darwinists ardently advocate that evolution and religion do not conflict:

In the United States, the 90 percent who are theists far outnumber the 10 percent who are nontheists. So you want to remember that you are a minority, and that you need to get along, so some compromise might be in order. I’m not suggesting that he should compromise his own views. But by arguing not only that the implications of evolution for him are atheistic but that evolution is inherently atheistic is a risky thing.

Numbers seems to be suggesting that many non-religious Darwinists promote the view that evolution and religion do not conflict because of pragmatic concerns, as they desire to create an environment which is friendlier towards the non-religious. If Numbers is correct, then this would explain why non-religious Darwinists so commonly tell the religious that they should accept evolution.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



H. Allen OrrRonald Numbers