But I’d like to add a side note at this point — a follow-up to my responses to Rick’s inquiry here. I think the natural sciences would be even more appreciated and embraced by the public at large if it were realized how very much in process they really are! How creative and resourceful and willing to revise themselves with deep honesty to their materials. I think that much of the public resentment or distrust of science is a reaction to the old-style characterization of science as being absolutist, mechanistic, detached, cold, and pre-determined — and as seeming to be claiming to be the ONLY way of REALLY KNOWING about EVERYTHING.
Now, perhaps this is a digression, and I’ve gone on quite long enough, but I’ve been thinking am lot about these disturbing polls about a majority of Americans not accepting evolution. I think it must be the case that these Americans are thinking that they are being asked in these polls to choose BETWEEN evolution and theism.
The majority of Americans, as we know, consistently describe themselves as theistic, but I do not for a second believe that a majority of Americans are Christians who think that the Genesis account of creation is supposed to be literally true. I have worked with Evangelicals for most of my life and most of them are far more sophisticated readers and thinkers than this. They don’t know much about evolution, frankly, and their theism lies closer to them. (Yes, there are the impassioned fundamentalist bigots, but they don’t account for these polls!)
So I think these polls may show that there is an animus against science going on here, but it is not about evolution itself, about which many people don’t know much. it may be instead about a feeling that people have that science is claiming to show that their religious faith is invalid, whatever that faith may be, and especially that science wants them to stop feeling emotions of reverence, awe, and even gratitude when they see the beauties of the natural world or experience the birth of a child. People are not going to be intimidated into denying the depth of these precious experiences and emotions, even when most of them don’t go to church or mosque or synagogue. In this, I cannot help but suspect that they are actually philosophically wiser and more sophisticated than many so-called philosophers or scientists who debunk religious feelings altogether….
So I think the sciences ought to get out of the religion business as fast and as throroughly as ipossible, and that folks like Richard Dawkins are NOT helping at all to promote “the public understanding of science,” which is the ironic name of his Oxford Chair. I actually like Dawkins in some ways, and if he wants to advocate atheism as being the most liberating and beneficial way towards human progress, that’s fine.
But all the sciences can legitimately say about the persistent question of a deity (or some divine dimension or source of the cosmos) is that such is not needed in order to give a scientific account of the natural or cosmic processes that the sciences study, but then, such causation was eliminated from their purvue from the beginning: it is intrinsic to the structure of their disciplines and methodologies that the natural sciences deal with natural causation. But science cannot dismiss genuinely metaphysical questions simply because it does not deal with them! That would be as tragic (and muddled) as thinking one can dismiss scientific accounts of evolution because one claims to be able to get one’s science from ancient religious texts whose original hearers were wandering nomads, and who heard in them about a surprising new kind of omnipotent creator-god, one who had made a rational and beautiful cosmic order and who actually seemed to care about their personal and civic treatment of one another.
The sciences per se have no particular claim to expertise in addressing ultimate existential questions of meaning and purpose, which go far beyond the operative structure of the physical processes of the natural world. Their findings stimulate such questions, of course, which is why many scientists are theistic in one way or another (including Richard Dawkins, as I noted in an earlier post called “Bravo for 3 Quarks Daily”). But existential questions and questions of a spiritual dimension to life or religious faith are personalistic questions and require — in the most ideal case — that many ways of knowing to be brought to bear upon them by knowers equipped to deal with the strengths and limitations of the ways of knowing.
But this laying down of arms can only happen if we have a powerful and lucid account of the human ways of knowing and their irreducible many-ness, with which to re-invigorate the liberal arts core of the university education. Science students need to have GE coursework in the history of science and be supported in getting past naive empiricism — they need GE courses IN SCIENCE, to counteract their scientism. Evangelical students need a climate in which spiritual and religious knowing is not devalued or ignored; where they are invited into and engaged in learning about, say, the history of the science-and-faith dialogue, on which so many thoughtful, respectful, and consciousness-raising books are available as texts. (I especially like John Haught’s _Science and Religion: From Conflict to Conversation_.)