Ask Richard: A Biologist Silent in the Face of Her Uncle’s Teaching Against Evolution

Note: When letter writers sign with their first name instead of a pseudonym, I randomly change their name to give them another layer of privacy.

Hi Richard,

I’m writing in because of a bit of a family happening I came upon this weekend while at my grandma’s 90th birthday celebration. To give you a bit of background, my grandma and my evangelical aunt and uncle don’t KNOW I’m an atheist, only that I’m not particularly religious and I “might be questioning my faith.” Even this small knowledge has prompted guilt-ridden birthday cards and my aunt even sent me evangelical DVDs (from the 1980’s; OMG they make the best drinking games). This I can deal with. What I discovered this weekend is what is really bothering me.

My uncle is a ridiculous man, hysterical in fact. sitting at a dinner table with him is like having a stand-up comedian in the room. He rants about everything from how tall my brother is to the joys of cruise control and no one can get a word in edgewise. He is a bearded, loud old man who I could listen to for hours — until he starts talking about religion, then I just get uncomfortable.

What I heard this weekend that bothered me so much, was what he was doing with his 5th grade Sunday school class — apparently his favorite topic is that “evolution is a crock.” This did not surprise me, what I was surprised about was how much it upset me. Here he is with young kids who haven’t even had a real biology class in school, telling them that the unifying theory of biology is something they should dismiss outright.

I am a biologist and I know that evolution is a beautiful and complex concept that biologists use as a frame for just about everything we learn about biology. My uncle is a mechanic, and has zero knowledge of biology — I doubt he even knows that dolphins are not fish. And yet these kids look up to him and are going to listen to what he says and not even TRY to understand evolution when their teachers get to it — if they even do.

I thought this was so unethical I wanted to scream, but, not wanting to upset the delicate family balance, I bit the inside of my cheek so hard I bled before the subject was changed. I knew it would be pointless to try and argue with the man anyway, he would have no interest in being corrected and more than likely it would have opened the bigger can of worms about faith and my lack-thereof. On top of that, there is a good chance that he is not the only person these kids hear talk about how “evolution is a crock,” I doubt it is even taught in the remote area where he lives. I was just so upset that he considered what he was doing to be not only right, but that it was him being a positive influence on these kids.

I don’t know that I did the right thing, but I don’t think there’s much to do about it now — I probably won’t see him again for another couple of years. I could email my aunt but I doubt that would accomplish anything — other than again bringing up my lack of faith. and now that I’ve ranted of course, I feel a little bit better, but I’d like other’s thoughts on this.

best,
Leslie

Dear Leslie,

This is the common ethical dilemma that so many of us face. Do we speak out against destructive ignorance and face the consequence of personal attacks, or do we remain silent? In choosing between these, do we follow principles or pragmatism? If we follow principles, we might loudly oppose destructive ignorance every time we encounter it, regardless of the consequences. If we follow pragmatism, we would weigh whatever benefit might come from speaking out, versus whatever negative consequence might come to us or others. This is what is meant by “picking your battles.”

There are admirable qualities in both approaches. Our literature and history are filled with heroes who make a brave stand in a hopeless battle that even if won, will bring little benefit. They take the hits, suffer and die, and if they aren’t completely forgotten, they become icons of inspiration to the masses of not-quite-as-heroic men and women who make not-quite-as-brave stands in not-quite-as-hopeless battles, but who eventually accomplish great benefit.

Anyone who has read Don Quixote knows that tilting at windmills is a lesson in inspiration and a lesson in prudence all rolled up together. Heroism and foolishness are usually found together, and without them, little would change for the better.

On the other hand, people who choose to not fight windmills or other hopeless or pointless battles do not necessarily have to sheepishly resign themselves to always passively accepting the destructive ignorance they see. By carefully picking their battles, they can actually win battles. By taking care of themselves, not exhausting themselves suffering personal attacks from family, friends, coworkers and the community, they can attain longer term goals. By not being tragic and inspiring heroes, they can live to fight another day, a day that may see victory. Any general knows that frontal assaults are not as useful as attacks from the flank, or even simply cutting off supply lines. Such less-than-heroic tactics may not win medals, but they do win wars.

Enough of the war analogies for now.

Leslie, you looked at the situation and weighed the cost versus the benefit of arguing with your uncle.

On the cost side, your family is already uncomfortable with their incomplete awareness of your lack of belief. As you said, they would probably all pounce on you, focusing on you as the problem rather than your uncle’s utter lack of qualifications for what he teaches children. Your oooh, terrible atheism would obliterate the topic of accurate education for children. The upset and tension started at your grandmother’s 90th birthday party would possibly last for years. Instead of just receiving guilt-ridden birthday cards, you’d be getting attractively designed Hallmark resentment cards year-round.

On the benefit side… well, uh… I guess you’d at least have that heroic streak in you satisfied. From your description of his domineering personality, I doubt that your uncle, secure and supported in his remote community, would decide to stop telling the Sunday school kids that “evolution is a crock” just because his smarty-pants niece has been seduced by Satan in that evil-utionist college she attended.

Your uncle is just one of countless millions who pretend to know what they’re talking about while they feed their superstitious nonsense to young people. This practice has been going on for quite some time. It’s called religion.

Because this incident bothered you to the extent it did, it seems that you have both the principled hero in you and the prudent pragmatist. I think we all have those in varying proportions. If your inner hero is bugging your conscience too much, you might be able to do “penance,” to make up for your silence by somehow using your knowledge of biology to promote accurate understanding of evolution for young people somewhere else.

To return briefly to the war analogies, this is a very widespread and long term conflict. You can spend yourself on this tiny battle in this remote corner of the world, and be an unsung hero lying broken at the base of an undamaged windmill, or your can contribute to the larger cause, and counteract your uncle’s destructive ignorance with your own constructive knowledge on a different battlefield.

Your education in biology gives you credibility as well as accurate information. Your experience of your uncle and the rest of your family gives you insight into how your opponents think. Combine those, and you could be an effective agent for positive change in the larger arena. Think creatively. Let the hero in you be the spark and the pragmatist in you be your guide. We all need a balance of both, and different situations require different mixtures of both.

Fight both bravely and wisely, comrade.

Richard

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About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • http://alessamendes.blogspot.com Alessa Mendes

    Choosing your battles is always the way to go. However, I think that “Leslie” has shown some level of tolerance and acceptance.

    If this is so bothersome, I don’t think the passive attitude is the right way to go. Simply addressing the uncle, non-aggressively, with a healthy dose of education may not necessarily change his uncle’s mind, but it would send a clear message to the rest of the family.

    Just because Atheist’s appear to be the minority among families – the blacksheeps, if you will – I don’t see why we should humble ourselves every time, be rendered silent, just to avoid conflict.

    If conflict arose from Leslie offering knowledgable insight to the table, the uncle or family would be at fault, not Leslie

  • Revyloution

    I like Richards advice. When dealing with someone who is very charismatic, and has the crowd in the palm of his hand, it is an uphill battle (to use another war metaphor).

    There is one other option that Richard failed to mention. Correspondence. When dealing with someone who is a gifted orator, it is often better to have a discussion in written format. When we have to write our thoughts down, it changes how we think about things.

    If you start a constructive email conversation, it could be the seed of knowledge that your Uncle needs. I would start by showing that evolution does not equal atheism. Then work on showing the evidence for evolution. You’re not trying to destroy his faith, just educate him on biology.

    Just my two coppers.

  • Colin

    It seems all families have someone of this sort – I believe the proper term is “blowhard” – overly enamored with the sound of their own voice, dominating all conversation. My strategy for dealing with the one in my family is to sit at the opposite end of the table and make subtle snarky comments. Probably not the best solution for most people, but somehow it works for me.

    It seems, from your description, that this is a windmill not worth tilting at. You’re not going to change your uncle’s behavior, and you’ll probably just alienate your grandmother and your aunt. Keep in mind that, even if your uncle wasn’t turning these kids against evolution, someone else at the church probably would be. For that matter, kids are often more perceptive than you think, and they probably realize that much of the time, when your uncle is talking, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I thought Richard’s advice was spot on here.

  • Peregrine

    I know how tough it is to talk to someone about some things, when discussions get heated, and you can’t get a word in edge-wise, let alone compose your thoughts into a coherent explanation. I’m in a field that is worse for neophytes preferring to remain blissfully unaware than to make the effort to understand. But I know that I don’t have to fight and re-fight the battles that biologists have to fight. I’m in no danger of my family dismissing my tech talk as atheist ramblings, or taking me to task for my lack of faith when I try to explain why they shouldn’t delete that vital system file.

    But this is where the battle is lost and won. And it has nothing to do with religion, or atheism, or science, and has everything to do with the demonstrated competence of professionals. Being a biologist is a hard won honour, and you have every right to defend your expertise in the field, whether it rubs your family the wrong way or not.

    If you wanted to rip the carburetor off your car, or drive around with bald tires or malfunctioning brakes, your mechanic uncle would call you a damned fool, and he’d be right. Likewise, as an expert in your field, it is your right and your duty to correct, or to attempt to better explain the misunderstandings of amateurs.

    Not to assume that they’re wrong, or that they’re incapable of understanding something that’s not in their field. But when they’re demonstratively wrong, and you know they’re wrong, you have an opportunity to correct them, to prevent them from doing any more damage. And it would be immoral not to take that opportunity.

    You’re the expert. He’s on your turf. And if he refuses to recognize that, then you can at least try to make him look like the fool that he is, so that noone else makes the mistake of believing him.

    If you don’t want to stir the pot with the family, then one strategy I’d consider is to fire a couple of warning shots across his bow. Let him know that he’s on your turf, and that it would be in his best interest to avoid the topic. If he backs off, and the topic changes, then problem solved.

    But if he persists, then make a couple of short, calm, statements, that clearly demonstrate that you’re the expert, and he’s the blowhard. Try to make it look as if he’s the fool who’s fighting out of his weight class, rather than you tilting at windmills. Take him, and the conversation with him, into the next room if necessary. Or maybe say in a slight condescending tone, something like “I’ll explain it to you later. How ’bout those Mets?”

  • Philoctetes

    Leslie’s battle, I think, can be about her family’s impression of her uncle’s argument. Leslie already indicates that her uncle is a ridiculous blowhard, surely her family knows this even if he is ‘preaching to the choir’.

    I think a good middle ground tactic would be to bring up how committed theists accept evolution as a biological mechanism without viewing it as being the attack on the faith that Leslie’s uncle fears.

    Leslie can speak of her own experience with those people and present their case without ‘coming out’ before she is comfortable.

  • littlejohn

    Have him destroyed.

  • Dave B.

    Leslie’s uncle probably doesn’t care much about the facts regarding evolution, but is clearly upset by her lack of faith. Perhaps Leslie could get through to her uncle by pointing out that religious insistence that evolution is false is the kind of thing that leads to a lack of faith later in life.

    Her uncle just might give the idea some thought and decide against teaching this particular lesson. On the other hand, she might find herself inundated with creationist literature in an attempt to help her see the light.

  • lurker111

    I agree with Richard’s advice. Forget trying to do anything with the family–there’s no point in arguing with insanity. The better application of effort would be to influence the members of the next generation that you can guide.

    Though if there are younger relatives (nephews, nieces, e.g.) to which you can send subversive gifts that promote critical thinking without being obvious about it, that might be an approach (e.g., toy microscopes or telescopes, books on nature that don’t touch on evolution right away, books like those in _A Series of Unfortunate Events_ , etc.).

  • Staceyjw

    She could also point out that not all xtians think “evolution is a crock”. A good list of xtians and denominations accepting evolution would be an asset, even though her unlcle likely sees them as liberal satanists. This way she could fight the ecolution ignorance without outing herself, which I agree won’t help anyone.
    Stacey

  • TXatheist

    Ask him if he’s heard of Francis Collins? If not, buy him one of his books on evolution. Send from Anonymous if you think that’s best.

  • D.

    I agree with the advice on pointing out that evolution does not rule out christian belief (you still can have a creator at the beginning, if you can’t do without).
    It is also worth trying to make calm (or wry) comments in private, eg. when you’re in the kitchen helping your aunt, just remark something like ‘I wish, uncle x would’t make such a fool of himself sometimes.’
    Try to present your uncle as someone who is a disgrace to faith rather than to science!
    They may be open to accept the idea of a more rational faith allowing for science, so you kind of could show them a way out. – You may even find allies…

    Also, the idea of ‘subversive’ gifts for the kids is good; and do try to have a good relatioship with them – the future atheists among them may need you :-)

  • Claudia

    Along the same lines as those above, if you want to speak up within the family you can just look up the theist scientists who accept and endorse evolutionary theory. There are even some evangelicals in the bunch, I think.

    However I doubt you’ll get your uncle to understand anything about it, since from your description he sounds like a right self-important stupid git. Avoiding him would probably more prudent.

    As a biochemist, I love the idea of diluting (;-)) your uncle’s poisoning of young minds through your undoubtedly superior capacity to educate them. It may be impossible to wedge in evolution into a closed evangelical community, but I bet you can find groups in your own community dedicated to education. Volunteer to help kids out in biology, or to speak to children about evolution. At least you can sleep knowing that for every young child tragically having their education cut short, you will be waking one up to the beauty of the natural world.

  • John

    I think I agree with Claudia. This sounds like a combination of two issues: The relationship with the uncle (extending to the rest of the family), and the education of those kids. Addressing the latter by confronting the uncle endangers the former, while leaving unaddressed the education of the kids; only one source of misinformation may be affected without providing a rational educational opportunity.

    For example, I was enrolled in a fundamentalist christian grade school, where we were taught that the canals on the surface of Mars were proof of the noahic flood. This was around 1980. “Cosmos” upended the misinformation of that entire church and the textbook publishers. Because the evidence of the ridiculousness of what they were teaching me was readily available, all of their work fell apart.

  • Andrew n

    Grow a pair and speak out!! Defend the truth….no matter what! There are infinite non combative ways to call your uncle out!

  • Dan Covill

    I don’t see why defending evolution (not terribly difficult, especially if you’re a biologist!) has anything to do with atheism.

    As someone commented, Uncle Blowhard is just plain full of beans, and who better than a biologist to (politely) point out that his view has a couple of minor logical problems.

    I would advise resisting any and all attempts to link this to any familial suspicions of insufficient religious fervor. If the Vatican accepts evolution, there can’t be a real religious conflict. Religion has nothing to do with it.

  • Tgr

    Point out to your uncle that he is being unethical by trying to indoctrinate children on an issue where he does not have the knowledge to judge who is right. What would he say if some guy started telling to the kids that the field of statics is a sham, and they shouldn’t go into buildings because those could collapse any time? (Tailor the analogy to whatever field of engineering he is working in.) Being a biologist, you have every right to be offended whether you are a believer or not. Saying you would have to be an atheist to “believe” evolution is no less absurd than saying you would have to be a Jew to “believe” the Holocaust or you would have to be a follower of Amun-Re to “believe” it was the Egyptians and not aliens who built the pyramids.

    You might also try to point out that once those children grow up and find out he lied to them, they will think the rest of Christianity is a lie, too. As Saint Augustine put it:

    Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he hold to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?

    If possible, do it in private, or in mail; turning your grandmother’s birthday party into a debate would be rather rude to her.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I once had some Jehovah’s Witnesses stop by my door to preach that evolution was wrong. I asked them point blank why they were so hung up on evolution when many other Christians found no incompatibility between belief in God and evolution. (for these other Christians, evolution is just the way God did things). Well, the JW said that evolution couldn’t be right because that would remove the special place God has for man. I couldn’t get them to elaborate on why a “delayed, phased creation” was any different than an all-at-once creation. I guess they had not been coached to answer that question.

    Anyway, if you do want to enter a discussion with your family members on evolution, it might be interesting to ask them why the concept of evolution is problematic to their understanding of Christianity. It may be less rewarding to argue (with them) the merits of evolution itself.

  • DGKnipfer

    Leslie and Richard,
    I think we’re missing an opportunity here. Leslie, you should point out to your Uncle that even mentioning evolution to a bunch of curious and impressionable young children may cause one or two of them to go looking it up on the internet. If they do that they might be lead away from their faith by what they find. Then you can suggest that he stick to preaching scripture in Sunday school as a way to protect the poor little children from evolution, without acknowledging your atheist belief, which might at least get him to quit preaching about how evil he believes evolution is. It has the advantage of being honest and true while still being an effort to get him to not do what he’s doing. After all, you really are trying to protect children. You’re just trying to protect them from your uncle.

  • Linda

    Leslie,

    I don’t think you’re giving the children enough credit. I think they can learn to think critically on their own when given the option and the information to do so. Regardless of what’s preached to them in Sunday school, they are likely to be exposed to other viewpoints in school, friends, literature, media, etc.

    Instead of trying to silence people like your uncle, how about making sure that we do all we can to teach the kids “how” to think, rather than “what” to think or what not to think?

    If we pay close attention, there are so many opportunities for each of us to make a small difference. Many of us have a surprisingly large circle of influence, if we just look around. Just as Richard suggested, I think a better strategy would be to come up with creative ways to take advantage of those opportunities to plant seeds in the minds of as many kids as possible to allow them to think for themselves.