Devil's Advocate in the Evolution Wars

There’s a new blog wading into the evolution wars, the aptly named I Love You but You’re Going to Hell. The author is a history professor at SUNY Binghamton who focuses on American education, so he’s well positioned to talk about how the evolution debate has played out in the classroom.

The goal of the blog appears to be playing double devil’s advocate, trying to explain both sides to each other. While he is an evolutionist, as an educator he’s dealt with both camps.

The pro-evolution stuff we already know, but the underpinnings of the creationist stuff could be interesting. In his first post about creationism he talks about how the shift in American education after the Sputnik scare brought the teaching of evolution more strongly into the classroom through new textbooks.

And why should we care about textbooks? Because this shift from textbooks that usually downplayed evolutionary ideas to textbooks that made evolutionary thinking one of their guiding principles was the most obvious educational marker of the breakdown in moral values that plagued America in the late twentieth century. It doesn’t take any conspiratorial thinking to notice the correlation between the increase in evolutionary education and the utter collapse of public morality.

If you’re like me, a part of your brain is screaming “correlation does not equal causation,” but that’s beside the point. The point is that this is an article of faith among millions of Americans. You can show that there never really was a golden age of public morality, that the radical 60s were caused by other factors or that the change was not that great, but none of that will have any impact. The belief that evolution causes the downfall of society will remain.

One of the reasons that creationists will cheerfully spout bad scientific arguments is that science really isn’t the point. But then how do you get around the science had have a discussion about the underlying problem? And how do you convince them that the teaching of evolution in the classroom is not the reason that kids are so uppity these days?

  • Gwiwer

    It’s absurd that American Christians are still fighting the whole evolution thing. Saint Augustine, who died in 430 AD, was already teaching that a literal reading of the creation account in Genesis is impossible. Now, Augustine’s assumption, as laid out in “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis”, is as equally unscientific as creationism as he cited passages such as Sirach 18:1, which is a book not accepted as canonical by Protestant Christians, that seem to state that everything in the universe was created instantaneously by God and thus the 6 days of Genesis should be read as a logical framework to express spiritual lessons rather than a literal passage of time. Augustine actually states in The City of God, Book 12: Chapt. 10 that he believes the Earth to be YOUNGER than the creationists of his day believed it to be.

    Regardless of the discrepancies between modern science and Augustine’s view of creation, the important point remains that he saw no issue with believing that the Genesis account is not literally true. Because the Catholic church has a tradition going as far back as Augustine of theologians who were willing to accept an allegorical reading of Genesis, the Catholic church has affirmed the view that evolution is a scientific fact that does not clash with Christian faith or the belief that the Bible is an inspired text. Modern Christians who insist on the belief that the Genesis account must be literally true are reviving an argument that had already lost support from some Christian theologians 1500 years ago.

    Anyway, it’s maddening to me that they continue to try to force creationism to be taught in a scientific classroom where it simply has no business being taught. It is like trying to force history teachers to teach Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in order to teach about ancient Rome. The play just doesn’t belong in a history classroom. It is literature and should be taught as such. Likewise, creationism is not, and never will be, science and does not belong in a science classroom. If a school wishes to teach it as part of a class on philosophy or theology, I’m all for it though.

    I think that’s what bothers me most. It’s not that creationism might be taught in schools, but that it’s taught, if at all, under the wrong subject. Though I’m not a Christian, I still hold to the possibility that a deity, or perhaps deities, did have some role in overseeing and organizing the forces which came to create our Earth and/or universe. I think that idea does merit some debate as long as the debate occurs in the proper context as a part of a philosophical or theological course. Education in America is already of a poor enough quality. It quite terrifies me that radical ultra-conservatives are being ceded ever more power to undermine and diminish the quality of the education our children are receiving. It’s not fair to the children and it’s leading us down the road towards a very bleak future. We already have enough trouble competing with other countries. I shudder to think of what sort of damage even just a few decades of bizarre school standards and curricula like those recently created in Texas are going to do to this country over the long run.

    • vasaroti

      Ah, but those Catholics got everything wrong about what Jesus said and what the bible means. All of them, from Peter down to the present day. Martin Luther rediscovered the true Christianity. Modern Christians aren’t buying this metaphor and allegory stuff; when God wants to talk fancy he uses similes.

      “I shudder to think of what sort of damage even just a few decades of bizarre school standards and curricula like those recently created in Texas are going to do to this country over the long run.” But those bizarre standards are merely codification of what has been taught in many homes, schools, and churches since the 1830s. This magical thinking has already had a negative impact on our society.

    • trj

      Had someone suggested to St. Augustine that all organisms, humans included, were not created fully formed but evolved from a common primitive ancestor, he would have scoffed at the idea, no matter if he thought the Biblical genesis to be allegorical or not (he apparently believed Adam and Eve to have literally existed, and he believed the world to be less than 6000 years old). So I really don’t see how the RC Church can be said to derive its grudging acceptance of the theory of evolution from St. Augustine, or how he is an example of the “broad-mindedness” of the Church’s doctrines.

      • Gwiwer

        No one said anything about “broad-mindedness”. As I mentioned, the beliefs of those early theologians were no more scientific than the beliefs of modern creationists. The point is that Christianity in the west has a long and relatively ancient tradition of reading Genesis allegorically and the religion survived just fine in those thousand years between Augustine and the Protestant Reformation, so it strikes me as a little bit absurd that some modern Christians would insist that anything but a completely literal reading of Genesis is somehow a horrible affront to the religion and deeply destructive to the faith in general. Much of what animates modern Baptists, and other denominations outside of mainline Protestantism, is, of course, the completely ahistorical belief that everything that happened in western Christianity between the Apostolic age and the Reformation was some kind of decadent perversion of the faith. Despite that, it still doesn’t change the fact that Christianity survived just fine for a millennium during which prominent theologians were willing to at least toy with the notion that the creation accounts in Genesis weren’t literally true. That’s especially poignant considering the fact that Genesis actually contains two separate creation accounts, both of which clearly contradict one another and have yet to be properly reconciled by anyone even after centuries of trying. My overall point is that it strikes me as silly that there are modern Christians who absolutely refuse to even consider these historical facts and have instead insisted that this should be an issue upon which they wish to stake the complete validity of their religion.

        All of this fretting may be a bit premature though. Recent surveys indicate that an increasingly high number of conservative Christians no longer believe that Adam and Eve were literally the first two humans from which all modern humans have descended. There seems to be a growing number of those Christians who recognize that the genetic evidence clearly makes this prospect impossible. If the movement towards accepting the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden as being allegorical is really gaining as much momentum as the polls indicate, it’s probably not going to be too long before a similar movement does the same for the creation accounts in Genesis.

      • Elemenope

        St. Augustine also said that it is foolish to become hidebound to a single interpretation of scripture, such that the world later demonstrates otherwise and makes one a fool. In his time, Christians were inordinately sensitive to the general charge that Christianity was an unscholarly and ignorant religion (compared, of course, to its contemporary competitors), and Augustine went out of his way to suggest that scripture and empirical study are compatible so as not to look the country bumpkins everyone assumed they were.

        While not an endorsement of science exactly (which would have been weird, since the general methods had yet to be invented), but is an interesting display of epistemic humility that was missing both from the medieval church and today among established Christianity.

        • JonJon

          You mean “among conservative American Christianity,” I assume?

          • Elemenope

            Well, I will say that liberal Christians tend to get less hung up on particular scriptural interpretations, so the critique has less force there. I would maintain, though, that assuming the existence of a God based (mostly) on the existence and interpretation of an old text is not exactly epistemically humble, regardless of how one approaches that text.

  • swmr1

    This is why creation/evolution arguments, though certainly interesting, are unproductive for many who are trying to argue someone out of their faith. What the heart of the issue for many evangelicals is whether the bible is “true” or not. Take down the inerrancy of the bible and you kill off any reason to believe in the literal truth of creation. When I really questioned where the bible came from and its history, I knew it wasn’t the literal word of god. The rest of my faith crumbled from there….

  • Jack Crow

    The way towards skepticism, in my humble opinion (and experience), is to take every Christian or religious claim literally, and in discussion with believers to treat it as such, with honesty and sincerity. Most of them are raised in faith, or discovered it at the deep end of trauma, and its roots are all emotional. They are, even with doubts, arguing in good faith. So, concede that point.

    Faith is identity. Reason doesn’t eliminate identity any more than it eradicates the desire to punch a bad driver, who just ran you off the road, in the face.

    The trick to reason, though, is that it demands an unspoken consistency. Instead of making logical and reasonable arguments, ask reasonable questions.

    At some point, and it happens for most believers even if they fail to make the leap from doubt to skepticism, the doubts add up.

    That’s what believers fear about the teaching of evolution, or the “decline” in “family values,” or the apparent collapse of an formerly enduring moral order. It’s what they are continuously saying, though many of we atheists have too tin a set of ears to hear them. Where they live, especially where they concentrate as the community in force, life is getting worse.

    Those places and regions most likely to have social and economic fall out from the flight of single industries, the break down of company towns, the dominance of local politics by local religious elders, et cetera are the areas of the country most likely to worry about values, belief and the teaching of world models which don’t require a god. Because their faith has failed to deliver on its promises. It hasn’t prevented break down. It doesn’t keep poor and bored teens from acting on sexual impulse. It doesn’t prevent babies, pay the mortgage or keep politicians honest.

    What they recognize, and more fundamentally than most atheists, is that faith is social. That’s why most of them agitate for social controls and social protections of the teachings, imagery and symbols of their faith traditions. That’s why they are susceptible to arguments about false teachings or godless education. Because they know that faith requires reinforcement. Constant reinforcement.

    Their faith is a social identity, it is failing them, and their reaction (because it’s an identity) isn’t to abandon it. Their reaction – and it’s the sort of reaction which makes them reactionary – is to try to shore it up with force, threats and security.

    That’s the what for, I think, of the fight over evolution.

    And they cannot be persuaded, or defeated when necessary, by a direct confrontation. A direct confrontation only secures them in their faith, since most of them have doctrines which validate the identity through the poison pill of persecution.

    The way forward – and I’m probably wrong here – is to ask questions. Quietly, calmly, with the concession to their sincerity. But to do nothing to help them when their faith fails its promises. Don’t argue with them. Don’t console them. Don’t give believers a helping hand. Don’t rescue, save or aid them in any way.

    Leave that to their god(s). And to the States they need to capture in order to salvage any meaning for him.

    • vasaroti

      You’ve just described a main theme in the book “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” It’s one of the best books to deal with the interplay of economics and faith.
      Movie trailer:

  • Brian M


    That’s a pretty cold blodded prescription. Don’t give believers a helping hand? Even as a fellow human being?

    For one thing, who is the “we” who will be giving the helpign hand? How can a modern State, dominated by christians, refuse to aid fellow christian citizens?

    for one thing, it ignores that faith may fail, but do faith communities always fail? The Mormon welfare system seems pretty effective?

  • Jack Crow

    If the premise is true, that God will help them, then it is true, no? If it’s not true, should they be rescued from it to the detriment of the rest of us?

    • Michael

      If it’s not true, should they be rescued from it to the detriment of the rest of us?

      What are you talking about?

      Also, I suspect the answer is “yes.”

      • wazza

        I think his point is that if we help them, God has heard their prayers. If we don’t, they get an object lesson in theodicy.

        I’d rather help them and get them far enough above the poverty line that their kids realise the truth on their own.

        • Jack Crow

          Systems self-perpetuate. As do faith communities. Helping adults with belief systems is helping those belief systems perpetuate. An ugly truth, but those of us on the other side of normative faiths have not done well in forgetting it. The Cathars would have something to say on the matter, if there were any of them left. And, given the chance, a goodly number of believers would tolerate the punishment of atheism, if not engage in it more directly.


          I’m not saying they should be hurt because they believe. I’m just saying they should be asked to live their faith in full compliance with its strictures. If their God is real, let him save them.

          I’m an anarchist, not a progressive, so I probably have blinders to an argument from progress, here – I don’t think that we’re moving forward towards a bright agnostic or scientific future. Sometimes, it really just doesn’t get better.

          All that written, as a general rule, everyone should have it easy. But, I think people who make public professions of faith should be allowed to test the provisions of faith free from outside interference.

          • Elemenope

            Stop me if I’m wrong, but it is not a commonly held doctrinal point among Chritsians that God *will* save people that need saving, in the corporeal sense. Hence, withdrawing physical support from people who have such faith is not consistent with “making people live their faith” since their faith would not, generally, cause them to expect divine assistance.

            • Jack Crow

              One of the widest set of gulfs between various professions, sects and I daresay creeds of Christianity, lies between the various points of opinion on election, predestination and salvation.

              A Roman Catholic maximalist and a Reconstructionist Presbyterian may agree that American culture is wholly depraved and sinful, but the Catholic will accept as fundamentally true that human agency, and therefore human institutions, can be sanctified. Grace, for the Catholic, is participatory.The Reconstructionist may reach what appear to be similar conclusions about taking charge of society, but from a contra-posed and even inhospitable and adversarial position – that no human institution reaches above the baseline of depravity, and that no human agency participates in Grace but that which is complete submission to the reception of it. Grace, for the Reconstructionist, is signification, an outward manifestation of divine will only.


              I’m not really making an argument about causing Christians or other believers to call on the divine, for what it’s worth. I’m merely suggesting that the best environment in which to encourage doubt by way of indirect questioning is the one where Christians and other believers are left to test the double binds and false dichotomies presented by any belief or set of beliefs.

              That’s a fairly simple position for an anarchist to take, and I recognize that it might seem somewhat, well, facile. I’m eliding the obvious – that Christians and other believers can and regularly do seize control of institutions and material/population resource bases, up to and including the various iterations of the State. But, that they do so in order to “honor God” or “defend values” is a tacit admission of faith’s fundamental failure to meet the satisfaction of the requirements of belief.

            • Elemenope

              Except the fundamental problem with your idea is that their beliefs don’t predict *anything* concrete and temporal. God might help, he might not. There are no circumstances under which he is guaranteed to help, and there is no guarantee in any case against general suffering for believers among the various creeds. Hence, there is no falsification hypothesis for believers to be nudged towards. If believers are happy and satisfied, they attribute it to God. If they are suffering, they take shelter in their faith and believe that their suffering is meaningful and/or part of a greater plan.

              The wider problem–and it ends up being a critique of religion in itself–is that double binds and contradictions in religious doctrine are not a problem for a believer primarily because they are primed to expect them, trained to be fault-tolerant when analyzing the internal logic of their beliefs. Hence, paradoxes and mysteries are not particularly challenging to faith, per se. When you’re trained to believe you probably shouldn’t understand things, when you end up not understanding something it doesn’t exactly come as an existentially-moving surprise.

  • GBM

    Hey Vorjack, where did you get that picture? Is that supposed to be a joke, or is someone actually arguing that evolution created racism, drugs, porn, inflation, alcohol, etc?

    • vorjack

      Honestly, that image has been circulating so long that I’m not sure what its origin is. I think it’s serious, but almost everyone who uses it now is being ironic.

      • GBM

        Fair enough. I was asking because I’m really curious how someone who actually believes that would get around the problem of chronology, especially.

  • Transformed

    I have to back up Jack on this one…. I’m not sure if I’m an isolated case, but a lot of my de-conversion started from honestly/ actively seeking god’s guidance and for his divine opportunities to arise…. Only to be monumentally let down. Then seeking more (based on his promises of ‘seek and ye shall find’) and still being let down. Trying to seek more and justifying his absence using my ‘faith’.

    I tested my faith. It failed. De-conversion successful.

    • Shrubber

      I tested my faith. It failed. De-conversion successful.

      Love this. For me, faith disappeared when I took the church’s advice to read the bible. I did. The many contradictions and fables meant to be taken as literally true just did’t wash.
      De-conversion complete.

      • Transformed

        Oh god, the hours and hours and hours I spent reading my bible, praying out loud, trying to align myself to this ‘higher calling.’ Having never being met by god was the first honest place I took when de-converting from christianity. Seems everything flowed from there.

        It was very hard to realize that I was never going to be called…. but very uplifting once I realized that it was up to me to make my own calling.

        • Jack Crow

          Argh. Sorry about that. I had a long reply about faith, reading the bible, street preaching, and raising my children as doubters, and instead of copying it, in case the post failed, I pasted in a beer a friend e-mailed me that I just finished googling.


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