“Now, at this moment, it looks as though the explanation is…. If anyone has a better explanation, I’d like to know it so I could get off of this line of effort.” – Paper on sunspots at AGU meeting.
ONE SUMMER, 1946 perhaps, I went to school at Ohio University. My roommate was a teacher in some place in eastern Kentucky. He said that where he taught elementary school, he was not allowed to tell his students that the earth was spherical because the local religious belief was that the earth was flat. He was not allowed to mention evolution because the people didn’t hold with that. He said he was not required to tell the students that the earth was flat, but he was not to tell them otherwise, nor was he to call their attention to the contrary description in their geography books. Evolution caused him much less trouble because nothing about evolution appeared in elementary textbooks in Kentucky in those days.
I used to tell people about this and we would have a good laugh because we all agreed that the ridicule following the Scopes trial in Tennessee in 1925 made it impossible for ignorant people to impose their beliefs on public school teachers and students. At most we thought it could only happen in isolated pockets of ignorance in places like Kentucky and Tennessee.
Much to my surprise and horror, I find from an article in the April 1976 Scientific American that the ignorance and backwardness that we ascribed to Kentucky and Tennessee are now flourishing countrywide. I always thought you could disseminate knowledge, but it’s beginning to look like you can disseminate ignorance too. This article says there is widespread resistance against the teaching of evolution in the public schools. And that organized attempts are being made to prohibit such teaching throughout the United States. At the most the theory of evolution is to be taught as a possibility about on a par with creation defined as the description in Genesis taken literally. Shades of Darwin! Surprisingly the same arguments posed in Darwin’s time are still the basis for the objection. The horrible part is that it looks as if the schools in some states and some textbook publishers may eventually be required to take note of the objection.
In the life sciences I doubt that any existing theory is better substantiated by evidence than the theory of evolution. If one can argue reasonably against that, then it seems to me the whole of biology is suspect.
The objection, as I said above, is the same that was made in Darwin’s time: Evolution does not agree with the Bible story of creation. That is, it doesn’t agree if you are a fundamentalist who believes the story in Genesis is nothing but the literal, blow-by-blow account. I saw a bumper sticker the other day that read: “Saturday is the seventh day.” It completely boggles my mind to think that there are people who know what day of the week God rested.
I know full well that the conflict between science and religion has not been settled, but I thought the churches had learned, after looking stupid countless times, to stay out of areas that really have nothing to do with religion. Naturally I knew there were crackpots left, but I had no idea there were enough of them to mount a national campaign to corrupt our children’s educations.
Is there a basic conflict between science and religion? For many years now it has been popular to claim there is none. Certainly many scientists, including some of the very best, are known to be religious men. Where is the conflict?
Years ago the church got into trouble by taking useless stands that were demonstrably untrue. One would think, offhand, that it would not have made any difference to the church whether the earth revolved about the sun or vice-versa, but, for some reason, it did. There is no way to lose your reputation for astuteness faster than backing beliefs that can be shown to be false. Eventually the church did cease to do this and began concentrating its arguments on things that cannot be proved one way or the other. There is no indisputable way to prove evolution. But almost every scientist on earth believes it. All the evidence is in its favor. To disbelieve it, you must ignore what certainly seem to be convincing arguments. You must literally have blind faith that it is wrong.
Once upon a time there was a great country whose rulers all believed in the same religion, communism. One of the tenets of this religion was that environment was a very important factor and mankind could be improved by the proper environment resulting from the application of this religion. It came about that in the normal scientific controversies in one area, life sciences, a group headed by a man named T. D. Lysenko proposed a theory that genes and plant hormones did not exist and that hybrids could be produced by grafting or by injecting the blood of one animal into another. Further they believed a very similar theory to a pre-Darwin theory advanced by Jean Lamarck, and long since rejected, that characteristics acquired by habit, use, or disuse could be inherited. But Lysenko’s beliefs were in accord with the religious beliefs of the rulers. By decree and fiat, Lysenko’s theory was adopted as the only true concept, and all scientists, on pain of excommunication, had to subscribe to it; the schools had to teach it; and raising doubts about the correctness of the theory became tantamount to heresy.
Since students were not permitted access to foreign literature in their fields, they had no reason to doubt their teachers, and gradually, as the new generation became the working scientists, Lysenkoism became the applied method for developing new hybrids for higher yields, disease resistance, better quality milk, and the like.
Life scientists in the rest of the world were at first incredulous when their fellow scientists forsook their scientific methods for religious dogma, but after a while, their surprise and sympathy waned and the Lysenkoists became the laughing stock of the rest of the world, and gradually became ignored and forgotten by their former colleagues.
But since the country was a very large one, the former scientists continued to promulgate their religious dogma and the practitioners were accorded many honors.
There was a serious difficulty with the Lysenko theory: It was wrong. And of course the plants and animals upon which the “scientists” worked were not influenced by the religious fervor of the country. Had the religion caused them to adopt a false trigonometry, it would have been evident almost at once because their bridges would have fallen down. The results of their agriculture experiments were not immediately obvious though perhaps they were much more important than if they had been bridge failures.
The great country became more and more unable to feed itself. Finally the high priest, Joseph Stalin, died and his successor, more practical than the former ruler, declared Lysenkoism to be a false doctrine.
But the false theory had prevailed from the early 1930’s to 1964, and the life sciences of that great country were in shambles, and even now are far behind those of the other advanced countries of the world. A whole generation of falsely taught students was unqualified to carry on the much needed agricultural research.
That’s what substituting religious beliefs for science can do.
That brings us closer to what the real conflict between science and religion is. It has nothing to do with facts or theories. The basic conflict is that the very heart of scientific knowledge is skepticism. All scientific knowledge is the result of someone being unwilling to believe what he is told. A scientist, to have any success whatever, must be skeptical about any and all theories. His very nature is to be skeptical about everything. There is no way, really, to reconcile religion and skepticism. Religion is a matter of faith, unprovable, not susceptible to proof, and not requiring proof. This is in direct contradiction to a scientist’s turn of mind and to a scientist’s training. A scientist who believed a scientific theory on faith would be ridiculous. That’s why science and religion do not really mix well in spite of all attempts to ignore the conflict.
How then, you may ask, can a scientist be religious? Well, scientists, in common with all men, are able to compartment their minds and exercise in religious matters a blind faith that would ruin them if they used it in their science. The scientist, if he is a thinking man, is aware that reason is not everything. He is aware that there are areas in which rational thinking has no application. For example it has been known since Pythagoras that succeeding tones in a frequency ratio of 4:5:6 are pleasing to the ear. Why? No one knows. At best science answers “how” questions; never “why.” But it is the “why” for which our mind cries out. So it is not surprising that there are many problems, maybe our most important ones, that do not fall into the realm of science or of rational thought. Fortunately we are all schizophrenic and this division of problems does not seem to bother most of us.
Note that in the above there is no argument about who is right. The proposition is that there is a basic, and in my view unresolvable, conflict between science and religion.
To me it makes no sense at all even to argue about the conflict. Whether divine or not, the emergence of man is a thing of wonder, and there is no reason at all that God may not have chosen evolution as his method of creation. In either case, Genesis or evolution, man came from the mud and slime, and whether it took one day or several million years would seem to be of no consequence to religion.
There is some kind of tendency today to believe that one opinion is as good as another and that everyone has a right to his opinion. This obviously coincides with our feelings about democracy and fair play. For many matters, this is quite true, but for many it is not. Very few people believed that the earth moved around the sun, but as we know, Copernicus and Galileo were right. It doesn’t matter how many people thought otherwise, nor does it matter that one of them was the Pope.
Frankly, the article in Scientific American scares me a little. I have had the feeling for some years that our society is drifting toward anti-intellectual and anti-science attitudes. Some of this is obviously healthy. We went through a long period when we thought that science was going to solve all our problems and none of the rest of us had to worry. Now we may have entered a period in which we still expect our serious problems to be solved, but at the same time we are beginning to think that scientists should be our scapegoats as well.
I’ll tell you what really bothers me. We have built a society based on a very complex technology. We are faced with two serious problems: waning energy sources and overpopulation. It is going to require rapid advances in our currently high technology to have even a hope of managing these problems. At the same time we are beginning to act as if we do not need the scientists who are necessary to make it go if, indeed, anyone can.
Non-scientists often make the mistake of accusing scientists of arrogance when in fact it is usually the opposite. It is the non-scientist who is fixed in his beliefs. The scientist is ready to believe in anything that he can, but he must have a reason to do so. Nor will he arbitrarily dismiss a theory that cannot quite be proved if a competing theory can also not quite be proved. It is not the scientist who is rigid in his opinions and beliefs. He is always ready to change his opinion if you can prove him wrong. He must be ready or he would be scorned by his peers. Scientists know they are not right about anything; what they try to do is to be as near right as they can manage on the information available. When more or better information is available they must be prepared to change their minds.
Often completely different theories exist side by side for many years in a scientific field until some experiment definitely throws opinion one way or the other. A good example is afforded by the two theories of the creation of the universe. The continuous creation theory holds that stars are being continuously created from interstellar dust and that the universe had no beginning and will have no end. The other theory, the “big bang” theory, holds that the universe was created in a huge explosion some ten billion years ago and has been expanding from this explosion ever since. In this theory the universe did have a definite beginning, and it may have an end when the expansion ceases and all the matter comes together again. Or it may continue to expand forever. Unlike the situations in some religions, astronomers have no one who can decide which of these theories is true, and if they did they would not believe him unless he presented convincing evidence for his position. So these theories exist side by side, first one and then the other in vogue in accordance with the latest experimental results. Someday someone will devise an observation or an experiment that will definitely determine which is correct, and the other group will have to abandon the incorrect theory. On the other hand a third theory, although it is hard to imagine what, might come along with evidence to convince both sides that they were wrong. The point is that a scientist must not hold to a theory if the evidence is overwhelmingly against it.
To hear some fundamentalist’s statements you would think that scientists believe in evolution as a matter of faith and not as a result of evidence but such is not the case. The evidence for evolution is overwhelming for the thinking man.
On the other hand I know of no scientist who will deny that, in spite of appearances, creation may have happened only an instant ago. The argument was advanced in Darwin’s time and has been repeated many times since. It goes like this: Suppose everything began one second ago. By necessity there must be an apparent past. For instance, the oxygen now in your blood stream is the result of a breath you took minutes ago. The nourishment carried by your blood is the result of food eaten hours ago. Thus it is not possible to create a man, even Adam, without signs of the past being evident in the creation. Therefore, no matter how much one is convinced by the evidence of the age of the earth, the age of man, or man’s relationship to the animals, it still may be the false past of an instant Genesis. No one can deny that, and I know no one who tries to.
But that doesn’t mean that the fundamentalist’s opinion of creation is as good as the scientist’s or that he should have equal time to spread his ideas. Rational men must use rational evidence to decide the facts of the world and of our existence. Nothing else will do.
In the Scientific American article, it is mentioned that “creation research centers” have been established to attempt to give credibility to fundamentalists’ beliefs. There is, in Washington, a “Psychic Research Institute” whose members are often on TV saying such things as, “Oh, science no longer doubts psychic phenomena…” and other false and ridiculous statements. The media, TV and the newspapers, by following their usual role as panders give a misleading respectability to these fantastic organizations. Just because an outfit adopts scientific trappings like “research center” does not mean they are better than idiotic.
It is this sort of worry that nags me when the Washington Star runs on its front page an interview with its astrologer. People have a right to expect a certain responsibility from a newspaper; therefore such an interview lends credence and consequence to astrology. The editor and publisher of the Star know better than that, and they should be ashamed of themselves. The notion that idiocy is on a par with science is a luxury that thinking man can no longer afford. It was reasonable when we had our cave environment, but our continued existence now depends upon our understanding and controlling a highly developed technology that will not permit us to substitute mumbo jumbo for knowledge without dire results.
The public does have a very important role to play in regard to science. There should be a continuing debate about the goals, uses, and costs of science. The public, by ballot and social pressure, should demand that science attempt to solve the problems the public perceives as important. The control of the development of future technology should not be left to scientists and the engineers. Nothing useful can come from efforts to restrict or pervert the facts in any scientific field, but much could be accomplished by imposing society’s goals and ethics on the uses of science. As an example, in the current “right-to-die” controversy, the public should be concerned with the ethical questions and not concerned about the kidney machines which are merely tools. Or to take a formerly popular example, the manufacture and use of napalm should not be left to technical people. The decision to make and use such a weapon is a social, political, and ethical one that scientists are no better equipped to make than is anyone else.
What use is to be made of our technology? How can we assure that it serves the needs of our society? At what cost? What levels of pollution of our environment are we prepared to suffer to maintain and increase our high level of technology? These are the kinds of questions that are the proper concern of all members of our society, be they fundamentalists, agnostics, atheists, or whatever.
If religious groups were trying to learn to control the effects of science on our social life, or trying to encourage scientists to study the problems of real value to mankind, or trying to see that science was used for the good of our whole society, or trying to make sure that we do not become more dehumanized by our science and technology, I could have sympathy and admiration for their efforts.
But for any man, or any group of men, to look into the mirror and deny that man and ape are relatives is, to my mind, the height of brazen arrogance and blind stupidity. Stupid we have plenty of. Let’s agitate for something better in our schools.
This sermon was hand set in Deepdene. Display type is Alternate Gothic. Published by Jake Warner and 475 copies printed by him on a 10×15 C & P at the Boxwood Press, Greenbelt, Maryland 20770.