by Sarah Olson
Sarah Olson is an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology at Oregon State University, and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. She works at a bookstore curating their science and math sections and reviews popular science books on her blog readmorescience.com. In addition to pursuing a career in science writing, Sarah frequently writes about the intersection of religion, feminism, and science. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon with her fiance. You can connect with her at saraholson.net and on Twitter and Instagram at @ReadMoreScience.
In a recent opinion piece for the National Review, conservative and evolutionary geneticist Razib Khan made a bold claim: conservatives shouldn’t fear evolutionary theory. Khan, an outspoken atheist who does not have a background in Christianity, argues that evolution and faith are inherently compatible because science and religion both seek to know truths about our world. “The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value,” writes Khan. “And many Christians well-versed in evolutionary science find it entirely compatible with their religious beliefs.”
I have been following Khan on Twitter for a while now, and I think he’s an intelligent and competent scientist. But his piece doesn’t grasp how problematic it can be for science to try to accommodate conservative religious beliefs, nor does it address why the majority of white evangelical Christians believe humans have always existed in their present form. Instead, Khan outlines “two major strands of evolution skepticism.” The first involves irreducible complexity and aligns with Michael Behe’s arguments; the second has to do with conservatives’ focus on disagreements about evolution among prominent scientists. He neglects to address the fact that in America today, many conservative believers are, in fact, creationists – and those who do accept evolution indicate they believe God had a role.
At first, it seems reasonable for Khan to conclude evolution and Christianity are compatible. As a conservative, he wants to reach out to the believers in his community who have doubts about the validity of evolution. But the question Khan neglects to adequately answer is why conservative believers would reject evolution in the first place. Telling readers that evolutionary theory is the “crowning jewel” of Western civilization does little to explore the depths of conservative fear surrounding the subject. Ignoring the fact that conservatives are more anxious than their liberal counterparts, Khan instead attacks liberals, claiming they deny “the very idea of human nature,” which Khan asserts is the binary male/female biological differences. This incorrect assumption betrays Khan’s lack of understanding about gender theory (not to mention organisms who change biological sex), and he loses sight of his main argument in order to console conservative readers with a wink-wink-nudge about ignorant liberals.
Communicating science to conservative believers is an important pursuit, but I worry Khan may not fully understand what he is advocating for. I am an undergraduate student and a science communicator, and although today I am an atheist, I was raised in a conservative Christian community that was antagonistic toward science. Because I understand firsthand how contradictory conservative Christianity and science can be, the first thing I noticed while reading Khan’s piece was that he seems not to have a firm understanding of Christian beliefs. The second thing I realized was that his piece is a perfect example of accommodationism.
As defined by evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in his brilliant book Faith Versus Fact, accommodationism is an attempt to reconcile the differences between religion and science in order to come to a compatible conclusion. Its fatal flaw is that one of the two must make compromises in order to “accommodate” the other’s assertions. For example, if a Christian is to accept evolution as fact, they must view the Genesis story as a parable. But many conservative Christians don’t take Biblical stories for parables: they see them as literally true, and even “proven” through scientific evidence. You don’t need to look any further than the Creation Museum or the Ark Encounter to realize how hard conservative believers are working to demonstrate that Bible stories are factual. If we asked them to regard the Bible as parable, what does that imply about these museums and the beliefs they exist to substantiate? And if you consider the opposite example – that a scientist must accept she cannot fully understand the mechanisms of evolution because a mysterious god played an undetectable role – then you’re left with shoddy science.
Another dangerous implication Khan’s piece does not consider is that, for conservative Christians, to regard Genesis as fiction casts a long and dark shadow of doubt on the validity of the rest of the Bible. As many conservatives understand it, if we don’t believe in instantaneous creation or a worldwide flood, who’s to say Jesus really died and rose again? If Christians don’t believe in those miracles, how can they also believe in sin and salvation? And if Christians don’t believe in miracles or salvation, why would they believe in an uninvolved deity when we have reasonable scientific explanations for the existence of our world and ourselves? As conservative Christians understand it, this is exactly how science can begin to undermine faith. So it is that they crusade against teaching evolution in public schools, and why they’ve established the fields of creation science and Biblical archaeology.
A 2016 study found that most scientists embrace a compatibility perspective. But how can this general acceptance of compatibility work? The authors conclude by proposing a “contact hypothesis,” which posits that intergroup prejudice can be reduced by having frequent contact between diverse groups for the sake of a common objective” (Religion Among Scientists in International Context: A New Study of Scientists in Eight Regions, Sept 1 2016). This is an interesting suggestion because it implies that scientists, whether they are personally religious or not, are inclined to get along with believers for the sake of a common objective.
This is where I find the most significant problem with trying to make science and conservative Christianity compatible: they can try to accommodate each other’s claims, but when it comes down to asserting a fundamental truth about the universe, one of them will inevitably undermine the other. Put another way, conservative believers can accept the theory of evolution, but they need to understand what that implies. If they believe God has a hand in evolution, they must also recognize that it is a scientific theory that holds true even if one leaves out God. And it is this fact – that evolution does not require divine intervention – is exactly why conservatives fear evolution.