Only between 30 and 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution, depending on how the question is asked (according to a recent op-ed by Nicholas Kristof)– about the same percentage that believe in flying saucers, incidentally.
At first I was appalled by this statistic. But on reflection, I realized that despite being highly educated and empirical– or perhaps because of it– I might be in that 60%-70% of non-believers. Do I believe the universe is 15 billion years old? That the earth has had 4 billion birthdays? That unicellular life preceded trilobites preceded dinosaurs preceded birds, bees, and humans? I can answer that with an unqualified yes, as I suspect much of that 70% does also.
Do I believe the earth is only 6000 years old? That creation happened in literal days? That God directly created every species, fully formed, or even that He intervened with some sort of ‘Intelligent Design’? I answer an unqualified No, despite myself being an observant– ‘religious’–Jew, and I see no contradiction with religious Jewish interpretations going back thousands of years.
But the question ‘do you believe in evolution’? is really a code. Do any of us ‘believe’ in Newtonian physics, or Ohm’s law, or chaos theory? We might, or might not, but such a ‘belief’ says little about where we sit culturally or ontologically. Science is interesting and has practical applications, but is constantly open to being superseded by better explanations of the facts.
But when we are asked whether we ‘believe’ in ‘evolution’, what is implicitly being asked is, do we believe that the entire history of life on earth happened randomly? What is really being asked is, DON’T you believe that all life on earth is random bumpings of atoms and molecules? DON’T you believe that NO divine presence EVER affected the course of the universe in a meaningful way?
The one species that we know the most about– all of us, even the non-scientists– is humans. And humans conspicuously violate many of the alleged laws of evolution. Handicapped people survive and live and reproduce; less successful, ‘poor’ people, live and somehow have MORE kids; in fact, seemingly stupid people have more reproductive success than intelligent people! (The single biggest predictor of decreased birth rate is a college education.)
Decisions we make about reproduction– really, how we choose a mate, how and when we have children, and how our children survive and thrive and themselves reproduce– well, that’s a process that a great many of us non-scientists are indeed familiar with. And in my (limited, empirical) experience, almost all of us find that the events and ‘coincidences’ that lead to falling in love, to marriages, to children, are precisely the most significant events in our lives.
But no, not just significant. Not just meaningful. Magical. Something or things happen that lead to these most essential moments of our lives, our decisions, even our mistakes, that are connected to far deeper things than words can express. But a loose catchall word that most people use for this beyond-ness, this sense of purpose that threads itself through our lives, is God.
The overwhelming majority of humanity believes in God, even in allegedly secular or unaffiliated countries. We are not necessarily stupid; we are, in fact, often quite intelligent. We are not against science; many of us are scientists, doctors, engineers, wholly devoted to science.
But most science does not require a declaration of atheism in order to ‘believe’ in it. Let’s say, medicine: one can study in great detail the workings of the human brain (as I in fact have) and at the same time as we can grasp and understand the process at so many molecular and macro levels– ATP reactions, ion flows, firing neurons, neurotransmitters, serotonin or dopamine reuptake, even the great storms of activity associated with genius or music or seizures– and simultaneously marvel at the divine presence made manifest in the sheer existence of such complex magnificence. The processes of the brain are themselves proof of God, for me and many others.
I do believe that a set of processes– no less explainable by science than serotonin uptake– can be understood and scientifically elucidated which DESCRIBES the origins and changes of all life on earth. But even while neuroscience might seek to explain such products of the brain as consciousness, poetry, and love, no responsible scientist would ever REDUCE such meaning to the random firings of neurons.
Evolution is a dangerously broad term, which includes a huge variety of scientific exploration of life on earth, paleontology and fossils and DNA. But to say that ‘natural selection’, allegedly ‘random’, acting on what started out as lightning hitting inorganic molecules several billion years ago, is the ONLY motive force leading to all of life in creation, is not a SCIENTIFIC statement. It’s a creed. It’s scripture.
In our own reproductive decisions as humans, in our lives as humans, most of us think that we are not mere mindless copulators: that this is not just random. We BELIEVE that there is reason and sense in the world. That belief is precisely what leads to science– because we believe that there is reason, there is logic, and there is purpose.
When we are asked whether we believe in evolution, we are facing a modern secular inquisition. DO you believe that ANYTHING more than randomness led to all of life in creation? If so, you might be a heretic. I applaud the 70% because we are right to stand up to the inquisition.
“Evolution” is a term that might be better off being retired, much like the “Ether” which was the alleged substrate of the universe for 19th century phsyicists. Physics itself survived, and became far better once it discarded and transcended poorly conceived catchall concepts like the ‘ether’ and addressed the full complexity and contradiction and paradox that is the essence of our physical universe.
Life sciences– biology, molecular biology, genetics, paleontology, medicine, etc.– are abundantly healthy as disciplines in general. Most evolutionary biologists themselves have a far more nuanced view of the processes (plural) that give rise to every reproduction of every child, larva, spore, or whatever other new creature born every day and every minute.
But the cultural pundits who still have the chip on their shoulder inherited from Voltaire, Diderot, and the French Revolution, need to get over themselves. The church was defeated; no one power or creed (or Ayatollah) can force all of us to believe anything, any more. But God was not defeated; pluralism, not atheism, won.
Belief in God is not incongruent with science, nor with empirical research into what I will simply call the history of life on earth. But sacred cows are not the exclusive province of the religious. Demanding that people ‘believe’ in ‘evolution’ is self-defeating. The secular inquisition should let this sacred cow be sacrificed. And I’m not the only one ready with a knife.