Is David Barash teaching religion in his biology classes? A response to his NYTimes op-ed.

Steven Pinker tweeted about an op-ed article in the New York Times today that drew my attention. In the article, David Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington argues that evolutionary biology and religious belief are incompatible. Barash’s article apparently meets with deep respect from Pinker (and probably many other atheists that believe that science and religion are incompatible). However, I believe there are reasons to believe that Barash’s article should be taken with caution. What he describes to be doing in his biology class seems not so different from what creationists intend to do…

Nothing that Barash writes in his essay is really new, so I don’t see why the New York Times thought the arguments by Barash were worth publishing. Barash argues that there are three arguments that evolutionary biology has demolished: the argument from complexity (or rather: the argument from design), the “illusion of centrality” (the idea that humans “are distinct from other life-forms”), and, finally, Barash argues that evolutionary biology delivers a fatal blow to theodicy.

Read the article. The arguments are terribly week. First of all, the argument from design has never been the central argument in Christian theology. It was merely one of the five arguments of Thomas Aquinas. The argument from design is perhaps of central importance for creationists, but these are an invention of modernity anyway and definitely not representative for Christian theology (unless one lives in the US and believes that the forms of Christian belief in the US are representative for Christian theology globally – another form of “the illusion of centrality”, I would say).

Moreover, the idea that humans “human beings were distinct from other life-forms, chips off the old divine block” (what does that mean anyway?) has never been central to Christian theology either. Perhaps Barash meant to say that Christian theology has traditionally invested in the idea of human uniqueness. That may be so, but the idea of human uniqueness is not in any way compromized by evolutionary biology. (To be honest, I’m actually not much of a fan of human uniqueness arguments, but I do agree that evolutionary biology does not in any way impinge on the idea that humans are unique creatures, depending of course on what one means by “uniqueness”.)

Finally, I don’t understand Barash’s argument that evolutionary biology demolishes theodicy. Evolutionary biology shows that “although the natural world can be marvelous, it is also filled with ethical horrors: predation, parasitism, fratricide, infanticide, disease, pain, old age and death — and that suffering (like joy) is built into the nature of things.” Yeah, so? This is exactly in line with creationist ideas that suffering is built into the nature of things after the Fall.

In other words, why such a prestigious newspaper as the New York Times publishes this article is a mystery. But there is a more troubling aspect to it. Barash writes in the beginning of his essay:

Every year around this time, with the college year starting, I give my students The Talk. It isn’t, as you might expect, about sex, but about evolution and religion, and how they get along. More to the point, how they don’t.

His essay describes in effect the arguments that Barash uses to convince his students that religion and evolution are incompatible. But, as I argued, his idea of what Christians belief or what Christian theology entails is hopelessly naïve. In other words, Barash is not stating the facts in his teaching, but is proclaiming an opinion that is not backed up by facts. Barash is telling his students nothing less than fairy tales. What he is doing, in effect, is not so different from what creationists intend to do: teach religion in the science classes. I find this highly dubious.

Even more, there seems to be a personal agenda involved. Barash recently published a book at Oxford University Press with the title: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science. You should never judge a book by its cover, but this reeks like the biological analogy to Capra’s and Zukav’s The Tao of Physics books, that hooked up quantum mechanics to Eastern mystical ideas. I haven’t read Barash’s book, so I’m not going to say anything about it. But apparently Barash is a Buddhist, so a religious believer himself (although he has religious beliefs that are of a different kind than Christian religious beliefs). It seems then that he uses his classroom as the space to argue that one religion is scientifically inferior to another. Apologetics for buddhism perhaps? Anyway, Barash clearly takes his religion into the science class room. Again, highly dubious if you ask me.

Barash initially dismisses Stephen J. Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisteria. Barash believes to have shown that the magisteria were not so non-overlapping after all. The point of Gould however, may not have been so much as to describe the status quo, but to preach sound scientific practice: don’t mingle science and religion because you end up deforming and thus hurting both. Barash is doing exactly that, or so it seems to me. He makes Christian theology into a straw man that is easily attacked, and in the process he implicitly claims that evolutionary biology has taken the position that religion has vacated. That “he shows that there are numerous places where Buddhist and biological perspectives coincide and reinforce each other” which “highlights the intriguing common ground between scientific and religious thought, illuminating the many parallels between biology and Buddhism, allowing readers to see both in a new way” (I’m quoting the blurb of his book on Amazon.com), to me sounds very much like defending just another religion instead of keeping science and religion apart.

I don’t know what Barash is really teaching, since the essay may be a rhetorical tour de force in which the author takes the liberty to tinker with reality as he sees fit, but I do think that if Barash thinks that his Talk is a way of science education, he is seriously misguided.

Read here: David P. Barash, God, Darwin and My College Biology Class.

Update, 06/10/2014: Biologos now has an inventory of responses HERE.

10 thoughts on “Is David Barash teaching religion in his biology classes? A response to his NYTimes op-ed.

  1. In a nutshell, Taede’s rebuttal-arguments of substance are:

    1) “the [christian religious] idea of human uniqueness is not in any way compromised by evolutionary biology”.

    2) The christian idea of the sinful human nature is no different than Barash’s description of a natural world full of ethical horrors.

    3) Barash uses a strawmen that caricature what christians really believe and what sophisticated theologians (like Teade) do. And he is doing that to preach his own Buddhist/atheist religion.

    To start with the latter: most Christians actually DO believe that god created man in his image, and all nature around it. So its not a strawman and it accurately describes the religious beliefs of the students in Barash’s classroom. Even if many are not young earth creationists, they still believe in a god-being that purposely created them, and has a plan for them. The entire idea of a creator is refuted by what we know now from evolutionary or physical science. He’s not preaching Buddism, he’s teaching them that what we know from science: the universe is indifferent and accidental, with no hint of a supernatural being controlling everything behind the scenes.

    Moving up to Taede’s second rebuttal-argument. The concept of original sin -> redemption thru belief in christ is the core of Christian belief.
    Christians believe that the ‘ethical horrors’ of life are the result of original sin, caused by man’s free will and subsequent disobedience to god’s commands. The sin was avoidable, but man abused free will to disobey god’s command. Since there was fall into sin, there must have been a sin-free paradise ‘heaven-on-earth’ is possible. Teade had a 3-part series that attempted to play down the relevance of the genesis story of original sin, which met fierce criticism.

    So there is a major distinction between this religious view and the scientific reality. The latter proves that such a paradise state never existed, nor that it is possible to have a world free of ‘ethical horrors’ like predators or death.

    The bible is full of human exceptionalism. Take the explicit text that god created the animals for men to take care of, the tacit approval of slavery and the racist concept that jews are god’s chosen people. Paul’s misogyny in the new testament continued that line.

  2. Your answer to 3 in particular is woefully incorrect. Not one thing in evolution or physics removed the need for a creator, but in fact both fields enhance that need. I don’t have a single reason to believe the universe (or multiverse, if there is one) with complex systems like evolution, genetics, and the laws described in physics, could simply happen for no reason beyond “just because”. Sciences like biology and physics explain how, but not why.

    The arguments for a creator are as strong as ever, if not stronger than ever. I look forward to even more scientific discoveries that will continue to support the idea of God.

    Far as the rest goes, sin and suffering are hotly debated in theological circles, so I will pass on that one. But the allegations of racism and sexism (and apparently speciesism?) are off base. They all beg the question that there is no God, and that the only way for God to create would be instantaneous special creation, like YEC claims.

    I think people like Barash and Dawkins and Coyne need to spend less time attacking beliefs they don’t hold and spend a little more time in trying to patch the fatal holes in their own beliefs.

  3. It seems that Patrick has failed to understand the thrust of Smedes’s rebuttal.

    Patrick replied with the following three points. First, since most Christians do believe God created the universe and mankind in his image, Smedes was wrong to call that a straw man. Second, since evolutionary science and history contradicts any notion of a paradise free of sin, predators, and death, creationists are mistaken in supposing these things were built into the nature of things after the Fall. And third, since the Bible speaks of humans tasked with the care of the animals, and of slavery with tacit approval, and of such racist notions as the Jews being God’s chosen people, Smedes is therefore mistaken in thinking that “the idea of human uniqueness is not in any way compromised by evolutionary biology.”

    Yeah, I know, but let’s do this anyway.

    In the first place, Patrick does not seem to understand what Smedes was identifying as a straw man caricature of Christian theology. Barash said that “the argument from complexity” is one of the “potent pillars of religious faith.” Nonsense, Smedes replied. By teaching his students that, Barash is “not stating the facts in his teaching” but rather “proclaiming an opinion that is not backed up by facts.” It is certainly an argument made by Christians, one of many that can be and have been made (e.g., Aquinas), but it is merely and only an argument. It is “hopelessly naïve” to imagine that it is a potent pillar of the Christian faith, which in fact is Jesus Christ, the only pillar of the faith.

    As for the second point, evolutionary science and history have nothing whatever to say about sin, for both theology and philosophy are outside the domain of science. Moreover, in a strictly scientific theory, predation and death are amoral features of the natural world, neither good nor bad. As Barash said (blissfully contradicting himself), “Living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process.” Also, there is zero scientific evidence undermining the belief that sin and death were built into the nature of things after the Fall, for these are theological subjects which science is incapable of addressing.

    Finally, ignoring the deep problems with his ignorant comments about slavery and his anti-Semitic slur about Jews being racist (see below), it must be pointed out that none of those things including man’s stewardship over all other animals even addresses, much less undermines, what Smedes said. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Jews really do (or did) have racist notions about themselves in their scriptures which also gave tacit approval of slavery. (You may take a shower afterward to clean off the filth of pretending for a brief moment that Patrick was right.) Assuming that for the sake of argument, what does any of it have to do with the point that “human uniqueness is not in any way compromised by evolutionary biology”? Precisely nothing, thus leaving Smedes’s point unrefuted.

    Bottom line: Barash was hopelessly naïve about Christianity and has been giving a “Talk” so inappropriate for a science class that it practically violates the U.S. Constitution; evolutionary science and history have nothing whatever to say about Adam and Eve or the garden of Eden or sin and the Fall and so forth; and the idea of human uniqueness indeed is not compromised by the science of evolution.

    ———-
    The notion of the Jews being God’s chosen people was not racist, because it wasn’t their race that made them special or superior it. What made them special was God electing or choosing them as his people, and the reason he did so had nothing to do with their race. If Patrick had invested a modicum of his time reading the scriptures he presumes to criticize, he would have realized that and saved himself the embarrassment and gratuitous anti-Semitism.

  4. It is amazing to me that in this day and age that there are some people who do not think that human beings are no different from other species, and we do not have the power to destroy the environment of the earth or to make it a better world for all.

  5. If Smedes will allow it, I highly recommend to Sawtelle this recent episode on The Current, a regular program on CBC Radio One: “Diane Ackerman and ‘The Human Age’ – It’s Our Fault Nature Is Collapsing, But There’s Still Hope” (http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2014/10/02/diane-ackerman-on-the-human-age/). I have a hunch he might appreciate it as much as I did. “Diane Ackerman’s latest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, is a survey of the many, many ways humanity transforms the natural world. From changing weather patterns, to rearranged DNA, to Apps4Apes … human technology slips ever deeper into the natural world, whether the natural world wants it or not.” No other species on earth has ever changed the planetary climate before like we have, much less their own evolution or that of other species.

  6. IMHO, the phrase ‘there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion’ is the key to Barash’s article. First of all, it is because Darwinism does not explain how life first came into existence, but rather how it evolved. So there really is not a valid explanation to how life ever came to be.

    But also the explanation of evolution is a partial explanation, depending on two things, mutations and natural selection. Mutations are said to occur by coincidence, that is, by no cause. Fact is, nobody can prove there is no cause, for it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. Thus, coincidence is not really an explanation, it’s just admitting you don’t KNOW a cause. Coincidence is a non-explanation in disguise. The trick materialistic evolution is playing on us is, that instead of plainly saying it doesn’t explain why ‘ positive’ (positive in terms of adaptation and thus being more likely to be naturally selected) mututaions happen that are statistically too unlikely to happen (and they are), they pretend that coincidence is a real explanation, which is logically never can be!

    So this phrase can be questioned, because scientifically, assuming God is not inferior to assuming coincidence.

    But there’s more, as this is really a straw man argument atheist often use. Basically, the idea is there’s no reason to believe in God because we don’t need God to explain scientifically established facts (no ‘God of the gaps’). This idea implies that believers only have one reason to believe in God, which is the need to explain things. So if this reason is no longer valid, there’s no other reason to believe left. Of course, this is not true. Just ask an average believer why he believes and hardly any believer will say it’s because he wants to explain things. It’s an idea made up by atheists. Even Darwin didn’t support this idea. Early Darwinism was embraced by theologians (‘we already knew God created the world, now we know how he did it’) and rejected by other scientists because they found the theory lacking hard evidence. It was not before atheist (like Thomas Huxley) ‘took over’ Darwinism, that evolution was used for atheist propaganda and some theologians started to reject it. These atheists used the same flawed ‘we-dont’t-need-God-to-explain’ argument already. Like some creationist arguments that have been long debunked, but are still used, this argument is a worn out misrepresentation of faith that has been debunked many times. It’s time atheists come up with something new. It’s geting boring.

  7. The phrase “there is nothing in evolutionary biology that necessarily precludes religion” is the key to Barash’s article. First of all, it is because Darwinism does not explain how life first came into existence, but rather how it evolved. So there really is not a valid explanation to how life ever came to be.

    This is attractive only to those trying to find a God who hides in the gaps of our understanding. People seem to have this curious yet illogical tendency to think that if we can understand and explain an object or phenomenon scientifically then God didn’t do it. But that is patent nonsense and an affront to sound reason.

    Mutations are said to occur by coincidence, that is, by no cause. Fact is, nobody can prove there is no cause, for it is impossible to prove that something does not exist. Thus, coincidence is not really an explanation, it’s just admitting you don’t KNOW a cause. Coincidence is a non-explanation in disguise.

    I’ve never heard anyone who is properly informed about evolution refer to the occurrence of mutations as “coincidence” and have “no cause.” A mutation is said to be “random” and occur by “chance,” which means simply and only that we cannot predict when or where it will occur, nor what kind of mutation it will be. (Look up the term “random” in the glossary at the web site Understanding Evolution.)

  8. @David Smart: “A mutation is said to be “random” and occur by “chance,” which means simply and only that we cannot predict when or where it will occur, nor what kind of mutation it will be.” Isn’t this just a playing on words? ‘Random’ and ‘by chance’ are the terms used for events the cause of which is unknown, making them unpredictable. ‘Random’ can be used theoretically, in many situations because statistically it matches reality pretty well, but it is not an real explanation of what’s happening.

    Note that I don’t say this implies a divine cause, but the argument used by Barash is the worn-out argument that we don’t need to believe in the existence of God, since we can explain things without Him. I pointed out this is invalid, first of all because belief in God is not motivated by the need to explain things, but moreover, even biology does not explain everything (which is fortunate for biologists, because otherwise they would have to find another job!!), so Baresh’s argument really doesn’t make sense.

    “This is attractive only to those trying to find a God who hides in the gaps of our understanding. People seem to have this curious yet illogical tendency to think that if we can understand and explain an object or phenomenon scientifically then God didn’t do it. But that is patent nonsense and an affront to sound reason.”

    I agree.

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