Posted by: cjobrien | 16 February 2008

What is Denyse O’Leary Afraid Of?

 Evolution Weekend has come and gone here in northern California and there were of course no efforts by clergy here to attempt a dialogue with scientists to better understand evolutionary biology. With few exceptions, there appears to be an unwillingness to foster, or in some cases simply allow, exploration of science by the religious elite in the country. Like James McGrath, I also attempted to understand Denyse O’Leary’s concern (fear?) that a religious person might gain insight and understanding from a scientist who understands the incredible strength of evolutionary theory.  Given the E.O. Wilson passages she cites (and her responses to comments), I guess I can understand why she fears open discussion of evolutionary science by reasoned religious people. Like most ID activists, she is not simply worried about the broader concept of god that people may hold, she is really more concerned that the general populace will not accept the particulars of the god she personally accepted. She clearly separates those who do not maintain the specifics of her belief system from the ranks of the “religious” and groups them with those who hold no belief whatsoever. As James McGrath noted, E.O. Wilson’s personal rejection of a faith-based system for viewing the world has nothing to do with the efficacy of evolutionary biology. However, her apparent point, that the specifics of evolutionary theory, once adequately understood, are sufficient to turn people away from faith-based explanations, fails to consider the fact that religious systems offer a smorgasbord of details from which to choose. Denyse, like all fundamentalists (particularly Catholic ones) cannot accept that many people are perfectly comfortable with a religious perspective that completely rejects the specific details she herself holds dear.

Ironically, it seems to me that Denyse is really giving evolutionary theory a back-handed compliment. It would appear that the logic of evolutionary theory is so powerful in her mind that she fears dialogue between faithful people and scientists (the whole point of Evolution Sunday) will ultimately lead to the abandonment of those religious specifics to which she clings. Better to remain ignorant on a subject than risk it changing your worldview. And like many within the intelligent design movement, her arguments require maintaining a religious elitism over those who would dare venture a conversation with scientists: “Listen not to the others, lest ye burn in hell; buy my book and ye shall be saved!”. It is no wonder the ID activists have spent so much time and energy 1) lying about evolution, and 2) advertising a false alternative.

Denyse and the others do have much to fear. I noted with no small satisfaction a number of posts in the aftermath of Evolution Weekend that lead me to believe the success of ID and other forms of creationism are entirely dependent upon keeping the general population confused and ignorant of evolution. Laelops reports his engagement with “people of faith” regarding the nature of evolution:

During lunch after the lecture, the organizer of the event asked me how I am able to go online, read about what AiG or the Disco Institute is doing, and not feel a crushing sense of despair about belief in creationism. I replied that I am frustrated, angered, and irritated by the acceptance of convenient pseudoscience out of fear and lazy-thinking, but my personal experiences with people at a 1-to-1 level have given me reason to hope that things may change.

When I speak to people about evolution or natural history in general, the response I most often get is “Really? I never knew that before.”

When people of faith are allowed to engage in dialogue with scientists regarding the true nature of evolutionary theory, they find that a) it is nothing like they were led to believe (i.e. they had been given wrong information about it all along) and b) it opens their eyes to whole new ways of thinking about the world.

James McGrath noted a similar experience:

I really enjoyed teaching today’s Sunday school class, focusing on the compatibility of the Christian faith and evolution. I was most impressed simply by the spirit of loving fellowship among everyone present, which included (in addition to many of the usual participants in my class) new church members, the youth group, and other guests to the class. There were certainly different viewpoints represented, but the approach to these differences was one of dialogue, humility and exploration. That, in my thinking, matters more than what any individual thought before they came to class, and whether or not they thought the same way afterwards as they did at the start.

My own experiences in private discussions and in classrooms have been much along the same lines. The most frequent responses from students at the end of my class are along the lines of “Wow…I never knew that about evolution!” or “That’s not what I was taught about evolution!”. I have several students in class now who had expressed their concerns before class regarding their faith and the subject matter we were to study. I simply encouraged them to keep an open mind. A couple of them are now so caught up in the lessons that they have begun reading other books on the subject and are usually the first to attempt an answer in class. Have they lost their faith? Of course not. Have they modified it considerably? Well, based on casual conversations I would say most definitely. That’s what scares Denyse.

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