I spent much of last night having a conversation with someone, a Christian, about religion, evolution, the age of the earth, and atheism. These are conversations I’ve had many times, with many different people, with many different outcomes.
In the atheist community, we talk a lot about science, education, and the feeling of anti-science forces in our culture making it difficult to have well-informed people on the basics of science and to thus be competitive in the world market of science and technology. I am aware that there are others on the other side of the question, and so when I heard that many people felt as if evolution was being “shoved down our throats,” I realized there was a problem that needed to be addressed.
I feel that evolution happened. The evidence is overwhelming, the theory of natural selection supported by many observations, etc. My interlocutor agreed with most of this. What he disagreed about was that it was “proven” (proof is impossible within scientific means, I tried to explain) that the earth and universe were billions of years old; that we actually evolved from single cell organisms (or anything like that). It sounded like he had been reading creationism literature, but he had insisted that he had not.
The conclusion, from this and many other factors brought up through conversation, which I am moving towards is that the idea of “teach the controversy” is landing with much of the population. The fact is that there is no controversy, at least not in the sense that it was meant in our discussion. There are not people who are challenging the age of the earth or human evolution that are doing so on solid scientific grounds. Despite this, many people, including people who seek to understand these things honestly, believe that the scientific world is repressing challenges to prevailing conclusions; that scientists seek to stifle challenges to what is taught in biology classes; thus the “shoving down our throats” comment.
I do not doubt that this does happen, in some places and with some people, but the scientists that I know are open-minded people who seek the truth. And with grant money available for those that can demonstrate problems with prevailing theories, it seems odd that scientists at the top are so powerful as to stifle every attempt to challenge their sacred conclusions. This strikes me as a brand of conspiracy-theory that I find implausible.
The side that I hear more often, in my experience with scientists and atheists, is that all they hear from so-called challengers is the same old tired arguments that have been refuted hundreds of times. And thus they get frustrated, annoyed, and start ignoring them. Is this the source of the feeling of being stifled? If yo are the 100th person to approach a scientist with the same objection or challenge to evolution and are simply ignored, laughed at, or mocked, doesn’t that feel like a stifled challenge? Of course it does, but scientists are human too, right? We lose patience with repeating the same thing to the same objection which, according to them, should be commonly known.
So which is it; Are some scientists simply ignoring legitimate challenges or are challengers ignorant of the fact that their objections have already been answered multiple times and thus are annoying due to repetition and not because it seeks to challenge the accepted conclusion? Mixed bag? Possibly, but I will tend to side with the latter.
The essential question is whether the challenges actually stand up to scrutiny or not. And as my interlocutor admitted, he does not have time in his busy life to research or educate himself on every aspect of this question, but he only has skeptical reservations. That’s fair, I guess. I just wonder where the skeptical reservations originate from. Because it seems like the points of challenge are researched, as if they were lifted from some source, whether it calls itself a creationist source or not (and we know that they sometimes come in disguise as Intelligent Design or simply as “teaching the controversy”), and so I am skeptical that the source of them these objections are legitimate scientific questions being ignored by scientists.
The bottom line is that there are many well-meaning people out there that have reservations about science and its ability to “prove” theories (even though I tried to explain that science’s job is to present an explanation that fits the data best, and never to prove anything). They are skeptical of what science says because humans are fallible and we can get things wrong. “Fine,” I say, “and as soon as you find a better explanation that will become the new theory.” Until that happens the best explanation is still the best explanation.
These conversations are important because it is one of the many means to keeping the conversations from stagnating among those that share the same opinions. If I only talked with scientists and atheists about evolution and the age of the earth, I would never understand why the controversy exists because I would perpectually be creating straw-men to argue with. And if those would-be straw men never talked to me, they would continue to view scientists as biased people who will not accept a challenge to the prevailing worldview they hold.
Thus, we both benefited from the conversation, even if no minds were changed. And we are able to remain friendly and get along in the future. Win!