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May 02, 2005


Regarding the actual debate in Kansas, I think that the before moving against Darwin, the literalists might want to first spend some time trying to make sense of the conflicting Biblical stories of God's creation of man and woman. Were man and woman created concurrently after God created all the other living creatures, as in the first book of Genesis; or was it man first, then the animals who God let him name, with woman coming only after God put man to sleep and took from him a rib, as in Genesis 2? If God is perfect and the Bible is the literal word of God, why did God have to create man twice?

If God is perfect - omnipotent and omniscient from eternity - why did he repent himself and cause the Flood as well as nuke Sodom and Gomorrah? Why did he create Lucifer, full well knowing that Old Scratch would tempt humans into deeds worthy of Hell? Yes, yes, I know that that old lech Augustine already addressed these issues ages ago, but he didn't quite answer them to my satisfaction.

Although I often use "theocrat," I think you're right, DHinMI, to urge us against its deployment in certain quarters, precisely because it is not well understood. Likewise, for different reasons, I would add "fundamentalist" when used as an epithet, since many fundamentalist Christians are not tools of the right wing, just as most fundamentalist Muslims are not tools of Osama bin Laden or other crazies. Not all literalists believe their literalism should be imposed outside their church, mosque or temple.

The thing is, the Democrats want to paint the Republican Party as being in the grip of dangerous extremists, thus leading ordinary religious folks to say, "Wow, I voted for those guys because I thought they shared my religious values, but we actually have nothing in common!"

But the problem is, by pointing to increasingly extreme examples, the Dems leave the door open for the R's to successfully distance themselves from that brand of super-extremism. Hence my agreement with the thesis of this post; very few people believe that we are literally headed for government headed by a council of ayatollahs, so when you use the word "theocracy," you invite the Right to say "Come on, maybe there are a few loony people out there who are actually theocrats, but we're nothing like that - we're more like Joe and Mary America who go to church on Sunday." For an example of this distancing, see the NRO essay at http://www.nationalreview.com/kurtz/kurtz200505020944.asp

The bottom line is, with incidents like the Schiavo mess, Frist's appearance on "Justice Sunday," and the like, the Republicans have already given us plenty of example of religious overreaching. When we point to outrageous statements or actions by the Religious Right that aren't directly tied to the Republicans in power, we strengthen the caricature, but at the cost of weakening our overall argument. As DH says, the Republican agenda doesn't have to be a literal theocracy to be dangerous.

Well, DHinMI, your objections seem to be covered by Article XIII (and possibly XIV) of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Shame on you for using "standards of truth or error that are alien to the usage and purpose" of the Bible. Topically, note Article XII.

Clarification - your objections to the parallel stories of Genesis ...

Hate to say it, but your analysis misses the point, because you haven't taken a good look at just what kind of religious extremists we're dealing with. There are the conventional 'end-timers" of the Pat Robertson variety, who are pretty close to what you are talking about.

They, however, are not the dangerous ones. The dangerous ones are the Dominionists. Allow me to give you two quotes from these people:

First, from founder D.A. Kennedy:

"Our job is to reclaim America for Christ, whatever the cost. As the vice-regents of God, we are to exercise godly dominion and influence over our neighborhoods, our schools, our government, our literature and arts, our sports arenas, our entertainment media, our news media, our scientific endeavors - in short, over every aspect and institution of human society."

They open their meetings with this pledge:

"I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen and coming again, with life and liberty for all who believe."

So, still think they aren't theocratic?? These are the folks behind the religious-harassment scandal at the Air Force Academy, they are the "extreme conservatives" as they have been reported in the press who took over the Southern Baptist Convention over the past 20 years (if you don't think they're theocrats, you've never listend to their Theological Czar, Richard S. Land). These are the folks who advocated Jeb Bush ignore the law and take Terri Schiavo into custody.

D.A. Kennedy is the guy George W. Bush went to see in 1999 to get his blessing on a presidential campaign. James Dobson is a leader of the movement, and leader of the most-powerful organization on the theocratic right. Tony Perkins, Dobson's enforcer in Washington, advocates the death penalty for women who are "unchaste before marriage."

I highly recommend you get a copy of the May issue of Harper's and read "The Christian Right's War On America." You'll get a lot of information about these people.

They ARE the "American Taliban." They have influence beyond belief in D.C. Calling them the Theocratic Right rather than the Christian Right is a damn good way to separate them from the others, who as you say don't believe in theocracy. They need to be publicized and outed, because they operate "under the radar" and just call themselves "Good Christians," which they certainly are not.

Reverend mel White, who was Falwell's biographer before breaking with them, says "This movement is no more about following the example of Christ than Bush's Clean Air Act is about clean air."

These people ARE dangerous, and they are dangerous because folks like you keep pooh-poohing them. It's like Billy Wilder once told me, how everyone he knew in Berlin laughed at him for worrying about the Nazis - "they all didn't believe Hitler was bad till they were arrested and killed."

Sometimes the loonies are dangerous, and this is one of those times.


Thanks Blue. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has been on my nightstand for a while, but I've been too busy reading other things the last couple months. ;-)

Heh. It does tend to show that arguments based on reason will have little effect on literalists. Quel surprise.

First, it's probably not true that the people seeking to expel Darwin from school are seeking to establish rule by religious elites, or some type of divinely-derived code of law, like Islamic Shari'a. Instead, by trying to diminish the authority of the Darwinian theory of evolution, most opponents of the teaching of evolution are attempting to insulate students from anything that might challenge them to question a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis as the full description of the origins and development of man.

I tend to agree with TCinLA above, these are dangerous people and these are Dangerous times. DHinMI, when you read your above quote, if you leave out the bolded part that says "religious elites, or", what are you left with? IMO, you are left with exactly what these dangerous fundamentalists are trying to accomplish. Namely absoluter and literal rule over all others by their interpretation of the bible.

I've been fighting the evolution battle, and the term I've settled on is "religious authoritarian."

I think it has the right resonances.

Well argued piece, DHinMI, but two questions:

1. First, I appreciate the point that calling the Kansans goal "theocracy" may be sloppy or even untruthful. (Although I am not sure I buy this -- at least some Kansans would surely like to have a Christian government with laws taken literally from the Bible, isn't that right?) But just as not that many people really know what a "trial lawyer" or "activist judge" is, those terms have been mildly successful as derogatory epithets. The unwashed masses didn't spend too much time worrying about who a "trial lawyer" is, or why they are so much worse than a regular lawyer. Can't we (rightly or wrongly) do something similar with "theocrat"?

2. Second, you know your claim that the word "theocracy" in American politics is a recent invention is begging me to find a counterexample. How about the state of Deseret, the proposed Mormon state that more or less became Utah? (Hm, maybe that doesn't count as 'contemporary.')

It's worth noting that the same people pushing science out of science classes are also the leaders of the anti-gay ballot measures, fighting against Sunday liquor sales, gambling, etc. There is a theocratic, Dominionist, agenda.

I decided to drop "theocrat" because it seems so archaic and hyperbolic, plus it makes religion the issue. Religious authoritarian, or just authoritarian, emphasizes the issue of compulsion, which you rightly highlighted.

Thoughts from Kansas is the clearinghouse for Kansas evolution info.

On the other hand, "Theocrat" has a nasty ring to it (particulary as an adjective), even if you aren't precisely sure what it means.

For example,
"Senator Frist and his theocrat Republican cronies paraded that poor woman all over television and wouldn't let her die in peace."

It has echoes of "bureaucrat," which is not a good connotation. The ugly sounding "crat" is what the Republicans are trying to utilize when they say "the Democrat Party."

On the other hand, "religious" and "Christian" will always have a nice ring to them. It will be impossible to make either of them a perjorative. "Religious authoritarians" will always still be "religious." "Religious elites" sounds like we are talking about the US Bishops conference, not about the "theocrat extremists who want to hand pick all the judges."

"Theocrat" does sound a little hyperbolic, but a little bit hyperbolic is a good thing. "American Taliban" is too over the top, and no one takes the phrase seriously.

But, remember, they are theocrats, they are trying to take over, and they have no tolerance for anyone who doesn't share their views.

These little fights are just skirmishes for the Dominionists. And they're not exactly non-represented in Congress. Man-on-Dog Ricky being a prime example.

These people were scary when they were working under the radar for the last few decades. The fact that they believe their movement is strong enough to come out into the light should give any thinking person pause.

But I think they've done it too early and I think we should borrow the GOP's tools to derail their movement. Demonize their leaders. Start talking about Mullah Dobson issuing fatwas against even conservative Republican-appointed judges who stand in the way of his edicts. Name the names. Draw the links to Frist, to Santorum, and the rest of them.

I agree there's not much value in using the word theocracy, but there's great value in demonstrating the truth behind by the term.

Under the circumstances, Sam Brownback is a more relevant example than Santorum.

This whole system opens up the Roveian "attack what they perceive as their strength" strategy. They see religion as the issue where they're strong, but with the right spin, it's their greatest weakness. Not the religion, but their desire to impose it on everyone else.

I decided to move away from theocrat because I didn't think people would take it seriously. I have no data on that, but I think it's true.

Just my $0.02.

1) "religious authoritarian" does, IMO, two things wrong: (a) it moves the debate into religion, where religion gets automatic deference, and (b) how many people do you think know what "authoritarian" means without thinking about it?

2) Moving away from theocrat is a good idea. Myself, I use "Republican Fundamentalist" for the Dominionists / literalists / radical dispensationalists / whatever. It takes away the religious part as a lead-in, and puts them squarely in the political arena where they belong, as the repressive branch of the Republican Party.


No, some of the biggest driving forces - motivation, organization, money, etc - are the theocrats; Dominionists, Reconstructionists, etc.

I think Bill has a nice summary of my point; there's not much value in calling somebody a theocrat, but where they show themsleves, there's value in demonstrating the truth behind by the label.

And emptypockets, I forgot about Utah, and it's another good example, even more apt than the Mass Bay Colony. But yes, I was thinking of the US since the late 19th century.

But there needs to be one word for those who would deprive gays of their human rights and shove creation at 6600 bc down their fellow citizens' throats.

So that we can keep referencing them and their actions, just as the conservatives have destroyed the word and concept "liberal."

Hmmm...maybe we should just use "Republican."

CKR may have just provided the answer...

The way I'd put it is that theocracy American style is theocracy with a difference. I've been calling it neo-theocracy and referring to its adherents as neo-theocrats or, for short, neo-theos.

word coinage: "theo-neo", sorry, "neo-theo" sort of sounds to me like a late-season replacement actor on the Cosby Show.

As long as we're making up new words, how about theologue? (that would be, a religious-minded ideologue.)

You decide whether I'm kidding.

Important correction:

Some good points all around but part of this from DHinMi's original post unfortunately buys into GOP framing:

"they're abusing their political power to push their personal religious beliefs over other religious and scientific beliefs.

Instead I propose: "they're abusing their political power to push their personal religious beliefs over other religious and scientific evidence."

Science has nothing to do with beliefs. It has everything to do with observation, experimentiation, evidence. These religious fanatics want to play the identity politics card by misrepresenting the findings of science as simply one belief among others. This is as false as it is pernicious. I can't emphasize that point enough.

For more see Josh's fine blog (link is in his comments above) and also I highly recommend PZ Meyers excellent blog Pharyngula (despite the fact that I'm currently being hammered by him and others on a particular point concerning atheism/nontheism- it just happens to be my misfortune to be a scholar of religion.) He hammers this point again and again.

I also think Paperwight has some very pithy insights into this kind of thing. In particular, I think his post on destroying the brand is very important. Hence, I suggest things like "Republican extremists", "radical Republicans", etc., And avoid "Repugs," "Rethuglicans," and the like. And it pains me to do that but he's right (it also pains me, a long-time lefty radical to have to give over the term "radical" but it's a small price to pay). Also, I think it's a good idea to eschew the word "conservative" for anything used to describe them.

On second thought, does anyone think we could get away with "fucktards"? Just sayin'

Barry--since the Darwinian theory of evolution isn't testable, it's not as easily characterized as most other scientific theories in physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Furthermore, while I'm no biologist, I'm aware that there are big differences between scientists on what's evidence to support various evolutionary theories, what's not, etc; for instance, some of the theories of Gould and Dawkins are, from what I've read, currently looking somewhat shaky. Likewise, even though his overall theory still holds up well, not all of Darwin's specific tenets are accepted, and some have been completely rejected. So, unlike more testable theories like much of physics and chemistry, and a lot of biology like genetics, cell biology, etc, evolution is more "theoretical" and depends on ones interpretation of evidence that can't really be controled, manipulated, or form the basis of predictions that can be easily tested (like with some of astronomy, geology, etc). Thus, it's informed and strongly supported belief, and what's presented as evidence supports evolution over the literal Biblical story of Genesis, but it's not easily demonstrated like most other sciences.

Shorter version of what I'm struggling to say--you can persuasively argue evolution, but unlike most other sciences, it can't be demonstrated, so it's slightly more open to interpretations that Newtonian physics, genetics, chemistry, etc.

DHinMI: IANAB, but I have to disagree. First, it's not really correct to simply correlate Darwinism=Evolutionary Biology. Evolutionary Biology has come a long way since Darwin and a variety of other mechanisms which affect evolutionary change have been discovered. It's like saying "Newtonian Physics", or even "Einsteinian Physics" for modern Physics in general-where does that leave Quantum Mechanics, String Theory, etc., Saying "Darwinism" or "Darwinian" for modern Evolutionary Biology is also part of the fundamentalist extremist Christian right's framing of the issue.

You're also wrong about evolutionary theory not being testable, though I can't cite you chapter and verse. You seem to misunderstand what is meant by "theory" which is no different in evolutionary biology than it is in Physics, Chemistry, etc., All sciences are incomplete in the sense that their are many questions to be answered, problems to be solved, and many are the competing hypotheses put forward by scientists in their respective fields, but you seem to be confusing "hypothesis" with "theory" when referencing Gould and Dawkins.

If you refer to scientific "beliefs" instead of "evidence" you've basically capitulated to the extremist fundamentalist right. And also, evolution aside, where does that leave other sciences, e.g. climatology and the problem of global warming? Do you really want to provide support for those who maintain in the face of all the continuously mounting evidence that global warming is a mere belief?

With all due respect, I've really valued your work over at DailyKos over the years (where, btw, I used to comment before it took its present form) but I may just have to send PZ over here to set you straight.

DHinMI, I'm not sure this road is a productive one to go down but I wanted to pipe up anyway... One could make the same points that you've made re: evolution with regard to much of physics -- "not all of [Newton's] specific tenets are accepted" (for example, near the speed of light I believe) and that "some of the theories of [modern theorists] are... looking somewhat shaky."

The fossil record and genetic "record" (similar DNA sequences among similar organisms; some genes even recognizable through all of life's walks) are solid evidence that evolution (by which I mean speciation) has occurred. In the lab, and more often now in the field, we can show that it can and is happening again, and in some cases even pinpoint the DNA sequence changes that cause it.

So, I may not convince you (or any other reader) but just wanted to put in my own point of view, as someone who is in biology... evolution is very much as testable and as well-supported as any scientific principle.

(That said, science itself is a 'belief' -- indeed, that any of us is here and that this is not all but a dream is just a 'belief' -- so I am not very offended that you called evolution a belief, though I recognize Barry's point about framing for rhetorical purposes.)


(That said, science itself is a 'belief' -- indeed, that any of us is here and that this is not all but a dream is just a 'belief' -- so I am not very offended that you called evolution a belief, though I recognize Barry's point about framing for rhetorical purposes.)

I'm reminded of that wonderful story of Chuang-Tzu where he woke up from a dream that he was a butterfly wondering whether he was really Chuang-Tzu dreaming of being a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming of Chuang-Tzu? I study theoretical Sufism so you'll get no argument from me there. Still, while I think the truly interesting questions lie there, as the Greatest Master, Muhyi-Din ibn al-`Arabi is often wont to say that one must give every level and every reality its due, on the level of the physical, natural world what I have said above is in fact the case.

Furthermore, it would only confuse matters to inject such metaphysical subtleties that are both understood neither by the fundamentalist literalists (if only they truly knew how to read their own texts, which they actually don't even do in a truly "literal" manner) nor the scientists. And I'm firmly in the science camp on this issue.

Barry -- of course, I was agreeing with you; I just didn't know it yet as we were typing at the same time. Theoretical Sufism -- is there such a thing as experimental Sufism??

Apologies to Next Hurrah'ers for hijacking this thread; but hey, it was a day old anyway and this is interesting to me.

Barry--I've read enough epistomology and pragmatist philosophy to be relatively comfortable with my "belief" that science is, as emptypockets also says, a belief. It's a much more supported belief, but evidence is not the same as proof. But in terms of my word choice on "belief" vs evidence, in these debates about creationism vs. evolution, for purposes of political rhetoric, the mental shorthand used by the average person is "Darwin's theory of evolution" vs. the yokels in Inherit the Wind. The debate is waged in large part on their parlour game of picking holes in Darwin's theories. For that reason my point about Theocrat is expressly limited to political rhetoric, because the political conflict is not happening in the more precise realm of science, it's happening in the court of public opinion. That doesn't mean we cede to them the terminology, but sometimes you win arguments by limiting their scope and preventing extraneous issues from entering the discussion. In terms of the battle in political rhetoric, that's why I suggested "belief," becuase it's harder to argue that it's a belief--one that sounds reasonable, btw--vs saying evidence, over which the wingers will want to argue and say "it's also evidence for ID," or "it's misunderstood," or "it's really not evidence for the theory of evolution," or whatever.

emptypockets- I know you were agreeing with me. It was a manner of speaking, is all. You could say there is such a thing as "experimental Sufism" though its not a phrase used by the scholars who study it. Still the concept is very much present within the tradition. There is a marked emphasis on what they call "verification" taHqîq (one of the names of God is related: al-Haqq, i.e. The Real). And a variety of practical spiritual excercises that will, inshallah ;-) lead to that. They speak of things like "unveiling" etc., Some of the latest research is beginning to show that theoretical Sufism was present far earlier than we previously thought (Ibn al-`Arabi d. 1240 CE is considered to be both the inauguration and the high point of this tradition). The phrase "metaphysical Sufism" is used too. The problem with the earlier stuff is that where it is not focused on the outward spiritual practices it tends to be very cryptic. Ibn al-`Arabi on the other hand while extraordinarily difficult to read wrote something like over 500 books most of which are, fortunately, extant.

DHinMI- I would reiterate my point concerning global warming above.

Of course evolution is testable. That's what the Evolution Project shows nicely. Evolution is one of the best supported theories in science, and is the unifying principle of modern biology.

While there are aspects of Darwin's writings which were wrong (his model of inheritance was totally flawed) and modern elaborations on evolution remain subject to debate, the idea that natural selection, mutation, genetic drift, and gene flow have driven the diversification of life is uncontroversial, and has more experimental support than relativity.

To put it in common terms, evolution is the Grand Unified Theory of biology, an ideal yet to be acheived in many other sciences.

Conceding the "belief" ground gives away the high ground that science occupies. The fact is that IDC has no evidence supporting it. To the extent it's a scientific concept, it's been tried and rejected. That's why it's a belief, no longer a theory.

Is the scientific methodology a "belief"? Sure, but the idea that natural occurrences have natural causes is so trivial that no one thinks about it.

When your car breaks, you don't look to an exorcist, you look to a mechanic, who tests hypotheses and fixes things by applying a successful hypothesis about what went wrong. That's the "belief" in science at work. That's the practical naturalism that IDC attacks in hopes of inserting the supernatural into every aspect of our lives.

Well, the beliefs of science are often proven wrong, even if the practical applications still work. Science is always overturning what was previously "known." What science provides is a set of standards for coming up with usable truths. Science isn't something that's "out there" just waiting to be discovered, it's a social process of arriving at accepted though provisional conclusions, and conclusions become accepted through observation, experimentation and reproducibility. But when a new explanation for something that was "settled" comes along, it doesn't mean that the physical world is different, it just means that what we believe about the physical world has been rid of a little more error.

If you set up the current accepted theories of science as unassailable, then you've really conceded the high ground to the wingers, because the first time an "accepted theory" is torpedoed by some new research, then the wingers can attack the whole endeavor of science as useless.

Remember, in the late 19th and early 20th century, there was a science of "eugenics," and it was accepted by much of the scientific establishment. But unlike religious beliefs, it was open to testing, and "race" is no longer the strict and clearly deliniated scientific construct it was 50 or 100 years ago.

And when I talk about testing evolution, what I mean is you can't except on a limited level, recreate evolution of the higher mammals, or demonstrate (except through archeological evidence) the evolution of mammals, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, etc. Genetics, natural selection, etc, yes, all testable in certain contexts. But to accept evolution in the longer view, one has to extrapolate out from and speculate about the applications of our knowledge of these fields of inquiry. We can't recreate an epoch to demonstrate that our evolutionary theories about dinosaurs are correct the way we can demonstrate many other scientific questions. With time, there may be other means of demonstrating from available evidence--think of genetic testing, carbon dating and the like that weren't available just a few decades ago--and these new procedures and the accumlated scientific knowledge may change our beliefs about theories like evolution. But there's pretty much nothing to support ID. So in no way do I think I am equating the two, or sliding down a slippery slope.

Evolution is testable and tested. Evolution via natural selection is an observed fact. Speciation by natural means is an observed fact. In saying that, I'm not denying that research is ongoing, but it's silly to say that gravity is a "belief." There's no comprehensive theory of gravity, but it trivializes the discussion to say say that gravity is an "informed and strongly supported belief." That may be true, but it fails to acknowledge obvious distinctions.

As a biologist, I can tell you that your are wrong, wrong, wrong in your understanding of the state of evolutionary biology. Evolution is not impossible or even hard to demonstrate, and it rests on no less solid footing than genetics, physics, or chemistry.

In particular, evolution is, contrary to your post, testable. We do that all the time, and it passes every test. Might we test it next week and have it fail? Yes. Might we find evidence which refutes relativity, gravity, or genetics? Yes.

Science is assailable, but it the epistemological belief in science is different from scientific acceptance of a theory. A scientist's belief or disbelief in a particular theory is different from scientific acceptance. People believe in theories which are not accepted, and people accept theories which they don't personally believe to be true. They accept the scientific consensus and test it against less well accepted theories.

Eugenics grew up and, with the rediscovery of Mendel, became genetics. Darwinism grew up and, with the rediscovery of Mendel, became evolutionary biology.

Maybe I'm missing your point, but scientists aren't about belief. In part it's an issue of a priori knowledge. IDC advocates (IDolators) believe in an intelligent designer (God) and insist that their theory must be right because they believe it. Scientists accept evolution as the most parsimonious explanation for the diversity and diversification of life, but it took a lot of evidence to gain that acceptance, and would take only one good experiment (and a few confirming experiments at well-respected labs) to lose that acceptance. That's a distinction that's important.

Scientists accept evolution as the most parsimonious explanation for the diversity and diversification of life, but it took a lot of evidence to gain that acceptance, and would take only one good experiment (and a few confirming experiments at well-respected labs) to lose that acceptance. That's a distinction that's important.

In other words, what is believed now would be disbelieved if demonstrated through experiments to be wrong. Unlike religion, there is a means for testing the validity of belief, but setting aside the specifics of evolutionary biology, I don't see how your final point contradicts what I'm saying. In fact, I think it supports it.

DHinMI, I have to disagree with your distinction between evolutionary theory and (for example) gravitational theory, though it's interesting to see how you think about it. One thread I would ask that you add to your argument is genetic evidence:

You say, "you can't... demonstrate (except through archeological evidence) the evolution of mammals" when of course the genome sequences of any two mammals are extraordinarily strong evidence of common ancestry. In fact, in certain cases (not mammals that I can think of, but in fish and insects at least) the specific genetic changes sufficient to make one species take on the form of another species have been identified.

Josh, you have put well my way of thinking so I will just say, "me too." Except I still insist that all science is a belief, much like the faith that what we see in front of our eyes is real is itself a belief (and sometimes a misguided belief at that).

It sounds trivial to say that "belief in reality is a form of belief" but, and forgive me if this seems harsh or intolerant of religion, the only way I can understand the devoutly religious is that they do not ascribe to a belief in reality. I can only see the truly religious as living in an alternate reality of their own construction in order for me to understand their views... so from their point of view, science (indeed all my reality) would seem to be simply my own personal set of beliefs.

I feel like you're singling out evolution as a weaker science than others. It hardly bears mentioning that no one ever has seen a gene (nor will they ever). The same might be said of various subatomic particles, gravitation, string theory, relativity, and (as you noted) the common ancestor of all mammals.

Of course, fossil evidence, combined with molecular and morphological studies of modern species has given us a great view of the evolution of mammals from therapsid reptiles, and of the subsequent divergence of the modern and extinct mammalian clades.

Why do you single out evolution, and not astrophysics, meteorology, or genetics?

Why do you think gravity worked 1 billion years ago? Uniformitarianism. Why do I think evolution was at work 1 billion years ago? Uniformitarianism, plus fossil evidence.

Why do you single out evolution as a weaker science?

Remember too, that what we see as the major transitions in life occurred in small steps.

By examining the developmental genetics of feathers and scales, we can understand the changes necessary to produce a simple feather from a placode rather than a scale. We have fossilized dinosaurs with a few feathers. The feathers are probably for display. We have other dinosaurs covered in feathers, probably for display and insulation. We have gradual lengthening of forelimbs into gliding wings, and we have birds. We can understand the big transition by putting together a bunch of small, reproducible changes.

Are we watching the evolution of birds from dinosaurs? No. But it's a damn sight better than our basis for inferring the history of the Sun, or the assumption that gravity always worked. So why single out evolution?


I agree with everything Josh has written above. I study religion, and I am very sympathetic to religious worldviews (well, some of them, mysticism in general, I have little to no tolerance for Fundamentalism) but I really think you should heed what the scientists say about this. They know wherof they speak. There is a serious war going on about this right now and this is the thin edge of the wedge (hmmm...as an Arabist I suppose I should have written "the camel's nose under the tent" instead). And yes, there is a sense in which science is a belief, as emptypockets wrote, but it is not in the same sense when we speak of such matters concerning the natural universe and the scientific method we use to investigate it. Here there is very much a significant difference between belief and evidence, etc., If nothing else at this moment in our nation's history it's a question of solidarity.

Why do you single out evolution, and not astrophysics, meteorology, or genetics?

Um, do you guys remember what the post was about? The Kansas Board of Education debating evolution.

And because something can't be controlled like a chemistry experiment does not mean it's a "weaker" science; frankly, methodoligical demands are much greater on many social sciences, because it's harder to isolate your variables. I don't accept the "weak" and "strong" science dichotomy.

Barry, as for solidarity, I have no idea what that means. And frankly, you guys are now accepting what I originally wrote, "scientific belief." Science is a process by which some of us form our beliefs. Science is also a process in which we place such faith in as a means of determining our beliefs, and when science changes the beliefs of scientists, those of us not adept in their field typically change our beliefs.

I'm having a harder time discerning the objection. If you guys are accepting what emptypockets wrote, then I don't follow why you would find my word choices so objectionable.

DHinMI - I was afraid that would muddy the waters. You've misunderstood me, it's a difficult and subtle distinction to try to make especially in a few comments. It's also unimportant with regard to the issue at hand. So scratch my latest in that case, I'll stand by my initial post.

While the public perception is that this is just about evolution, the agenda is much deeper. Last time we went through this, the creationists just wanted to remove evolution from the state standards. This time, they want to redefine science to include the supernatural. Evolution is the obvious target, but don't be surprised if people start wanting to teach flood geology, or geocentrism, or that physical constants have varied over time (the last one allows radioisotope dating to be recalibrated for a young earth).

Science isn't a belief the way religion is a belief. Having a commitment to practical naturalism (methodoligical naturalism) doesn't foreclose a belief in the supernatural.

You say Science is a process by which some of us form our beliefs. I disagree. Science is a way of asking questions, and occasionally getting answers. I don't believe in evolution, I evaluate the evidence in its favor. That's different from someone who believes in Biblical inerrancy.

Creationists like to muddy those waters, and as I gear up to help beat back the authoritarians, I may have gotten overly defensive. The fact is, science isn't about belief, except at the broadest level (I believe that the rules of logic always hold, and that the laws of nature are consistent through time). Ever since Popper, scientists have understood that we fail to reject a hypothesis, but that doesn't make it true. It's just not false yet. So we don't believe in evolution, we just don't think it's untrue.

IDolators believe that there must be supernatural intelligent agents, and proceed from that belief. That's not science. And because they're imposing their beliefs on everyone, they're authoritarian. Since I'm not imposing my beliefs (everyone relies on the basic beliefs I listed above), I'm not.

Is that clearer, or more complicated?

The reason Josh thinks you, DHinMI, are singling out evolution as a weaker science is not that the original post was about evolution, it was this incorrect assertion you made and have repeated in your comments -

"since the Darwinian theory of evolution isn't testable, it's not as easily characterized as most other scientific theories in physics, chemistry, biology, etc."

You are confusing testing a theory with testing the application of that theory to historical events. The "theory of evolution" is not about specifics of descent in the fossil record, it is about laws governing the changes in gene pools in populations over time. Those laws are confirmed in the laboratory and in direct observation of nature today, as Josh points out. (And in fact, Darwin made his first pass at those laws based at least as much on observation of living species such as the Galapogos finch as the fossil record.) The theory of evolution is as testable and as confirmed as the theory of gravity. This would be true even had we never recovered a single fossil from the ground.

Now, we can apply that theory to historical events, for example the fossil record, and attempt to deduce things from that application. Of course, those deductions are not testable in that we can not build a time machine and go back and check them out. Perfectly analogously, we can apply the laws of planetary motion to the past and attempt to deduce, for example, the origins of the moon. It would be strange to say, though, that the laws of planetary motion are not testable because we can't travel back and observe the moon being created.

It is important to note, though, that applying the theory of evolution to the fossil record is not the sole, or maybe not even the most important application of the theory. For example, the theory of evolution is successfully applied to the development of flu vaccines. There is Dobzhansky's famous quote - "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." That is a statement about biology today, not the past.

Hopefully this clears up the confusion. If not, since PZ Myers has The Next Hurrah on his blogroll (a very cool honor, if you ask me), perhaps he will stop by, but I assure you, DHinMI, that he will confirm that you are mistaken in this particular instance.

I've been enjoying this discussion very much. We've strayed so far from the original post from theocracy, to we're not in Kansas anymore, through Arab religions, back to the fossil record, that we've almost circled back around to the original point.

There seem to be three debates running in parallel here:

1. Whether evolutionary theory is any less evidence-based or experimentally verifiable than the big theories of other sciences (like gravity). I think we've pretty much run this horse into the ground, and it's well-summed up by the comment Blue the Wild Dog just posted (10:00 AM this morning).

2. A second question, first raised by Barry's comment about GOP framing, needs to be separated from all the other arguments. Regardless of how we each see evolution vs. other sciences, or science as a belief vs. science as fact, the question here is about the efficacy of framing an issue even if the frame is not 100% accurate. (Of course if you think the frame is 100% accurate this question is moot. I still think it's interesting.)

This gets to the heart of the original post about using "theocrat" to describe someone who's not really a theocrat. DHinMI's point is that exaggeration and inaccuracy are morally wrong and more importantly not very effective (yes?). I disagree in light of the extraordinary success the right has had with half-baked frames like "trial lawyers" and "activist judges." So, if I were writing, I would say "religious beliefs" but "scientific evidence" (or "scientific fact").

But DHinMI has been thinking about this a lot longer than I have, and I am going to keep a more watchful eye on how these word choices are received... I may change my mind yet.

3. Finally, the question of whether science is belief or fact. Josh, I am surprised & glad to see we disagree on this... we both seem to be biologists and seem to be speaking the same language, so it will be interesting to me to understand where you're coming from. Here's how I see it.

The core worldview of the scientist is that the universe operates on some fundamental set of rules. The core worldview of the religious person is that the universe is run by a central intelligence called God, who is all-powerful.

(Ultimately these reduce to the same thing, because what we know of animal intelligence is that it is chemical reactions following certain rules... so a universal intelligence is, to the neuroscientist, a universal set of rules. But that's a whole other bag of fish.)

Consider mathematics, where one can invent/discover a formal system of mathematics (such as Euclidean geometry) which is completely internally consistent, but under another worldview does not work at all (such as on the surface of a sphere, where parallel lines can intersect).

That is very much how I see people with a scientific thinking about the world vs. people with a Biblical (for example) thinking about the world. Each of our philosophies is totally internally consistent -- we can find scientific principles to explain phenomena, they can just say "God did it" -- but each is a complete violation of the other's worldview.

I think as a scientist but I still respect (loosely speaking) the religious person's worldview as an internally consistent (if simplistic -- "God did it" answers every question) viewpoint. Since they are both internally consistent self-contained sets of explanations I see them in that sense on an equal footing.

That is basically why I think of science as a belief. Of course, I think it also happens to be RIGHT... but a religious person would say the same about their viewpoint. Since both systems are internally consistent, neither one can objectively be ruled "more" correct than the other.

Does it make any sense?

2) "DHinMI's point is that exaggeration and inaccuracy are morally wrong and more importantly not very effective (yes?)." I thought DHinMI's point is that if we make the distinction between religious "belief" and scientific "evidence", we risk getting bogged down in creationist irrelevancies about the evidence. That may be true, but I don't think phrasing it as scientific "belief" is the right way to go. Creationists often make the claim that "belief in evolution is a religion just like belief in Genesis", and this seems to play into their hands.

3) Science may be a belief, but it also has predictive power, which religious belief does not. So science is a belief, but it is qualitatively more, too.

The Catholic Church accepts the scientific evidence of evolution, but believes that humans are endowed with a soul. A scientist might believe that everything can be known through scientific investigation (which is how I interpret emptypockets's post) but might not. There are people like Kenneth Miller who believe in theistic evolution, that evolution and the big bang are accurate descriptions of the universe, but that God set things up so that humans would evolve. That's a belief.

Evolution isn't. Evolution, in one sense, is a fact. In a broader sense, it is a well-supported theory. Religion operates through faith, a personal belief that something is true, regardless of, even in spite of, the evidence. Science doesn't work that way. Belief is the wrong word.

One can be committed to the practical application of naturalism (natural explanations for natural phenomena) without believing those are the only explanations. Don't tell that to Richard Dawkins.

This isn't a big gap, but it plays an important role in framing the issue of science standards. Are we teaching students to "believe" in evolution, or are we teaching students to accept certain scientific theories on their objective merits? If science is just a "belief," and creationism is just a "belief," then why not teach both? This is the argument we get here in KS.

To summarize: I agree that science requires a certain level of belief to get you started. I disagree that evolution is a belief in the sense that creationism is.

To go waaaaay back, the reason I advocate "authoritarian" despite its wonkish sound, is that it emphasizes the compulsion, rather than religion. "Theocrat" doesn't emphasize the libertarian (classically liberal) objection. If there's a better way to express that, I'll switch.

In a blog post from a while back, I said: "I don't care that IDC is a stealth attempt to insert Christian theology into science classes, I care that they are trying to pervert the definition of science. I don't care that the anti-abortion movement wants to impose Christian morality on everyone, I care that they want to impose their morality on everyone. That's why Senator Durenberger says “They don't really believe in representative government.” I oppose them because they are authoritarian, not because of the brand of authoritarianism."

In the context of this discussion, I object to the imposition of their beliefs.

I am not a biologist, I don't play one on TV, and I don't even pretend to be one on the internets. My scientific knowledge comes mostly from reading science articles in the NYT and the NY Review of Books. So the specifics of evolutionary theory are beyond me.

However, I do know a bit about epistomology and the scientific method, and I think the problem you guys are having with me is that some of you, Josh certainly, are conflating "belief" with "truth" or "justification for belief." It's almost nonsensical to argue that you don't have beliefs. The difference isn't that religion has beliefs and science doesn't, it's that religious beliefs are derived from accepting revealed truths, while, following Popper and others, trust in the testable and stringent methods of science tests beliefs--hypotheses--to determine if they can be shown to be untrue. So what you end up with is a process by which we come up with "usable truths" that can always be overturned. Science is thus a process that humans use to test their beliefs, vs. religious beliefs, that often aren't testable, as they are revealed.

Philosophy aside, there is the framing question. I think posing it as "religious belief" versus "scientific belief" is the wrong choice, and I like emptywheel's choice of "scientific fact" in place of "scientific belief", for two reasons. First, "fact" negates the usual creationist cry of "Evolution is only a theory". Well, no, it is a fact as well, and this choice of words gives us the opportunity to point that out. Secondly, it negates the other creationist lie that "belief in evolution is just a religion, too" and so should only be given equal status with creationism.

But that's just my belief.

Blue: I didn't portray it as simply science vs. religion. Here's what I wrote:

"They're abusing their political power to push their personal religious beliefs over all other religious and scientific beliefs."

Few religious people like somebody ramming different religous beliefs down their throat; my statement was an appeal to that feeling.

Ah, DHinMI, I see what you are getting at after re-reading the original - putting the fundamentalists in the minority by grouping other religions and science in a simple way. Sorry for my slowness.

Don't worry, you're not going to be marked down for the class. ;-)

On a topic that came up earlier, then slipped away as epistemology and ontology took center stage...

"Theocrat": There was a claim, above, that most of the parties involved in the evolution debate were not:

"seeking to establish rule by religious elites, or some type of divinely-derived code of law"

Now on the first point, those seeking a "rule by religious elites" are indeed a pretty small group (so far), though not one without influence. Pat Roberston did run for President, didn't he?

But on the second point, establishing "some type of divinely-derived code of law": I'm sorry, but that is now a mainstream Republican position. I just heard the story this morning on NPR, reporting on the tour of Judge Roy Moore's "Ten Commandments" monument. A large proportion of today's Republicans, I am fairly certain, insist that we should "restore" American law on the "foundation" of the Ten Commandments. That, in my book, is precisely one form of theocracy as the original blogpost represented it, and I don't think at all that it's a radical position, today.

Now, whether these people think we should then go on to impose the law found in Deuteronomy and Numbers is something else. But of course, organized Christians have been profound hypocrites on this issue for at least 1500 years -- cherry picking the OT for "commandments" or "laws" they happen to like, dismissing the rest as "ceremonial" or "superseded". Equally, most organized Christianity has cherry-picked the NT: the parts that might limit their greed or lusts they dismiss as "counsels of perfection" or the like.

So when we see theocrat ideas in practice (love the idea of using the -crat noun as an adjective that way, mimicking Repub rhetoric), we should call them as they are!

DHINMI:"Barry--since the Darwinian theory of evolution isn't testable, "

There is substantial scientific evidence for the conclusion that complex biochemical systems can and have evolved on earth. There is direct experimental research (Hall 2003). There are observed instances of it occurring in nature (Copley 2000, Seffernick & Wackett 2001, Johnson et al. 2002). There is also much evidence from comparative studies (Melendez-Hevia et al. 1996, Cunchillos & Lecointre 2003 as two examples). http://www.pandasthumb.org/pt-archives/000480.html

Hall BG (2003) The EBG system of E. coli: origin and evolution of a novel beta-galactosidase for the metabolism of lactose. Genetica 118(2-3) :143-56.
Copley SD (2000) Evolution of a metabolic pathway for degradation of a toxic xenobiotic: the patchwork approach. Trends Biochem Sci. 25(6): 261-5.
Johnson GR et al. (2002) Origins of the 2,4-dinitrotoluene pathway. J Bacteriol 184(15): 4219-4232.
Seffernick JL & Wackett LP (2001) Rapid evolution of bacterial catabolic enzymes: a case study with atrazine chlorohydrolase. Biochemistry. 40(43): 12747-53.

Cunchillos C & Lecointre G (2003) Evolution of amino acid metabolism inferred through cladistic analysis. J Biol Chem. 278(48):47960-70.

Melendez-Hevia E et al. (1996) The puzzle of the Krebs citric acid cycle: assembling the pieces of chemically feasible reactions, and opportunism in the design of metabolic pathways during evolution. J Mol Evol. 43(3):293-303.

Please don't judge all christians by these Dominionist wack jobs. I know a group up close and personal and believe me, I am not of their ilk. I am a Christian that believes in a loving God that allows us to come to our beliefs in our own ways and time. They scare me every bit as much as they scare atheists. If the time ever comes that they must be stood up against, count me in.

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