Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Believing in evolution

Jerry has beaten me to it.  I had a post in mind inspired by the recent news of the answers given by Miss USA contestants who were asked whether evolution should be taught in schools.

I was less horrified by those answers than many people, but I suspect that’s largely due to the fact that I attach no importance at all to the views of Miss USA contestants.  I understand that these things are more culturally significant in America than here in the UK and that people will probably listen to what they say, but I found it hard to get excited about.  What I did find disquieting was the fact that they presumably wouldn’t have been chosen as finalists if they hadn’t given answers in the heats that were popular in the states they were from, which says something about those states.

But anyway, it has revitalised the question of whether we should talk about “believing” in evolution and that’s what Jerry’s post is about.  We broadly agree on his conclusion, but I have to say I disagree with the majority of the post.

First, the conclusion: I think we should probably be careful with our language in this area.  In particular, we should be mindful of our audience and be aware of how they might take what we say.  To many, evolution is a proposition that requires faith.  To many, contradictory propositions can be equally valid. Professing a ‘belief’ in evolution might be seen to relegate it to the status of religion - a faith position – when we know this isn’t the case because evolution is a fact.

So to communicate effectively, we might have to be careful about what we say, especially in public.  But having said that, I don’t agree that there’s a problem with professing a belief in evolution.  Or in gravity.  I believe in evolution because it happens to be true.  I believe in other things that are true and in some things that are probably true.  I probably believe in some things that aren’t true, although not knowingly.

The difference between my believing something and a faith-head believing in a god is that curious word ‘faith’.  Faith is not a good reason to believe something.  Evidence is a good reason.  I believe evolution because there’s so much good evidence for it.  I don’t have faith in evolution, because there’s no need for it.

I think this is the message we need to get across: not specifically that evolution is a fact, but that there are good reasons and bad reasons for believing things and things can be true or false independently of whether we happen to believe them. So that’s my strategy: I’m happy to say I believe in evolution, but I’d always qualify why that’s different to a faith position.  But I still think there are good reasons to be mindful of our audiences and of how they might take our words.

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