Creationism and Evolution; An Open Letter to a Misleadingly Quote-mining Minister

[E-mailed and snail-mailed to Tron Church; no reply received as of 4 weeks later. If I ever get one, I'll give it its own post and publicise] Dear Dr Philip; You are misleading your congregation on a matter of fact. I address you both publicly and privately, and promise to publicise your reply.

In a recent web post, entitled “The Inhumanity of Humanism,” you say [a reader points out that these words and the others I cite below are not the Rev's own, but his father's, embedded and quoted at length with approval] I am not human because I have not been saved by Jesus[1]. You are entitled to that opinion. But you are not entitled to the manipulative misrepresentation of a distinguished evolutionary scientist, on which you base your completely unwarranted claim that the science of evolution is based on a decision to exclude God. You seem unaware of the long array of distinguished evolutionary scientists who have believed in God, including Charles Darwin at the time when he wrote On The Origin Of Species, but let that pass.

You write:

FtMthumb_WP

It [humanism] does not start with scientific evidence; it starts with an objection to God, and by a process of rationalisation transfers the antipathy towards God to so-called scientific arguments against his existence. This is what I meant earlier by saying that as an argument this is not very scientific, any more than another noted scientist, Professor D.M.S. Watson, is, when he says: “Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur, or….can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible”. Well, well! So this is science. This is keeping God out with a vengeance! It scarcely commends “the scientific attitude” however, to thinking people, and it gives us leave to question whether the “assured results” of modern science are always as assured as they might be.

Here you have moved from an attack on Humanism to one on the science of evolution. In order to do so, you are putting into Watson’s mouth the claim that evolution is accepted without evidence merely because special creation is ruled out in advance as incredible. You then use his alleged position to launch a broad attack on those who claim to be embracing “the scientific attitude,” whatever you imagine that to be (in my experience, there are as many attitudes as there are scientists), and specifically to call into question the assured results of evolutionary science. I do not know why you do this, since I see nothing in evolutionary science that conflicts with your own Church’s statement of faith.

I will be charitable, and assume that you are unaware of the fact that you are echoing a well-known misrepresentation of Watson’s position. Indeed it is so well known that it has its own Wikipedia link. I have checked, as you evidently have not, the actual quotation, publicly accessible here (p. 95, halfway down), and find that it does indeed speak of “the Theory of Evolution itself, a theory universally accepted, not because it can be proved by logically coherent evidence to be true, but because the only alternative, special creation, is clearly incredible.” However, this is a partial recapitulation of the fuller statement on p. 88, which reads:

Evolution itself is accepted by zoologists not because it has been observed to occur or is supported by logically coherent arguments, but because it does fit all the facts of Taxonomy, of Palaeontology, and of Geographical Distribution, and because no alternative explanation is credible.

But whilst the fact of evolution is accepted by every biologist the mode in which it has occurred and the mechanism by which it has been brought about are still disputable.

Watson, remember, was writing in 1929, when the evidence available was far scantier, the interrelationship between genetics and evolution still being worked out, the nature of the genetic material unknown, and the very existence of the gene as a material entity the subject of controversy. What he is doing is stating the inadequacy, in 1929, of biologists’ understanding of the mode and mechanism of evolution. He refers correctly to evolution as a fact even then established by the evidence, and rejects alternatives because they give no credible explanation of the data. In the rest of his article, he goes on to ask good questions about the process by which evolution occurs, questions that have received good answers aplenty in the intervening 85 years (some of them ably expounded by Dennis Venema, himself an evangelical Christian, here). D. M. S. Watson most emphatically does not do what you accuse him of doing, namely ruling out creationism because he wishes to exclude God. I have no idea what his views were on the existence of God, nor do I see how they are relevant once his words are honestly examined in their actual context.

I hope you will disabuse your congregation of the error that you have, no doubt I unknowingly, helped propagate, and I undertake to publicise any reply you make as extensively as I am publicising this letter.

Respectfully,

Prof Paul S. Braterman, MA, DPhil., DSc.

[1] The actual words are: “It is not possible to be human (or humanist, rightly understood) without being saved into humanity by the God Who gave Himself for us in Jesus Christ.”  It has occurred to me, since sending this piece to the Reverend, that he may be a Universalist who believes I have been saved despite my lack of belief, but I do not think this likely.

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About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on March 1, 2014, in Charles Darwin, Creationism, Darwin autobiography, Evolution in general, Human evolution, Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. That D.M.S. Watson thing is a quote-mine of a quote-mine. It was originally taken out of context by C.S. Lewis, and then further people have taken it further out of context by treating it as if it’s a single sentence – and end up mis-attributing where the quote comes from. In fact, that quote is so shamelessly mauled in contrast to the original they may as well be quoting fiction.

  2. I’m not sure about your statement that Charles Darwin believed in God while writing Origin of Species. That does cover a long period of more than 20 years after all, but my recollection is that Darwin’s faith had mostly withered away long before Origin was published in 1859.

  3. It will be very interesting to hear what if any response the minister makes, both to the inaccuracy of the representation of D.M.S Watson’s views, but also to apparently quoting his fathers views of others as sub-human. While many people feel unable (and largely uninterested) to argue about theology such blatant forms of hate speech and the poorly reasoned arguments behind them are showing up to many people the hollow nature of the leaders of many religious groups.

    With every such publication people realise if this religious leader can be so wrong and (generous interpretation) misinformed, or (possible interpretation) willfully misleading about such ethical matters then the lack of answers other than appeals to faith regarding my theological questions must be significant. And so more agnostic, atheist and secular people are reborn with every publication, so thank you to the minister for publishing his father’s views (without commentary of this own we can only think he agrees with them in full) and thank you Paul for showing the truth of Watson’s view and of pointing out they were written over 80 years ago.

  4. Awesome, Paul. It’s maddening that such “interventions” are even required in the 21st Century, but as they so clearly are, I salute you.

  5. I was just reading the article, and I think you may have misattributed the quote: it was actually Dr Philip’s father who made the comment you quoted, about 50 years ago, in response to a TV interview in the 1960s. In fact, the vast majority of the article is written by the minister’s father, not the minister himself! He is just reprinting it because of it’s aptness to the situation he described in the first paragraph.

    Just letting you know, it would be ironic if you were to misrepresent the article in a response about misrepresenting articles!

    Thanks for this post though, it’s good to clear up common misconceptions like that, I’ve definitely heard that quote used like that before.

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