August 2006

Barbara J. King


Religion and Reality: New Books by Joan Roughgarden and Michelle Goldberg

The religion books prosper and multiply, and in order to keep up, I must start pairing them off two by two.

First up is Joan Roughgarden’s tract-sized Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist. I completely get what Roughgarden is trying to do here. In these days of uncivil and even toxic debate, it’s a terrific idea for a scientist and Christian to lay out the basics of evolution to the skeptical religious. (Next month I hope to explore human genomist Francis Collins’s The Language of God on a related topic.)

Let’s admit that being a lizard biologist is a pretty cool job, and Roughgarden, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, does it well. The way she describes the gradual variation in size, shape, and color of lizards on the island of Dominica, variation visible to anyone who walks or drives the island mile by mile, is good science writing.

I wanted to like this book. I do like Roughgarden’s plea for a higher standard of discourse in disagreeing about matters of religion and science. And as editor of a journal devoted to systems approaches to children’s (and other mammals’) development, I especially enjoyed her focus on cooperative systems in biology (e.g., why the nucleus-cytoplasm relationship may be a thorn in the side of cloning research).

So I have to ask, what went wrong with this book? In answering, I drafted for Roughgarden five commandments (yes, only five; nobody is trying to be Moses here).

1. Do not write passages that treat thy readers as if they are dumb as rocks: “genes are made from a chemical called DNA, for short, although the full name, which nobody bothers to use, is several syllables long.” Have faith in your readers’ evolved brains.

2. Honor thy terms. Biblical literalism is about, well, a literal interpretation of the Bible. “One has to choose somewhere, either the literal text or the facts. For me, it’s the literal text, where I choose carefully, making sure I accord with the facts.” Huh? Then: “Why? Because that’s what I believe Jesus teaches! Jesus wants us to grasp his substantive point and then apply it to our present-day circumstances.” Okay, I respect your view, but literalism this is not.

3. Speaking of respect, honor too a commitment to recognize many right paths to God. It’s right on to imagine a future biology focused on principles of interdependency. But is that perspective a “narrative that we are all of one body” that “furthers a vision of Christian community within nature?” Only Christian? (Roughgarden’s initial explanation of her choice to focus on one religion is reasonable; this other slips in later.)

4. Gird thyself against an impulse to be too charitable either towards “teaching the controversy” of intelligent design (ID) ideas or towards Seattle’s pro-ID Discovery Institute. When you write about Cardinal Schonbron’s pro-ID editorial in The New York Times, give us the full story: the Discovery Institute urged Schonbron to write it, just as the Institute backs many other ID-related forays into the American cultural landscape.

5. Make no false claims in the name of reconciling that which, verily, cannot be reconciled. It’s misguided, it’s wrong, it’s dangerous (cue up the burning bush here: yeah, I mean this one) to say that Darwinism and ID can both be right. “Saying that neo-Darwinian evolution and intelligent design are mutually exclusive is setting up what many call a ‘false duality.’” No, no, no! ID is “junk science” and “junk religion,” sure. And of course ID’s claims about irreducible complexity are falsified by evolutionary science. In fact, ID says that complex structures could not have evolved via natural selection and mutation, and thus ID is not compatible with Darwinism.

Written to edify and convince, this book too often obscures. And that’s a shame because, as I have mentioned, Roughgarden has brilliant moments. One chapter details why the sexual variety seen in the world’s creatures undercuts sexual selection theory and “more significantly” destroys any supposedly Bible-based exclusion of gays or transgenders.

Yet this out transsexual, born Jonathan Roughgarden (a fact omitted from the book: does Joan think some in her religious audience might be less than tolerant?) ends her otherwise beautiful chapter by refusing to take a moral stance. “Some denominations will not appreciate a suggestion to reconsider policies condemning gender- and sexuality-variant people that have often been in place for centuries. So change, if it comes, will come only slowly, as each of us in our own time and in our own way, by ourselves and in communion with one another, decides what is right.”

Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming explodes the myth that battling religious intolerance can be left to a leisurely, come-as-it-comes approach. The book is populated with champions of the home-school movement, Christians who not only embrace ID but also “enlighten” children about the co-existence of dinosaurs and humans. Home-school graduates are meant to vault directly into my home state’s Patrick Henry College and like evangelical institutions, whose students are disproportionately welcomed as interns in the White House and Congress. The long-term strategy, of course, is to seed the corridors of Washington with young crusaders willing to oppose the enemy (secular humanists).

Writing about the movement she terms Christian nationalism, Goldberg is convincing on the dangers of too narrow a focus on curriculum skirmishes. “What’s going on in states and school districts nationwide is a struggle over the very nature of reality. The question is whether knowledge of the world is possible without reference to God as the creator, and whether science education should be permitted to contradict the Christian worldview.”

Kingdom Coming documents a reality in this country so appalling as to be surreal. “Reading through [some Christian volumes purportedly offering science data] one after another, I sometimes felt I was in a novel by Jorge Luis Borges, drifting through a parallel reality contained in a monumental library of lies.” The identical feeling came over me as I absorbed quote after quote presented by Goldberg.

Familiar words still make me shiver. George Bush’s “I don’t see how you can be president, at least from my perspective, how you can be president, without a relationship with the Lord.”

Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum: “If the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery! You say, well, it’s my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong, healthy families.”

Unfamiliar words are equally chilling. Here’s Missouri representative Cynthia Davis’s characterization of people who favor excluding so-called alternative-to-evolution theories from high school biology textbooks. “It’s like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn’t want to go. I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don’t want to go.”

And here’s Leslee Unruh, founder of the Abstinence Clearinghouse and visitor to the current White House, who told Goldberg that waiting until marriage to have sex means the “hormonal symphony” leads routinely to simultaneous orgasms. Because “the secretions from one person are different from the next person,” people who engage in sex with more than one person “mess up their body processes.” Sponsors of sex education in the schools include pedophiles and friends of bestiality.

Must-read material crams the pages of Kingdom Coming. Nothing is more critical than Goldberg’s careful documentation of the power amassed by the evangelical right; the extent to which conservative Christians control the U.S. government; the extraordinary rights of selective hiring extended to faith-based organizations using federal monies (for instance, new leadership at the Salvation Army insisted upon the naming of gay and non-Christian employees); the oft-preached lie about the Founding Fathers steeping this country in all things religious; the “totalitarian resonances” in the movement. “In this febrile, unsettled climate,” Goldberg writes, “things that used to seem impossible in America have become possible, and the freedoms so many of us grew up taking for granted have begun to appear terrifyingly tenuous.”

By the book’s end, Goldberg shakes off surreality and shock, and moves toward shock and awe: how to fight back. Her step-by-step approach is practical and, yes, powerful.

Should I send a copy to Joan Roughgarden?

— Barbara J. King looks forward to exploring evolution with 125 William & Mary students, starting this month.