It’s Just A Theory

In about two weeks we will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the most famous  naturalists the world has produced – Charles Darwin. As anyone with a little education knows, he is famous for articulating what we now call the Theory of Evolution. And while he doesn’t have exclusive rights to the distinction (Alfred Russel Wallace stumbled upon it at about the same time) he is the one who put flesh on the skeleton of the theory.

The theory has proven to be quite controversial, from the moment Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species. To this day, it evokes incredulity, vituperation, and pure ignorance from people of a religious bent who find that it conflicts with their precious scriptures. Whole movements have arisen dedicated to obliterating the theory from public discourse. Creationism is just such a movement, and is still alive and well despite being repeatedly discredited by one court decision after another, most recently in the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision in Pennsylvania.

Despite the fact that biology would make no sense without the theory of evolution, polls indicate that a sizable majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution, even though a scientific theory is not something one places belief in. The people who vehemently oppose the teaching of evolution are usually very religious, fearing that if the theory of “evilution” was true, people would stop believing that man was created by god, that the universe was created for man, and by eventually following  the naturalistic worldview to its logical conclusion, might even conclude that since a supernatural entity was not needed for our creation, it doesn’t exist.  Without god, people would  indiscriminately rape and kill their neighbors, steal their property, and otherwise generally make a mess of this world, and all because the Theory of Evolution had somehow given them a license to do so.

I have a friend, a lawyer, (who  is running for Judge in my locality) a smart guy, who I started discussing the Dover decision with one day after the ruling came down. You would think that two lawyers, schooled in the Socratic method and the Rules of Evidence, would agree that Evolution should be taught in school, and Intelligent Design should not. But we disagreed, and I remember his main argument for teaching ID was that “Evolution is just a theory”. I was taken aback, indeed flabbergasted, because that’s not what I would have expected from him. But he is very religious, attends his church regularly, and has bought into the typical Christian apologetic, hook, line and sinker. He has no understanding of what a scientific theory actually is.

More to the point, he, like most devout Christians, never sees the dishonesty in that argument. Here they are, taking one dictionary definition of the term theory:

n., pl. -ries.

  1. A set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena.
  2. The branch of a science or art consisting of its explanatory statements, accepted principles, and methods of analysis, as opposed to practice: a fine musician who had never studied theory.
  3. A set of theorems that constitute a systematic view of a branch of mathematics.
  4. Abstract reasoning; speculation: a decision based on experience rather than theory.
  5. A belief or principle that guides action or assists comprehension or judgment: staked out the house on the theory that criminals usually return to the scene of the crime.
  6. An assumption based on limited information or knowledge; a conjecture.

and ignoring all the other definitions. Instead of using the most applicable definition, the first one above, they take the last, and most general, definition, and apply it to Evolution. Evolutionary Theory is not a hunch or a conjecture, it is a systematic application of all known facts and phenomena bearing on the subject of species and its origins, repeatedly tested and accepted by the most brilliant scientists in the world. Use of the sixth definition as if it’s the only one is the type of dishonest argument Christians are known for.

But one thing they always miss when they try this simplistic argument (not to convince us, but to convince themselves), is the pure unadulterated irony involved in it. They actually have the temerity of calling Evolution “just a theory” when their whole religion is based on nothing more than a hunch or a conjecture, call it a leap of faith, that the world was created and is ruled by a supernatural entity. They have no evidence whatsoever to support this hunch, contrasted with the literally billions of pieces of connected evidence supporting the Theory of Evolution. When it’s pointed out to them there is no evidence for god, they fall back on faith, which is simply belief without evidence.

Not only do they believe in god(s) without a shred of evidence, they believe in such things as a man walking on water, virgin births, loaves of bread and fish that multiply by themselves, human beings raised from the dead, talking snakes, women who turn into pillars of salt,  a world wide flood that killed everything, burning bushes that talk, demons, angels and other spirits, and a whole host of really bizarre ideas, all without a tiny speck of evidence, and all in obvious conflict with everything we actually know about reality.

But Evolution is “just a theory”.

So my rejoinder from now on is: God – it’s just a theory.

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17 thoughts on “It’s Just A Theory

  1. Nice post SI. I think you should open a zazzle shop and sell that rejoinder on a t-shirt.

  2. God – it’s just a theory

    Sound like a good bus ad for your neck of the woods. :)

    Seriously – very good post. I like the way you applied the “it’s just a theory” idea to the god-hypothesis. Believers will cite their holy books as evidence, of course, and they often will not be persuaded that the quality of their evidence is deficient compared to the quality of scientific evidence that supports evolution. If you can get them to apply one standard of evidence to all data, then you have a chance of persuading them that evolution is a robust theory. After that, simply apply Occam’s Razor to the god-hypothesis.

  3. Well that’s exactly what they want, isn’t it? Equal standing? If both are just theories, well, then you can just choose which one you like better, and most will choose the one which comes with the bonus gift, an afterlife.

    They need a different word, or else change science’s theory to Theory, with a cap.

  4. Philly:

    Christians won’t accept the “God – It’s just a theory” slogan, because they know how lightly they are using the word, “theory,” when they apply it to evolution. They won’t accept anyone denigrating their god-theory in the same way that they denigrate evolution.

    As for equal standing, I was referring to establishing one standard for all evidence, not implying that all purported “theories” should be regarded equally. Most people, religious or not, adhere to roughly scientific, or at least rational, standards when they make non-religious decisions; they gather data before buying houses and cars, etc. They know that evidence matters and they probably know that some evidence is better than others. Getting them to apply that knowledge to their religious evidence, however, is the problem, isn’t it? That’s why your contention that many people will just continue choosing the theory they like rather than accepting the theory that is supported by the best evidence is probably right. All the evidence we have so far, shows that this is what is still happening in many cases.

    I like that bumper sticker.

  5. Very nice post, SI. I agree with Chappy that you pulled the two ideas together nicely. Religion has long sought to equate itself with science, but the two are not compatible.

  6. Darwin knew what he was up against when he said, “Great is the power of steady misrepresentation; but the history of science shows that fortunately this power does not long endure”. However, were he alive today, he might be a little saddened to find “the steady power of misrepresentation” alive and well using the fruits of science to propagate it. In the 21st century, as in his day, an informed educated population with an individual capacity for opinion is anathema to those obsessed with power over others.

  7. It’s endlessly odd that people with the same level of biological training as me (i.e. none) think they give expert opinions on biological processes, in the face of people who have studied biology enough to know what they are talking about.

  8. Pingback: News Round › British Centre for Science Education

  9. Despite the fact that biology would make no sense without the theory of evolution, polls indicate that a sizable majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution,

    Do you think a sizeable majority of Americans would even understand biology?

    Without god, people would indiscriminately rape and kill their neighbors, steal their property, and otherwise generally make a mess of this world, and all because the Theory of Evolution had somehow given them a license to do so.

    For those who think this is a strawman, Ray Comfort was saying just that very thing yesterday:

    A wise man once said something like, “Most I fear God. Next I fear him who fears Him not.” An atheist will lie to you and steal from you without qualms of conscience because he doesn’t fear God. We have a generation who have given themselves to fornication, lying, theft and blasphemy. We have school shootings, violence, pornography, etc. and what’s the common denominator? They lack the fear of God. Atheistic evolution completely removes God and moral accountability. This is a cancer that destroys a nation from the inside.

  10. Ray-Ray has been getting lots of press recently because of his new book. In the past, I just thought of him as a silly simpleton, but now it’s like he’s stepped up his game and he’s grown very nasty and mean spirited.

  11. I think people forget just how much money can be made by pandering to the innate ignorance of the masses. Look at Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly. Need I more examples?

    Religion is Big Business. It’s always been about consolidation of power and wealth, from the original shamans in pre-historic times, to the Pope. Atheism threatens the money source, by telling people that they don’t need Bible thumpers with shiny teeth and bad hair to get them to heaven, that there isn’t a heaven and that they can figure it all out by themselves. All they need to do is use their brains.

    Ray-Ray’s just part of the money train. He found a cash cow he can ride.

  12. Ray-Ray has been getting lots of press recently because of his new book. In the past, I just thought of him as a silly simpleton, but now it’s like he’s stepped up his game and he’s grown very nasty and mean spirited.

    I think I understand why, and I think it’s more than just the money. I suspect that the religious find us far more affronting and offensive than they do members of other religions, because simply by virtue of being atheists we reject the concept of religious belief (which members of different religions obviously don’t). We don’t even have to be “uppity” about our atheism: it’s who we are, much more than what we say, that affronts them.

    How they respond to being so affronted depends on their religious fervour and their ability to compartmentalise, and probably a range of other psychological factors.

    In Comfort’s case, I gather he’s a high RWA and used to having sheeple hanging off his every word. (Including his monkey-boy Kirk Cameron.) Now that he’s decided to take on atheists directly, he finds himself confronted by people who aren’t going to give his utterances a free pass simply because he’s a pastor. Among these people, his arguments (including the famous “banana argument”) crumble into dust, and he is made to look stupid. He takes that very personally, I think, for the same reason that emperors dislike being told they are not wearing any clothes.

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