Friday, November 4, 2011

Darwin Celebrates Halloween

Last Monday was Halloween (or, in the traditional spelling, Hallowe’en, or Hallowed Evening). I taught my evolution class that morning. I wore a T-shirt with a skull on it, with the word “Evolution” over it. Evolution is the name of a little store in the Soho section of New York City which sells items that are vaguely connected with evolution (e.g., tarantulas in plastic).

I then put on a zombie mask and screamed out to the class, “Brains! Brains! BRAINS! BRAINS! I’m Charles Darwin and I’m going to eat your brains and your children’s brains and turn you all into atheists!”

I then removed the mask and explained that Darwin was not a zombie, and that I had no intention of turning anybody into an atheist. I said something like this. “Now, if your religion requires you to believe things that are scientifically disprovable, then I will have to tell you that you are mistaken. But science cannot tell you whether or not there is a purpose behind the universe, or even if there are other universes, or whether this purpose is a personal God. Many scientists believe in God, without any contradiction with their roles as scientists.”

Then I told them about Darwin’s American friend, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, who was the chief defender of Darwinian evolution in America, but who was as traditional and orthodox a Christian as you could hope to find. A Sunday school teacher, no less. Darwin explained in a letter to Gray how much he regretted that he could not agree with Gray on a religious view. Darwin wrote to Gray, “With respect to the theological view of the question. This is always painful to me. I am bewildered. I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.”

I then told them about the correspondence I have been maintaining with a prisoner in California. He first wrote to me a couple of years ago when he read my review of an evolution book. He must already have been pursuing an understanding of evolution, because he got my name from a book review I wrote for the National Center for Science Education Reports. He has written to me with many questions, and I have sent answers back to him. I have also sent him paper printouts of things I have written (hardcover books are not allowed in prison mail delivery).

At one point, the prisoner wrote to me about becoming an atheist and the freedom of thought that this allowed him to have. I wrote back to him recently, explaining that atheism was not necessary in order to accept science in general or evolution in particular, and that many scientists are religious. I do not want to lead anyone to atheism. In this way, I am doing exactly what Darwin did. I have not yet received a reply from the prisoner.

I used Halloween as a humorous opportunity to bring up a discussion of this important topic.

Don't miss the YouTube video that I have posted about Darwin and zombies!

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