At March for Science, Debate Over Anti-Evolutionists

April 27, 2017
Protesters gather with signs at March for Science

Last Saturday, tens of thousands gathered in cities around the world to advocate for the value and ongoing necessity of science for human progress.

With the largest group congregating on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., March for Science protesters had a decidedly political aim: to speak out against “policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world.”

Protesters particularly targeted the current administration with criticism. Signs decried President Trump’s proposed cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency—a budget change that would affect state monitoring of public water systems, regional cleanup programs, and federal radiation and industrial waste cleanup efforts.

“Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” proclaimed Smokey the Bear from one protester’s sign. “Seriously. We’ve been defunded. It’s just you now.”

Despite many participants’ sharp criticisms of the Trump administration, march organizers emphasized their hope that the event would be non-partisan and inclusive of anyone who believes in the “public value” of science.

“Anti-science agendas and policies have been advanced by politicians on both sides of the aisle, and they harm everyone,” organizers wrote on the March’s website.

March organizers included a section on their principles of nonviolence. They wrote that they did not condone harassment in the form of “expressions of sexism, ableism, racism, xenophobia, intolerance regarding religious, agnostic, and atheistic beliefs, and other forms of abuse in person, online, or in signage.”

The March featured practitioners of a variety of religious traditions as official speakers. Jane Hirshfield, chancellor of the American Academy of Poets and Zen Buddhist, wrote a poem that she read aloud at the Washington, D.C. event. Dr. Nabil Bayakly, an associate professor of biology and co-founder of the group Muslims in Memphis, was an official speaker at a March for Science satellite event in Memphis. Christian CEO of the Tech Museum of Innovation Tim Ritchie spoke at the Silicon Valley March on the grounds that his participation was “an expression of [his] Christian faith.” American Atheists and the American Humanist Association both served as official partner organizations to the March alongside a number of religious and interfaith groups.

One group that did not make the cut for official partnership, however, was the Discovery Institute, a Christian foundation dedicated to advancing “the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design.” Although the organization requested official partnership status, they were denied on the basis that their rejection of evolution conflicts with “current scientific consensus,” Christianity Today reported.

Discovery Institute founder Stephen Meyer claimed that the snub is a sign that the March is “conflating particular theories with the practice of science itself, such that if you disagree with those theories, you’re deemed a ‘science denier.’” The Discovery Institute’s Twitter account used the controversy to promote senior fellow Jonathan Wells’s book, Zombie Science: More Icons of Evolution. “Perfect antidote to the #marchforscience,” reads a tweet pinned to the top of their page.

For Mike Beidler, president of the Washington, DC chapter of the American Scientific Affiliation—“a network of Christians in the sciences”—there need not be any conflict between faith and rigorous science.

“I would hope that the presence of Christians in the march can show that theists and non-theists can look through the microscope together and come to the exact same conclusion,” Beidler told Christianity Today. “The only difference is that the theist then moves beyond the awe of discovery to an attitude of worship of the Creator.”

The 14,000-member interfaith Clergy Letter Project, too, asserts that belief in evolution and religious faith are compatible. “The clergy members who comprise The Clergy Letter Project are interested in more fully understanding the workings of the natural world even as they work to discern the intricacies of the spiritual realm,” said Project founder Michael Zimmerman. “Furthermore, they understand the critical difference between scientific fact and personal opinion and recognize that the latter cannot substitute for the former.”

According to a 2015 study from Pew Research Center, there remains a wide gap between public opinion and scientific consensus on the origins of human life. 98 percent of U.S. scientists agree that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while only 65 percent of U.S. adults overall affirm the same statement.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: March for Science. Photo by Becker1999, Flickr Creative Commons.