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LETTERS / My Thoughts From The Jerry Coyne Lecture on ‘Why Evolution is True and Why Americans Deny It’

Dear Editor,

Last Thursday I attended a highly anticipated and coveted lecture by Dr. Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago in the Blue Ridge Ballroom at Plemmons Student Union. For the better part of two hours, Coyne explained the title of his talk, “Why Evolution is True and Why Americans Deny It.” Since I showed up, as I so often do, having forgotten my writing utensil – my brain being Exhibit A in the case against “intelligent design” – I am hard-pressed to relay many specifics of Coyne’s talk. But “bad design” was one of Coyne’s best pieces of evidence for evolution. Why, after all, would God give men a prostate gland when, as Coyne quoted Robin Williams, “it’s a sewage pipe running directly through a recreation area”?  Coyne showed photographs of human embryos with yoke sacks and coats of fur as proof that, in the womb, human beings exhibit useless physical features left over from their pre-historic ancestors.  He showed us fossils, lineages of different species’, and took us on a fascinating adventure ride through the history of life on earth. In a nutshell, he succeeded in proving something that most all rational Americans have accepted since before the Scopes Monkey Trial: Evolution is a fact. What does life do, if not evolve?

In the second part of his talk, not surprisingly, Coyne attributed Americans’ rejection of evolution to religion. In doing so, he had brought his lecture full-circle. But he went further than I thought he would. Having explained “why evolution is true and why Americans deny it,” Coyne proposed a solution to this problem: the eradication of religion. After making this surprisingly bold suggestion, he smirked and assured the audience he didn’t think this should be done through violence. Met with uncomfortable laughter, it was one of those creepy moments when someone assures you of something that ought to be a given. But Coyne explained that even a verbal war with religious people was not his idea. His method of eradicating religion was to build a society in which religion is unnecessary. America, he argued, has become such an unhealthy place that its citizens cling to the idea of God. It was reminiscent of President Obama’s ill-fated statement that “bitter” Americans “cling to guns or religion.” Coyne provided one specific method for eradicating religion and thereby getting evolution widely accepted: passing universal health care.

I was among the many that applauded this statement. After all, I am an unapologetic liberal and, when it comes to the issue of health care, I am absolutely disgusted with my country and its citizens for stubbornly insisting on suffering. Even as I was applauding, I was rather disgusted with Coyne’s final argument. Unfortunately Coyne, like many prominent atheists, makes religion into a cartoon. He is smart enough to acknowledge that there are liberal faiths out there, but he obviously hasn’t dabbled enough in spirituality to understand that, just as science is an important tool for human beings, faith is a more important one. Coyne, like many people whose high level of intelligence makes them feel self-sufficient, does not need God. I say, perhaps blasphemously but without irony, more power to him. I, for one, do. And in rejecting faith so boldly, he is being as dogmatic as the fundamentalists he thinks all believers are.

Fundamentalism is indeed the problem. So is literacy. Biblical literalism reached a new zenith in the 20th century, and if you ask me, it’s because television has robbed people of the ability to read and think abstractly. The power of embracing spiritual truths, which have so much application for human beings, has been lost as the emphasis has shifted to embracing those truths as historical truths, a practice that doesn’t enrich an individual’s life any more than knowing that the Constitution was ratified in 1789. But by characterizing all believers this way, Coyne is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He threw out moderate Christians quite literally when he refused to include “theistic evolutionists” in his statistic of Americans who believe in evolution. More than once, Coyne suggested that if you believe a deity has any hand in nature, then you don’t really believe in evolution as it should be understood. In other words, his talk was as much about God not existing as it was about evolution.

The thing that distressed me more than anything about this lecture is that Coyne is another example of someone on the left who believes in all the right things, like coming together as a society to take care of our citizens with universal health care, a concept that shouldn’t be so hard for followers of Christ to swallow, and yet he is perpetuating the devastating political and ethical mistake that many on the left make by alienating religious people. The conservative Christians who attended Coyne’s lecture can point to one more liberal calling them delusional, and I’m sure they did. Critiquing fundamentalism is one thing, but when so many on the left “diss” religion altogether, it also feeds the false perception among the alienated that the faith of liberal politicians, namely Barack Obama, is false. I, for one, don’t think anyone could withstand the pressures of a public office without the guidance of a higher power. That is perhaps why we’ve never had an atheist president, and in fact, the first self-proclaimed evangelical president was the man the right wing likes to think of as the standard bearer of liberalism, Jimmy Carter. Carter, incidentally, made the case for separating spiritual truths from historical and scientific truths in his great book, Our Endangered Values.

The irony, for me, is that Coyne’s lecture on the origin of life on earth and how it has changed only validated my faith. Just as evolution is self-evident, so is the mystery of what set it into motion – the mystery of what exactly begins where the universe ends. In his talk, Coyne acknowledged that one can look up at the stars in wonder and awe, but he was quick to say, “That’s not faith.” I beg to differ. You can claim to know almost everything, but as soon as you acknowledge that, in the beginning, and in the end, there is only mystery, then to call people crazy for having a belief system that connects them to that Mystery is just, well, crazy. Coyne admitted that telling people their religion is wrong won’t work. But that’s just what he did in his lecture at Appalachian. And sadly, this kind of talk isn’t going to get more Christians, so many of whom have been given a cozy home in the Republican party, to focus on the fact that Jesus did not reserve his healing for rich people with no pre-existing conditions.

Jeremiah Miller

Senior at Appalachian State