"Belief" in evolution: it's time we changed the debate

published Dec 11, 2008, last modified Jun 26, 2013

Half of the population of the most powerful country in the world rejects evolution and believes in Satan. It's time we rationalists controlled the debate. And the way is likely to be by changing our language.

"Belief" in evolution: it's time we changed the debate
Yes, we do.

So what's language got to do with it, you ask?  Let me tell you aboutan interesting submission on Reddit that posed this question:

I think we need to change the language. It's not about "believing in" evolution, it's about accepting evolution (or not).

The submitter is right.

Being a rationalist, you are probably acquainted with the overwhelming body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, which is as solid as the body of evidence underpinning the theory of gravity, or the immediacy of tests for the existence of cats.  I mean, you can actually grab a cat, so that's pretty much indisputable evidence for the existence of cats -- and you cannot fly with willpower, so that's also indisputable evidence that a force is holding you close to Earth as predicted by the theory of gravity.  And the body of evidence in support of evolution ranges from fossils to actual witness accounts of macroevolution happening in a lab (in bacteria and lizards at the very least).  So that's pretty indisputable.

Yet, for some reason, this indisputable body of evidence does not suffice for many morons out there.  They still do not believe in evolution.

Well, here's the thing: we've let discussion about scientific topics be controlled and framed by religious figures and enemies of reason.  This framing undermines the very efforts we're making to spread knowledge and reason.  And one of the ways they've framed the discussion is their use of the word believe.  This framing makes it "okay" for people to say I don't believe in evolution.  This framing is so effective, it's even gotten us to refer to evolution in terms of belief or disbelief.

This needs to stop. Think about it: when was the last time you heard someone say I don't believe in cats?  What about I don't believe in gravity?  Would that fly in conversation?  Hell no!  So why do we let people get away with I don't believe in evolution, a sentence just as preposterous as the former examples?

It's time we recognized that evolution is a matter of science and fact.  Facts are facts; they are not up for debate; evolution, being a theory underpinned by facts -- observations of reality -- is not a matter of belief but one of acceptance or denial.  To "believe" that evolution doesn't happen is to watch a ball fall to the ground and then "believe" that it didn't. You either accept reality, or you are deluded.  And you either accept evolution or deny it -- your beliefs and feelings are irrelevant to reality itself.

So, next time you discuss evolution or any other contentious but well-founded scientific theory, here's the mindset I want you to be:

  • Strike the word belief (and variations thereof) from your repertoire; replace it with acceptance / denial.
  • Actively combat phrases like I do not believe in evolution with I'm sorry, it's not a matter of belief, you may ignore the facts but once you know them, you accept them or you deny them.  Refuse to follow up on any line of conversation that rests upon a statement of belief.
  • Relabel self-labeled "unbelievers" using the correct label: denialists.
  • Do not let yourself be confused by attempts to reframe the discussion; whenever you detect it, stop it in its tracks.  You have the facts, don't let framing get in the way of the truth.
And remember: for truth and reality, it's irrelevant whether someone claims to believe or disbelieve it -- what's relevant is that they accept or deny.   Relegate belief to other endeavours with enough uncertainty to warrant it -- evolution is not one of them.