Damned if You Do and Damned if You Don't

The Problem of God-talk in Biology Textbooks

  • Steve Dilley St. Edward's University
  • Nicholas Tafacory
Keywords: Evolution; biology textbooks; theology; religion; non-overlapping magisteria; methodological naturalism; arguments for evolution; science education


We argue that a number of biology (and evolution) textbooks face a crippling dilemma.
On the one hand, significant difficulties arise if textbooks include theological claims in their case for evolution.
(Such claims include, for example, ‘God would never design a suboptimal panda’s thumb, but an imperfect structure is just what we’d expect on natural selection.’)  On the other hand, significant difficulties arise if textbooks exclude theological claims in their case for evolution.  So, whether textbooks include or exclude theological claims, they face debilitating problems. We attempt to establish this thesis by examining 32 biology (and evolution) textbooks, including the Big 12—that is, the top four in each of the key undergraduate categories (biology majors, non-majors, and evolution courses). In Section 2 of our article, we analyze three specific types of theology these texts use to justify evolutionary theory. We argue that all face significant difficulties. In Section 3, we step back from concrete cases and, instead, explore broader problems created by having theology in general in biology textbooks. We argue that the presence of theology—of whatever kind—comes at a significant cost, one that some textbook authors are likely unwilling to pay.  In Section 4, we consider the alternative: Why not simply get rid of theology? Why not just ignore it? In reply, we marshal a range of arguments why avoiding God-talk raises troubles of its own. Finally, in Section 5, we bring together the collective arguments in Sections 2-4 to argue that biology textbooks face an intractable dilemma.  We underscore this difficulty by examining a common approach that some textbooks use to solve this predicament. We argue that this approach turns out to be incoherent and self-serving. The poor performance of textbooks on this point highlights just how deep the difficulty is. In the end, the overall dilemma remains.