Jesus fish are everywhere these days. You know what I mean, those little stylized fish images that Christians stick on their cars, or on Yellow Pages ads for their businesses, or on buttons on their backpacks, to let the world know of their faith. Also common are the “Darwin fish” – legged piscine icons that represent… what? A pro-science stance, ostensibly. Or is it an anti-Christian stance? According to the oversimplified fantasy in which we love to indulge, there is no difference. There are two kinds of people: Jesus freaks promoting “intelligent design” and atheist science lovers, and the decal you plaster on your car simply indicates which camp you belong to.
In reality, the theory of evolution says nothing about whether Jesus was the son of God and humanity’s savior, so there’s no reason you can’t be fully an evolutionist and fully a Christian. Some say the Darwin fish promotes this false dichotomy, and thus it is counterproductive if we want to get rid of stupid ideas like creationism. The Darwin fish is clearly designed as a parody of the Jesus fish, and thus it seems to be saying that Christians are morons for not believing in the real world that science has revealed for us. In this way, the Darwin fish is misleading since Christians can and often do embrace science, including evolution.
Yet, my nametag next to my office door features a Darwin fish. I choose to associate myself with this symbol. Why?
Well, for one thing, it’s probably the most recognizable pro-science symbol I know of. In some ways, the fact that it’s based on religious imagery is irrelevant; it simply happens to be the image that, in our culture, best represents support for rational, empirical study of the world and the discoveries obtained from such study. Perhaps the Flying Spaghetti Monster has become an equally famous icon for the same ideas, but it carries the same baggage of religious mockery.
However, there’s another reason why I like the Darwin fish. Even though science and Christianity are compatible, I personally am not a Christian, and I think Christianity might deserve to be mocked a little. Jesus taught many good lessons (as well as a few bad ones), but I definitely don’t believe he was our Messiah. The Jesus fish is not about following the teachings of Jesus, it’s about being saved: the fish comes from the Greek word “ichthys” (“fish”), which was seen as an acronym (in Greek) for Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior. Any religion that focuses on salvation is dangerous and harmful; if we look to the afterlife to find meaning, we stop concentrating on this life and this world. We stop working to solve the problems of this planet, and we miss out on enjoying what is probably the only lifetime we get. I do endorse every human’s right to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and I would never try to stifle Christians’ religious liberty, but I happen to disagree with their fundamental beliefs, and I will try to change their minds. Don’t get me wrong, I think religion is a vital facet of the human experience. I disapprove of salvationism because I want to improve religion, not get rid of it. Thus, my issues with Christianity stem from my own religious beliefs, not my scientific beliefs, and it’s important to maintain that distinction. I would not expect all scientists to feel the same why I do about Christianity, just because they are scientists.
Still, we don’t get anywhere if the Jesus fish folks and the Darwin fish folks just glare angrily at each other. Perhaps there could be a better symbol, one that promotes compatibility between science and religion. The cleaner wrasse is a small fish that eats parasites from the mouths and gills of larger fishes; this set-up is mutually beneficial for both fishes. Maybe there’s a way to represent this relationship in a car decal, with one fish labeled “religion” and one labeled “science.” I don’t know which one would be which, and I don’t know how you would avoid making it look like one was eating the other, but I’m sure an artist could create an appropriate design. Or maybe we should have an image that’s just a fish, without a connotation of either philosopher. Just a fish, a product of evolution, representing our real, tangible, edible, natural world, which we study through science and in which we find religious inspiration.