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Neither Skeptic Nor Heretic
Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, has written an extraordinary article in Tablet magazine against evolution, entitled "Skeptical About Evolution—And Not Because of Religion." The thrust of his article is to attempt to reverse the terminology commonly used in describing the differences between rationalists and fundamentalists. Rabbi Shafran seeks the coveted title of skeptic, which he uses to describe himself with regard to evolution. And he tries to describe scientific and non-charedi culture as religious fundamentalists, speaking about the "high priests of Scientism," the "masses that venerate them," and claiming that as a "real heretic" with regard to evolution, he will earn "derision and ridicule" and suffer "effective excommunication from polite society" for doubting a "deeply entrenched orthodoxy."
However, Rabbi Shafran is neither skeptic nor heretic.
His discussion of evolution is utterly muddled, mixing together three topics - the origins of the very first life form, the common ancestry of all animal life, and the mechanisms of evolution. Yet these three issues are entirely separate.
With regard to the first topic - the origin of life - most scientists freely admit that we know very little about it, and one is certainly not ridiculed or excommunicated for observing this. Similarly, with regard to the third topic - the mechanisms of evolution - most scientists freely admit that we still have oodles to learn about it. But with regard to the second topic - the common ancestry of all animal life - there is an overwhelming convergence of evidence from many different areas, including the fossil record, the pattern of homologous versus analogous similarities, the nested hierarchy of the animal kingdom, vestigial limbs, and much more. Rabbi Shafran does not counter any of these. Even advocates of Intelligent Design do not challenge this. So, yes, if you publicly dismiss all of this without presenting any counter-arguments and apparently without even understanding it, then you are not going to be taken seriously by the scientific community, and you probably indeed deserve "derision and ridicule." It's like challenging the historicity of the moon landing - you're not a heretic, you're an idiot.
And throwing out muddled objections to evolution does not make one a skeptic. Rabbi Shafran believes that his objections are scientific rather than religious, and so did I, when I used to be anti-evolution. But has Rabbi Shafran applied his professed "critical thinking" to the alternate understanding of life's development that is taught in his circles? Does he really think that the available physical evidence better supports the notion that whales were created independently, with striking internal similarities to terrestrial mammals, and an inability to breathe underwater like fish, and following a whole chain of extinct creatures that were progressively less terrestrial, rather than indicating that they are actually descended from terrestrial mammals? Rabbi Shafran has not applied critical thinking to theories of life's development - he is simply taking sides in a perceived socio-cultural battle and relishing an opportunity to mock non-charedi society.
Despite Rabbi Shafran's attempts to portray the scientific community and its followers as religious fanatics who excommunicate those heretics that challenge scientific orthodoxy, this is hardly an accurate description. First of all, as noted, he has mixed up different aspects of evolution. Second, did he not just publish an article critiquing evolution in the non-religious Tablet magazine? Would the publications of his employer, Agudath Israel, include an article arguing in favor of evolution? Arguing against deeply entrenched orthodoxies and criticizing high priests only gets you excommunicated from charedi society. As usual, Rabbi Shafran gets things exactly backwards.
(See too this post: Religion, Blinded)