A pastor explains why his congregation will be observing Evolution Sunday tomorrow.
By Robert Cornwall
Today, at the height of scientific knowledge, we ironically face a skepticism of science that in many ways is rooted in religious challenges. And nowhere is this skepticism more rabidly evident than in the debate over evolution.
First it was “scientific creationism,” and then more recently “Intelligent Design,” that has challenged the science behind the theory of evolution. The problem is that the challenge, though often disguised (especially within the Intelligent Design camp), is religiously based. Proponents of creationism and ID have played with and manipulated public perceptions of science that does harm both to science and to faith.
Because biblical literalists and proponents of “Intelligent Design” have captured the attention of the media and provided fodder for atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, it might appear that there are only two choices: atheism and science or belief and biblical literalism. The truth, however, is there are other ways of looking at these issues that are not so black and white, more nuanced and friendly both to science and to faith.
Emerging from this vast middle ground is something called Evolution Sunday. Now one might ask, why would a church observe something called Evolution Sunday, an event that coincides with Charles Darwin’s birthday and would seem to be the proper province of a humanist society or a scientific organization? Such an assumption might seem reasonable, and yet hundreds of religious communities from across the country are participating in what has become an annual event.
For the second year in a row, congregations are stepping forward and affirming the view that the planet and its human inhabitants require our support. Pastors like me are recognizing that we have a voice that needs to be heard, if for no other reason than that important scientific discoveries could be delayed or dispensed with by religiously motivated opponents to science.
Of course, such an effort is not without controversy or opposition. Participants in last year’s observance were accused by the Discovery Institute, the leading institutional proponent of “Intelligent Design,” of involvement in “old-time Darwinist religion.” Calling it the “height of hypocrisy,” the anti-evolution organization accused organizers of using religious folk to defend a discredited “theory” of evolution. This was, to them, a Darwinist plot to confuse the issue by using religious voices to support the teaching of evolution in public schools while condemning anti-evolution efforts as being religiously motivated. Indeed, Jonathan Wells, a Discovery Institute member, using a Yale Daily News op-ed piece, recently accused Evolution Sunday participants of using a “bait and switch ploy,” to slip “Darwinism” into schools by sugar-coating it as a benign scientific theory with no religious implications.
Participants in Evolution Sunday have been accused of taking part—perhaps unwittingly—in a grand ruse or conspiracy to introduce bad science and atheistic ideology into our schools. Wells insists that the vast majority of Americans reject Darwinism—and thus the reigning theory of evolution—because they see through the science and ideology.
I, however, am not one of them. I have not been duped by a Darwinist conspiracy. I have nothing to gain from such participation, except that it arises from a concern for our planet, and from a concern for the reasonableness of my faith profession. Not being a scientist, I cannot speak to the intricacies of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Yet a common sense look at the issues suggests that Darwin might be right. Consider for a moment the impact of evolutionary theory on modern medicine. Medical researchers depend on this principle as they test new medications on mice and other animals. If there were no relationship between these species, such experiments would be impossible. And yet, we benefit every day from discoveries that are rooted in evolutionary theory.
As a person of faith who seeks truth, wherever it leads, I have been convinced that the vast majority of scientists must be on to something. In making this affirmation I do not have a secularist agenda, for I do believe in God the Creator. But science must inform my understanding of God’s creative ways. From Darwin’s time to the present, good Christian theologians have been able to reconcile the two, and not just liberals, but even conservatives such as Benjamin B. Warfield. And why? Again, there is a commitment here to following facts where they lead.
Nearly 600 churches are planning to use their worship services to address this issue. Each in our own way, we’re declaring that evolutionary science and faith are compatible. We seek to address the fears of those who believe that evolutionary theory is a threat to faith and that if allowed to stand alone in our schools, will erode belief in God. In response to these fears, we suggest a way to build a bridge of understanding. Although the Evolution Sunday project is relatively new, the need for religious people to address this issue isn’t, and in each new generation theologians and religious leaders have stepped up to deal with the issue.
“Evolution Sunday” is the brainchild of Dr. Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Butler University, and formerly an administrator and science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. Several years ago, Zimmerman wrote an open letter regarding the compatibility of religion and science, a letter that has now garnered over 10,000 clergy signatures. Among those who have chosen to sign this letter are well-known figures in theology and biblical studies. The majority, however, are local pastors from a wide range of denominations, from evangelical to Unitarian.
I would suppose that most of us who have signed the letter were attracted to the project because it offered a middle way between two unattractive ideologies—Intelligent Design and a secularist scientism that leaves no room for divinity or spirituality of any sort. The suggestion that these clergy and churches are hypocritical and captives of some sort of “Darwinist religion” because they are tying to build a bridge between two seemingly disparate ideas has proven a bit bewildering to me. Why must recognition of evolution as scientific truth by religious leaders be equated with Darwinist religion? In fact, what is Darwinist religion? Those who make the charge never offer a compelling definition. They simply suggest that Darwinist religion is something akin to atheism or scientific materialism. Yet whatever the critics may think of “Evolution Sunday,” the worship service that was held last year on February 12, 2006 at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Lompoc, California, celebrated neither atheism nor scientific materialism.
The sermon that day took Genesis 1 as its text and celebrated God’s creative acts, while at the same time giving credit to the discoveries of science, which point toward an evolving creation. The hymns that day didn’t sing the praises of Darwin, but of God the Creator. The congregation didn’t even sing happy birthday to dear old Charles, nor were prayers offered in his name. The service, including the sermon, was geared to building a bridge between Christian faith and modern science. As a preacher, I staked a claim in the debate and refused to capitulate to those who want us to make either/or choices—God or Darwin. We will be doing the same this year as we observe Evolution Sunday on February 11th (the day before Charles Darwin’s 198th birthday.)
Critics of evolution parade before an unsuspecting public the many challenges and modifications that have occurred over the years to unhinge theory of evolution, and Darwin’s theory of natural selection in particular. But as yet, they have failed to present an alternative theory beyond an appeal to a god of the gaps—something they call “irreducible complexity.” Such an appeal suggests that when we reach a seeming dead end, we should give up our search for an answer and just chalk it up to the designer (who might or might not be God). But that’s not a good a way of doing science—giving up before you come up with a good answer. So, until otherwise proven, evolution by natural selection remains the acknowledged scientific explanation of this world of ours. What other adequate natural explanation is there for the great diversity of animal and plant life in our world?
I chose to have my congregation observe Evolution Sunday because I am concerned about the widening divide between the faith and scientific communities. If we reject science, then we will have no say in resolving the ethical dilemmas that science often presents to us. We may also end up hindering scientific discoveries that would benefit humanity. I also speak of this out of concern for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The heightened rhetoric against evolution has surely made the gospel seem to many observers irrational and anti-intellectual. It places unnecessary barriers in the way of those who might look for a place of healing, grace, and transformation, people who are not willing to abandon their right to think for themselves. It also keeps believers from participating in the scientific revolution of our day. If, as most surveys suggest, upwards of 90% of Americans believe in God, then the possibility that faith and science are incompatible will handicap America as it moves into the future.
From my perspective, it is unfortunate that Christians have contributed so much to the growing rejection of evolution in America, and I’m afraid that this trend may partially explain why so many young people today show no interest in the sciences. Despite the evidence presented in public school classrooms across the country and through myriads of nature programs on TV, nearly half if not more of the American populace rejects the evidence offered by the scientific community—something Jonathan Wells gleefully celebrates. School boards and legislatures from across the country are changing curriculum standards and either rejecting or de-emphasizing evolution. Proponents of Intelligent Design seek to undermine evolution by “teaching [a] controversy” where no controversy needs to exist – except perhaps in a popular mind that is being formed by this rhetoric.
Critics of religious moderates and liberals claim that we give cover to Fundamentalists. In observing Evolution Sunday we offer our response to their challenge. And to those who want to believe and yet find it impossible to reject the findings of modern science, we offer a way forward. Of course such an effort requires that we face the issue of biblical interpretation and face the challenge of our theological inheritance. It might require of us a modification of our theologies, but it does not require of us a rejection of faith in God the Creator.
As a Christian, I affirm God’s intimate involvement in the creation of the universe, but I also recognize that such beautiful examples of God’s handiwork as Crater Lake and Mount Shasta (I grew up in close proximity to both), the Grand Canyon, and the human bodies have their natural explanations. Both the scientist and the theologian describe the same phenomena, but they use different vocabulary and tools to do so. If we are willing to recognize and affirm the contributions of both the scientist and the theologian, there can be a meaningful and profitable conversation—a conversation that has important consequences for human society and the planet we inhabit.
On Evolution Sunday, February 11, 2007, we at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc will acknowledge and affirm the work of the scientist and the wisdom of an evolving creation by joining with the Psalmist in declaring that “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1).
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Robert Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, Calif., and columnist for the Lompoc Record. He keeps a blog, Ponderings on a Faith Journey, and his last piece for SoMA was A Muslim in Congress--What's the World Coming to?
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