Do evolution and faith have to fight?

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and 2009 is 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of the Species. The debate between evolution and religious faith appears to be as American as apple pie.

Religion Dispatches has three interesting articles reflecting on the religious consequences of evolution, focusing on the ongoing debate often framed as a fight between science and religion.

Lauri Lebo takes a look at American attitudes toward Darwin while attending a British conference on science and the public interest:

I am standing at a podium in England, invited to speak by of the British Council, because I am American. To be even more specific, because I resided at Ground Zero of my country’s cultural battle over science and religion, in an event that took place four years ago in Dover, Pa. when the local school board tried to force religion into science class.

I have been aware of this British fascination with us ever since the BBC came to my town in the fall of 2004, right after the Dover Area School Board inserted the phrase intelligent design for the first time in the US into a public school biology curriculum….I remember the BBC crew looked at me much the same way that these people are looking at me now. Trying to determine on which side of the cultural divide I stand. The British don’t understand, I’ve been told, why Americans are so divided.

They find this issue fascinating. And they watch me curiously. In a way, I suspect, they find our fundamentalism kind of cute. Just like the meerkats.

I know they’re thinking: What is it with you Americans? Why are you so hung up on this religion vs. science thing?

It can be said that Darwin and the theory of evolution begat American Christian fundamentalism. Lebo points out that through much of the 19th century, Biblical literalism was on the decline. Science was accepted, even in the churches, and the idea that the earth is very old was widely accepted. “A typical interpretation of the Genesis account,” she says, “viewed the six days not as literal 24-hour periods, but as separate, lengthy spans of time.”

This is an interpretation that probably feels familiar to many Episcopalians. The rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in northwest Atlanta, The Rev. Patricia Templeton, says in today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “the problem begins with those questions, the pairing of religion and science as polar opposites.”

Although I believe that the Bible contains the words of the living God, I also think that looking to the Bible for modern scientific knowledge requires denying the use of one of God’s greatest gifts, our minds.

“I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also,” the apostle Paul says. “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus says. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.

The Bible was never meant to be a science textbook.

Instead, it tells the story of the relationship between God and human beings, between the Creator and creation.

By the early 20th century, there arose a theological response to the liberal trends in theology of day, in particular as a reaction to the Social Gospel, higher Biblical criticism, Catholicism, and Darwinism. A series of tracts called “The Fundamentals” were issued calling for a literal interpretation of the Bible, proclaiming for the first time the doctrine of inerrancy, and thus pitting the Bible against evolution in a stark and popular way. To be opposed to evolution was not so much being opposed to science as to what evolution symbolized for these groups.

Since then there has been a major clash between what we now call creationists and those who teach evolution in the schools.

Nathan Schnieder says that even with the ongoing controversies, there are five things we can learn from creationists:

With court case after court case, in this country at least, the creationists put on a good show. The occasional monkey trial has become a national pastime, and we average about one big one per decade. It’s too bad they’re so completely wrong. Year after year, more evidence piles up pointing to the truth of your theory. It has served as the fundamental basis of modern biology, paleontology, and anthropology, through which we understand life on earth more completely than ever before. To science, creationism since your time has offered mainly obfuscation. There’s more to them than science.

As your birthday present, I’d like to offer a list. It’s not about you, exactly, but about what 150 years of creationism can teach us about your accomplishment. I hope you like it.

5 Things We Can Learn from the Creationists:

1) They show us that there is more at stake in science than science itself. People have other concerns at heart, religious, political, or otherwise.

2) They never tire of pointing out how scientific ideas can be misused by dangerous ideologies, from reckless capitalism, to vanguard communism, to Nazism. We will always need the reminder.

3) They demonstrate that, when you really stretch it, the same data can be interpreted in very different ways.

4) They encourage fuller scientific demonstrations of evolution by playing the devil’s advocate. After Michael Behe made his case about the bacterial flagellum’s intelligent design, for instance, researchers figured out how it evolved.

5) In their desire for a faith-based science, they remind us that faith and science are part of a common human urge.

David Westmoreland, a professor and evolutionary biologist and a Christian feels the pinch all the time, but offers a cogent way through the divide:

Why the discord? Is there no middle ground between religion and Darwin, or is the only solution a partitioning of intellectual turf? Stephen Jay Gould suggested a truce of the latter sort in proposing the notion of Nonoverlapping Magisteria (NOMA): evolutionists should focus their efforts on the ages of rocks, theologians on the rock of ages, and neither should tread on the other’s domain. This approach brokers a tentative peace between Park Place and Boardwalk, but avoids the uncomfortable conflict that Darwin likely feared for Emma—can religion and evolution occupy the same home?

I would argue that they can, and do, coexist—and even complement each other. However, as a scientist I am in the minority. Polls indicate that very small percentage of biologists believe that a deity exists, the rest falling into the community of philosophical naturalists. At church, I am the misguided evolutionist; at work, the inexplicable Christian. I wonder if Emma understands.

Church friends ask how I could possibly “believe in” evolution, and how my evolutionist thinking cannot be in conflict with scripture. The answer to the first is easy—overwhelming evidence. Evolution explains a vast number of facts that, in its absence, would be mere curiosities: the pattern of change in the fossil record, the presence of identical, functionless pseudogenes in all primates, the subtle infidelity of songbirds. To the second question, I point out that all conflict with scripture evaporates when Genesis is taken as allegory. The point of the Garden is not that two humans started our species from a perfect environment, but that two people given an ideal home and a single rule will not be able to resist sweet disobedience.

At work, naturalist colleagues have diagnosed my condition as a cognitive variety of split personality, applying Occam’s razor to scientific matters and a theological butter knife to issues of faith. But I contend that distinctively different ways of thinking are justified for distinctively different ideas. First, on what basis does one conclude that science is the only method of inquiry that yields truth? Second, do my ersatz therapists deny that science is limited in scope to questions that can be addressed by quantification, statements that can be potentially falsified by data? Theological concepts are outside that realm. Faith is not a product of data, but an amalgamation of intuition, personal experience, and tradition that is unique to every person. Any attempt to transform that complex brew into a scientific line of inquiry is hopelessly doomed.

Lauri Lebo: Denying Darwin.

Nathan Schieder: Five Things We Can Learn from Creationists.

Arri Eisen, an RD columnist and biologist asked a poet, a public health expert, and an evolutionary biologist how Darwin affects their beliefs. Read it here.

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