An evolutionary dialogue
We have evolved into Homo sapiens, our faith has evolved to become more tolerant of other religions, but our understanding of how beliefs about religion and evolution together affect our daily lives is still in as much of a mystery as the notorious "missing link".
The missing link, according to Wikipedia, is a reference to any transitional fossil, especially one connected with human evolution. There is a long list of these fossils, but it seems for some the term missing link is proof that evolution is not as concrete as the rest of the world would have us believe, especially here in America; where the battle over evolution continues.
The controversy over the teaching of evolution rages on almost 90 years after the famous Scopes trial. The trial took place in Tennessee in 1925 and involved a high school biology teacher John Scopes, who was accused of violating the state's Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach evolution. Ultimately Scopes lost and a number of legal cases over the years have taken on the teaching of evolution and in recent years focused much on the inclusion of a theory called intelligent design (the idea that certain features of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection) in high school biology textbooks.
Last year the Philadelphia Inquirer commemorated the fifth anniversary of the verdict in Kitzmiller v. Dover, a local case that found the teaching of intelligent design in the public schools. The newspaper had a review of the trial and its consequences. The Dover decision effectively stopped the spread of intelligent design as a way to introduce creationism in the classroom, but in Louisiana and Kentucky there is still legal wrangling when it comes to presenting evolution to public school students.
In the public lexicon, however, the terms "evolution", "adaptation" and especially "survival of the fittest" can be found in daily use in relation to anything but biology. The more evolution as a concept is trivialized via news headlines, music, films, books and television, the greater the chances are that people will spend less time thinking about the meaning surrounding the concept of evolution.
So what is the connection between religion and evolution? Many would describe themselves as believing in "theistic" evolution, and according to the Gallup organization, more Americans now align themselves with this label. Theistic evolution is the belief in God as creator of the universe and everything within the universe and that evolution is a natural process that is active within creation.
And the other sides of the evolution debate are either no belief in God at all or a belief that God created humans as outlined in the Bible roughly 10,000 years ago.
So the group that denies evolution has been known to say that the better science is found in "intelligent design". Proponents of this movement are still active and see themselves as challenging the dominant paradigm for explaining the origin and the diversity of life on earth. An upcoming event sponsored by the Discovery Institute is said to reveal that: "Current research and careful reasoning, however, reveal enormous problems in modern evolutionary schemes."
Why are people worried about evolutionary findings? Perhaps it's the idea that humans are not unique or special that is part of the fear. Our behavior is ruled by our "monkey" brains and our genes determine how long we live and what we look like. If everything that makes us human is determined by evolution, ultimately some are worried that we can no longer rely on religion as a source of ethics. One of the most recent books from Sam Harris questions this whole idea of our morality being linked to a belief in God.
But doesn't evolution tell a story of human uniqueness and values? It may have taken millions of years for humans to evolve, but what we have done with our intelligence in our own lifetimes holds incredible promise and peril at the same time. The very idea that we can reflect on our own origins is itself an incredible reality that shows us as a little more than a happy accident in the creation of the universe.
So what questions should we be asking about our evolution and theology? The people putting religion and biology in the same sentence have a large detail-oriented task ahead of them, which is evidenced by the ongoing debate in the public square. Persons of faith and science are still bogged down in the details of whether God is found in the process of evolution or is the natural law that encompasses evolution itself. But in all the media hype surrounding creationism or atheism, the real heart of the matter is seldom approached due to the inability of its participants to serve up sound bites.
Questions worth asking include: Did I evolve as a result of religion or did religion evolve because of humanity's need for a moral compass? Am I free to act outside of my biological make-up, and can I live longer as a result? What if I'm not the only intelligent life-form in the universe?
We have come a long way, but in many ways we are just beginning an epic journey. These questions are still being debated and we can all be thankful that the discussion is ongoing as technology, politics and economics in the coming years will require us to answer some of the basic theological questions related to Darwin's findings that themselves are more than 150 years old.
Christianity has had a long time to incorporate evolution into its theology, but as a church it has had plenty of disagreement in the details. So instead of searching for a missing link, now is the time to connect the pieces that help provide the guidance to those who are not theologians or scientists who are now relying on biology and modern medicine to improve their lives.
In a recent religion and science discussion here in Chicago, a casual comment stuck with me and showed how far we have yet to go. The retired pastor commented that the church had traditionally been arrogant when it came to engaging with science.
An old sermon from John Wesley, certainly seems to fit the bill. The founder of Methodism wrote: "Earthquakes are set forth by the inspired writers as God's proper judicial act, or the punishment of sin: sin is the cause, earthquakes the effect, of his anger."
Few Methodists today would agree with those words as we see the people of Haiti still struggling with the aftermath of an earthquake in the past year.
While the topic of discussion earlier this month was related to a book on scientific stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes, the comment on the church's arrogance left me thinking about how far Christianity has come with its recognition of science. Whether it is talking about stem cell research, genetics, neuroscience or physics, do pastors and their parishioners know any more going into 2011 about how developments in these arenas and their impact on their faith and their future anymore than a pastor in 1811?
More importantly, do religious leaders ever comment on science in a positive way today? I would say that if society still sees faith communities as arrogant, this is perhaps due to non-fundamentalists remaining silent in the public debate with the New Atheists. Is this due to ignorance of science or lack of interest in the dialogue?
I would say — and the subject of this month's profile, Philip Clayton — would agree that it is a fear of not presenting a unified or correct stance on when it comes to defending faith in an age of almost miraculous scientific discovery. All of us can agree that medicine in particular has offered many people hope, whether they are fighting cancer, heart disease or even diabetes.
The ignorance comes in when we think that scientism or fundamentalism will go away due to the false methodologies behind them. In a paper called "Can Liberals Still Believe that God (Literally) Does Anything?" Clayton writes: "The goal is to offer a proposal that is philosophically rigorous, theologically adequate, responsive to science — and one that is potentially credible for thinking persons today."
This all still leaves me wondering, though, how can I as a non-theologian and non-scientist approach scientism without describing my faith in an arrogant matter. First off, it starts with educating oneself and actively looking for ways to inspire curiosity in others. As Covalence continues to grow in scope, we hope to provide more opportunities to learn and ask more questions.
At the end of the day, self-led education seems to be one approach to holding a constructive discussion, whether it is with family, friends or scientists or pastors. I would say, however, that it begins with wonder, as it did for the emerging citizen scientists of the Romantic era in Europe. This wonder leads to awe and awe leads to inspiration, which leaves another "I" word behind — ignorance. Sometimes getting to the root of the issue is a challenge in religion and science. It is often left at science explains the "how" and religion explains the "why." While this is the approach taken by many in the public square, it seems that the real discussion often gets lost.
Not helping is some of the current talk that has been broadly disseminated via the Huffington Post and other media outlets as of late. Much of this approach has dipped into the juicy center of religion and science, but then gracefully bows out when the stakes get to big for religion. Then just when things were getting one-sided from the New Atheists perspective, you have the guru of self-promotion and marketing throwing his hat in the ring — Deepak Chopra.
Deepak gives us one of his classic lists in looking at science and religion. He talks about a new creation story that has yet to be born based on a metaphysic that unveils a proto-consciousness. He says that "the raw ingredients of mind may be inherent in Nature at the quantum level." I for one am not sure what that means, but another of his seven statements is purely pantheistic in that a deity may exist in every atom and molecule as the tendency to evolve.
Then in summarizing his thoughts he makes another confusing statement. Namely that any "new creation" story will need to not contradict quantum mechanics, while at the same time saying the quantum theory has reached its limit and physicists refuse to admit it. Maybe the back and forth ping pong match is an intentional way of gearing up for a new book in what is becoming a growing area of interest among the public as they try to see themselves as more than DNA and more than a cousin to the chimpanzee.
To be sure, Chopra has a large fan base along with a fair number of critics, as most personalities in the self-help realm can attest. At the same time, he shows how important it is for Christian theologians and other religions to make their own internal dialogues about science public. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has done just this with the work going into its statement on genetics.
While I do agree with Chopra that saying that the human consciousness was a random accident is going to be a hard thing for a scientist to defend, I don't think we should expect a scientist to search for the fingerprint of God on every last inch of creation.
The point is that God is there throughout creation and is a positive force for improvement in creation, but not the creation itself. The details of that relationship maybe are not important, but in keeping that idea of God at the center of creation many scientists of faith are able to have a greater appreciation of their own work. At the same time, the faithful can be drawn into the awe of it all without compromising their own beliefs.
Susan Barreto is a journalist who has been following religion and science since 2003 with articles appearing in various newsletters and The Lutheran magazine. She is also a deputy editor of a monthly hedge fund magazine owned by Euromoney Institutional Investor. Susan is a long-time member of Luther Memorial Church in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and son.
Covalence, February, 2011