Dating as far back as the 1880s, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution began its controversial history among Christians. While much
has changed since then in terms of both the science and the theological discussion of human origins, there still is an element of traditional creationism that troubles the waters
of pondering how humans came to be and where they are going.
The current controversy is playing out in US state legislatures, where new bills are posing the question of whether evolution should be taught in public schools. According to the Michael Dowd, founder of the Clergy Letter Project, new bills have surfaced in Alabama, Missouri and Oklahoma. Similar bills in Indiana and New Hampshire failed to garner the essential support to become law.
The distrust of evolution on religious grounds in the United States is of course not news. However, many do not know that Christians have been in anything but agreement on how the evolution story fits with the creation story found in Genesis. Just a little more than 20 years after Darwin’s publishing of On the Origin of Species
in 1859, controversy began to blossom. The editor of a prominent American religious weekly wrote that roughly half of educated ministers in leading evangelical denominations believed that Genesis was no more a record of actual occurrences than the parable of the Prodigal Son, according to Ronald L. Numbers, author of The Creationists
, which provides a detailed account of the history of the creationist movement.
A central issue is whether Genesis represents a historical and scientifically valid account of how creation came about. Creationists historically questioned how God’s word could be wrong about the creation of world. The major question creationists ask is — How is God involved if science is right?
The other questions are many. Evolution suggests that the age of the earth was much older than depicted in the story of the first humans Adam and Eve. How could Genesis be wrong about that? Where
does the creative spark of consciousness come through evolution? Where does God come into the picture? How does the story of the Fall play into our evolutionary heritage? Did we have a single common ancestor that was created by God?
A little research shows such topics are being discussed in churches and in other instances at religiously affiliated universities. Last month a 556 congregations participated in Evolution Weekend by including Charles Darwin readings in the liturgy while pastors delivered sermons on the broader topics of religion and science with the aim of revealing how little conflict there needs to be between religion and science. Sponsored by the Clergy Letter Project during the week of Darwin’s birthday, congregations in 10 countries participated.
A recent survey from the Clergy Letter Project, shows that an overwhelming majority of clergy (85% of those surveyed) from various faith communities do support biologists' view that evolution is a supported by scientific evidence. These findings though are in direct contradiction with what has been going on politically on a national level.
According to the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), six legislative bills dealing with evolution have been introduced in 2012, with legislatures in New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Missouri and Indiana considering bills against the teaching of evolution in the public school system.
In Oklahoma, the Senate bill does not push for teaching of intelligent design or promoting a certain belief system, but allows for open discussion of scientific theories and directs teachers to teach certain material and allow supplemental material to be taught. If the bill were to become law, it would require the Oklahoma State Board of Education to assist teachers and administrators to promote “critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning.”
Local school districts in Indiana would have been required to teach “various theories concerning the origin of life, including creation science.” In the late 1980s, teaching of creationism in the schools was struck down by the Supreme Court. Numerous newspaper editorials across the state have been highly critical of the proposed bill. In late January, the bill was passed in the state Senate Education Committee, but by mid-February failed to garner the support to move farther.
The focus is back on intelligent design being taught alongside evolution in Missouri. The legislator who proposed that House bill has been quoted as saying, “The jury is still out on evolution.” Previous versions of this bill were introduced and died in 2004, according the NCSE.
Two bills were filed early this year in the New Hampshire legislature. One would have charged the state board of education to require teachers to instruct pupils that proper scientific inquiry results from not committing to any one theory or hypothesis, no matter how firmly it appears to be established. The second bill would require evolution to be taught in the public schools as a theory, including the theorists' political and ideological viewpoints and their position on the concept of atheism.
These bills seemed to have gotten the support of creationist legislators and prominent lobbying groups such as the Discovery Institute — the group that initially backed efforts to teach intelligent design in public schools. According to policy outlined on its website, officials now are no longer mandating intelligent design but are supporting the teaching of evolution to students in the hopes that students also learn more about the “unresolved issues” of evolutionary theory.
Seven states (Alabama, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas) have science standards that require learning about some of the scientific controversies relating to evolution, according to the Discovery Institute. Additionally, Louisiana has a statewide law that allows teachers “to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review scientific theories in an objective manner,” specifically naming evolution as an example. Texas’s science standards require that students “analyze, evaluate and critique scientific explanations … including examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific explanations so as to encourage critical thinking.” Texas also requires students to “analyze and evaluate” core evolutionary claims including “common ancestry,” “natural selection,” “mutation,” and the formation of “long complex molecules having information such as the DNA molecule for self-replicating life.”
These efforts are often supported by Christians who identify themselves as conservatives or “creationists”, even though it is important to note that among them there are very many ways of looking at evolution’s impact on our faith. For many there are non-legislative developments that go hand in hand: The latest development is the construction of a park in Kentucky to celebrate the story of Noah’s Ark.
The last piece of land for the 800-acre site has been purchased in Williamstown, Kentucky, (just south of Cincinnati). The attraction is expected to draw over a million people in its first year to see a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, according to the group Answers in Genesis, which also is the entity behind Kentucky’s Creation Museum. The group says that the Creation Museum attracts 300,000 visitors a year and there is work underway to build a 1,000-seat auditorium that has a new observatory with high-power telescopes. Since it’s opening in 2007, the Creation Museum has reported more than 1.5 million visitors.
The story is very different for most scientists, who happen also to be Christian. They find evolution’s tenets as anything but controversial or puzzling. Gayle Woloschak, a molecular biologist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and a leader in the religion and science dialogue, finds richness in realizing the interconnectivity of humanity and the rest of creation (see Profiles section).
A denial in evolution, leads to a denial of an understanding of humanity's impact on the environment and on the processes that shape ecology, she says. “Evolution is a creative and changing force in nature that renews, restores and rekindles life,” she says.
The topic of evolution is not something that theologians are shying away from either, even as congregations have some confusion on the topic. In fact in a recent Q&A with Covalence, Dr. Philip Hefner in exploring transhumanism pointed out that there are three components that biology contributes to our understanding of who we are: “complex composition of our bodies, our evolutionary natural history, and our ecological connectedness.” He adds that the idea that our spiritual nature is embedded in the natural process is a very recent emphasis.
Given the very different takes on evolution among those who are Christian, it is not surprising the public may be confused about how Christianity relates to evolution. This is not new. Still, for now though it seems that the religion and evolution dialogue needs to ‘evolve’ in the public square to confidently discuss whether belief in evolution truly needs to alter a person’s view of religion.
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.