Preaching Darwin

Yesterday, for those of you who missed it–and that would include me–was Evolution Sunday, a day on which “ministers at several hundred churches around the country preached … against recent efforts to undermine the theory of evolution,” according to this story in The New York Times.

Evolution Sunday evolved (sorry) from the Clergy Letter Project, which was initiated last year by clergy and academics in Wisconsin in response to efforts to discredit the teaching of evolutionary theory in public schools.

“There was a growing need to demonstrate that the loud, shrill voices of fundamentalists claiming that Christians had to choose between modern science and religion were presenting a false dichotomy,” Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh and the major organizer of the letter project, told the Times.

“Mr. Zimmerman said more than 10,000 ministers had signed the letter, which states, in part, that the theory of evolution is ‘a foundational scientific truth.’ To reject it, the letter continues, ‘is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.’ ”

I accept the theory fo evolution. Denying it seems akin to denying the theory of gravity. But I can’t really see the point in preaching on evolution any more than I can see the point of preaching on gravity. I accept that God uses evolution for divine purposes, but I don’t pretend to understand why or what this tells us about the nature of God.

Come to think of it, then, I guess I’d love to hear a sermon that took that issue seriously, but I’d be a lot less interested in hearing another critique of the Intelligent Design movement.

Speaking of which, Shankar Vedantam of The Washington Post Magazine has written an excellent cover story about what is at stake theologically in the debate over Darwin’s work. He also fielded questions in an online chat.

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17 Comments
  1. Daniel

    What’s wrong with Intelligent Design? I know the “ID” proponents don’t put it this way but isn’t Intelligent Design just a way of accepting evolution, but saying that God played/plays a part in it?

    I don’t think it’s contradictory to believe in science and believe in God. As a Christian, I believe in God, and my faith tells me that there is a designed plan for everything, that God’s hand shapes our world today and has guided it’s evolution in the past.

    To maintain that God created all that exists about 6000 years ago just as it is today discounts all archeological and anthropological evidence to the contrary. The rationalizations I have seen to explain this include; Satan manufactured such evidence to sow doubt in the hearts of Christians, and that God created this evidence to test the faith of Christians. No explanation of the available archeological and anthropological evidence seems as plausible as the explanation put forth in Intelligent Design.

    Is it more plausible that life began spontaneously, despite science’s lack of success in reproducing this event, or that some higher power created the spark of life on earth? I believe the latter and that the higher power was God. Why is it so inconceivable to some people that God created life in all it’s varied forms, millions of years ago, and has wathced over the evolution of his creations ever since? I have heard the argument that since God is omniscient He would have known how everything would eventually turn out so why not create it that way in the first place? And why would He create dinosaurs and then let them become extinct? I’ve always thought that just because God can know everything doesn’t mean He would choose to know everything in advance. God gave mankind self-awareness and free will, why would He do that if He was going to control every choice we would make? Why would God give us the ability to choose unless He wanted to see what choices we would make? This implies to me that even though God can know, in advance, everything that may occur, He is content to let us develop on our own, individually and as a race, with a little guidance in our lives and just the occasional nudge in the right evolutionary direction.

    I know there is a huge debate between evolution and intelligent design proponents but I’m not sure why. As I understand it there are questions evolution theory doesn’t answer and occurences it can’t explain, God’s hand in it seems to me the most likely explanation of the unexplainable. Aren’t there reasons they still call Darwin’s Theory a theory?

    I, too, would like to hear a sermon accepting evolution while still acknowledging God’s part in our lives as well as our evolutionary development.

  2. A. Cermak

    I think if ID was what you just wrote, it would be reasonable, but it is about a lot more. The opinion in Dover includes a fairly detailed analysis of why it isn’t scientific.

    Evolution answers the question how is it we have cats and rats and elephants. It doesn’t attempt to answer what is the purpose of life, as that’s not a scientific question.

    I view ID as being an important way that folks who have rejected evolution be able to retain their faith in the light of ever-expanding scientific evidence. After all, if rejection of Darwin is an important plank of your theology, and science proves Darwin right, it would beg the question, if this is wrong, is anything else here right?

  3. A. Cermak

    And by the way we missed Evolution Sunday here too. We talked about the treatment of lepers and other outcasts.

  4. Daniel

    Are a belief in science and evolution, and belief in God and creation, mutually exclusive?

    I’ve read about Intelligent Design theory at the Discovery Institute website and I’m not buying into everything they’re selling, but from a Christian perspective alot of ID theory has merit. And I’m certainly not ready to accept the Darwinist argument and completely discount God.

    So, again, are a belief in science and evolution, and belief in God and creation, mutually exclusive?

  5. twentysomething

    To accept evolution does not in anyway discount God. The Discovery Institute is a political organization designed to perpetuate the myth that religion and science are in conflict. Many of the same people who use fake studies to perpetuate the myth that gay people don’t exist (or are sick and can be cured), or that Global Warming is not really happening are the folks that bring us ID.

    There’s a great resource on this topic of how the Christian faith can be in relationship with real science (as opposed to ID) at:

    http://www.dfms.org/19021_58393_ENG_HTM.htm?menupage=58392

    Here’s more information on the political connections and funding of the Discovery Institute:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Discovery_Institute

  6. AJ

    I think it is important to distinguish between questions like (A) whether there is an intelligent creator of the universe or whether science reveals evidence of an intelligent designer and (B) whether “Intelligent Design” should be taught as a theory or subject in schools. Basically there is nothing incompatible with Darwin’s theories of evolution (or anyone else’s theories of biological development, for that matter, on either the micro or macro levels) with the idea or belief of intelligent design. In fact, a great many scientists in all sorts of fields (not just biology) see no other explanation for the incredible order, complexity, and mystery to what we can observe and understand of the physical universe.

    That is not at all, however, what B, the “Intelligent Design” movement is about. As A. Cermak noted, a recent example of kind of fraud being used was described at some length in the opinion issued by the Pennsyvlania judge in the Dover School District case. (Link to the full opinion is in the following article: http://www.cnn.com/2005/LAW/12/20/intelligent.design/)

    The irony is that the proponents of the ID movement are the ones really trying to split religion from science rather than evolutionary biologists. The two really should not be viewed as wholly distinct or somehow incompatible (Google for the news article from the Vatican press rejecting the ID movement and this from John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio:

    ” “[Galileo] declared explicitly that the two truths, of faith and of science, can never contradict each other, ‘Sacred Scripture and the natural world proceeding equally from the divine Word, the first as dictated by the Holy Spirit, the second as a very faithful executor of the commands of God’, as he wrote in his letter to Father Benedetto Castelli on 21 December 1613. The Second Vatican Council says the same thing, even adopting similar language in its teaching: ‘Methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects… moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God’ (Gaudium et Spes, 36). Galileo sensed in his scientific research the presence of the Creator who, stirring in the depths of his spirit, stimulated him, anticipating and assisting his intuitions”: John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (10 November 1979): Insegnamenti, II, 2 (1979), 1111-1112.”

    Yet by using ID as a new code word for warmed over Creationism, the ID proponents are trying to have our schools reject Darwin’s theories , not, as they sometimes claim, on the basis of any of its scientific flaws or weak points in light of empirical evidence, but rather on the basis that they cannot tolerate any possibility of some kind of similarity or connection between the development of human beings and other species. They do not want to critique and correct errors in science — they want to proselytize their fundamentalist religious beliefs in the schools at the expense of honest, objective scientific inquiry. Instead of bringing the two realms together, ID splits them further asunder by rejecting out of hand science that does not comport with what they think the Bible requires one to believe about the biological nature and orgins of humankind.

    One tell-tale sign of the ID movement’s real hidden agenda is the fact athat that ID proponents are so focused on Darwin and evolutionary biology. While they certainly do not discount evidence of design from other sciences, it is the biology curriculum that they want to upheave, not physics or geology, which also do not pass judgment on whether an Intelligent Designer created and maintains all non-biological elements in the universe.

  7. Daniel

    Living with church doctrine that stated that “the seven days of the Creation account were literal 24-hour days forming a week identical in time to what we now experience as a week“, “Evolution is nothing more than a proud sinful creature’s arrogant attempt to erase his responsibility to his Creator“, and “the teaching of evolution is a descent into atheism”, I have searched for ways to reconcile that doctrine with the questions my natural intelligence was forming in my mind but that I was not supposed to ask.

    Studying theories like Gap Theory, Theistic Evolution, and now Intelligent Design and trying to reconcile Creationism and Evolution have left me at odds with church doctrine. While I understand that ID is a political tool being pushed by one group to support their agenda, I like that it attempts to blend creation with evolution and seems to allow for both, not that that is how it is being presented by the Discovery Institute folks. But those are the type of conservative minds in the SBC and if Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution or whatever it ends up being called can end the endless debate over evolution then maybe we can tackle the tough issues like obedience to scripture, biblical inerrancy, homosexuality and abortion.

    Thanks for all the thought and information, it’s all helpful in trying to figure out exactly what I believe and how to best present that argument.

  8. AJ

    Daniel, I just wanted to say I really appreciate what you’re trying to do. When I first heard about ID I thought maybe there really was something new that was finally asking the right questions about where faith and science might intersect. There’s been so much going on in physics and math in recent years that suggests all sorts of new ways of glimpsing the divine. And before that, people whom I would call poet-prophet-scientists were already pointing the way in the biological and geologcial realms (I’m thinking, for example, of writers like Annie Dillard and her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek).

    There’s no longer any need, if there ever was, for a great divide between faith and science. The notion that the universe is solely the product of random processes is nonsense (even more so than the 7-day story of Creation, which at least has its own kind of truth, albeit a non-literal one). We do not need the anti-science of ID to defeat atheism. Science can actually help take us away from atheism and towards humility in the face of God the Creator, if we’d only let it. We just need to stop pitting science and religion against each other.

  9. Michael

    Frankly, I do not see how Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection and intelligent design at all fit together. The idea of evolution predated Darwin, but he gave us the mechanism by which it occurs: natural selection. Natural selection is a pretty simple idea: traits are inheritable from parent to offspring, and those traits which best enable survival and reproduction thus become more frequent.

    Intelligent design is at odds with that because it claims that evolution is guided by an all-powerful creator-being. This does not reconcile religous beliefes with scientific understanding. It’s a slap in the face to scientific understanding. People have accepted that evolution is not going to be done away with, so to counter the threat that it creates to their world view, they tack their God onto it. If such a thing were true, it would have dire consequence to much of our scientific understanding of the past.

    If we accept ID, then that means all we have reconstructed about the past through the idea of evolution by natural selection would be worthless. What then? Reevalutate everything through the idea of evolution by intelligent design? Okay, so we’ll have the changes, but no reason behind them. Natural selection allows us to explain why things have changed as they have. Intellgent design does not give us this. The only one who would know why something was chanegd would be God. And without knowing his will or purpose, we have nothing. In that case, we might as well stop investigating the past, pick up a Bible, and accept what it has to say.

  10. Daniel

    Michael,

    The original post, and most of the responses, seem to me to have been forwarding the argument that belief in science and evolution, and belief in God and creation, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I take it that you are not in agreement with that?

    Have you looked at Gap Theory or Theistic Evolution theory? Have you explored any of the other arguments that include both science and faith? Is there no room in your world for science and faith?

  11. RMF

    The work of William DuBose, perhaps the most influential Episcopalian theologian, centered on the reconciliation of naturalistic philosophy, includign Darwin’s theories and observations, and Christianity.

  12. Michael

    Daniel,

    I’m not too familiar with Gap theory and Theistic Evolution. From what little I know, Gap Theory only seems to make amends for the world being much older than the suppositions made using the Bible. How does that account for the scientific understanding of the origin of life and of man?

    I’m not saying science and faith are mutually exlusive. Despite at one time being a militant athiest with a seething dislike of Christianity, my disbelief has cooled to agnosticism and I don’t think religion to be this horrible thing. Heck, despite my lack of religious belief, I have argued in high school debate class on the merits religion, and wrote a paper about the place of religion in the twenty-first century for a college composition class. But I do think religion does have a tendency to resist change, and causes a lot of problems in this regard. Often there is too much focus on the divine, and not enough on this world. Christianity tries to brush off an empircal understanding of the creation of life and the origin of man as heresy. And when the heresy grew too big for them to ignore, you try to tack your God onto it.

    What I’m saying is that the traditional Christian story of creation can no longer be used as a literal recounting of the actual creation of the world and of the life that inhabits it.

  13. Daniel

    Michael,

    I think you might be surprised at how many Christians would agree that parts of the Bible are not meant to be taken literally. Many, many Christians are more open minded than you might think. Of course, many are not so open minded.

    Theistic Evolution basically states that God created life on earth and has guided evolution ever since.

    The biggest mystery of biology is the emergence of the first life forms from the “soupy seas”. Though this problem is not strictly of the field of evolution, but of biogenesis instead, it is related to the discussion.

    Biologists have done amazing experiments with lightning that produce amino acids from simple carbon compounds and water. Beyond that, biologists are fairly confident that they can develop a reasonable progression from RNA to DNA, then up through single-celled organisms to multi-celled creatures, and onward to the plant and animal kingdoms. However, the gap between amino acids and RNA remains a mystery.

    Various mechanisms have been proposed to cross this gap (lightning, solar energy, comets, etc.). However, even the most reasonable mechanisms are extremely unlikely to have produced life on this earth according to scientific analyses.

    So, is it so bad that Christians believe that God created the “spark” of life on earth? The Bible says that God created man in his own image and early Christians accepted this as literal, but more and more Christians are coming to believe this refers more to the soul, or life energy if that’s easier for you, than to the physical image.

    The theory of evolution seems like pretty good science, especially the enhancements that were made after Darwin, and are still being made based on continuing research and discoveries. The geological and fossil record shows change over a long period of time. We have a long history of changing life forms.

    Note that most of the evolutionary action does not involve entirely new structures. New structures are hard to develop. We would all like to see a horse develop wings and fly, but that’s unlikely to happen.

    The term microevolution is used to refer to change at the species level or lower. Macroevolution refers to higher-order changes that cause one species to split into two, or morph into an entirely new species. I do not accept the creationist argument that the small changes we see in microevolution cannot add up to macroevolution under the right conditions. Indeed, it is true that microevolution does not prove macroevolution, but it certainly supports it.

    However, it is still an evolutionary puzzle how microevolution relates to macroevolution. When do we get stasis, and when do we get change? The old Darwinian idea, that microevolution can be simply be extrapolated to macroevolution over long periods of time, is probably not correct because it is too simple. More recent research indicates that macroevolution involves additional factors, including the ones present in microevolution. Christians who accept evolution believe that the additional factor is God.

    Again, is it so bad that someone who accepts evolution also believes that a higher power is involved? Christians believe that higher power is God.

    I reject the notion that if the scientific theory of evolution is true, then Christianity must be false. I reject the idea that people who accept evolution must be atheists. I reject the idea that evolution and Christian faith are inevitably in conflict with each other and cannot be reconciled.

    The point is not how much we know, but how little we know.

  14. A. Cermak

    For me, faith as it concerns creation comes down to who caused the first ripple of the big bang (or whatever) and who set up the rules (laws of physics, chem etc).

    I guess for me God is not a micromanager who obsessed over DNA or worried over each speciesization.

    Has anyone seen the article about the cane toads in Australia http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,18165281%255E29277,00.html

    that are being naturally selected for longer legs? Kind of interesting.

  15. Ian

    There is no real evidence for evolution. If you look at Biology textbooks, the topic is introduced as myth, not science. Statements like “fossil record shows…millions of years…” are meaningless. The evidence need to be described. Could anyone point me to any good reference which show without doubt how fossils indicate life evolved over billions of years rather than caused by the great Flood mentioned in the Bible? The libraries at Purdue University have an abundance of books on fossils but I could not find a single shred of evidence.

  16. Ian

    One of the methods scientists used to try and estimate the age of the Earth was based on the rate of cooling of the Earth. However, it is unacceptable to use a rate of cooling even if such rate is measured over a few years and then extrapolate that data over billions of years. The rate of cooling 6,000 years ago could be very different. If God did create the Universe 6,000 years ago, then He would have created it cool enough to be habitable by man if we accept all His creation work was completed in 6 literal days. If we do not belive that God created the universe, then of course we come to the conclusion that the Earth came into existence billions of years ago. It seems the estimation of the age of the Earth depends on our assumption about the origin of the Universe. Like they say….”garbage in..garbage out”.

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