In Praise of Evolution
February 24, 2008
Rev. Jane Page
Three freshman-engineering students were sitting around talking between classes, when one brought up the question of who designed the human body. One of the students insisted that the human body must have been designed by an electrical engineer because of the perfection of the nerves and synapses. Another disagreed, and exclaimed that it had to have been a mechanical engineer who designed the human body. The system of levers and pulleys is ingenious. "No," the third student said, "you're both wrong. The human body was designed by an architect. Who else but an architect would have put a toxic waste line through a recreation area?"
So much for “intelligent design!”
But that concept hasn’t gone away!
During the first GOP Presidential Debate this year, the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution. Three of the candidates’ hands went up. One of them is still in the race. Asked in the third debate to explain his earlier response, Huckabee said, "the basic question was an unfair question, because it simply asked us in a simplistic manner whether or not we believed, in my view, whether there is a God or not.” Then he went on to share about his belief in God and God’s creation of heaven and earth. He did state that he didn’t know how God did it, but he obviously wasn’t a fan of Darwin’s ideas, because he followed his of statement of belief in creation by saying, “if anybody wants to believe that they are the descendants of a primate, they are certainly welcome to do it.” (Hopefully, by now someone has pointed out to him that he, himself, is a primate.)
Now, I’m not sharing this bit of political dialogue with you in an effort to put down this particular candidate. I actually think Mike Huckabee is a good, sincere man. But it does highlight for us that the efforts of fundamentalists to draw a line in the sand have been successful.
When I was growing up, we studied evolution and believed it to be true, and most of us reconciled it with our biblical beliefs by declaring that a “day” for God was probably different than a “day” for the rest of us; also noting that some of the stories in the Bible were not literally true but were told to give a spiritual message to the people of the day. But that was before the conservative right gained significant power in politics, churches, and on school boards. Since the 80’s we’ve seen a strong swing to the right by conservatives that took us back to the days before the Scopes Monkey Trial.
In this enlightened nation a third of the public believes the Bible is literally the word of God; 45% think God created human beings “pretty much in their present form” within the last 10,000 years; 35% believe evolution is just one among many theories[i][i]. (Dick Gilbert)
Indeed, there are some who report that more Americans are likely to believe in the virgin birth than in evolution. Many Americans now believe that they cannot accept scientific knowledge that does not fit with a literal reading of the Bible. They believe that to do so, would negate their belief in God (as noted by the response Huckabee gave when asked to clarify his rejection of evolution). And these are not ignorant, uneducated people. This past week I was having a discussion with one of my long time friends from Statesboro who is college educated and seems to be quite bright in many ways. I asked him if he accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution. And he said that he did not. After we had some discussion though, in which I gently shared some information with him, he said, “Well, I guess we’re just really smart animals then.” And I said, “Yes, we are.” And he really, within a very short period of time, came to understand that and accept that – not just to get me to shut up, but to really say, hey- that’s right. Then, he said, “I remember studying all that in school.” Trouble is he’d been listening to more preachers than teachers in recent decades. And I think another problem for him and Huckabee is that they have both seen science and religion as opposed to one another and separate entities.
Last year I preached a sermon here on Religious Naturalism. And one of the responses that I got during our discussion is that some of you would prefer not to mix up science with religion. We’ve heard that science answers the “how” and religion answers the “why.” And it’s TRUE that we don’t want particular religious doctrines taught in our science classrooms. But I believe science should and does inform our religious views, even for very conservative Christians.
Consider the example of Galileo, a scientist whose research demonstrated the earth revolved around the sun. Though no Christians today argue about whether the earth is round, five hundred years ago most Christians, based on the Bible, believed the sun revolved around a flat earth. They could not integrate their reverence for the authority of Scripture with Galileo's scientific work. The Church tried Galileo and condemned him for heresy in 1633, banning the publication of his scientific work. Still under house arrest, Galileo died in 1642. Yet in the following century, as the weight of scientific evidence proved the earth revolved around the sun, Galileo was reburied in hallowed ground, and the Church allowed his scientific work to be published. In 1992, 350 years after his death, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for Galileo's treatment by the church. (Jack Drescher)
Interestingly enough, the Catholic Church today has a fairly enlightened view of evolution, which even received a thumbs up from the current conservative Pope. Those who contend evolution is of the devil are more likely to be found among the fundamentalist non-denominational churches that have recently had tremendous growth – and of course, the Baptists. But other more progressive churches are finally speaking up to say that God and Darwin are compatible.
If you happened to have read my article in this month’s newsletter, you know that I’m one of over 800 ministers who have joined the clergy letter project. This project was begun three years ago by Michael Zimmerman, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University. The letter signed by these clergy members includes the following statement.
We the undersigned …believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
An outgrowth of the project has been the celebration in many progressive churches of Evolution Sunday. This year the name was changed to Evolution weekend to be more inclusive. Generally this is the weekend closest to Darwin’s birthday, February 12 – so many had their celebrations last weekend. But others are celebrating at time that may be more convenient to them. And today is our day. We’ve celebrated with readings and with dance. But what are we celebrating – and is this appropriate for a worship service?
Oh YES! Says Rev. Michael Dowd! Michael is the author of this book – Thank God for Evolution! Actually Michael “evolved” quite a bit himself theologically. At one time he was a fundamentalist pastor, preaching the Bible as the literal word of God. And he still proudly proclaims his identity as a Christian. His wife, Connie Barlow, is a scientist and identifies as an atheist. But they both proudly proclaim themselves to be evolutionary evangelists.
Michael sees science as being “public revelation.” He says that -- “seen through sacred eyes, the entire history of the Universe can now be honored as the primary revelation of God.” Like Carl Sagan, he believes that “Science is, at least in part, informed worship.” (Sagan). He sees science as “public revelation” in contrast to the “private revelation” that most religious doctrine is based upon.
Private revelation’s claims about reality… arise primarily from personal experiences – some of which are compelling. Alas, private revelations enshrined for centuries in sacred texts cannot be empirically verified today. Such claims cannot be proven because they are one-person, one-time occurrences, obscured by the passage of time. Accordingly, private revelations must be either believed or not believed. When private revelations reside at the core of religious understanding, people are left with no choice but to believe them or not.
In contrast, the arena of public revelation offers opportunities for us to learn ever more about the nature of reality – and to recognize and revise mistaken notions. People of all philosophical and religious backgrounds can therein come to agree on the same basic understanding, regardless of differences in how those shared understandings will be interpreted. … From this perspective, the history of humanity is a fascinating and universally relevant story of how Reality (or some say God) has progressively revealed itself to human beings, which is tied to how we acquire, share, store, and reconsider knowledge.
And evolution is a primary example of public revelation. Here for all of us to honor and revere. Dowd states that “evolutionary religion’s alternative to reliance on ancient scriptures is empirical data.” He goes on to assert: “In a way, the data are our scriptures – and to these we submit.”
Now most of us in this congregation applaud Darwin’s theory of evolution and fully embrace that we are related to everything in this world. So we say “hallelujah and Amen” to the revelations of science in terms of our physical beings. But does evolution have any implications for us in other ways. Perhaps so: Charles Darwin said that it’s not the strongest that survive, but those most responsive to change. What are the implications for this congregation?
Today, after our break, we shall attempt to use a method called Appreciative Inquiry to lift up the strengths of this congregation. We shall also look at our values and our hopes for the future. And if we do want to survive and flourish, we will fully accept that we must honor our strengths and be responsive to change. Can we do this? Will we remain static and unchanging or will we evolve and become a congregation that will thrive in the 21st century.
As my friend said – we are “really smart animals.” So hopefully we’ll make good choices and we will, indeed, thrive!
May It Be So!