By Paul Connelly
I’m a bit confused, and as a Christian, a bit embarrassed about the evolution/creationism conflict that’s getting a lot of play in the media. Now, maybe this is all a big media creation (sorry) since conflict sells. But I just don’t get it.
Now, I’m not sure I’ve followed the whole thing completely, but my take on it is that paleontologists and other scientists have been working to test and correct Darwin’s hypothesis pretty well ever since the publication of “The Origin of Species.” Many atheists, no doubt, welcomed Darwin’s work while others were horrified. As far as I can tell, the theory of evolution does not prove God doesn’t exist, but merely(!) claims God is not needed for the creation of the universe. Frankly, I don’t see why that upsets to many Christians because, as far as I can tell, many people – not all of them Christians – act all the time like they don’t need God.
Okay, so evolution is a scientific theory. So far, though I have read no primary works but have relied only on popularizers, I understand that while there has been fossil and other evidence that has refined and (ahem) evolved the theory since Darwin’s time, there has been no credible evidence that the theory, as currently understood by those working in the field, is wrong. There are debates within the field, of course, about exactly how it works, but the existence of such a debate does not mean the basic outlines are in doubt.
Except by people espousing creationism or intelligent design. And this is where I really start to wonder. It seems to me that the Christians who attack the theory of evolution attacking the “strong”, rather than the “weak” side of the theory. From what I’ve read, arguments like “how can you explain eyes through evolution?” or “what about two independent species that have a symbiotic relationship – how could they have evolved?” have been refuted. (I don’t want to rehash the arguments here; that’s not my point.)
I think a lot of Christians have accepted that evolution is a credible theory about how the world works. They (and I) are less concerned with questions about the mechanics of how the world came about and are more interested in questions like what it all means and how do we respond to it. I think it is quite acceptable to say I believe that God created the world and life on it and that evolution is a mechanism by which it happened.
I realize I don’t have any “proof” of either half of that statement. I don’t have any direct evidence that God exists. Similarly, I understand that evolution is “only a theory” and is subject to revision were new data to be uncovered that makes the current theory untenable. But the fact that it’s only a theory doesn’t make it wrong, since it is a theory that fits the data as we know it.
The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould influenced (or perhaps articulated better) my thinking on this issue with his theory of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” To oversimplify it, this means that science discusses how things happen and religion is how we understand the meaning of these events. Gould’s idea of how to “call a truce” between science and religion was criticized by some scientists and some Christians, but it made sense to me. I was tickled to note that at some point the Vatican officially stated that evolution was not incompatible with Christianity.
Unfortunately, this truce does not look like it will last. On the one hand, many on the evangelical “right” of Christianity (forgive the oversimplification) want to disprove evolution by any means necessary, including promoting bad science in school textbooks. Some atheists (most famously Richard Dawkins from the scientific community and Christopher Hitchens from the argumentative, self-satisfied twit community) have responded by accusing religion of being responsible for mass murder, colonialism, misogyny and a host of other sins. Religious leaders (including the Pope in his recent visit to the UK) then started equating atheism with the worst horrors of the 20th Century (the holocaust, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.).
None of this is very edifying, and I fear that in the quest of both “sides” for “victory,” we’ll all lose. Take, for example, the question of war. In it’s simplest form, it’s a struggle between one group and “the other.” I think maybe this very basic impulse was an evolutionary advantage early in human history. (But that doesn’t mean evolutionary theorists “caused” it.) Early humans faced a hostile world, relied on the people closest to them and were very suspicious of beings outside their group.
Jesus was aware of this dynamic, and spoke against it. He was very clear that his listeners had to expand their definition of what “the group” meant. It meant including Samaritans, tax collectors, the infirm, the Romans, all the people the religious leaders of the day saw seen as outsiders.
The sad truth is that even though Jesus indentified this problem, Christianity has not been able to overcome it. The various wars over the Reformation stand as an indictment.
But saying Christianity has not been able to overcome sectarian violence is not the same as saying Christianity causes it. As I say, sectarianism runs right to the earliest days of our evolutionary history. But we’re in a situation now where neither the “Christians” nor the “atheists” (as labeled in the media wars) is interested in nuance. Both sides want “victory,” whatever that means.
And where does that leave me? Frustrated, I guess. I see people ridicule Stockwell Day or Sarah Palin, to take two not entirely random examples, and put them down because of their “Christian” views, because “everyone knows” that “sophisticated” people don’t believe what they do. But I want people to oppose them because their views about how society should be organized are unjust, and basically antithetical to Christianity.
So here’s my question:
How do I rescue a vision of Christianity that can accept evolution, focus on meaning and try to translate the message of Jesus (love the other as yourself, overcome suspicion, worship in spirit and truth) into a way of living that can help redirect the destructive energies of the “Christianity vs. atheism” battle into a common struggle to improve our world and rejoice in creation?
Or am I out to lunch?