February 12, 1809 must have seemed like an ordinary day to those alive at the time, but we now know it to be the birth day of two giants of humanity: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. Lincoln ended slavery in the United States in the 19th century, and Darwin made one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 19th century. The same types of people vilified both these great men, often for the same reasons.
Slaveholders had economic incentives to maintain their abominable institution, encouraged by the blessing of southern clergy and politicians who biblically justified the morality of human slavery. Rev. Richard Furman, from my hometown of Charleston, was the first president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention and founder of the university that bears his name. Said Furman, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America, added, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” Many northern progressive Christians were abolitionists, they would have lost handily in biblical debates against southern religious literalists.
Today Abraham Lincoln is revered for what he accomplished, and the humanist principle that it is morally wrong for one person to own another is commonly accepted.
Charles Darwin, on the other hand, is far from universally respected in the United States, where too many religious authorities still treat the Bible as a science book. We wouldn’t expect scientifically ignorant biblical writers who lived thousands of years ago in a small corner of the Mediterranean to have described the theory of evolution (or DNA, or any discovery of modern science), and they didn’t. What we do find in the Bible is a flat, unmoving Earth at the center of a 6,000 year-old universe, and the whole number three as the true value of pi [1 Kings 7:23]. The modern scientific theory of evolution conflicts with Genesis, and describes how natural selection can easily explain our existence without need for a divine creator.
When I was young, public schools were closed on Darwin’s birthday, though the official reason was to commemorate the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Now there is a growing movement to publicly celebrate February 12 as Darwin Day. But instead of closing schools, I’d like to see it become a day for students to study and explore the great scientific discoveries that spring from Darwin’s work.
With encouragement from the American Humanist Association, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) proposed H. Res. 41 to Congress, expressing support for the designation of February 12, 2013, as Darwin Day and recognizing the importance of science in the betterment of humanity. While I’m thrilled to see this resolution introduced by Rep. Holt and co-sponsors, I’m not optimistic about its passage. Why? Because, for example, one of the members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee who will consider this House resolution is Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA). He referred to evolution (and the Big Bang) as “lies straight from the pit of hell.”
Religious forces have been trying to water down science education in public schools at least since the time of Darwin. In response, atheists and scientifically minded theists are joining forces to promote science and educate communities about evolution. This includes a number of “friendly” debates between atheists and Darwinian theists.
For example, my academic institution, the College of Charleston, holds an annual “Darwin Week.” Dr. Rob Dillon, who is both an evolutionary biologist and a committed Christian, organizes the yearly event. In 2011, he arranged a debate between Dr. Karl Giberson (physics professor and vice president of the BioLogos forum founded by Dr. Francis Collins of the Genome Project) and me. We argued the question “Does science make belief in God harder or easier?” This year’s debate between an atheist and a Christian asks “Are Science and Faith Compatible?”
Both sides in these debates accept the theory of evolution, but dispute its implications. Christian evolutionists try to show the compatibility of evolution and Christianity, fearing that people who are forced to choose between the two will dismiss evolution. Atheists tend to agree with religious fundamentalists that scientific naturalism is incompatible with belief in an intervening deity. In my debate, for instance, Dr. Giberson concurred that science has proven many biblical miracles to be false, but he said Christians should believe in the Resurrection miracle because it’s essential to Christianity. Hmm. That’s not an easy position to hold.
While we can look back with astonishment at the scientifically illiterate geocentric battles of the Middle Ages, most of the western world regards our current evolution battles with equal amazement. The theory of evolution is not controversial within any scientific community. But in this country many religious and political groups have successfully promulgated the view that Darwin’s work is significantly flawed, which explains why about half our populace remain suspicious of evolution.
Moral issues are more easily understood than scientific issues, which helps to explain why so many Americans who reject slavery still cling to a worldview that includes “scientific” creationism. When an unknown Charles Darwin set sail on the Beagle in 1831, he was a firm creationist. Confronted by the evidence unearthed during years of study, he changed his mind. Celebrating Darwin Day on February 12 won’t eliminate all ignorance of and disrespect for the scientific method, but it would be a positive step. Perhaps it will lead to a more enlightened era when even religious conservatives accept evolution, just as they came to accept an earth that revolves around the sun.