Darwin Goes to Church

By Henry G. Brinton
Sunday, September 18, 2005

Most adult Sunday school classes don't raise eyebrows, but my church is planning to hold one that's sure to. It's called "Evolution for Christians," and it will be taught this winter by David Bush, a member of the church I lead, Fairfax Presbyterian. David is an articulate government retiree who has been interested in this topic for nearly two decades, teaches a class on theories of the origins of life every five years or so, and once again has really done his homework. His view is that science and religion answer two different sets of questions about creation, with science answering the "how" questions, and religion answering the "why" ones. "With a little bit of wisdom and tolerance on each side," he tells me, "I think they can complement rather than contradict each other."

His is the kind of approach I have confidently embraced ever since I studied biology and religion in college. But the debate between evolution and intelligent design has become increasingly shrill -- especially since President Bush told a group of reporters over the summer that "Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought." Last week it hit Comedy Central's "Daily Show," with a series of spots titled, "Evolution Schmevolution!" And, within my own church, two highly educated members -- university professors, in fact -- have taken wildly different positions on the issue: One considers evolution to be "mind-boggling and completely illogical," while the other says, "I don't see intelligent design fitting into a science class in any way."

And the stakes are high: Members have left my church over the evolution issue because they object to some church leaders' acceptance of a theory that is not Bible-based teaching; a local professor has been barred from teaching a cell biology class at George Mason University because of controversy over her beliefs; and religious leaders across the country are now seeing this as a defining issue in the culture wars.

Like many Christians, David Bush believes that the biblical account of creation is an ancient piece of poetry that was never meant to be a literal, scientific description of what happened as life appeared on the earth. Instead, it's a faith-based explanation of why life exists, and how humans are to care for it. Science, on the other hand, has never answered the question of wh y life exists, even through endless proofs based on observation and replication by multiple sources. Science can tell us how things work, but it can never answer questions such as why the Big Bang occurred, or why the first bacterium appeared.

I agree that science and religion answer very different kinds of questions, so I worry about the doors of science classrooms being opened to intelligent design -- the assertion that biological systems are so complex that they must have been constructed by some sort of guiding hand. I'm also a strong believer in the intelligence and guidance of God. Nonetheless, I would be very upset if the biology teachers at Robinson Secondary School, where my children are students, departed from the mechanics of mitosis and began to bring their Mormon or Methodist or Muslim beliefs into discussions of why God chose to create cells.

It's fine to learn about different schools of thought, as long as we recognize just that -- they're different. Some are religious, and some are scientific. What bothers my church member Jerry Parrott, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University, is that "intelligent design theorists don't scientifically establish divine creation at all -- they merely try to represent scientific problems as evidence of scientific inadequacy." They assume, for instance, that since the human eye is marvelously complex, and since scientists cannot map a complete evolutionary path for it, then it must be a product of an intelligent designer. But the eye actually shows many signs of having evolved, including a number of defects that no intelligent designer would ever include -- light receptors in the back of the eye, for example, behind blood vessels that obstruct the view. "Accusing a God of [designing] such a thing seems rather insulting, actually," says Jerry.

When I preach on the biblical story of creation, I tend to keep my focus narrow. Instead of trying to reconcile scientific and religious ideas about the earth's creation in a 15-minute sermon, I use the time to preach on what Genesis says about divine creativity, or human sinfulness or the importance of Sabbath rest, although I know there are members of my church who want a more literal approach to the creation story.

I also know there are members of the religious community who object more openly than I do to any kind of teaching of intelligent design theories. My divinity school classmate Gene McAfee, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in suburban Cleveland, insists that those who believe in creationism and intelligent design are primarily people with a conservative theological agenda, and he is convinced that "the story of creation is a blueprint for these folks for how women and men are supposed to live with each other and with creation -- heterosexually and dominatingly." As much as Gene would like to be seen as open-minded, he says that he won't be "bullied" into calling religion "science," "no matter how many people keep repeating that fiction."

I've found a path that reflects my own beliefs and education and that most of my parishioners can accept, but I'm aware that the ongoing clash between science and faith needs to be addressed directly. Religious classes such as "Evolution for Christians" are a good place to start the discussion, but debates also need to be taken to school board meetings by church members who recognize the importance of keeping religion out of public school classrooms. People who want their schools to teach science with integrity have to be willing to draw lines, and to insist that their school boards maintain distinctions. Intelligent design will be worthy of mention in a science classroom only when scientists find empirical evidence to support it. Until then, it will have to be limited to classes taught in churches or religious schools.

Caroline Crocker, who teaches biology at Northern Virginia Community College and is a member of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, challenges my views. She suggests that scientific evidence for intelligent design may be found using techniques we now have for detecting meaningful patterns that suggest intelligence. These methods are used in forensics to find murderers, and in SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. When they are applied to complex molecular systems, it looks as though intelligence has been involved in their design, she argues, because these systems are both purposeful and complex. "We can say that it appears intelligence was involved," she tells me, "but, of course, to say what that intelligence was crosses the line into theology."

It's a tenet of my faith that there is divine intelligence at work in every aspect of the universe. Where I differ from some Christians is in my acceptance of evolution as a part of God's creative plan. I think natural selection fits very nicely with the Ten Commandments, for instance: Break the rule about adultery, and you will find your longevity threatened by a sexually transmitted disease or a jealous husband; and, on the positive side, it appears to me that love and altruistic actions generally enhance a life, rather than diminish it. There's an elegant simplicity to natural selection that fits very well with the concept of a God who's willing to take His time with us, and let us face the logical consequences of our actions, both bad and good. "Natural selection is a study in patience," says Richard Key, a physician in Dothan, Ala., and a member of an evangelical church who has written me with deep concern about the divisiveness of the evolution debate. "And God is a patient God." So even the debate between intelligent design and evolution is ultimately theological, not scientific -- about beliefs, not proofs.

This becomes clear to me when my church member Jerry Cook, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at George Mason University, asserts that "most who believe in evolution deny the role and even the existence of God, making it come down to evolution versus God." And when Crocker, who tells me she was "falsely accused of teaching creationism" at George Mason, speaks of naturalism, "the hidden philosophy found associated with Darwinian evolution," I sense that our conversation has moved beyond the world of empirical evidence and has entered the realm of worldviews. Both Jerry and Caroline know what a profound influence evolution has had, and they are aware that when it shifts from being a scientific theory to being a philosophy of life, it will pose a real threat to Christianity. It's not neutral to teach evolution and insist that it "not even be questioned in the classroom," says Jerry. "It is atheistic."

I agree with their assessment, but not their response -- instead of imposing religion on science, I think it's better to work to keep the two separate. I realize that some conservative pastors will call me naive, insisting that Darwinism is a godless belief system that encourages people to reject the supernatural and embrace the idea that randomness rules the universe.

But I'm not insecure about preaching Christianity and standing up to any belief system that challenges it, as long as the conversation remains grounded in religion, and not some religious-scientific hybrid. I believe that my faith, like any faith, is strongest when it answers the questions it is prepared to answer, and when it avoids the questions it cannot address. For me, and for many of my parishioners, a core religious conviction is that God is the creator of life and the one who gives it meaning and purpose. Any questions about the mechanics of life are best left to science.

Author's e-mail : hgbrinton@aol.com

Henry Brinton is the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church.

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