Thursday, February 19, 2009

Why Hasn’t the American Opinion of Darwin Evolved?

The Dialogue is the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in St. Joseph, MO. Often, I'll post here on the blog my columns for the weekly newsletter. I mention it just so that folks who read the snail-mail version can skip this post if they've already read it.

Our nation’s media was appropriately attentive to the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln over the last week, but somewhere in the midst of the discussions of which Lincoln biography was best I heard mention of another important birthday—that of Charles Darwin. I listened with fascination to the hullabaloo going on across the pond over the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. It turns out that in Great Britain, the scientist and naturalist who wrote The Origin of Species and developed the theory of natural selection, which has “evolved” into what we is now generally called evolution has become a celebrated native son. Darwin adorns British currency and is generally considered a national hero. All sorts of dramatic and very public celebrations of the anniversary are going on in Britain, so why the silence in our culture?

An obvious answer for the American indifference and even hostility to Darwin’s ideas can be found in the dysfunctional way American Christianity has responded to them. Beginning in the early twentieth century, fundamentalist Protestants organized in reaction to a number of issues, chief among them was their perception that evolution challenged the belief of a literal six-day creation of the world as detailed in Genesis. Fundamentalism of any sort is a reaction against modernism, scientific inquiry and pluralism, and American fundamentalist Protestantism is no different. Yet, the ideas ridiculed by H.L. Mencken during the Scopes Monkey Trial moved from being a fringe minority opinion to a stance held by almost half of all Americans in the twenty-first century.

Yet, the responsibility for American Christianity’s hostility towards views held by most scientists cannot solely be laid at the feet of fundamentalists. Moderate and liberal Christians have never been able to articulate a reconciliation of the different claims of science and faith, at least not in a way that captures the popular imagination. Despite the fact that many Christians (myself included) do not have any real difficulty with believing in both a loving Creator and evolutionary science, Christianity in America is generally understood to be hostile to scientific thought in general and evolution in particular. Even Christians who do believe in evolution of one sort or another may divorce their beliefs about science from their beliefs about faith, preferring not to reconcile the two. The result of a religious faith that separates itself from scientific inquiry is a weak faith that is compartmentalized away from the world many believers live in.

I find it easy to poke holes in a fundamentalist understanding of creation; after all, accepting the Genesis accounts (there is more than one) as literal not only means believing in a six 24-hour day creation but also a flat planet that the sun, moon and stars move around. Most fundamentalists I’ve met haven’t gone so far as to reject Newtonian physics or the idea of a round Earth. However, I find it much more difficult to work out exactly how the rigors of scientific inquiry relate to my understanding of a loving and all-powerful God that not only created the universe but continues to interact with his/her creation. I was never very good at science, so it’s no surprise that my brain begins to cramp when I contemplate what exactly is involved in the bending or breaking of the so-called “laws of nature.” Questions of what is rational, irrational and supra-rational befuddle me at times, as do questions of quantum physics and string theory, but I am not afraid of the questions. Every time I have tried to connect my own scientific thinking with my theological thinking, I have been rewarded for the effort. Sometimes I have found answers that satisfied me, but just as often I have been left only with more questions. The answers and the questions, however, have only strengthened my faith; my relationship with God is stronger because I have not bothered with fearing the consequences of asking questions.

One might say that my thinking has evolved as I continue to work on a faith that connects with all of my life—scientific or otherwise. Perhaps it is because of my personal evolution that I am not afraid of Darwin’s ideas. I believe God gave each of us a mind for good reasons, one of which is so we might use our minds in regards to our faith. So, I offer up my thanks to Charles Darwin and to the God who made us both.
Grace and Peace,



lneely said...

Hi Chase. Your blog is fun, and I'm surprised so few people comment here. Let me play devil's advocate.

The theological implications run much deeper than what is written in this post. If evolution is true then the story of creation is false. Where does that leave God? Perhaps there is an intelligent designer who guided the process of evolution? That would be too easy. Most if not all of the evidence supports unintelligent, unaided, 100% natural evolutionary processes. If there is no intelligent designer, then there is no creator. If there is no creator, then what is God? If he didn't create us, then why would he care about us?

Lacking a personal and creative deity, we must necessarily deny the divinity of Christ (i.e. if there is no god, then Christ is not the son of God.) That doesn't mean that we can't gain wisdom from his teachings -- some of them were revolutionary -- but if Christ is no more divine than we are, then he is not our savior by any stretch of the imagination.

Fundamentalists reconcile for this by rejecting evolution altogether, using fallacious and tautological arguments to "support" their belief. They're wrong, laughably so, and their belief stands contrary to all of the evidence. You have to give them credit, though, because they certainly have a grasp on what it means to believe in something...

How, though, is it possible for one to reconcile accepting both evolutionary theory and the divinity of Christ? In what way that cognitive dissonance be resolved?


By the way, not to hijack the thread, but you should be made aware of Missouri House Bill 656, which will render science education in Missouri worthless. I would urge everyone to write their state representatives and demand their opposition to this bill.

revpeep said...

Thanks lneely for a thoughtful post as always.

In regards to why there aren't more posts--I can't answer that--plenty of folks read this blog (so they tell me)--why they don't post I just don't know.

In regards to your observations about faith and evolution, advocates for the devil are always welcome here! :)

The point you make is not a new one. It's been around at least as long as Darwin's ideas if not before. Nonetheless it is a good one--not easily overlooked.

It hinges on the "if" of evolution being "unintelligent" and "unaided". From what I know of evolutionary science and theory, I would agree in the sance that it is not verifiable in a laboratory sence that there is a creator at work in the process. That doesn't necessarily mean such a being or force doesn't exist however.

Even Darwin noted that the origin of the process--the original materials of the universe--remained a mystery and could very well need a "creator" of some kind.

Here's the "if" that my point of view hinges on--IF there is a creator that created not only the elements of the universe but also the rules that generally govern it then by necessity that creator exists beyond the bounds of such rules. And IF such is the case, said creator may continue to interact with creation in a manner that eludes traditional scientific provability.

That activity, by its nature, requires faith--a leap of it--a choice to believe. Such a choice can be a rational one, but by its nature, the choice of faith is not inherently provable in a scientific sense.

The difference between myself and a funda mentalist lies in that I am conscious of the leap of faith I am making and do not need or expect science to back me up. The fundamentalist, ironically, even though he is in reaction to modernity and rationalism, relies precisely on those methods to justify his faith. I do not.

I guess it is just a metter of which "IF" we choose to shart from.

Jeremy said...

Hi Chase,

So I'm just posting from the point of view of a religious naturalist within the liberal Christian tradition. My own faith, informed by science, finds its feet less in descriptions of a personal deity and more in its senses of reverence, wonder, and awe at our natural world.

A couple of my Evolution Sunday sermons are posted online at the Clergy Letter Project website. Google that if you'd like to read them.

I have found, over and over again, that the natural sciences contribute to my religious understanding rather than undermine it in some way. I know that this is something you can relate to, but I wonder what we can do to help bridge the divide that others feel when we live in a world that is physically under threat.

Is there common ground between people of liberal (or no) religion and people of conservative faith? I think so, but, if there is, I suspect we'll have to figure out how to move beyond the culture wars to find it. (Okay, I have another sermon about that, too. Goodness. Me and sermons.)

Since this is a ramble, I'll end by mentioning that I have found poets like Mary Oliver, Pattiann Rogers, William Stafford, Philip Appleman, and Robinson Jeffers to be very helpful. They can sing of science and the spirit. I guess I'm trying to figure out how I can, too.

lneely said...

@Chase: If you haven't already, you should read the story of Kurt Wise (please note that I'm linking to Answers in Genesis with an audible groan). N.B. Kurt Wise is a paleontologist with a legitimate Ph.D. from Harvard. Also read this PBS interview with Francis Collins, the geneticist who headed the Human Genome Project if you aren't familiar with him. Like you (from what I'm reading but correct me if I'm wrong), he subscribes to a theistic evolution -- "God's way of giving upgrades."

For a strongly critical view -- you're probably not surprised in the least to see this one -- but the interview over at Beliefnet with Richard Dawkins gives some real insight to why he thinks the theistic explanation is unsatisfying. In an oversimplified way, I think his objections can be summed up in the words, "Don't name our present ignorance God."

On a scientific topic like evolution, I think that's an important question that needs an answer. Why should we give a name other than "ignorance" to that which we don't know?

lneely said...

Just to make it clear, I applaud and support progressive and liberal religion. This sparks my curiosity, though, so let me play Satan's little helper again; then I'll be good again (for now).

So I'm just posting from the point of view of a religious naturalist within the liberal Christian tradition. My own faith, informed by science, finds its feet less in descriptions of a personal deity and more in its senses of reverence, wonder, and awe at our natural world.

@Jeremy: That is very similar to the way some of the most brilliant scientific minds we've ever known -- Einstein, Hawking, etc. -- viewed the world, and I think that summarizes my own so-called "religious views." I'm reluctant however to use theistic language given that I don't believe in a personal god. In fact, I don't at all fear using the word "atheist" to describe myself, but am often forced to recite at length -- sometimes repetitively -- a version of Bertrand Russell's brilliant explanation.

Interestingly, the common thread is that we're both brights.

What I've found is that the naturalistic world view begs a lot of fundamental questions about Christianity. Without a personal, supernatural deity, how is Christ divine? If Christ isn't divine, then what is Christianity other than traditions and rituals we observe because we enjoy and appreciate traditions and rituals? Even if Christianity is only cultural tradition, is there anything wrong with that at all?

...Or am I just just being deceived by Satan and I need to go pray long and hard for Jesus to save me from the hot, fiery pokers of hell?

This is fascinating. I'm hard pressed to encounter many Christians who are also brights.