Ever since that fateful day in 1924 when John Thomas Scopes told his principal that he would rather teach biology than driver’s education, evolution has been in and out of the news. On Sept. 10 the Texas State Board of Education will, inexplicably, hold another public debate on how much science high school science students should be allowed to learn.
Creationists, who believe that evolution is incompatible with a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, have besieged textbook hearings since the 1980s, but the religious right has recently changed tactics. Nouveau creationist groups with innocuous names like The Discovery Institute are now armed with big bank accounts, doctoral degrees and pseudoscientific information.
While thinking Christians tend to dismiss such efforts, this debate (and the board’s vote in November) could change the way science is taught in Texas. Whenever fundamentalists start re-writing textbooks it’s bad news for students, who need to learn the best science possible. (No one debates whether evolution should be included in college textbooks.)
The foolishness in Austin reminds us that we need to look beyond the rancor, fear, ignorance and bumper-sticker monkey jokes to see the big picture. According to a recent Gallup Poll, nearly half of the American public leans more toward creationism than evolution. Too many people think they must choose between an unthinking creationism and an unbelieving evolutionism.
Creationism rejects the theory of evolution in favor of the view that the world is only a few thousand years old, and that God had to create each species separately. (C.I. Scofield was serious when he wrote that God created the earth on a bright sunny day in October 4004 B.C.)
Some elements of creationism are confusing, contradictory and silly. Would God drop 100,000-year-old bones all over the earth for a practical joke? Are dinosaur fossils nothing more than God’s attempt to inspire Steven Spielberg?
Science does not threaten faith, but scientism (the notion that only science says anything about ultimate reality) does. Evolutionary thought is frequently aligned with atheism. Some believe that if humans evolved from other organisms, then God must be unnecessary. Scientism is more faith than science, because it goes beyond what science can establish. You don’t have to be particularly evolved to realize that evolution doesn’t preclude God.
Scientists in Australia have found fossilized remains of life dating back further than ever before. They have evidence of primitive, multi-celled animals nearly three billion years ago. Inside those cells was DNA—incredibly complex strands of chemicals, laced together in a design so sophisticated that no one understands exactly how it works. Who do you think could have thought of something like that, way back then?
Science and religion don’t conflict when everyone recognizes that the two work with different questions. Science asks “How?” and “When?” Religion deals with “Who?” and “Why?” Genesis is not about how creation happened; it’s about the Creator. The people who wrote Genesis weren’t interested in physics or geology, but in the God who enacts the laws of physics and geology and makes them work.
In the fifth century, some Christians gave Saint Augustine a hard time because he didn’t believe Genesis was a literal account of creation. Augustine suggested they engage in serious study of the world. He argued that Christians are always in danger of making fools of themselves in the eyes of unbelieving scientists if they do not know their science. We should take biology as well as the Bible seriously, knowing that whatever we learn that is true isn’t news to God.
There is no religious reason for supposing that God didn’t plan and lead creation over the course of billions of years as modern science suggests. Why is it any less miraculous to recognize evolution as one of the many ways God works in the world? Science, at its best, describes how God did and does. We cannot comprehend the depth of what God has created, but we can give thanks that the earth belongs to God, that in the beginning God called the world into being and called it good.
Brett Younger is pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.