President Bush announced recently that he believed “intelligent design” should be taught alongside evolution in public schools. With school districts in many parts of the country embroiled in legal battles relating to the teaching of evolution versus some form of creationism, the president’s comments give new life to an already lively debate.
It’s a thorny issue. The theory of evolution offers a view of the development of life without any reference to God. Leaving God out, many Christians argue, skews our understanding of human existence. If we are here just by happenstance, just a lucky lightning strike in a pool of amino acids, then what does life really mean? Meaningful human existence for people of faith means life is a gift from God.
The problem for scientists is that you cannot do honest science with God as part of the equation. God, by definition, cannot be contained in the narrow space of a scientific experiment—God is pretty stubborn about being boxed in that way. Scientists argue that in order to understand how things work, how they originated, it is necessary to use only scientific methods. Saying “God did it” is not a statement of provable science—it is a statement of faith.
One way the faith community has responded to this is to present their theology in the form of scientific language. Instead of talking about God, they talk about “creation science.” These folks call themselves “young-Earth creationists” and follow the book of Genesis and its six-day scheme as the model for how the world was created. They vary over whether it was six actual days or six symbolic days—but agree that everything was created all at once—hence no evolving of species over a long period.
But there is massive evidence that life did evolve, and so over time creationism has morphed into the idea of intelligent design. The ID folks no longer insist that creation followed the biblical pattern. They are willing to admit to the idea of a long, long span of time in the development of life. They are even prepared to admit that life evolved. What they reject is the idea of natural selection. Life may have evolved, they believe, but only according to a divine plan.
But there are problems for some people of faith who also practice science. Kenneth Miller, author of Finding Darwin’s God, is both an evangelical Christian and a biologist. His difficulty with intelligent design is that it does not seem to be very intelligent. The fossil record demonstrates that life has lurched forward in fits and starts, dead ends and failed species. If God is directing all this, Miller writes, it is a very strange direction.
The sad thing for me is that the debate is and has long been co-opted by politicians. What we need are honest people of faith and science having a reasonable conversation about the origins of life. What we get are demagogues who use fear as a way to gain power.
Who knows who will win in the short run, but in the long run my guess is it will be science. At least that’s been the pattern for the past 500 years. After all, the earth is not flat and the sun does not revolve around it—both former firm positions of faith.
Of course that does not mean that science is better than faith—each has an important role to play in our lives. Science can help us figure out how stuff happens but it takes faith to tell us what it means,
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.