Sometimes, in conflict, important skirmishes arise purely spontaneously while at other times clashes are impeccably planned. Please be advised that the next important battle in the culture wars is scheduled to take place in Tampa. No, not at the Republican convention! The next major battle is coming to Tampa months before the Republicans are arriving. It will take place in late April at the United Methodist Church's Quadrennial General Conference. And like most conflicts in the culture wars, it threatens to move us into the past by a little more than 150 years.
The issue is the relationship between religion and science with what I can only hope to be a small group of United Methodists working to redefine the denomination's position to bring it fully in line with a fundamentalist, anti-science worldview.
The question is, will the 12 million members of this denomination opt to return to the scientific dark ages? Will they turn their collective backs on modern science? While I can't really imagine such an anti-intellectual thing happening, there are forces at work attempting to turn this position into reality. Let me explain.
At the last Quadrennial General Conference, the three following motions passed demonstrating that the United Methodist Church membership understood that religion and science need not conflict and that faith does not define scientific fact:
1. The sentence, "We find that science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology," was added to the section on "Science and Technology" in the Church's Book of Discipline;
2. The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend were explicitly endorsed by the United Methodist Church; and
3. The Conference adopted a resolution explicitly opposing creationism in all of its forms: "The United Methodist Church goes on record as opposing the introduction of any faith-based theories such as Creationism or Intelligent Design into the science curriculum of our public schools."
I hasten to add that all three of these motions were adopted overwhelmingly.
But now, just four years later, forces are organizing to retract these strong statements. A resolution has been introduced to remove the word evolution from the Book of Discipline. Another has been introduced to retract the endorsement of The Clergy Letter Project and Evolution Weekend. And still a third has been introduced to delete the Church's clear opposition to creationism in the science classroom.
The latter two resolutions were offered by Reverend Gale Shunk from Pennsylvania. He's affiliated with the money-making operation known as Answers in Genesis, the group responsible for the theme park in Kentucky known as The Creation Museum and the group that promotes the belief that humans and dinosaurs playfully cavorted together about 6,000 years ago. Reverend Shunk has explained his position clearly in two essays he published on the Answers in Genesis web page.
In the first of the two, Reverend Shunk makes it clear that he is a young earth creationist who believes "that God created the universe in six solar days." But the good reverend goes further than merely expressing personal opinions that are in opposition to those held by the world's scientific community as well as the teachings of his own denomination. He attacks the very premise of science, the premise that has permitted scientific inquiry to dramatically advance our understanding of the natural world since the scientific method was established. He boldly asserts, "We all would do well to hold on to the changeless eternal Word of God and not put our faith in scientific principles that change constantly when a better theory arises."
The power of science is that all of its conclusions are tentative, open to further investigation and required to be formed in concert with available data. Science has permitted us to make so much progress for the simple reason that we always update our scientific theories as new information arises. But Reverend Shunk criticizes the discipline for its willingness to "change constantly when a better theory arises." Would he have us believe that maggots come from rotting meat, ignoring the theory offered by Louis Pasteur? Or would he have us return to the homunculus theory of human development which stated that fully formed, but very, very tiny, humans were present in each sperm?
In the second of his two Answers in Genesis essays, Reverend Shunk makes the stale argument that evolution should be considered a religion rather than a science: "naturalistic evolution is a belief system itself, not science." Since Reverend Shunk offers little to support his extreme position other than his opinion, I'll not bother to refute his argument other than to offer the following words by conservative judge William Overton, who, in a 1982 ruling, declared it unconstitutional to mandate the teaching of creationism in public school science classes: "it is clearly established in the case law, and perhaps also in common sense, that evolution is not a religion."
What will happen in Tampa? Will the United Methodist Church remain solidly rooted in the 21st century or will it begin a long and fruitless march into the past? You can sit back and watch; I'll keep you informed.
Or you can help shape the future. If you're one of the 12 million members of the denomination, speak up loudly and let your representatives to the Quadrennial Conference know your feelings. There are 998 delegates and you can find out who represents you by contacting your local annual conference office or the United Methodist Church general headquarters.