On the eve of the 201st anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, it is tempting to renew the battle with his foes. They lurk out there by the millions. Those of us who hold Darwin's theory of evolution to be the greatest scientific insight of all time know that we can never rest. Attempts to suppress or distort the teaching of evolution are always evolving.
The latest tactic of anti-evolutionists, propelled by the film Expelled, is to claim that teachers and professors who want to preach the gospel of death to evilution are victims of "Big Science." Their academic freedom, we're told, is being trampled.
It's a clever tactic. Tugs on the hearts of audiences, don't you know. But before you pull out your hanky and wipe away tears of sympathy for the valiant rebels in the classroom, ask yourself this. Would you want your child taught by a geography teacher who insists that the world is flat? Police recruits trained by an officer who tells them that you can tell who the Devil has possessed by looking in their eyes? Or your doctor trained by a medical school professor who teaches that the cure for cancer is all in the mind? These are legitimate religious beliefs, and I would defend the right of anyone to hold them, BUT:
Religious freedom ends where professional obligations begin.
Nevertheless, stealth fundies in public teaching positions continue to abuse the public's trust by inserting their own Creationist theologies into the curriculum. In Mt. Vernon, Ohio, a surprising number of townspeople are rallying to the defense of a fanatical fundie accused of burning crosses into the arms of his students. It makes you wonder: if he had staked and burned a girl as a witch, would they defend that too?
Meantime, cynical rightwing pols continue to wheedle and kowtow to the Creationists. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry and his allies on the state Board of Education are trying to wash out evolution and prop up religion in the curriculum.
But let's put all that aside and look on the bright side. Two centuries after Darwin's birth, the theory he labored over for a lifetime has never been stronger, more vibrant, nor more widely accepted. Evolution, so often miscast as "everything happened by chance" is instead now recognized as a brilliant paradigm that illuminates the nonrandom way in which everything living works. In essence, evolution explains how things that have the ability to replicate with tiny variations adapt to changing conditions. To be sure, this paradigm applies mostly to the genes of living organisms. But it turns out to have utility in many other fields: medicine, psychology, computer science, economics, marketing, finance, and more.
What's more, contrary to the shopworn cant of Creationists, evolution is not "just a theory" but a fundamental insight about our living environment. As scientific theory and fact, it has been confirmed many times over through independent lines of evidence, including direct observation. Don't waste your time worrying over "transitional fossils." Not only are they abundant, they are largely irrelevant. If every single one of them was to mysteriously disappear, we would still have overwhelming evidence of the common ancestry and diversification of life in the molecular record of our genes. And that, my friends, ain't goin' away anytime soon.
On the contrary, the evidence of the genes has persuaded more people than ever of the reality of evolution. It's amazing how the arcane subject of genetics has diffused into popular culture. Grandmas and teens alike casually speak of how they must have a gene for pizza-snarfing, or how snorting when they laugh must be in their genes. It's a short hop from there to embracing evolution.
And that is just what congregations all over these United States will be doing in the next few days. More than 800 churches, synagogues, and other houses of worship have signed on for "Evolution Weekend." They come from all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia, and a dozen nations abroad. Congregants will gather this weekend to demonstrate that each in their own way puts the lie to the claim that a person of faith must choose between God and science.
The 850 congregations who have signed on represent only a tiny fraction of the total that embrace the compatibility of science and religion. The church that I attend with my wife, First-Plymouth UCC, is not on the list, yet I know it to be in full sympathy with the compatibility stand. (Full disclosure: I am not a member of the church. As I've previously stated, I am a nonreligious agnostic.)
Still, if those numbers don't impress you, consider this. Evolution Weekend is part of the Clergy Letter Project, organized by the inexhaustible Michael Zimmerman, a biology professor at Butler University in Indiana. The project he started has now collected more than 12, 000 signatures from Christian clergy and hundreds of clergy from other faith traditions who all lend their names to the claim that:
...the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
What a powerful statement! It would ease Darwin's oft-troubled mind to know that his ideas have not only vaulted science into the Third Great Age of Discovery but helped draw religion out of its embattled us-versus-the-heathen past and to the dawn of a new age of tolerant universalism. For if scriptural literalism cannot be true -- and it plainly cannot -- then what the late Sir John Templeton called "the humble approach" to truth must prevail.
Happy 201st birthday, Darwin. We owe you, and we honor you.