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    Why evolution should be taught in church

    Aryan Jesus loves himself a little velociraptor. Image source: Monty Propps at b3ta.com

    This article first appeared at Religion Dispatches

    These are busy times for those who fight the teaching of creationism in public schools. It’s like playing a giant game of Whack-a-Mole: In January alone, anti-evolution forces first raised their heads in North Carolina. Whack. Then Kentucky. Whack. Then Ohio. Whack. Then Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas. Whackwhackwhack.

    The fight continues. And I encourage everyone to support those who wants our kids to grow up in the real world, which is so beautiful and surprising and rich. 

    Anyway, there’s a nice little piece of snark that has popped up from the more atheistic side of the pro-science forces. This group of folks has noticed that, since the creationist and intelligent design crowd (they’re the same crowd) want creationism taught in the public schools, it’s only fair that the supporters of real science should ask: Well, can we teach evolution in your churches?

    I think that’s a mighty fine idea.

    Why go to church?

    Why do people go to church? I mean, besides the fact that churches often make dandy country clubs, besides the fact that going to church is a highly effective method for keeping us Christians from facing the facts about ourselves (“I’m at church, see? I’m one of the good ones! See?”), and besides the fact that no human being can resist doing something for the simple reason that it’s always been done?

    What I mean is, are there genuine social or intellectual or spiritual reasons for going to church?

    Yes. Underneath all the nonsense and pomposity, there are very good reasons why we Christians go to church. But I would like to suggest that, ultimately, people go to church because of mystery. This is not mystery in the sense of Whodunnit?, or in the sense of “What makes a rainbow so pretty?”; instead, this is the very mystery of existence itself; it is the bare fact of us showing up, without even having been asked, on this loneliest of planets in this strangest of universes. All people who attend church — conservative, liberal, whatever — do so, at least in part, because of mystery. They may never use that word, but there it is nonetheless.

    This is not to say that all are motivated by mystery in exactly the same way. Some people attend church in order to receive answers to the hard questions life throws at them, to shield them from the dark realities of modern life, to seek reliable absolutes by which to measure the world. That is, those in this group attend church in order to escape mystery. Because mystery means not knowing, and people must know.

    This is broad generalization, to be sure, but many, many people are powerfully motivated by the fear of the utter mystery of life. It is, after all, the great unknown. And to not know is to give up control, to be shut out in the dark, to drift, to face the abyss with no armor. Flight is a very human response to mystery.

    But sometimes the need for control, absolutes, and knowledge careens out of control. To wit: Those who desire to have creationism taught in our nation’s public schools. They know, because the Bible says so; and what’s more, they know so well that they’re going to take control of the educations not only of their own children, but of everyone else’s, too. After all, isn’t it good to know the truth, and isn’t it good to share it, even if that means stacking school boards and inciting legal battles? It’s the truth, and nothing justifies like the truth.

    Facing the unknown

    But some churchgoers do not attend every Sunday in search of answers. These people understand the church not as a provider of answers but as a poser of questions. That is, for these Christians the task of he church is not to clear away mystery, but to deepen it; to teach its congregation how to bear mystery — and “the truth” — lightly. The unknowns of life may be terrifying, but this group knows that facing them squarely can be fantastically liberating.

    It is under this second understanding of the church that its teaching of evolution makes a lot of sense.

    My earliest experiences that could be called “religious” were delivered to me by the hands of science. When I was in third or fourth grade my dad showed me a geologic timeline in a Time-Life book  on natural history. My eyes followed its epochs, periods, eras, and eons down the page until they converged on the dark Hadean eon, marking earth’s very assembly 4.5 billion years ago.

    I was stupified. With its boxes and numbers and colors and fine print the timeline seemed to me a thing of great elegance. The words — Ordovician, Silurian, Jurassic, Eocene — were themselves rare discoveries, whatever they signified. Yet standing at the edge of that precipice was, for me, secretly scary. It was profoundly disorienting. It made me feel utterly empty, like I was an absolute nothing. Like I was a ghost.

    But it also made me feel giddy, joyful, and free. I could not take my eyes from it. Night after night, I took the Time-Life book to bed with me and I read it until I could read no more.

    This quiet but transformative introduction to deep time started me off on a terrific three-year-long obsession with dinosaurs and evolution and geology and astronomy. Other encounters with nature had similar effects on me: They made me feel empty, terrified, and utterly happy and free, and I wound up being a physicist and astronomer. And the irony is, it was science and the natural world — and not the church — that introduced me to mystery. Or, to be more direct, it was science and the natural world — and not the church — that introduced me to God.

    Mine is not an isolated case. Over time I have come to know many others with similar experiences. Many of these are scientists who, like me, entered the scientific world out of their love of nature. Yet unlike me, most of them were — and still are — agnostics or atheists. They know the wonder, they know the profound amazement, they know the jaw-dropping disbelief that comes with even a modestly scientific view of the world. Whatever their theological position, they know something about what we religious sorts call mystery. And they don’t have to give it the same name I do to know what I’m talking about. I suspect many atheistic scientists know more about mystery — about God, even — than many believers, but they would never call it God.

    Those who attend church the most, reject evolution the most. Is this a necessary relationship? No, we say. Data courtesy of Gallup


    The church, in its ignorance of and hostility to evolution (and science in general), is passing up one of its greatest opportunities to apprehend the very God it claims to represent. This irony is due to a terrible case of what may be called “small-god-ism” and is, unfortunately, encouraged by much popular theology. This theology makes claims about scripture and church practice that reduce God to a cheerleader, or a cosmic vending machine, or some domesticated and pale image of our own confused selves. Such a god is clearly not sufficient to contain all of reality. And in the face of the challenge posed by modern science, instead of rejecting whatever idea of God one has constructed, reality itself is rejected. So evolution is like sex — it’s there, all right, but it is not to be mentioned in church. What would decent people think? What would God think?

    If “God” is not large enough to contain this universe in all its immensity and complexity and age, then it’s just not God. God is not a thing; God does not exist like we exist, or like the moon exists. God is like nothing we can know in language or image. God transcends these things and all we can know or imagine. This includes what we know of evolution, cosmology, geology, and any other science. Christians have absolutely nothing to fear.

    Here’s another irony: None other than the late great atheist Carl Sagan has said all of this already. In his book Pale Blue Dot, he wrote,

    How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed”? Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.”

    Rather sentimental people often argue that the more science one knows, the less mysterious and wondrous nature becomes. But this is simply not so. The insistence that the wonder of nature is reduced by scientific knowledge is no different than insisting that scripture can only be understood literally; both are fixated on appearances and are based in the fear of the unknown. At the initial stages, historical criticism may seem to needlessly desiccate the Bible. But over time the effect of study is a radical deepening of the text. Careful and sustained attention releases a kind of wonder from the pages of scripture; this has been attested to my many over the centuries. But this level of appreciation does not come from a literal reading; it comes by digging deeply and patiently in order to find the meaning that is found beneath and between the words on the page.

    The “book of nature,” as the natural world is sometimes called, is no different. Beauty in nature begins at the surfaces but compounds rapidly beneath. All scientists know this. Keeping this beauty and wonder and mystery from those who come to church in search of God is simply unfair. By keeping the best of modern science out of the church, a disservice is done not only to those who come looking for God, but to society at large.

    Who knows — it may be that, by teaching evolution in the church and presenting it in the context of the Christian faith, we may help, in some small way, to shut down the great national game of Whack-a-Mole.

    Comment Pages

    There are 10 Comments to "Why evolution should be taught in church"

    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, you did three recent posts here with overlapping points, so I am picking this one to make a response to. When you speak of things such as “unknowability” (my term) and the like, I can’t overstress, I think, my point that this is dangerously close to “nothing.” Thought, to have content, is a means of “differentiation” between things. “Light” versus “dark” (“Let there be light. And God SEPARATED the light from the darkness.”) Of course there are “gradations” between different things, but we still have the concept of “lighter” or “darker” as though we were referencing two “distinct” things.

      “Truth” versus “falsehood” is another such distinction. When we make a statement which matches up with reality, we are speaking the truth. When we say something which does not, we are telling a lie. If I say, “The sun revolves around the earth,” I am telling a lie. Likewise, earth around the sun is true.

      It seems to me you are saying we can make “truth” statements which really say, “I just don’t ‘know’ what it is I am talking about.” Rather, I would say, “I don’t yet know what the true statement about this subject is because I don’t know enough about it yet.” Science, at least until recently “revised” by some, was a quest to find out the “truth” about things–not launch off into some “deep” where we just can’t talk about things. Certainly there can conceivably be some things respecting which we cannot (at least at the moment) know enough to make “truth” statements about. However, you seem to assume that virtually ALL of what is “significant” falls into this “abyss” of “unknowability.”

      I am unsure how you can “know” this about things. You are making a “truth” statement (this is how “reality” actually is) about something you admit you can’t know anything. This is a self-defeating argument. And I, at least, don’t find “reality” to be that way. What is the basis of your “knowledge” on this point? How was it “revealed” to you that “reality” is the way you are “describing” it (or, perhaps, simply stringing words together about)? Is this something “God” revealed to you? If so, is God the type of “thing” which can “reveal” things? Can at least that much be said about him? Or are you simply making your own “deductions” based on–what?

      You continually castigate people who believe in “special creation,” for example, of making God too “small.” I think, conversely, you rather make him virtually “nothing at all.” I would at least rather have a “small” God, in the sense that I can say something “sensible” about him, than “bask” in some “unknowable abyss” that I just, for some reason, choose to denominate as “God.” Why do you call this “abyss” God? Why not just stick with, “I believe that all that is ‘truly’ important is actually nothing.”

      I accept neither the premise that, “It is more blessed to be ignorant than to know,” nor its corollary that, “Reality ‘forces’ me to accept that this ‘reality’ cannot be known.” On the contrary, the vast majority of what I experience shows me that reality consists of things I CAN know things about. And, I guess in contrast to you, I rather like it that way. Perhaps that is “small-minded” to you. If so, count me in the crowd who would like to know things (small minded) than the group who assert nothing can be known (“BROAD minded”?). I don’t want to “sit in the seat of mockers.” Psalm 1:1.

      As far as the “gloriousness” of trying to learn and yet finding all ultimately “unknowable” being superior to believing you can find the substantive truth about things, I would take the instance of dealing with a complicated upper-level math problem. If I thought there was actually a “solution” to the problem, I would set right out at it and keep plugging away until I found it. If I was told in advance there was no solution, then why bother? Why not open a cold one and watch Duke play basketball instead? I don’t want to be like those who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.” 2 Timothy 3:7.

      I want a God who is “small,” rather than one who is “not at all.” Or, not anything that I can know anything about, or that can do anything. Isaiah jests at those who worship idols because the idols cannot do anything. So it seems to be with your “God.” A God who is “mighty” and “wise” and “loving” and “holy” is much preferable to the God you “posit,” if you can even call it that, or could even know such a thing. Give me the God of the Bible, rather than the “absent” one of such speculative philosophy or “mystical” science. The Apostle Paul tells Timothy to avoid “vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called.” 1 Timothy 6:20 (King James Version). I think I should take his advice in this instance.

      Tom Harkins 02/14/2011 (Happy Valentine’s Day!)


      • Paul Paul says:

        Tom, you write,

        “How was it ‘revealed’ to you that ‘reality’ is the way you are ‘describing’ it (or, perhaps, simply stringing words together about)? Is this something ‘God’ revealed to you? If so, is God the type of ‘thing’ which can ‘reveal’ things? Can at least that much be said about him? Or are you simply making your own ‘deductions’ based on–what?”

        Of course I believe that God is the kind of God who reveals things. I am a Cnristian, and, truth be told, I hold to a fairly orthodox, Nicene theology. But this website is not about basic Nicene theology; it is about something else.

        What is that something else? It is the fact that I believe that major misunderstandings come about when we think we know who/what God is. And we don’t. We can say a few things about God — I for one have said many things about God in the last 140+ posts on psnt — but in the end those words miss their mark. That must always be remembered in all theological talk. I am just trying to remind people that God is beyond concepts. That’s all I’m trying to say here, and I’m trying to work out the consequences of that.

        I also believe that God still reveals things. God is not dead. God is a living presence, right here, right now, as close to us as our next breath, etc. And to absolutely blunt, yes, I believe God has revealed things to me. And part of that has to do with why I am back in school and not still working the tenured faculty job I once held.

        In struggling to follow my call from God I am no different than every other Christian who walks, or has walked, the earth. I don’t feel compelled to describe to you exactly how it happens with me, what that revelation is like, or any other details about it. Cannot one Christian accept another’s call?

        Why do I constantly feel as if I am defending my faith against the attacks of a fellow Christian? Why do I constantly feel belittled by your incredulity and repeated (unspoken) insistence that I’m playing some kind of mind game? Cannot the via negativa, which has been an active part of Christianity for centuries on end, be given the benefit of the doubt? Especially in the face of our common faith?

        I am not making this stuff up, you know. Mysticism, regardless of what the popular notion might be, is not some fuzzy-wuzzy New Age crystal nonsense; it runs thick in the very lifeblood of the Christian tradition. It is a serious piece of the faith you claim, Tom, and I invite you to look into it. You’ll quickly find that I’m just following in a tradition. Others — smarter, more loving, better acquainted with God — have forged this path and thousands have been down it before.

        I’m just one person out of many trying to walk the path of negation. It is not a path of despair or of mind games or of self-delusion. It is a path toward life and toward God, and it’s not for everybody. But it is very much for me and I think it has something to say that needs to be heard.

        That’s all I’m doing here.



    • Tom,

      I think you’re confusing “nothing at all” with “immense beyond human understanding”. “Small or nothing at all” – those are the only choices you see? So you choose a god, who by your own admission is “small”? Really? Responsible for all this? An angry old Jewish guy up in the sky with an inferiority complex? I don’t think so. That’s a god who is clearly just a figment of human imagination. A father figure writ large. Would that everything were so simple, and the ultimate Dad was always there to pick us up when we fall, comfort us when we are afraid, and answer all of those pesky and difficult questions that as human beings, we don’t have answers for. And heaven forbid we accept the answer “I don’t know, and I may never know.” That’s just entirely too scary.



    • Tom Harkins says:

      Andrew, when you say, “immense beyond human understanding,” I’m not sure what you really mean, so it is difficult to know whether to agree with you or not. Of course God is immense beyond human understanding. The real question is, is God capable of ANY “human understanding.” Is God of such a nature that we can know SOMETHING about him, even though we will never exhaust the FULNESS of his being? That’s really the crux of the matter. I submit that if we can know “nothing” IN PARTICULAR about him, we really know “nothing” about him AT ALL, including that he exists at all.

      As to whether God is some “angry old Jewish guy,” you are certainly giving an immensely inaccurate and derogatory caricature of the Biblical view of God. It is certainly true that God can be angry. In fact, God can have a lot of emotions, and is recorded as having them. But you have the matter exactly in reverse to say we are projecting ourselves into God, when in fact it is God who has “projected himself” into us, by making us in his image, rather than the other way around. I realize you reject such a God’s existence, but it is hardly fair to characterize Bible believers as “creating” God when they believe God created them. To suggest that there has been some multi-millennium plot to give people some image of an “angry God” to keep them in line, as you seem to imply, is absurd. The biblical authors spoke as they were moved by the Spirit of God, from their encounters, in one fashion or another, with this personal God whom you deny exists. It is understandable that you have to come up with some other theory of how the Bible came to be since you don’t believe there could be any God to inspire anything, but what you seem to imply has no historical support nor any support in the text of scripture itself.

      I don’t see how you draw the conclusion that I am afraid of saying, “I don’t know” about certain matters. There are a lot of questions I don’t know the answers to, despite my belief in a personal God and his revelation to man both through scripture and by himself becoming incarnate in man in Christ. Also, you seem to forget that I was a “virtual” atheist myself for ten years, so my belief in God now has nothing to do with being “afraid,” or anything of the sort. Instead, I have become persuaded both by personal experience and reading scripture and my own “investigations” that the God who IS God is the one the Bible proclaims–not some “abyss.” Or, something along the lines of a “will-o’-the-wisp,” but “not even that.”

      Tom Harkins 02/15/2011


    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I certainly don’t want to “judge another man’s servant,” as Jesus says, but my “disconnect” comes with the “content” of what you say you believe about God. You say that God is a “living presence, right here, right now.” But does this God have a personality? Does he have the characteristics of love, justness, and holiness? Does he “communicate” discursive truths to his followers (through whatever method)? Is he a “Trinity”? Is Jesus the “Son of God,” as in divine as well as human? These are the kinds of “content” of God which I feel are both “knowable” and “essential” to the Christian faith. Sure, as I mentioned to Andrew, I believe God is ALSO immense beyond full human comprehension, but to say God is “more” than something cannot detract from his being AT LEAST some SPECIFIC things. We can’t just say, “God is not . . .” as the full understanding that we have of God and be consistent with traditional Christianity. That’s my view, and the primary basis of my questions about your posts.

      Tom Harkins 02/16/2011


      • Paul Paul says:

        Tom, you seem to have chosen to ignore the efforts I have made to explain my point of view. I cannot in good cheer keep telling you the same things over and over and over, so I won’t. If you’re confused by this, or would like some clarification, just read any of the many conversations we have already had in these pages. If you will read closely, you will see what I’m talking about.




    • Tom Harkins says:

      Paul, I appreciate your expressing frustration with my not having been on the blog from the outset. However, I don’t think my point here is dependent on anything other than whether your “what God is not” approach to God also allows for God to have SOME definite characteristics that we CAN know, such as along the lines that “conservatives” believe the Bible teaches (taking a fairly “literal” approach as the text would facially indicate). I’m not asking you to agree with me or not as to “specific ones” out of such a “list.” I’m just asking whether your view is compatible with a “list” at all.


    • So God is basically Superman, only REALLY large, and really good, and magical.



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