As arguments about teaching evolution escalate across this country, dividing communities and forcing teachers and school boards into court, the Episcopal Church is poised to offer a unique and moderating resource.
The recently published Catechism of Creation, with its typically Anglican answers and explanations about the hows and whys of life on earth, may provide a path through the emotionally charged battles over what children are taught and what our society believes.
The December decision by U.S. District Judge John E. Jones in the Dover, Pa., school board case has certainly increased the pressure. Jones called the board’s decision to alter science education to include theories besides evolution “a breath-taking inanity” and ruled it a violation of the Constitution. But the controversy over what will be included in biology classes has been building for some time.
Dover voters made their views known a month earlier in November when they swept from office nearly the entire board. All had supported the introduction of intelligent design – an alternative to evolution that credits an unnamed intelligence with creation -- into the science curriculum.
In Kansas, the opposite happened. There, the state Board of Education approved new standards for science teaching that downplay Darwin and his theories about natural selection. President George Bush joined the fray when he declared himself in favor of a “balanced” debate and called for all theories to be taught in the nation’s schools. Even Pope Benedict XVI has gone on record, using the language of the intelligent design movement, declaring the universe “an intelligent project.”
The controversy is hardly new. From the Scopes “Monkey” trial in 1925 to the 1987 Supreme Court decision declaring creationism a religious belief not to be taught in public schools to today, objections to Darwin’s ideas about natural selection have not gone away. More than 30 states are considering policies that would promote teaching alternatives to evolution or adding them to the curriculum. The National Center for Science Education is documenting efforts in two dozen states.
None of this is surprising. Most Americans do not believe human beings evolved from earlier species. According to a Harris poll taken in July 2005, 22 percent of adults accept that premise. “Almost two-thirds of U.S. adults (64 percent) agree with the basic tenet of creationism, that ‘human beings were created directly by God,’” according to the Harris poll. When asked which theory – creationism, intelligent design or evolution -- should be taught in public schools, 55 percent said all three.
Such an approach is not what the intelligent design supporters are asking, according to Bruce Chapman, founder and president of the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based research organization that presents proposals on public policy and is the major champion of intelligent design, known in current shorthand as ID.
“Our education program is to teach the evidence for and against Darwin’s theory, not impose instruction of ID,” says Chapman, who describes himself as a former Episcopalian. By his definition, “intelligent design holds that certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process like natural selection.”
Chapman faults the church’s Catechism of Creation for giving a faulty definition of ID, “setting up a straw-man argument and then knocking it down.”
The tactics of many ID opponents are unfair, he says. “Instead of answering the charges of scientific errors, the defenders of Darwinism are trying to change the subject to … religion. Their tactic is to label any scientific critic ‘a religious rightist’ or ‘creationist,’ even though creationism teaches the literal biblical account of life’s origin, while none of the scientists drawing the Darwinists’ ire shares that position.”
Chapman laments the treatment of scientists who support ID. “[Those] who dissent from Darwin have, in many cases, been slandered personally.” Many remain silent for fear of losing their university posts, he says.
More than 475 scientists have signed the Discovery Institute’s Dissent from Darwin statement. “There is far more support than appears on the surface,” Chapman says, pointing to a European conference on ID that “attracted 700 attendees and featured leading scientists from Britain, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Slovakia as well as the United States.”
No need for conflict
The scientists on the Episcopal Church Executive Council’s Committee on Science, Technology and Faith, who wrote the catechism, “are trying to deconstruct the idea that there has to be a conflict,” says Dr. Paul Julienne, a physicist from Fairfax, Va. He and other committee members are preparing a resolution to be presented to General Convention in June that “affirms evolution as compatible with Christian faith.” The committee takes the position that evolution “does not negate a theology that takes Scripture seriously and which understands God to be loving creator.”
Some science teachers in the church express more adamant views. Lisa Keith-Lucas, chemistry teacher at St. Andrew’s-Sewanee School in Sewanee, Tenn., is one of them. “The state of science education in this country is weak enough that people get the impression that science lives and dies on public opinion. Science by its nature is kept honest and open by its own methodology. If some groups are allowed to redefine science so that supernatural explanations and other non-natural phenomenon can be considered ‘scientific,’ we will have a real problem.”
Tom Sherow of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Wichita, a high school physics teacher, says he knows “a few teachers that just will not talk much about evolution because they do not want to deal with a few vocal supporters of creationism or ID.”
Lynn Young, former district director for the National Science Teachers’ Association, says she is frightened by what is happening. “The very nature of science upon which we base our teaching and testing is under attack.”
Young, a member of Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Kingwood, Texas, says she believes it is important that churches that support intellectualism, research and reason speak up. “Science supervisors, science-book vendors and science teachers look to their pastors as to whether they teach evolution or how they teach it.”
Carole Rupe, a member of the Kansas State Board of Education, shares Young’s concern. A moderate Republican, she was prompted to run for office because of the science standards set by the board in 1999, standards that permitted the teaching of creationism.
“Certainly teach the controversy,” says Rupe, an Episcopalian, “but teach it in philosophy class, teach it in history class, teach it in comparative religion class. You shouldn’t be teaching nonscience in a science class.”
The teachers’ worries have foundation, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on education reform. “The attack on evolution is unabated,” says an institute report released Dec. 7. “Darwin’s critics have evolved a more-subtle, more dangerous approach … The hidden agenda is to introduce doubt – any possible doubt – about evolution at the critical early stage of introduction to the relevant science.”
That report, The State of State Science Standards, shows a rise in the number of states not meeting institute standards. Many receive “failing grades, signifying either that they have no real standards for their science program, or that their standards are so vague and weak as to be meaningless.” Fifteen states received failing grades; 16 got “C” or “D” marks. Only 19 states were rated “A” or “B.”
The undermining of science worries the Committee on Science, Technology and Faith.
“Only 7 percent of Americans identify themselves as reasonably scientifically knowledgeable,” says the Rev. Dr. Thomas Lindell, S.O.Sc., deacon, committee member and professor of molecular/cellular biology at the University of Arizona. That is one of the reasons the committee wrote the Catechism of Creation in an easily accessible form.
“[It] offers guidance in analyzing the claims of intelligent design to be a scientific alternative to evolution,” says its principal author Dr. Robert Schneider. The catechism provides “a foundation for a more extensive study of theology of creation and of the relationship of modern science to Christian faith.”
The 24-page catechism with its familiar question-and-answer format is divided into three parts: “Theology of Creation,’ “Creation and Science” and “Caring for Creation.” It offers a middle way, what it calls “a complementary approach.” It states right up front: “Science can inspire theology to think new thoughts about the relationship between God and the creation, as Big Bang cosmology and evolution have done … none of these scientific discoveries and the theories that explain them stands in conflict with our understanding of what the Bible reveals about the relationship of God to God’s creation.”
Among the 60 questions asked and answered are these:
- Are the creation stories in Genesis meant to convey how God originated the universe?
- What is theology of creation?
- What does it mean to say that God creates “out of nothing?”
- What does it mean to say that God continues to create?
- Are not science and the Bible in conflict with one another, as many Christians believe?
- What evidence is there that human beings are evolved creatures?
- Has the Episcopal Church spoken officially on evolution? ... on intelligent design?
- What are theologians saying about God’s creating activities in light of modern scientific discoveries and theories?
- What has science taught us about our relationship with the earth and its creatures?
- Why is this a time in which Christians should be especially concerned with the state of God’s earth?
A reconciling of views
Perhaps the Jesuit scholar Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, has the best idea about reconciling how we think about evolution and creation. “Science and religion are things we learn as children. For too many people, learning stops at 10. People are going through life with a 10-year-old’s knowledge of science and … a 10-year-old’s knowledge of religion.”
Consolmagno, a doctor of planetary science, says he believes people’s understanding of science and faith needs to change as they learn more. The two do not contradict each other, he insists. “People who want to use science to prove God did something are making a fundamental mistake … it makes science more important than God,” says the MIT graduate who divides his time between Rome, where he is the Vatican’s astronomer, and Tucson, Ariz., where he researches asteroids.
“Of course God did it,” he says. “I want to know how God did it.”