This week an academic conference is taking place at the University of Notre Dame, titled “Darwin in the 21st Century: Nature, Humanity, and God.” It is timed with the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, and organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture’s Science, Theology, and the Ontological Quest (STOQ) Project in Rome.
This conference is nothing short of an evolution revolution, especially given the church’s history with science. As my daughter might say, “The two haven’t exactly been bffs.”
I am thinking Galileo. The year is 1609. Galileo steps out under a canopy of stars, perhaps one or more of his four children are underfoot. He takes the telescope he made with his own hands, not even sure how well it will work, and puts it to his eye. What he sees catapults human understanding like nothing before it.
Galileo tells anyone who will listen the earth travels around the sun and not vice versa, and for this, he is denounced by the Roman Inquisition. The Catholic Church condemned heliocentrism as “false and contrary to Scripture.” Galileo was warned to abandon his support for it—which he promised to do, but then he wrote a book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, published it in 1632, and was found “vehemently suspect of heresy. ” He was forced to recant, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
The Catholic Church made a mistake then, and has admitted to such. In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared that the church’s 17th-century denunciation of Galileo was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension.”
But even with such a tragic story, Galileo doesn’t get the prize for most heretical scientist. That one goes to Charles Darwin.
An English naturalist, Darwin published evidence that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors. He proposed that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection.
I have yet to figure out why this bothers folks so much, why evolution is so incompatible with the Bible. So our ancestors may have been a little hairier than we thought? Creationists tell me that evolution takes God out of the equation. They say evolution is based on chance, chaos, randomness, that there is an absence of a sovereign creator.
I’m not convinced. A lot of us are here by what seems like chance, chaos and randomness. If my mother didn’t get a job at the San Diego Zoo she never would have met my father etc. I like to think that good things result from what we perceive as chance. Evolution seems yet another moment to look at the complexity of life and say what Galileo must have said when he looked up at the night sky, “wow.”
What Darwin teaches is that life is tenacious. That it adapts and improves. That creation isn’t a past tense verb.
In 1926 a high school teacher in Tennessee named John Scopes told his class this very thing and for it he was put on trial. He broke a law that said teaching a theory “that denies the story of the divine creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals,” was not permitted. He was found guilty. Thus began a creation-evolution controversy that still exists today.
Today, Evangelical Christians spend millions of dollars battling Darwin. They have pulled their children out of public schools to educate them at home where they will not be exposed to his theory. Though flues, viruses, and bacteria evolve right under our nose, (and then invade them,) many people will not entertain the idea that life elsewhere could have done the same.
Of course to believe, or not to believe, is not really the question. Folks have every right to balk at it. What becomes a matter of concern is when public policy is effected. When religious opposition to Darwin undermines educational systems we should take notice. When teachers fear backlash for teaching science something is wrong.
The consequence can be that other science becomes suspect. Opposition to carbon dating turns geological science into a world-wide conspiracy. Opposition to Global Warming causes climate change reform to slow down or stall in some cases. Opposition to stem-cell research-the most promising advancement toward disease eradication means more people suffer.
There’s no question religious opposition to Darwin packs a political punch. A British film made last year on Darwin’s life is having a difficult time finding an American distributor. A British headline read, “Darwin too controversial for religious America.“
Americans should not be ashamed to be called religious, but when our collective identity is tied up with a group of folks who reject Darwin our ears should perk up.
In 1893, not long after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Pope Leo XIII instructed Catholics not to look at the Bible for scientific truths. He respected the autonomy of science and believed the Bible and science could in fact be compatible.
This week’s conference at Notre Dame means that religion is simply hearing what science has to say. There is no wholesale rejection of an idea that may at first seem antithetical to beliefs. If nothing else, the conference proves that even religions evolve.
To be sure, religion and science have fences to mend. There are other “tragic mutual incomprehension’s” to be reconciled. It is commendable that Notre Dame and the current Pope, Pope Benedict XVI, have taken the lead on this most important matter.
Indeed, in order to learn about our miraculous universe, one must lead, follow, or get out of the way.