Yes, Virginia, You Can Believe in God and Evolution!

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

In some religious circles or in another era, I might be vilified as someone to be burned at the proverbial stake for heresy.  Why?  Because I am an evolutionist filled with wonder about the world around me.

For decades, I’ve upheld Charles Darwin as a modern-day hero.  I’ve studied many of the principles of evolution active in the laboratory and in the field, even leading five separate expeditions to the Galápagos Islands where Darwin himself studied in the 1800s.  I’ve taught evolution to students of all ages as their professor, school master, guest speaker, and mentor.  From childhood, I’ve embraced the writings of Darwin and his followers as mindful presentations of the workings of Creation.  I’ve worked shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues who employ the latest genetic or fossil evidence to support evolutionary principles.  Further, I’ve debated with Biblical literalists throughout my career as a scientist, pointing out what I perceive to be substantial flaws in fundamentalist approaches to Scripture.

I am also a man of faith.  I have lived a Christian credo all my life, but have studied and admired other world religions such as Judaism and Islam as well-regarded pathways to the Divine.

Thus, I’ve found the current debate about evolution versus “intelligent design” as a painfully irrelevant quarrel between two different, but complementary, teaching authorities.  The late Stephen Jay Gould identified the separate teaching authorities of science and religion as “nonoverlapping magisteria” or NOMA.  Recently, politicians, school boards, preachers, and television media have mixed the separate magisteria of science and religion with such cavalier ease that many Americans – intent on balance and fairness – wonder why anyone would not wish to compare evolution and “intelligent design” as equal alternatives to the origins of life.  They do not regard these as powerful expressions of NOMA.

The same politicians, school boards, preachers, and television media also tend to misuse the scientific terms, fact and theory.  In 1980, the late President Ronald Reagan exemplified this misuse in a campaign address before an evangelical group in Dallas: “Well, it [evolution] is a theory. It is a scientific theory only, and it has in recent years been challenged in the world of science–that is, not believed in the scientific community to be as infallible as it once was.”  Every scientist in the world moaned that day because of Mr. Reagan’s inelegant and careless comment about our field of study.

Facts are the world’s data.  They are observations that we make about the natural world.  Butterflies are winged insects; water is liquid at room temperature; the canopy of the world’s rainforests is home to millions of arboreal species; glucose is C6H12O6; trilobites have been extinct for millions of years.  They present little to no room for argument among the sane.  Theories, on the other hand, are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts: gravity, for example, or the atoms and molecules of chemistry.  They’ve been investigated repeatedly as hypotheses, withstanding the test of time, approaching but never reaching 100% certainty.  Their merits can still be argued.

Evolution is both fact and theory.  For us scientists – and most of the rest of the rational world – it is a fact that evolution has occurred, is occurring, and will occur into the distant future of life on the planet.  In every meaningful sense of the word, evolution is a fact.  Its proposed mechanisms, however, may be debated: natural selection, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, and punctuated equilibrium.  When tested, they might fail eventually to explain the fact of evolution.  Indeed, acquired characteristics lost favor more than 100 years ago as an alternative to Darwin’s proposed mechanism of natural selection.  In the 1970s, Gould and his colleagues argued that the slow-moving process of natural selection might be commandeered at times in the history of life on Earth by a faster means called punctuated equilibrium.  In summary, no scientist debates the fact of evolution: just its mechanisms.

“Intelligent design” is a synonym for “scientific creationism” or “special creation.”  It is a religious expression about the authorship and maintenance of a hugely complex and wondrous universe, but it is not science.  Wrapped variously by its proponents, the book of “intelligent design” is entirely a religious text.  The much awaited court decision in Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District in Pennsylvania – along with other pertinent cases – to corroborate this can be found at www.natcenscied.org.  (The ruling by the Pennsylvania judge was even praised in mid-January 2006 by L’Osservatore, the official newspaper of the Vatican!)  Repeatedly, such legal decisions have supported the view of NOMA via thorough and consistent judicial interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

It is disingenuous for anti-evolutionists to paint an “either/or” picture of a tiresome debate.  I am one of many scientists who are also men and women of faith.  Numerous faith-based colleges and universities throughout the United States are proponents of evolutionary biology: Brandeis (Jewish), Notre Dame (Roman Catholic), Brigham Young (Mormon), Emory (Methodist), and numerous others across the nation.  For many of us scientists and academics, no conflict whatsoever exists between the practice of our science profession and the expression of our personal beliefs in the Divine.

So, yes Virginia, you can believe in both God and evolution!  Interestingly, the etymology of the term, evolution, includes a near-forgotten meaning: an “unfolding.”  For us theistic scientists, how wonderful to revive that original definition especially now: the unfolding of God’s creation through 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history.  Those who deny the fact of evolution are like the idolaters of old, worshipping their fundamentalist reading of Scripture as the golden calf in the Sinai.  Why such vehement denial and uninformed vitriol from among their ranks?  Evolution is one of life’s little facts, and God is its divine and sustaining author.