Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Evolution and Christian Faith

My presentation on February 11, 2007 at Westminster Presbyterian Church entitled "Evolution and Christian Faith" (read more below):

Part 2 (More Q&A):

Every year, churches around the world celebrate Evolution Sunday, an effort resulting from the Clergy Letter Project, in which over 11,000 fair-minded clergy members have signed a statement affirming evolutionary theory as confirmed truth that cannot contradict Christian teaching.

I approached my pastor in late 2006, mentioning that the following February would be Evolution Sunday, and that we as a church might want to spark a discussion of how evolution can be reconciled with Christian faith. I offered my services to give a lecture or participate in a panel, and honestly didn't expect it to go anywhere. Instead, I was surprised when he asked me to explain the issues involved. We met later in his office, and I provided my own explanation of evolution and intelligent design. I quoted some of the prominent people of faith who have endorsed evolution, and argued that Intelligent Design is not only bad science, but bad theology also. Once again, to my surprise, he said, "Yes, we should do this."

A couple weeks later we had a meeting with half a dozen elders of the church. We watched the pro-Intelligent Design film Case for a Creator (based on Lee Strobel's book of the same name), and then talked at length afterward about the arguments for and against. At that meeting, I was open as a someone who does not believe in the supernatural (and I can't stress enough how much I was impressed by everyone's open mindedness in listening to me), but it was agreed that if I included that information in my speech, some in the audience would stop listening and a) start worrying for my soul, or b) become furious with me.

As I put together the suggestions from that meeting and the various references I'd read (I was surprised to find just how much attention I had focused on the Evolution/ID divide), the message of the speech became clear: evolution is confirmed and compelling truth - a Christian should always be willing to embrace new truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is to re-evaluate core beliefs. One book I had recently read was Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters, which is a great primer on the debate that also serves to emphasize that very point. Shermer states it beautifully:
It should not matter how God created life whether it was through a miraculous spoken word or through the natural forces of the universe that He created. The grandeur of Gods works command awe regardless of what processes He used. We have learned a lot in four thousand years, and that knowledge should never be dreaded or denied. Theists and theologians should embrace science, especially evolutionary theory, for what it has done to reveal the magnificence of the divinity in a depth never dreamed by our ancient ancestors.
It was still difficult for someone like me, being free of supernatural beliefs, to tell a group of believers how they should approach their faith. After all, don't I believe that a thorough understanding of evolution refutes the arguments for God's existence? Well yes, I do. But those arguments are separate from the scientific evidence supporting evolution itself, which is demonstrable truth. If we can agree on that, then how we reconcile those facts with our own beliefs is another matter, and an area that I promised to avoid when giving my talk. The bottom line is, I'd hate for someone to reject good science because they are afraid of the consequences of questioning held assumptions. As I state in the talk, the outcome of honest inquiry can only be positive: either our previous understanding is confirmed, or we toss aside old beliefs to embrace new truth. And whether or not I personally think evolution and Christian faith are compatible, there are clearly many sophisticated believers who have managed to make the claims consistent to their satisfaction (Kenneth Miller, Pope John Paul II, Theodosius Dobzhansky and Francis Collins among them).

And so, on Evolution Sunday 2007, I gave my presentation after the regular services at Westminster Presbyterian Church. It's by no means a perfect speech - there's a lot of things I'd like to change or state differently - but I think the underlying messages got through to a lot of people and impacted them positively. There was some negative reaction as well, but I think that was the idea; to kick-start the thinking process.

The most common question I still receive from both religious people and fellow skeptics is, "Why do you still go to church?" I think this presentation is one of the best answers I can give.


Zhu Que Williams said...

Honestly, I don't believe in Evolution. But I haven't learned everything about it. I am, however, somewhat upset that some of my acquaintances don't understand science as well as I'd like. Do you take issue with the bible's scientia? (Scientia being the latin term for knowledge...) I believe the bible, and it is my full intent to prove the Bible by science. I guess I'm trying to see if you practice what you preach (even though it could just be that I'm looking for a friend. That has happened before.) :) If you wanna see if we can possibly be friendly, will you mail me? suzaku.williams Gmail.

Ross said...

Hi Zhu Que. Thanks for your comments, and I'm glad to see that you are open to learning more about evolution. I would caution you not to set out with an intent to prove the Bible, as starting from that kind of foregone conclusion ("I know the Bible is correct") will negatively affect your ability to weigh evidence objectively. We all have biases, but we should do as much as we can to minimize them. I used to believe the Bible to be literally true, and I also had a hard time accepting evolution, but when I learned the actual science behind evolution and the explanatory power that it has to unify scientific discoveries in so many fields, I was won over. I'd recommend you read the book "The Ancestor's Tale" by Richard Dawkins - it's a big book, but you'll understand evolution far better after reading it. I haven't heard anyone use "scientia" in that context before, but to answer your question I don't think the Bible has any special claim on truth. As a work of many authors, there are pearls of wisdom, but also many things worth ignoring. I assume by asking if I practice what I preach, you want to know if I am willing to change my deeply held beliefs in the light of new evidence. If that is the case, then emphatically yes. I have changed my beliefs before, and would readily change them again in the light of evidence.

PerformanceConnect said...

Ross I just watched your presentation at your/your friend's church back in 2008 on your Skeptics Review blog? It was great to see that your presentation was so balanced and FYI if you ever come to Australia I would be delighted for you to come talk to the locals here to help enlighten some of the 'dark-ages' style Churches being set up here. It seems that when the global economy starts to fail, the Churches start to fill up and co-incidentally people start desiring higher meaning...unfortunatelyl when times are good I've observed those same people relying less on a higher power! Anyway great to hear that you are an animator too. I look forward to seeing some of your stuff online if you have published it.