Yesterday, February 11, was Evolution Sunday, a nationwide project in which hundreds of Christian pastors and denominations voice their belief that the theory of evolution, and science in general, is compatible with their religious principles.
My standpoint on this matter is not as combative as some people's. While I, too, would like to see all religious people become atheists, I recognize that this is not going to happen any time soon, and encouraging the majority of theists to find reconciliation between their beliefs and the scientific method is a good compromise step. Truthfully, I'm not greatly concerned with what other people believe, as long as their beliefs do not lead them to harm others or block legitimate inquiry into the way the world works. And while I do believe that encouraging the use of faith as a basis for decision-making runs counter to the spirit of evidence-based inquiry that motivates every good scientist, I also believe that most people can compartmentalize effectively enough that there is little or no conflict in practice. If the choice was between a world of enlightened, liberal, rational theists who support scientific discovery, and a world of bitter, dogmatic, combative atheists, I would choose the former without hesitation.
I do not think Evolution Sunday is a case of believers paying obligatory lip service to science, or grumpily acknowledging that despite all its heretic godlessness, it seems to work sometimes. On the contrary, I think most of the participating churches and congregations sincerely do believe that science is an important and effective method of discovering truth that need not contravene their belief in God's existence. There are many theists who are vocal about their belief that religion and science can coexist, and regardless of whether we atheists agree with their religious beliefs, we should still encourage them to speak out and be glad when they do. I, personally, am glad to have them and grateful for their assistance in defense of reason.
The inescapable truth is that, in the short run at least, believers defending science will achieve more to undermine the cause of creationism and other dangerously anti-intellectual ideologies than anything we atheists could say. The angry bitterness with which creationists have responded to this event emphasizes that point. (Aside to the professionally clueless Bruce Chapman of the Discovery Institute: Clergy members proclaiming that evolution is compatible with their religious beliefs is not the same thing as saying that evolution is itself a religious or faith position. Unlike intelligent design, it is not. If clergy members support the standard non-miraculous, scientific explanations for how disease spreads or what causes thunder and lightning, that does not make those explanations religious beliefs, either.)
With all that said, however, there's one question I'd like to ask participants in Evolution Sunday. I know you accept the truth of evolution and the importance of finding out how the world really works through science, and I understand your position that the Bible was never intended to convey empirical facts about the world and that it is a misuse of the text to try to extract such facts from it. I find much to appreciate in that stance. My question, then, is this: On what grounds do you believe that the Bible contains any divine revelation or communication at all? What reasons do you have for thinking that it is not entirely the product of human minds and human hands, deserving veneration no more than The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, or the latest sci-fi pulp novel? Do you think it contains better moral teachings than any other human-written book? Do you think it has better parables or more enduring allegories? What is the reason for your faith?
This is not a case, as the creationists say, of losing all reason to believe in the Bible as soon as one sets aside belief in its inerrancy. On the contrary, I would ask fundamentalists exactly the same question, and I do not think they have any better answer to offer. But most of them are unapologetic about their rejection of rational thought, whereas participants in Evolution Sunday do not seem to be beyond reason, and so I'm curious to know what their reason is. And if, in your heart, you know you do not have a reason but only faith, then why not take a lesson from the event you yourselves are promoting and put aside belief in the unknown and the unprovable?
In other news, today is also Charles Darwin's birthday. Personally, I think this is an event far more worthy of remembrance and commemoration than any of the religious holidays our society has established in honor of mythological events that allegedly took place in the past. One can debate whether or not evolution, as Daniel Dennett has written, is the single greatest discovery ever made by a human being; but it certainly must rank in the top five. At the very least, Darwin's innovation has taught us more about who we are and where we come from than any other discovery ever made by a human being. Not all the obscurantist religious sages, not all the garbled babblings of mystics, not even the most insightful treatises penned from the armchairs of history's greatest philosophers have done as much for that goal as this single, simple, amazingly powerful idea.
One hundred and fifty years of scientific searching have only bolstered the theory of evolution, and we have every reason to suspect that its explanatory framework will continue to lead scientists to incredible new discoveries that will further fill in the missing chapters in the vast book of life. I am indeed grateful to Charles Darwin for his brilliant contribution, but I suggest that we should be just as grateful to the many men and women who work equally diligently in the hope of adding even one small piece to the vast edifice of our understanding. We should support and honor their efforts in the best way we can: by working to defend good science all around the world, both now and in the future. I strongly suspect that the father of evolution would have wanted nothing else. Personally, I can't wait to see what the next hundred and fifty years will bring...