by Rubel Shelly
Published in LoveLines (Mar. 6, 1996)
The Renewed Evolution-Creation Debate
As I write this piece on Monday morning, March 4, I have no idea what Tennessee’s senators will do later today with a bill that would ban the teaching of evolution as fact in state schools. The bill appears to be an attempt to redress an imbalance. For all I know, it may be the only way to do so. If the bill passes, it will certainly be tested in the courts. The fight will continue.
For generations, religious people held a monopoly on public institutions and sometimes acted dogmatically to suppress debate on important ideas. That happened with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Uninformed religious dogmatists insisted that the Bible taught a 10,000-year-old earth and a view of origins that allowed for no varieties of life to be produced in nature by ordinary (i.e., nonmiraculous) processes. A particular way of reading Genesis demanded that science conform to its prejudices.
The tables have been turned now, and people with naturalistic points of view have generally held the monopoly on public institutions. In many instances, they have been equally as dogmatic in silencing debate on significant issues. They have, for example, ridiculed proponents of supernatural creation with as much venom (e.g., "ignorant, backwoods hicks") as previous generations of religionists had caricatured them (e.g., "immoral, communistic atheists").
Intolerance and uncharitable mudslinging have dominated exchanges. Much heat and little light have been generated. Mature people who can avoid personal attacks on each other, be fair with evidence, and respect people with other points of view could have avoided a legislative showdown in our state senate.
Both creation and evolution are philosophic interpretations of data provided by the natural sciences. Both are interpretive models rather than secrets read off the data. In the technical vocabulary of science, each model is a "theory" for piecing together the data.
In the introduction to the centenary edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species, L. Harrison Matthews wrote: "Belief in the theory of evolution is thus exactly parallel to belief in creation — both are concepts which believers know to be true but neither, up to the present, has been capable of proof." Neither model can be established by the scientific method of observation and repeatability.
Informed creationists do not deny that some "evolution" occurs among living things. The fundamental meaning of the word evolution is simply change. Of course living things change, adapt to environments, and produce new species. New species of peas, flowers, bacteria, dogs, and other living things have been (and are being) produced. It happens both in nature and under laboratory conditions. The precise term for this sort of change is microevolution.
When the term evolution is commonly used, however, it is intended to refer to a much more comprehensive sort of change whereby the emergence of birds is traced to reptiles or human life is traced to simian ancestors. The technical term for this much more general theory of evolution is macroevolution.
Much of the going round in circles between creationists and evolutionists is fruitless because of a failure to be clear about what is under discussion. An evolutionist will typically defend the theory of evolution (specific or general?) by an abundance of proof about microevolution and think he has proved macroevolution. A theist may challenge the theory of evolution (specific or general?) by raising the problems inherent within macroevolution and think himself somehow committed to denying microevolution as well.
Supernaturalists must be careful not to use the Bible to "prove" things it does not presume to address. Clearly poetic sections must not be pressed for scientific precision by critics or for pre-scientific insights by believers. Honesty with texts as to their nature and intent must guide responsible exegesis.
Naturalists should listen more carefully and sympathetically to the objections of those who decry the undermining of the religious and ethical teachings of the home. A quarter of a century ago, "experts" patronized and attempted to discredit as religious fanatics and anti-intellectuals those who questioned the use of values clarification in schools. Today one is hard pressed to find anyone who does not echo those very same objections. The arrogance of some toward religion in general and special creation in particular is simply wrong.
Here is an opportunity to demonstrate healthy and appropriate American pluralism. May God / the Force / or the Courts — depending on your point of view! — help us get to that desirable destination of mutual respect and civil exchange.
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