In the dust storm kicked up by proponents of “Intelligent Design” over what should be taught in the public schools, the science of evolutionary biology—the Darwinian model of evolution—is dubbed as materialistic, reductionistic, and atheistic. The Intelligent Design advocates suggest that to be a Christian one must take a stand against Darwinism. According to them, to pursue scientific research under the principles of random variation and natural selection is un-Christian. So-called “theistic evolutionists” (a phrase actually coined by the creationists as a term of derision) are accused of selling out to the enemy.
In turn the scientific establishment tries to assert that to be religious is like having a disease that quarantines a person against participation in science. To accuse someone of holding a religious view about evolution helps to defend the hegemony of the Darwinian model in the public schools. Why? Because science is not subject to First Amendment proscriptions, while religion is. So, if you label your opponents “religious,” you get the courts on your side.
The implication is that those who continue to believe in religious things are simply not smart enough to advance. When they become smart, they’ll drop their religion and join the scientific community.
Intelligent Design proponents and creationists insist that the Darwinists are blinded by their atheism so they cannot see the limitations and gaps in their theory. These advocates argue that the very existence of complexity contradicts the standard theory of evolution, which assumes that change occurred gradually, slowly, step by step. They say that a qualitative leap to a higher order of complexity must be acknowledged, and that only an appeal to a transcendent intelligent designer provides an adequate explanation. Without quite using the word “stupid,” intelligent design advocates suggest that insistence by Darwinists that natural selection suffices as an explanation shows at least a lack of open-mindedness.
What all of this leaves out is my group of friends and colleagues. I hang out with those so-called theistic evolutionists. We tend to think scientists are pretty smart. In fact, many of my colleagues are research scientists, even evolutionary biologists. We are convinced that the neo-Darwinian model of random genetic variation combined with natural selection provides the most adequate explanation for the development of life forms.
But my friends and colleagues are also religious, mostly Christian but with some other faiths mixed in. We think religious people can be pretty smart too. What is so important and what gets missed too often when the media covers the evolution wars is this: To be a Christian does not require that one be anti-Darwinian.
It’s very possible that one could embrace the science of the Darwinian tradition and also embrace a Christian understanding of God at work in the natural world. I believe that God has used the evolution of life over deep time to serve a divine purpose for creation. This requires distinguishing between the strictly scientific Darwinian model and the atheism and related ideologies that have frequently been associated with evolution. The science is solid.
Christian faith seeks understanding, as St. Anselm put it. Historically, Christians have fallen in love with science. Faith loves science. Today, the Christian faith demands that our schools teach the best science, and only the best science. To teach inferior science would be stupid and, yes, irreligious.
Ted Peters teaches systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Along with Martinez Hewlett, he co-authored the book Evolution from Creation to New Creation (Abingdon 2003).