As an occasional reader of science blogs, I can't help but notice the extraordinary amount of time and space devoted to the debunking of Creationist and Intelligent Design "science." Certainly there are good reasons for this: the poor reasoning and scant evidence behind such pseudoscience makes it an easy target, and the surprising momentum of the Creationist political agenda represents a genuine threat to American science education.
Still, I can't help but feel that the focus on Creationism's pseudoscientific claims have obscured what is really a debate about beliefs and values, not science. Moreover, the discourse on blogs often reflects a view that religion (of all forms) is inherently opposed to evolution, and that no intelligent person could possibly believe in both.
My partner addressed some of these issues in a final paper for her recently completed Master's of Theological Studies degree from Harvard Divinity School. This paper begins with an anecdote describing the surprising and complex position toward evolution taken by middle school students she taught, and goes on to detail the history of Catholic responses to Darwin's theory. Some of the ideas from her paper are articulated below in the hopes of adding nuance to the evolution blogversation. Neither she nor I intend to present either her students' view or the Catholic view as models for how to reconcile (or not) evolution and faith, but only as voices that complexify the picture of this conversation as a fight between Bible-thumping evangelists on the one hand and atheist scientists on the other.
In 2004 I was a new, white teacher at a middle school in Dorchester, Massacusetts. The students in my seventh and eighth grade comparative religions classes were young women of color, and of primarily African and Caribbean descent. During the kind of cheerfully chaotic class that takes place the day before a lengthy school holiday, one of my most inquisitive students surprised me with a question about evolution. She wanted to know who was right: the scientists, or the people we were studying in religion class? Before I could collect my thoughts, a flood of powerful and emotional rejoinders issued from several of her classmates. My limited familiarity with the traditions with which they were affiliated gave me only a vague sense that I might expect a critical stance on the subject. What I had entirely failed to consider were the ways in which the cultural and racial identities of my students intersected with both their religious worldviews and their feelings about evolution. I soon learned that the ways in which many of these young women processed the tense public controversy over evolution and Biblically based accounts of creation were deeply tied to their sense of identity as people of color in a white-dominated culture. Many began quoting their pastors: “You are made in the image of God. You are beautiful, loved, and wanted in this world, and can’t nobody take that away from you.” Others followed with similar, powerful words that affirmed the essential pride and self worth that was instilled in any child of God. Still other students spoke of the historical influence of this notion of essential human worth on abolitionist and civil rights movements. They knew their history. The concept that all humans have been made with great love and purpose by God has historically operated as a powerful political and psychological resource to combat the behaviors of a racist society. Many students made it clear that they saw the promotion of evolutionary theory as a direct attack on the foundations of their personal identity, faith, and value as human beings.
Though I felt moved and honored to hear the powerful and nuanced ways in which my students articulated the liberative power behind the Biblical account of creation, I was pained to hear how rigidly and antagonistically they conceptualized the “evolution side” of this conversation. I found their monolithic image of “evolutionists” to be a clear example of the troubling state of an important conversation. These young women’s understanding of the relationship between evolution and faith led them to conceive of the scientific claim as only another attack on their sense of self by a hostile, dominant majority 1. Such an understanding represents a disconcerting deficit of education on both sides of the conversation, effectively eclipsing a range of voices from adding texture to what has become yet another American clash of extremes.
Most contemporary public discussion and media attention on the subject has been shaped by the polarizing rhetoric of certain anti-evolution Protestant American Christians. Those who oppose these efforts by criticizing creationist “science” have largely fallen into the trap of engaging in only reactionary responses. Many on both sides have portrayed this conversation as a conflict of “religion versus science,” ignoring the fact that the Creationist movement has historically been a uniquely American Protestant phenomenon 2, which has only in the past couple decades begun to spread to other countries 3.
Ironically, included in the crowd of voices with which my students were unfamiliar were those from the Catholic Church, the tradition upon which their school was founded. Indeed, when I related my classroom conversation to some of my fellow teachers, most of whom were raised within the Church, they expressed great surprise, recalling that the science classes within their own Catholic education had included extensive coverage of the scientific theory of evolution. (In fact, a survey of American Catholic school textbooks published between 1940-1960 found them to be in closer agreement with evolutionary theory than American public school textbooks from the same period 4.) Intrigued, I looked further into the historical response of the Catholic Church to Darwin and found a complex story that most certainly disrupts the largely monolithic representation of Christian responses to this scientific theory. It is also a story that is infrequently told, and appears to be largely unfamiliar to much of the American public 5.
For almost a full century following publication of “Origin of the Species,” the Church hierarchy avoided any official stance on, or condemnation of, evolution. The first official Vatican pronouncement, Pope Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis (Human Origins), ackowledged evolution as a possible scientific explanation for the origin of humanity6. More recent pronouncements have strongly embraced evolution as a scientific theory, as evidenced in Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address to the Pontificate Academy of Sciences, the current Pope Benedict XVI’s text “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons created in the image of God,” and the 2009 Vatican conference on “Biological Evolution: Facts and Theories.” These documents express the view that evolution can be regarded as both a random process in the scientific sense, as well as a fulfillment of God’s plan7. Thus, while the Church accepts evolution as a scientific theory, it rejects any claims that this theory has no place for God. Significantly, these documents seek to distance the Catholic perspective from that of intelligent design Creationists8, and intelligent design speakers were pointedly barred from the recent Vatican conference.
Popular thought about evolution amongst American Catholic laity, scholars, and journalists has been largely supportive of evolutionary theory as well. A literature review of popular Catholic press indicates that responses to the 1925 Scopes and 2005 Dover trials (the former testing a Tennessee prohibition against teaching evolution in public schools, and the latter arguing against the inclusion of intelligent design within public school science curricula) demonstrates a desire to problematize any claims of an inevitable clash between science and religion brought about by the teaching of evolution9. For example, one 1925 editorial in a Catholic newsletter argued “[Creationist lawyer] William Jennings Bryan is reported as having said that if evolution is true, then Christianity can’t be true. In this matter as well as many others Mr. Bryan is wrong.” 10
The full text of the paper, which delves more deeply into how science becomes appropriated as a "cultural resource" and gives recommendations for teaching, can be made available on request. Again, our purpose is not to espouse or promote the Catholic view, but merely to present it as evidence that Creationists do not represent all, or even most, religious (or even Christian) views on evolution, and to highlight some of the hidden cultural factors underlying this debate.
1 While I affirm that it is crucial for my students to develop a more nuanced understanding of the scientific community, it is important to note that, as young women of color their anger and anxiety is certainly not unfounded. The history of science as practiced by dominant culture is guilty of repeatedly producing scientific data and discourse in ways that either exploit or promote racist ideology. The American eugenics movement and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study are but two examples of this phenomenon.
2 Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2004), 85-134.
3 Simon Coleman and Leslie Carlin, Cultures of Creationism (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), ix.
4 Gerald Skoog, “The Coverage of Human Evolution in High School Biology Textbooks in the 20th Century and Current State Science Standards,” Science and Education 14(2005):412-413.
5 Ronald L. Numbers and John Stenhouse, eds., Disseminating Darwinism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 2. This text is one of many that notes the lack of both scholarly research and public knowledge on the Catholic position toward evolution.
6 Humani Generis, Chapter 36.
7 “Communion and Stewardship,” Chapter 69.
9 Christopher M. Hammer, Reconciling Faith, Reason, and Freedom: Catholicism and Evolution from Scopes to Dover (MA Thesis, University of Virginia, 2008), 3.
10 F. Gordon O’Neil, “The Week,” Monitor and Intermountain Catholic, June 6, 1925, 1.
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