When Rick Perry and the millions of others who resist the concept of evolution, they not only resist science in potentially dangerous ways, they disown a fundamental truth about the faith they follow. That truth? That religions evolve, and acknowledging that they do so does not weaken the claim that they are the true and eternal will of God, as many believers claim about their chosen tradition. In fact, the adaptability of each of the world’s great traditions has proven to be a central feature of their durability.
Had early Christians, for example, not allowed for the evolution of their initial expectations regarding Jesus and his presumed imminent return, then no church would have been established and there would be no Christians today, merely the descendants of those whose redemptive hopes had been crushed almost two thousand years ago. An evolved i.e. adapted for survivability, understanding of God’s plan allowed a tradition to flourish without experiencing loss of integrity or connection to its origins. If that isn’t evolution, what is?
Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam are here today because of similar adaptive evolutionary capacity. In their cases, the ability to access and continually refresh rich legal traditions has been central to each tradition’s ability to survive significant changes in the circumstances of the faithful in each tradition. In neither case however, did the adaptive process disrupt the faithful’s connection to God and their understanding of the eternality of God’s word. In fact, especially for Jews, it was those who refused to participate in the process that vanished.
God’s word, whatever that may include given the tradition one follows, is rendered eternal and eternally present through evolutionary processes which are, in many ways, similar to those which many fundamentalists reject when it comes to explaining how the world came to be and how it continues to move forward. It’s a shame, that in the name of faith, they cannot see that they are denying one of the engines of their own tradition’s success. It is an even greater shame that they have so little faith in God and in the infinite meaning of God’s word, that they constrain their understanding of it to such a narrow range of possible meaning.
Of course, none of this matters when it comes to what should be taught in America’s science classrooms. The answer to that is clear, and the answer is science. I have no problem with exposing kids to creationism or intelligent design, as long as it is in a history class or one which describes contemporary political debates, but to teach either in a science class is dangerously misleading.
Science does not simply seek data which confirms that which it already believes, as both creationism and intelligent design do. Science is based on a process of testing and inquiry, one which celebrates determining when old views are false. The truths of science are mutable and their value is based not on their eternality, but upon their testability and utility. Not until Gov. Perry and his supporters take that approach to their understanding of how the world came to be, can we even entertain the possibility of teaching what they want in science classes. And even then, certainly not as the equal alternative to evolution which they deem appropriate.
While evolution is a theory, that is not a term of denigration or diminution as creationists and intelligent design followers would have us believe. It is simply a term which marries precisely the kind of intellectual humility absent among fundamentalists, with the fact that after much exploration and testing, it is the best possible way to account for the physical process of how the world we live in came to exist.
Evolution is a theory in the sense that it cannot be physically proven, not in the sense that it is simply the chosen orienting principle of some people’s lives. While the latter could also be called a theory, assuming the two are equal would be like allowing a Pastor holding a Doctor of Divinity degree to perform neurosurgery simply because he too is called “Doctor”!
As a person of faith I believe that we need both kinds of Doctors, but not to perform the same tasks. In failing to make that distinction, we run the risk of endangering both the minds and the spirits of our nation’s schoolchildren, and any leader who cannot make that distinction is not fit to lead this nation.