By Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D.
Faith Project Director, National Center for Science Education
John West recently asked, “Is evolution compatible with God?” West, a senior fellow at the creationist Discovery Institute, concluded that religious belief and scientific inquiry are mutually exclusive. He is wrong.
West sets up a simplistic dichotomy–either you believe in God or you believe in evolution. This black or white view ignores the fact that for many scientists, science deepens their religious faith, and for many people of faith, scientific insight complements their belief. West’s goal here is not to examine the shared history and complex interconnections between science and faith, but rather, to promote a creationist agenda.
While West’s question is valid, his dichotomy is a sham. Consider the humble grapefruit. You can says it’s yellow and it’s roughly spherical. Asking, “Is this fruit yellow or spherical?” has no meaning. Yellowness and sphericity are not contradictory; likewise, “religion” and “evolution” can be complementary ways of looking at the same universe.
West would also have you believe that a truly wide-ranging debate about the compatibility of faith and evolution is only now finally taking place, thanks to the Discovery Institute’s new Web site. But serious theologians and scientists have been debating this issue for nearly 30 years. Organizations such as the Vatican Observatory, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and the International Society for Science and Religion have thoroughly addressed the issues surrounding this debate. West and the Discovery Institute simply object to the conclusion these organizations have reached, namely, that evolution and religion can be compatible.
As the International Society for Science and Religion put it in a 2008 statement, “Darwinian natural history does preempt certain accounts of creation, leading, for example, to the contemporary creationist and ID controversies. However, in most instances, biology and religion operate at different and non-competing levels.”
West’s views are a skewed Cliff Notes version of the serious academic work surrounding faith and evolution–mostly wrong, mostly missing the important points, a repackaging of old ideas and a parroting of discredited arguments. I have taught graduate classes in theology, and if a student turned in something like West’s essay on the issue of faith and evolution, it would merit him a D-.
Too often, debates over the public perception of evolution are dominated by the fringes, by fundamentalist Christians and others who reject basic science due to their literal reading of the Bible and by ardent atheists who reject religion because they’ve embraced metaphysical naturalism ― that nature is all that exists. But the silent majority ― that spans the spectrum from theism to atheism ― have no problem reconciling their religious beliefs with established sciences such as evolution, or with new sciences such as stem cell research. My work at the National Center for Science Education brings me into contact with voices across that spectrum and I’ve found that honest, open, and inclusive dialog is not only possible, but vital for our children’s education, for the credibility of religious traditions, and for the continued role of the United States as a scientific and moral leader in our increasingly interconnected world.
Evolution can certainly be compatible with religious faith. Because the evidence for evolution is so overwhelming, we must consider it to be a truth about the natural world–the world which we as people of faith believe was created by God, and the world made understandable by the reason and natural senses given to us by God. Denying science is a profoundly unsound theological position. Science and faith are but two ways of searching for the same truths.
Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D., is a Roman Catholic theologian, Faith Project Director with the National Center for Science Education and co-author of “Catholicism and Science” (Greenwood Press).