A God Big Enough for Evolution

I stumbled across this video on my beloved io9 the other day, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

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I was raised in the Bible Belt. I attended a private, Evangelical school until I went to college. I came away from that school with lots of good things. My love of literature was fostered and encouraged there, as was my belief in an objective moral truth. Unfortunately, the theory of evolution was never presented to us, certainly not as a viable alternative to creationism, and not even in acknowledgment that evolution is the dominant scientific theory today. It was whispered about sometimes, but always as if it were some crackpot theory dreamed up by evil liberals to  make children doubt that God created them and instead instill in them the blasphemous idea that they were descended from apes.

In the last few years, I’ve come to see this as a serious problem. It’s not uncommon for children in the South to be taught creationism and evolution side-by-side. I have some reservations about that, mostly stemming from the current mainstream-Evangelical habit of portraying the seven days of creation as, well, Biblical truth instead of a way of explaining creation that could be understood by our forefathers. But all in all, I think that children in the South are fairly well served by learning both theories. Creationism is a necessary part of curricula in the South because belief in it is so prevalent, and if children there are taught evolution without creationism, they will essentially be culturally illiterate. But I agree with Bill Nye to the extent that children ought to be taught evolution.

My experience of not learning evolution is not an isolated event for Southern children. I know many, many people who went to private schools in the South and did not learn evolution. Nor did we learn the history of the earth. I can’t remember learning about dinosaurs, although I don’t think that my school held the idea that dinosaurs are an elaborate hoax, the way many of my friends’ schools did. I still remember hearing arguments in college that dinosaur fossils were placed on earth by God to confuse unbelievers, and to test the faith of believers. It sounded like bollocks then, and it sounds even worse now.

Bill Nye is right that when you remove the theory of evolution, the world becomes fantastically complicated. Insane theories like God planting dinosaur bones become necessary to explain away bald facts. God becomes petty, small, an all-powerful trickster who made a ridiculously complicated world just to mess with people.

When I began to look into Catholicism with an open mind, instead of trying to point out all the flaws and heresies, I was, at first, terrified. I was terrified because of things like Catholic acceptance of evolution. If evolution were true, it would rock the foundations of my very small world. What else would come next? I was afraid to lose all the “truths” I had never questioned, afraid essentially that if those truths began to slide out from under my feet, all truth would follow, and I would be left in an abyss of relativism with no firm ground to stand on. It’s a frightening thing, questioning one’s long-held beliefs.

But as I continued to examine Catholicism, something amazing began to happen. Instead of losing the ground beneath my feet, I began to see my world grow larger. Infinitely larger. Before there had been no room in my world for evolution, dinosaurs, the Big Bang theory, and even things like life on other planets, because those things threatened the existence of God as I understood him. Now, I began to see that God was big enough for all of it…bigger, indeed, than all of it. Anything humans thought of or reasoned out could not threaten him, because he made us good, wounded, but essentially good. And one of his greatest gifts to us is our intellect. Instead of the eternal war between faith and reason that I had become so accustomed to, Catholicism presented a beautiful harmony between the two. Faith supported by reason….reason guided by faith.

A few years ago, when I was pregnant with Liam, our family drove to California to visit some of our best friends. One night, they put on Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe. We were watching the third episode, “The Story of Everything.” I was entranced by it. It was so beautiful, the way they illustrated the beginning of the universe, that I found myself thinking, “God is amazing.” Just a few years before, I would have been upset and unnerved by the documentary. I would have felt the need to defend creationism and try to debunk evolution. I would have felt the need to defend God.

But Catholicism has helped me to see that God doesn’t need to be defended from rational scientific theories. He gave us our reason, and the ability to figure out things like the origins of the universe. He is no more threatened by the theory of evolution than he is by my 3-year-old’s theory that God is the sun. In fact, the complexity of the Big Bang theory, the beauty and wonder of it, only reinforces my belief that there is a divine creator. How else could something so incredible happen?

As far as I’m concerned, creationism and evolution are in no way mutually exclusive, and I think children are done a great disservice when they are not taught about evolution. We shouldn’t be afraid that the theory of evolution will replace a child’s belief in God. On the contrary, it only enhances the mystery and wonder of creation, and the creator.

  • Bob

    On this:
    “Creationism is a necessary part of curricula in the South because belief in it is so prevalent, and if children there are taught evolution without creationism, they will essentially be culturally illiterate. ”
    Uh, no. Widespread belief in a falsehood is cause for public education of the truth, not for reinforcing the falsehood in the name of cultural literacy. Would you suggest that an Afghan family occasionally bring their kids to a good ol’ public stoning as a way of indoctrinating them into the culture? You can certainly teach kids in the South that here in Dixie, a lot of knuckle daggers are afraid of science without having to treat their harebrained theories as if they ARE science. Creationism is a religious concept, not a scientific one, and it has no more place in a public science curriculum than the concept of transmutation.

    • Ted Seeber

      ” Would you suggest that an Afghan family occasionally bring their kids to a good ol’ public stoning as a way of indoctrinating them into the culture?”

      Might make them think twice about committing adultery or rape. Serve as a good warning for what happens when you step out of line. But that is a Paternalistic culture for you; every sin has consequences.

      Carlos Mencia- though I don’t like his libertine theology- has a joke he tells about the difference between Mommy and Daddy in how you teach a kid things: Mommy will repeat “Don’t touch the oven, it is hot” a million times until the kid stops trying to touch the oven. Daddy will say “Don’t touch the oven, it’s hot” just once- and then will let the kid touch the oven. BOTH methods work- the first by repetition, the second by natural consequences- but in only one case does the kid know what the word “hot” means other than “Mommy said so”.

      • Bob

        Ted, just to clarify, are you pro or con on public stonings?

        • Ted Seeber

          Neither. It depends on the cultural paradigm. I *am* for strong cultural paradigms and monocultural neighborhoods at the very least.

          Public stonings fits the Islamic cultural paradigm. The Inquisition fits a Catholic Paradigm (especially since it brings a level of evidence to the process that vigilante responses to heresy simply don’t have).

      • Sagrav

        The Fundamentalist God’s method of teaching is waiting until the child has been naughty, then pressing the child’s hand onto the hot oven. Forever.

  • Enuma

    It’s not the job of science teachers to teach cultural literacy. If Creationism has any place in a public school, it most certainly is not in the science classroom for one simple reason: it’s not science. It’s not a theory in the scientific sense of the word. A scientific theory is an explanatory framework that has been repeatedly confirmed by observation and experimentation. A scientific theory must be able to make predictions and have the potential to be falsifiable. (Ex: Evolution predicts that modern species like the rabbit could not have existed in the Precambrian period. Finding Precambrian fossilized rabbits would falsify evolution.) Insisting that both be teach alongside each other does students a great disservice.

    I went to a Catholic school. In biology class, we talked only about evolution. The “but God guided it” part was saved for our religion class. If Creationism has any place in a public school, it’s in a comparative religious studies class, and other religions’ creation myths would also be taught. Creationism absolutely does not belong in the science classroom. Full stop.

    • lovebeingcatholic

      I agree with Enuma. Well said!

  • Katherine Harms

    When I hear Christian believers reject the theory of evolution, I sigh. When I hear secular thinkers scorn the Christian creation story, I sigh again. It isn’t an either/ or conflict. The creation story does not purport to be scientific, and the theory of evolution is, well, a theory. It is a scientific theory, like gravity. It is constantly being modified by the discovery of new information. The creation story, on the other hand, as described in Genesis was written as a revelation of truth impossible to contain in human language, yet somehow it had to be communicated. When we understand what the creation story is, we discover that it is not an argument for or against evolution. The theory of evolution is the time/space discovery of a lot of information that we want to understand for our benefit. It doesn’t address whether God was the original cause or not.
    What most concerns Christians and others who reject evolution outright is the suggestion that a monkey gradually became a human, or an ape, or some other animal. Since I believe that everything we do know about evolution is actually the discovery of God’s creative work, I simply don’t know what we will discover in that realm about human beings. I do know that Adam and Eve did not write their own story. I do observe the clear hand of God in the way DNA works and in the fact that we continue to discover new truths about the power of life in creatures that live in environments where we would once have believed life could not thrive. We need to stop fighting with each other. Secular thinker should not take offense at Christian belief in creation, and little children who express the things they are taught in Sunday School should be left alone in public school. How does their faith in the teachings of their church harm anybody? They can still learn science. Christians should stop fretting over evolution as long as it is recognized as the theory it is, not an unchanging imperial edict. We really don’t need to annoy each other over this issue.

  • Katherine Harms

    When I hear Christian believers reject the theory of evolution, I sigh. When I hear secular thinkers scorn the Christian creation story, I sigh again. It isn’t an either/ or conflict. The creation story does not purport to be scientific, and the theory of evolution is, well, a theory. It is a scientific theory, like gravity. It is constantly being modified by the discovery of new information. The creation story, on the other hand, as described in Genesis was written as a revelation of truth impossible to contain in human language, yet somehow it had to be communicated. When we understand what the creation story is, we discover that it is not an argument for or against evolution. The theory of evolution is the time/space discovery of a lot of information that we want to understand for our benefit. It doesn’t address whether God was the original cause or not.
    What most concerns Christians and others who reject evolution outright is the suggestion that a monkey gradually became a human, or an ape, or some other animal. Since I believe that everything we do know about evolution is actually the discovery of God’s creative work, I simply don’t know what we will discover in that realm about human beings. I do know that Adam and Eve did not write their own story. I do observe the clear hand of God in the way DNA works and in the fact that we continue to discover new truths about the power of life in creatures that live in environments where we would once have believed life could not thrive. We need to stop fighting with each other. Secular thinkers should not take offense at Christian belief in creation, and little children who express the things they are taught in Sunday School should be left alone in public school. How does their faith in the teachings of their church harm anybody? They can still learn science. Christians should stop fretting over evolution as long as it is recognized as the theory it is, not an unchanging imperial edict. We really don’t need to annoy each other over this issue.

  • Bob Seidensticker

    Children in the South will be culturally illiterate without being taught Creationism in school??

    They’re not culturally illiterate about Christianity, so why worry about them not getting Creationism?

    Sorry, but their having an incomplete or incorrect understanding of Creationism is like their having an incomplete understanding of alchemy or astrology.

  • Jim Happ

    Evolution is a small part of creation. QED

  • Bob

    Bravo to Katherine, Enuma, and Bob S. Thank you! I have given up hope on the Patheos Catholic bloggers but you have renewed my confidence in the commenters.

  • jose

    I don’t see how reason is guided by faith.

    “How else could something so incredible happen?”

    You say this regarding the big bang, but if we apply it to the diversity of life, there’s a straightforward answer – through evolution. The problem is evolution as seen from darwinism is intrinsically materialist. That is the whole point, really. Natural selection was revolutionary back in the day because of how “mechanistic” it is: it rejected internal forces and inherent directionality, teleology and all those mysterious influences all the previous explanations depended on (including all the previous evolutionary explanations!) I don’t understand how catholics reconcile this with God’s intervention. I think God’s subtly intervening with population genetics and selection pressures is conceptually pretty much the same as God messing with fossils.

    • Ted Seeber

      You’ve got it backwards. Reason isn’t guided by Faith; Faith is guided by Reason

      • jose

        Oh really? I was quoting the post, if you bother reading it: “Instead of the eternal war between faith and reason that I had become so accustomed to, Catholicism presented a beautiful harmony between the two. Faith supported by reason….reason guided by faith.”

  • Lena

    I spent my early school years in Texas in private schools and didn’t learn about creationism or evolution. I learned how to write my letters and read Dick and Jane. I was also busy chewing on my pencils to wonder or care how I got here.

    Later in my Catholic school in the Midwest, I learned about the Big Bang Theory.

    Charles Darwin in buried in a CHURCH. I like that fact.

  • Nancy

    My (secular) high school Biology and AP Advanced Biology teacher was a member of our Catholic parish. He started our teaching about the origins of life/the earth by saying that many cultures have different stories about how the universe began, talked about three or four of them briefly (including the idea that God created the world in 7 days), then taught us the scientific theories of the big bang, and also Darwinian evolution. I had no problem with it then, and don’t now. The pursuit of Truth cannot help but take us closer to an understanding of who God is, and that includes science — unless we are biased against God to begin with. There’s a great web site of scientists who are also Christians called BioLogos — their web site is well worth visiting.


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