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.

  • Mamie

    My sentiments exactly! If there is a God particle, which physicists have been hunting diligently, they can’t tell you who or what put it there!

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  • http://www.grace-filled.net jen

    My BIG paper in AP U.S. History was on the Scopes Trial. I’ve never had a problem with evolution and the whole debate actually fascinates me.

  • Karen

    I was raised in Texas in the 70′s and 80′s, in a small town where you would think everyone would reject Darwin, but there were very few creationists around. I think the presence of a small state university, which was the town’s principal employer, blunted the effect of the antiDarwinians. That said, kids a little younger than I was got a good dose of creationism at youth groups and Sunday School so the public school backed off on evolution after I graduated. My minister always took the approach you have — God is big enough to have taken millions of years to accomplish creation. He went further and said that creationism is an effort to make God conform to our understanding, which is a truly horrible level of hubris.

  • http://caritasestveritas.wordpress.com Jessica

    I also went to a private Baptist school and learned creationism to the exclusion of evolution, except as some wacky theory. I was 18 before I realized evolution WAS in fact scientifically accepted. Working in the scientific research only brought be closer to God by increasing my appreciation of the natural world (and how little we still know about it).

    P.S. I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco so don’t feel bad like it’s just a “Southern” thing.

  • lovebeingcatholic

    Great article. Born and raised Catholic and grew up understanding that faith and religion could coexist perfectly. Unlike you, I was awakened to the other side: I was stunned when I got to college and met Christian Protestants who were fervent Creationists and believed the rest of us were going to hell. I never expected college-educated individuals could believe that. I agree with you – children must learn about evolution. It will only open their eyes to the wonder of the universe and the existence of God.

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  • http://www.thewinedarksea.com Melanie B

    I grew up in Catholic schools and have never seen a conflict between faith and science. Although we were in Texas, we lived in more cosmopolitain Austin and I never really encountered the creationist mentality. However, I have met some Catholic creationists and am profoundly puzzled why they feel threatened by the theory of evolution.

    However, as to the proposal that we force parents who don’t believe in evolution to let their children learn about it in school is that their anti-evolutionary stance is rooted in a particular worldview, and that their notion of God (which I do find sadly small and limited) is threatened by evolution. Teaching evolution to kids in school doesn’t necessarily change that world view and so is often perceived by both parents and children as an attack on their faith. It won’t necessarily open their eyes to the wonder of the universe and the existence of a God who is big enough to have created the world over millions of years because the perception of a conflict between faith and science is deeply entrenched on both sides– Christians who fear science and scientists who think that belief in God is irrational. Calah herself said that a few years before she would have felt very threatened by the Hawking video. Only her gradual awakening to a Catholic worldview led her to seeing that there was not necessarily a conflict between faith and science. Science class is no place to address the kinds of questions that predicate such a conflict in world views. It’s really much more philosophical and theological in nature. And do we really want to authorize the government to make direct challenges to people’s religious worldviews? I think that sets a dangerous precedent.

    My own Catholic faith tradition contains many elements which are considered a threat by many in secular society. I certainly don’t want the government to be able to mandate that my kids be forced to be indoctrinated in the dominant sexual paradigm, no matter how many people think that would benefit society.

    I think the hardest thing about living in a pluralistic society is granting other people the right to be wrong.

  • Ted Seeber

    It wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I began to feel threatened by *some* versions of the theory of evolution. The reason has nothing to do with evolution itself- which to me is God’s engineering method and a method many human engineers should emulate more. Rather, it has to do more with Eugenics- the idea that we should treat human beings the same way we treat racehorses, and use directed evolution to select for desirable traits.

    The problem is, most traits of human beings are NURTURE, not NATURE. And we don’t really have a good scientific handle on which is which. This makes breeding human traits extremely tricky.

    Oh, and then there’s the whole Planned Parenthood “make sure the unfit don’t breed” method that starts with contraception and ends with abortion.

    So for origin of the species, I’m a Darwinist. To some extent I’m a theological Darwinist also, which is why I can agree with the Nicene Creed. But I draw the line at directing evolution and killing people different than me.

  • Gina

    This is great. Somebody somewhere said the most important thing to remember in the creationism/evolution debate are the first four words of the Bible: “in the beginning, God”.

    Whatever the truth about the way in which creation came into being, it was God who started it all, out of nothing.