Presbyterian Minister and TCP Member Speaks up for Evolution

Michael Zimmerman, head of The Clergy Letter Project, reports that active Presbyterian minister, John Shuck, was unsuccessful in his recent attempt to influence the Presbyterian Church, USA (the progressive branch) to endorse Evolution Sunday.  This is a part of Evolution Weekend observed by many progressive churches.

The Clergy Letter Project (not to be confused with The Clergy Project – i.e., minus the word “letter”) sponsors a letter signed by nearly 13,000 Christian clergy who believe that “Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts” and “…that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.”

John Shuck, also an open member of the Clergy Project (podcast ,minute 2:55), is one of a few practicing clergy who is open about his lack of supernatural beliefs.   The Rational Doubt blog, whose contributors include founders and members of the Clergy Project, supports John Shuck for speaking out publicly about evolution. Personally, I hope he and other progressive clergy are eventually successful in changing antiquated church policies.

On June 11th, 2011, John published this personal statement of beliefs on his blog, Shuck and Jive:

I believe…

  1. in evolutionary theory. This obviously includes human beings. Evolution and science in general have had major implications regarding theology that we mostly ignore or in our worse moments deny.
  2. in higher criticism of the Bible. The Bible like all other books are human products (what else could they be?) and should be read as such as opposed to special revelation from a divine being.
  3. that all religion is a human construct. Its primary purpose has been and should be an attempt to find and evoke meaning amidst life’s contingencies as opposed to speculation regarding supernaturalism.
  4. that “God” functions as a symbol. The concept of “God” is a product of myth-making and “God” is no longer credible as a personal, supernatural being. For me, “God” functions as a shorthand for the Universe and sometimes for qualities and aspirations I wish to pursue or to emulate.
  5. that human consciousness is the result of natural selection. Human beings do not have immortal souls nor will consciousness survive death. Thus there is no afterlife. There is no heaven, no hell, and no need for salvation from one realm to another.
  6. that there is no “end” in human time. Earth is four billion years old. Earth was here long before human beings. Earth will spin on its axis and revolve around the sun long, long after the last human being has breathed her last. We will have to find meaning and our “eschaton” in this life.
  7. that Jesus may have been historical but most of the stories about him in the Bible and elsewhere are legends. But he’s cool. He serves as a human ideal and a focal point for devotion (like an ishta deva).
  8. that industrial civilization is in for a long descent. Peak Oil and Overshoot should be everyday terms in our lexicon. We ought to be putting our religious energies toward spiritual, emotional, and practical preparation for this reality.

As John says in his blog, there are many clergy who share his beliefs.  I personally know some of them, both in and out of the Clergy Project,  and hope more of them, like John, can eventually be straightforward about their very sensible beliefs without fear of losing their livelihoods.

Question: Do you know any active pastors who you think probably don’t have standard religious beliefs? If so, what makes you think that?

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About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • johnshuck

    Thanks for this, Linda! For information about what happened including the text of the resolution and my address is on my blog Shuck and Jive: Evolution Resolution

  • Rich

    I think I understand a little better why the PCUSA overture was voted down. While methodological naturalism can imply ontological naturalism in John’s case that is not a necessary one. Having a methodological naturalist as a co-sponsor next time makes for a stronger co-existence case and perhaps a better outcome. Also showing the personal co-operation between methodological and ontological naturalists will make people like John less of a bogeyman within the faith community.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Hi, Rich — for the lay persons among us, could you define ontological naturalism v ontological naturalism and how you think it affected John’s case?

      • Rich

        Methodological naturalism is an approach in scientific research that assumes only natural causes when studying natural phenomena. Ontological naturalism posits no supernatural causes exist at all. When doing science it’s impossible to distinguish a paper written by one kind of naturalist from the other. Specifically a theistic evolutionist cannot be distinguished from an atheistic one. The clergy letter project claims that theism and evolution are compatible. The argument has more force when the proponent holds to both.

    • johnshuck

      I don’t think it was about me. I am doubtful that people even knew who I was. I do agree, however, that others more orthodox than I should pick up the ball and run with it.

  • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

    John seems to be much more optimistic about changing the PCUSA (my former church) than I could be. Thirty years ago, maybe. But even in seminary we knew the Titanic was going down. Some of us leapt for our lives. Having said that, I wish John well in this educational quest. I simply pose the question: If the national church won’t publically support evolution in even this simple way, is it really worth the time and effort?

    • johnshuck

      According to its 2002 statement, the PCUSA (officially) does affirm evolution.

      “The 214th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stated that it

      Reaffirms that God is Creator, in accordance with the witness of Scripture and the Reformed Confessions.

      Reaffirms that there is no contradiction between an evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.

      Encourages State Boards of Education across the nation to establish standards for science education in public schools based on the most reliable content of scientific knowledge as determined by the scientific community.

      Calls upon Presbyterian scientists and scientific educators to assist congregations, presbyteries, and the public to understand what constitutes reliable knowledge.”

      The resolution was to ask the church to be more bold and to reaffirm its stated commitment to science.

      • Justas399 .

        How could there not be a contradiction between “evolutionary theory of human origins and the doctrine of God as Creator.”?

        • johnshuck

          That is not a bad question. I certainly make no defense of the theological mumbo jumbo. I redefine the theological words such as “God” or “Creator” to be flowery language for a variety of things or I just punt and forget the theological. I honestly don’t know how other people do it.

          • Justas399 .

            I don’t know either. How anyone could believe that this world is just a freak accident of nature takes far more faith than a believer?.

          • Linda_LaScola

            interesting. I don’t consider it a “freak accident” – just something that happened, like lots of other things that happen, that are not freaky. For me, it’s kind of freaky to proclaim that a god did it, without any evidence for that conclusion.

            I find it easier to say “I don’t know” than “God did it.”

          • Justas399 .

            It may be easier to “I don’t know” but only means you don’t. You do know that something caused the world and we are forced to look for answers. The forces of nature alone cannot account for the complexity and “just right” conditions that makes this world possible. If the mindless forces of nature cannot explain the world then we are forced to consider that God or some kind of intelligence did it.

          • Gehennah

            Actually the forces of nature can account for the “just right” conditions of this planet.

            First, the universe is huge, we are discovering that most stars seem to have planets. This means that there are trillions of planets out there. Many in the habitable zone (which is pretty big really.)

            Second, after life starts, it tends to adapt to its environment. As the environment changes, natural selection and mutation help determine what survives and thrives and what dies out.

          • Justas399 .

            Its getting life started that is a major problem for the naturalist. No way to account for the information of the first DNA molecule.
            There are over 100 factors that must be “just right” that makes life possible here and to think we just happened to be “lucky” they are just right goes far beyond any probability calculations as to make it impossible.

          • Kent Truesdale

            Justas, I think you just answered your own (rhetorical) question above! If you continue to believe in both God and evolution, then creating the universe and all life in it through the Big Bang and then billions of years of evolution is presumably a GREATER miracle than a literal seven day creation — thereby resolving the conflict you mentioned above?

          • Gehennah

            Science has made pretty good progress recently with abiogenesis. And the first life possibly didn’t use DNA in any sense of what we see today. The RNA world hypothesis seems to be fairly plausible but of course more testing needs to be done.

            So far everything once attributed to a god or gods that we have discovered the cause of has been naturally occurring processes. There isn’t any reason to think that that is going to change anytime soon. And the problem with the “god did it,” answer to those questions is that it tends to stop progress. For example, Newton. Brilliant man in many ways. His calculations were extremely beneficial and way beyond anything else around at his time. But when he couldn’t figure out the planets, he inserted god as the answer and all progress stopped for a really long time until they removed god from the answer and started looking again. Newton’s problem was he didn’t have all of the information (he was missing planets).

          • Justas399 .

            Having belief in God or believing that God created the universe and life does not stop progress or science. That is nonsense. Rather, it shows that a creator is necessary to explain some things we see in nature. If the evidence points to an intelligent agent then science should accept that. It is not good reasoning to expect naturalistic forces alone can explain everything we see. We don’t in our lives and we should not in science.

          • Gehennah

            Believing in a god doesn’t stop science. There are plenty of scientists out there that believe in a higher power.

            But when you insert “god did it” as the answer to your scientific problem, then progress stops. And so far we’ve yet to find one thing that has been shown to require a supernatural process to start. Everything has been natural processes. This doesn’t mean that one day we won’t find something that requires the supernatural (a god). But until then, there is no reason to believe one exists.

          • Justas399 .

            It does not follow that “when you insert “god did it” as the answer to your scientific problem, then progress stops. ” That’s like saying because we know intelligent beings make cars that better cars cannot be made or that we can’t learn to make better cars.

            Your claim ” Everything has been natural processes” is not a scientific clam but philosophical claim. The origin of the universe, its laws, design, life all are best explained by God.

          • Gehennah

            When Newton was trying to figure out planetary orbits, he couldn’t figure out the math because he was missing information. So he inserted the answer as God. He had his answer, he quit looking for anything else. So did many other people, why? Because they had their answer. This is why scientists generally leave god at the door when they are doing their job.

            And my claim was a scientific claim. So far everything that we have discovered the cause of, has been caused by natural processes. We still have plenty of unknowns, but there is no reason to insert god into the answer until we have evidence to support a god doing it.

            And I disagree that god is the best explanation of the origin of the universe, design, and life. If we are designed, then we, and most other life is extremely poorly designed. Vestigial organs, clunky dna replication, and we are vastly limited to where we can actually survive. The origin of the universe is an unknown, but it does seem to match the predictions made by Krauss’s quantum vacuum model (zero energy, zero charge, zero spin, and flat). No god required at all for that origin since it is essentially a free universe.

          • Justas399 .

            Help me out. Perhaps Newton stopped because he didn’t have the tools to go farther. I know of no one who studies the history of science that says he stopped looking because he believed God did it. Rather its was his belief in God (Who created the heavens) that motivated him and other Christian scientists to study the heavens.

            Your claim is not scientific but philosophical. We don’t know what caused the universe or life.

            If God designed us poorly how is it that even the best minds cannot create life or make a better a cell? How is it that man cannot even make an artificial environment that is as efficient as the one we live in?

            Krauss claims that the universe came from nothing. This is absolutely ridiculous. He could never prove such a thing.

          • Gehennah

            If you read his writings (I’d have to find the quote, its been a while) he basically said that the only thing that makes sense is that god set the planets into motion (again I am paraphrasing). This stopped him from actually looking further. His answer should have been, “I don’t know how it happened, I will continue to see if I can find out.”

            And no, we don’t know what caused the universe or life at this point. If you read what I said a few times now, everything once attributed to god that we have discovered the cause of has been found to be natural processes. There are plenty of things we don’t know, but it would be premature to say “god did it.”

            Have you actually studied human anatomy? Our “design” is terrible. Vestigial organs, nerves wrapping around things, blind spots in our eyes, easily tricked senses,etc). Just because we currently can’t do better doesn’t mean that we are good design, we are still learning. And in fact we are pretty close to improving life. We are finding ways of transferring genes which can help us fix genetic problems.

            He said the universe may have come from a quantum vacuum (which is nothing when it comes to physics). And the model and the simulations seem to match what we see today. Can we prove it yet? No. But it does show possibilities in which there is no god required.

          • Kingasaurus

            —-”And no, we don’t know what caused the universe or life at this point. If you read what I said a few times now, everything once attributed to god that we have discovered the cause of has been found to be
            natural processes. There are plenty of things we don’t know, but it would be premature to say “god did it.”—-

            Spot on.

            Also, the “god did it” answer doesn’t actually explain anything. If you want to boil it down, what these people are saying is that a universe existing uncaused (for “no reason”) is completely absurd, yet apparently the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, super-advanced disembodied mind (which is supposedly more advanced and more complicated than the universe it supposedly made) also just exists for no reason, and that conclusion is just ducky and completely reasonable.

            WTF?

            Such “reasoning” is a complete joke. They’re just putting a god in as a placeholder for something they don’t know, and they’re just answering a mystery with a greater mystery that violates Occam’s Razor to boot. Using a god as an explanation is a non-answer.

          • Justas399 .

            If you are going to say God is a lousy designer then you need to show how man can do better. Man cannot make a better eye that is superior to the ones in your head. In fact, man cannot even create a cell let alone a human body. The human brain is way way beyond man’s ability to create.

            Don’t think that just because some scientist comes up with a theory that means its true. How many theories have come come out that later were found to be incorrect.

            Where is the proof of this eternal quantum vacuum that supposedly can produce universes? Models and simulations is not proof.

          • Gehennah

            Actually, no. I can look at the Wright Brother’s first airplane and tell you that that is a terrible design without having to build a better airplane myself. It takes some simple understanding of the limits of that aircraft.

            Our eyes aren’t that good. We have 3 cones, most of the spectrum is invisible to us including parts of the spectrum that can very easily kill us. We have a blind spot in our eyes (and once you become aware of it you may end up noticing it all of the time). If you want to see some amazing eyes, look at the eyes of the trigger shrimp. Such a small creature yet its eyes put ours to shame.

            Yes, a scientific theory, by definition, can be falsified. Because a scientific theory can be tested. A scientific theory is also supported by the evidence. For example, the theory of evolution is supported by the evidence. It is entirely possible (yet highly unlikely) that the theory of evolution will be falsified tomorrow. But whatever theory replaces it will have to explain all of the facts supporting the theory of evolution as well as the new theory.

            And no, we don’t have hard evidence that a quantum vacuum is what created the universe. But the models and simulations support the hypothesis. This is why we aren’t saying “this is how the universe started,” we are saying, “the data lines up to this model, we are going to continue to test to see if we can find more evidence.” The fact is that it seems plausible and is supported by the math and what we can observe. This doesn’t mean it is how it happened but it seems much more likely than an extremely complex being with no explanation of where it came from poofing everything into existence.

          • cgosling

            I would not say God is a lousy designer until I have better evidence that he/she/it/they exist.

            But, judging by vestigial organs, it seems obvious that animals and plants are design variations that struggle to adjust to a changing environment. Starting with what they have, organisms change as needed through the evolutionary process. I cannot imagine that a perfect God would use this process to create and change life. Putting god into the evolutionary process is a fruitless attempt to salvage God’s declining reputation in the face of science. There is no way the abrahamic religions can sensibly mix the two, try as they have. We often equate success with survival, but at what cost is survival. An infinitesimal number of organisms have survived to this day compared to the number that have not. Why would a perfect God play this cruel kind of slow death, mass extinction, game with life? Where is the compassion of this deity to sacrifice untold numbers of organisms through evolution when a wise use of its power could have devised a more efficient method than evolution? Think about the cruel evolutionary god that has been created by theologians in order to recognize the truths of evolution. As we all must recognize, evolution is uncaring about the suffering and success it has caused. If evolution is a godly creation, then this god is a true demon that has no love for its creations.

      • http://www.chighland.com/ Chris Highland

        I still think you’re cruel kicking a dead horse. . . Or, trying to steer a little ship that still thinks its “bold” statements have any effect.

  • Justas399 .

    There is so much here that its hard to know where to begin. If “…human consciousness is the result of natural selection” that must mean that our thinking is also. So the question is: why trust our thinking if its the result of the mindless forces of nature?

    • Gehennah

      Because it has helped us survive.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Because “God” in His/Her/Its wisdom chose to let things play out that way?

  • ctcss

    Question: Do you know any active pastors who you think probably don’t have standard religious beliefs? If so, what makes you think that?

    I’m not quite sure what this means. Do you mean non-standard for their own particular sect, or do you mean non-standard regarding a general amalgamation of mainstream positions regarding God and religious thought? The latter concept (an amalgamation of many mainstream beliefs) could end up being meaningless, since trying to accommodate differing religious beliefs in a giant mish-mosh doesn’t lend itself to any coherent standard at all. Thus, non-standard in contrast to the mish-mosh doesn’t say very much.

    And if the intent is to point out someone who doesn’t hew to the beliefs of their current sect, wouldn’t their preaching and conduct kind of make that obvious? This also becomes somewhat problematic when the sect has beliefs that lie further from the mainstream and the pastor has beliefs that hew closer to the mainstream than their sect does. In such a case, the cleric would stand out, but not for the reasons implied in the citation above.

    And then there are people like me who belong to a religion with no clergy (entirely lay), but who have a very clearly defined theology that lies rather far from the mainstream. We consider ourselves to be Christian (because we are interested in following Jesus’ teachings) but many Christian sects don’t think we are Christian because our theology doesn’t “fit”. And it becomes even more confusing when, for a hot-button issue like evolution, our theological position completely rejects it (from a strictly theological standpoint), but has no problems at all with it being taught in schools and having our children exposed to it. In fact, we are quite in favor of having good, solid teaching in the sciences as being absolutely necessary for a good education.

    Basically, religion and religious viewpoints are a complicated subject area, and don’t always fall into neat categories.

    • Kent Truesdale

      Just curious what sect you’re part of, if you don’t mind sharing that?

  • Russell Manning

    Having grown up in the Presbyterian Church in a small Oklahoma town, my pastor became rather famous in later years. Charlie W. Shedd and his lovely wife, Martha, unable to have children (or so they thought!) adopted a boy and a girl, Philip and Karen. Rev. Shedd wrote two excellent books, “Letters to Philip” and “Letters to Karen.” At the time of my confirmation, circa 1953, my mother felt the Presbyterian custom of “sprinkling” was inadequate–a former Southern Baptist–and Shedd agreed to an immersion service at the neighboring First Christian Church. It was a special service and I remember very little other than having to wear a white rubbery poncho-type sheet and the pastor wearing waist-high fishing boots. He prepared me as to how I would be “dunked” and that he would lightly cover my mouth. My elementary school librarian was this church’s organist and my parents engaged her to play for the brief service. Rev. Shedd and the Elders oranized a building project and a beautiful new church was built. He then was “called” to a pulpit in Houston, Memorial Presbyterian Church and was replaced by Dr. Arthur Young, who came to us from Duluth. He and his lovely wife, Rhoda, were even more outstanding and Sunday nights, while in high school, after Vespers, we had “Search Session” and each faith/sect in town was invited to present the tenets and dogma—Christian Scientists, Reformed and Orthodox Jews, all Protestant faiths, and Unitarian. Many years later, knowing that Charlie and Martha had retired to Jekyll Island, I accidentally caught them on TV where they were demonstrating a marriage counseling program they had developed. By that time, I had earned a Master’s Degree in psychology and found their methods and format quite beguiling. After an arrangement with my wife at the time, we became Episcopalians, and after her recovery from cancer, I continued on my path to becoming a born-again atheist. But never did I encounter in all my years of church attendance find any pastor or clergy who didn’t believe in evolution and the sciences. And birth control was simply not an issue. At age 72, I still have fond memories of all those youthful experiences and adventures. But I simply could no longer accept the myths of the Bible as Holy Writ and was never faced with the concept of inerrancy. But I truly admire and accept John Shuks “Shuk and Jive” statements of belief. Much of his “creed” I could support if the Tea Party installs a theocracy in this nation as they so want to do. But I could never accept any of their principles. Best Wishes to Pastor Shuk

  • gemli

    Linda,
    Thank you for referring me to your blog from a comment at the “Science on Religion” blog, where it was heartening to hear your rational voice. I’m also pleased to see the word “Rational” is part of your blog’s title, because when I dared use that word in Connor’s blog it unleashed a tirade. I’m a big fan of Dan Dennett, as well as the other prominent voices who speak so eloquently on an issue that is increasingly important in this age of encroaching fundamentalism. I’m looking forward to reading your work. All the best!

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thank you, Gemli. Welcome to Rational Doubt

  • Guest

    An interesting attempt; but I can see why it was rejected. This letter is really a mish-mash of very different concepts. It reminds me of one of those congress bills that starts off fairly simple and straight-forward, but then all sorts of additions and addendums are added, making it an incomprehensible and incompatible mess (don’t mean that this particular proposal is incomprehensible, but it is rather inconsistent).

    Personally, I would divide this into three entirely separate proposals. The first would focus purely on issues of evolution and science, as encapsulated in points one, five, and six. The second would be more philosophical or spiritual issues, such as the question of whether there’s an afterlife, heaven/hell, etc. There are lots of religious people who would accept evolution and science, but balk at the idea of there being no Heaven or Hell. The third would be economic or political issues, such as the question of peak oil.

    The problem with sticking such a wide variety of very different ideas together like this is that it makes it almost IMPOSSIBLE to be accepted. People may agree with 80 % of it…but if they happen to disagree that there’s no Heaven or Hell, or that Peak Oil is a real concern, then they will vote against it.

    I’d personally propose doing this again, but splitting it into several different targeted and more specific documents, each focusing on one key issue.

    Allow me to illustrate the benefit of such an approach. Let’s say that 60% of those voting on this agree with the scientific view of evolution; and that 60% of them agree about the imminent danger of peak oil and Overshoot. BUT…only 40% of those two groups overlap. 1/3 of the group that agrees with evolution disagrees with the concern over peak oil; and 1/3 of the group that agrees with the concern over peak oil disagrees with evolution.

    If both issues are put together, the proposal receives only 40% support, and fails; but if presented as separate issues, each proposal receives 60% support and passes.

    This isn’t just an issue of making people aware of such things; it’s an issue of being strategic, of presenting such arguments and ideas in the most effective manner.

    • John Lombard

      I posted the above in haste, failing to understand that John’s list represents his personal beliefs, not the proposal that was voted on. I tried to delete it, but all that happened was my name was removed, but the post remained.

      My apologies, as it turns out my response was entirely irrelevant…please disregard!


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