Saturday, September 20, 2008

Churches Sometimes must Apologize for Ignorance

The pilgrims who settled this country in 1620 were a conservative sect of the Church of England. The church’s members are known as Anglicans, and it was the official state religion of England at the time the pilgrims came to America to start their own country.

Religious conservatives in America today lament the notion that we have become a depraved country, where sinful sex is everywhere and has even become socially acceptable. The other view, however, and the one that is more close to reality is that Americans, as a whole, tend to be repressive on matters of sex and science.

There is a commercial currently running on TV where a family visits a beach in Spain, only to find out it is a nude beach. One of the actors places his hand in a strategic location to mask the nude body of a female sunbather while the little girl of the family asks her mom, “Why is everybody naked?”

It is meant to be comical. But it highlights how differently our lives have been influenced by our puritanical history from the way modern Europeans have matured without such conservative influences in their history.

At the same time, whenever the mainstream European-based religions have gotten it wrong in the past, they have often stepped up and admitted their mistakes and even apologized to the great men of science that initially gave the church headaches, even if their apologies have often come centuries late.

The latest example is the Church of England’s apology to Charles Darwin. The Rev. Malcolm Brown, who heads the church’s public affairs department, said that Anglicans owe Darwin an apology for the way they condemned him following the release of his master work of science, On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The Church of England said it agreed with Brown’s position, although it did not constitute an official church apology. That’s probably because the church never officially condemned Darwin, although its leaders of the day did take every opportunity to make fun of him and his theory of Natural Selection.

This is certainly not the first time a major church has had to say oops. In 1992 the Catholic Church made an official apology to Galileo for arresting him and forcing him to recant his ideas that the earth revolved around the sun. The bible clearly implies that all celestial objects revolve around the earth. And Galileo said that the bible, on that account, was clearly wrong. Three hundred years later, the Catholic Church officially agreed.

Other “oops moments” in church history include the 2006 apology by the Anglican Church for its roll in the slave trade and the clarification in 1996 by the Pope of the Catholic Church’s view on evolution. The Pope, at the time, said that the Church did not oppose the theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin. The Pope said our species may have evolved, but our spirit was given to us by God.

Over the centuries, great thinkers and progressive men and women of science have had to cower in fear of publishing their ideas because of religious oppression. Johan Kepler, the man who discovered how planets orbit the sun in elliptical paths, is another example. He didn’t publish his discovery until he was on his death bed for fear he would be persecuted by an intransigent church.

Andrew Darwin, Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson said that posthumous church apologies are useless. “When an apology is made after 200 years, it's not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organization making the apology feel better,” he told the Daily Mall newspaper.

He’s right in a way. But I still think some good can come out of it. It shows young people who have been unfortunate enough to be raised in a fundamentalist church environment that religious leaders can, and often do, get it wrong. The moral to this story is that we all need to think for ourselves instead of blindly following what we have been taught all our lives by religious propagandists.

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