Saturday, February 14, 2009

Would Darwin be Surprised at the Controversy Today?

This month is being celebrated by the scientific community, and by people in Britain, because it marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the great men of science, Charles Darwin, the English biologist who put forth his theory of evolution by natural selection. This year is also the sesquicentennial of Darwin’s greatest work, The Origin of Species.

If Darwin were alive today, I can’t help but believe that he would be stunned that his once-controversial theory of evolution was still a very contentious topic even today. Of course, in reality, whether evolution occurred is not debated at all among scientists. No, far more than 99 percent of all scientists worldwide take the theory of evolution for granted. It is a factual account of how all life on Earth developed. There is no wrangling over whether evolution occurred or whether some competing theory best describes the diversity of life on Earth. In fact, there is no other scientific theory that explains the existence of life’s diversity. Evolution is it.

In Britain, as well as nearly all of Western Europe and in fact throughout the entire developed world, evolution is not controversial even to ordinary people. It is not even a controversy to the mainstream Christian churches, including the Church of England, the Catholic Church, and many protestant denominations such as the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church, the Episcopal Church, the Disciples of Christ, and myriad other smaller denominations. Most of the mainstream religions have come to terms with evolution and accept it as scientific fact.

But only about half of all Muslims in the U.S., and far fewer than half, about 25 percent, of the evangelical Christians in the U.S. accept evolution. They believe that life appeared on Earth by an act of creation by God during a six-day period around 6,000 years ago. In other words, they believe the bible, and specifically the Book of Genesis, is true and literal.

Why they believe this when their more mainstream fellow Christians are able to interpret the bible more liberally I can’t say. It is especially puzzling to me how they insist that the Creation story in Genesis is absolutely literal, but they are willing to overlook obvious falsehoods and inconsistencies in other parts of the bible.

Even within Genesis there are two separate and mutually-exclusive stories of Creation. In Genesis 1, God takes six days to create the universe as follows: On day 1 he created light; on day 2 he created the sky; on day 3 he created the land, sea, and vegetation; on day 4 he created the sun, moon, and stars; on day 5 he created the animals; and on day 6 he created man and woman.

In Genesis 2 it does not enumerate on which day he created what. But it does begin with the earth after it was created and presumably after the land and sea had been separated, which would have been day 3 from Genesis 1. But it also said that there was not yet any vegetation, which there should have been.

The first creation of life by God in Genesis 2 was man. After that, he created vegetation, and planted a garden in Eden for the man to take care of. Following that, he created animals. Finally, he created woman.

Now, it’s obvious to anyone who reads these accounts that they are conflicting. But evangelical Christians will say that one story just expands on the other or that it is told from two different viewpoints.

But there can only be one literal interpretation. Either it’s literal or it isn’t. Either God created vegetation before man or he created man before vegetation. You can’t have it both ways.

And do the evangelical Christians also believe that there is a huge ocean of water above the sky? It clearly says in Genesis 1 that on the third day God separated the waters of the earth from the waters of the heavens by placing the sky between them.

My mother is an evangelical Christian and that is how I was raised. I went to Sunday School and learned all the bible stories. But when I grew up and started questioning things, I learned the truth and I came to understand that those bible stories were meant to enhance people’s spirituality. They are not historically accurate.

So when I began discussing things like the age of the earth and evolution with my mother, I fully expected that she would refute everything I told her. To my surprise, she did not. She believes that God did create everything, but she is more than willing to admit that it might have taken him longer than six days. She reminded me that, to God, a day may be like a thousand years. She acknowledges the existence of fossils and understands that there may have been evolution taking place. She told me the bible doesn’t tell us everything God did or how he did it. And she said God may have used evolution as his tool of creation.

I was pleased at my mother’s open-mindedness. At the same time, it made me wonder how a 75-year-old woman who didn’t even graduate from high school could come to understand and accept the fact that maybe the bible shouldn’t be taken literally when so many college-educated, otherwise rational adults insist that every word of the bible is literal.

It’s one of life’s amazing mysteries to me, and I’m sure it would be a great wonder to Charles Darwin if he were still around today.

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